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Winter Feeding Strategies
After A Drought

By John Kirchhoff

Nearly every livestock producer at one time or another has experienced drought. When it comes to natural calamities, a drought is more forgiving since it doesn’t happen overnight like a flood or tornado. This gives you the ability to plan ahead and hopefully head off problems before they happen. Fall rains may break a drought in the weatherman’s eyes, but those rains won’t put hay in your barn for winter feeding.

So what should a person do when the rains quit? I’ve found the first thing many of us do is moan and complain. You know, cuss, cry in our beer, get depressed, kick some buckets around the farm and go to the coffee shop every morning and complain about the same thing over and over.

Hay bale covers cut out more than half of outdoor-stored hay rot. (Photo by John Kirchhoff)
Hay bale covers cut out more than half of outdoor-stored hay rot. (Photo by John Kirchhoff)

After that’s out of our system, the wise people among us stop complaining and do something constructive. And like it or not, the sooner we see the futility in wasting our time complaining, the sooner we can get down to doing something productive.

Decrease Winter Hay Needs by Finding Forage Now

Don’t wait until winter arrives before you go looking for something to feed your sheep. Take a walk, or crawl in the truck or 4-wheeler and ride around your farm. Now for the really hard part, actually look at what you’re seeing. Don’t focus on the dry grass in your pastures, but instead divert your attention to everything else.

We humans have an awful habit of getting ourselves stuck in a rut. We fence in our minds and all that accomplishes is to keep opportunities out. I’m talking about the ability to see possibilities or opportunities where we thought none existed. I’ve found this simple concept is often very hard to grasp.

For example, don’t think of forage as only grass and legumes. We sheep producers have it all over cattlemen when it comes to our animals being able to utilize non-conventional forages. In my operation, forage opportunities include fence-rows overgrown with poison ivy, giant ragweed and tree sprouts as well as post harvest grain and hay fields.

Never underestimate the nutritional value of plants that are considered weeds by cattlemen or grain farmers. Testing on my own farm has shown cockleburs can have 15% protein and mid-50’s Total Digestible Nutrients (TDN), which is quite adequate for dry ewes. I’ve grazed fields of predominately field bindweed and morning glory that provided a very nutritious diet at 16% protein and 70% TDN, which is more than adequate for growing lambs.

Even in the driest of times when perennial forages have gone dormant, annual weeds are still green because they put everything they have into producing seed before frost. This creates a forage opportunity for you.

Have a neighbor with a weedy, post harvest wheat field? Tell him you’ll do him a favor and let your sheep graze the weeds so he doesn’t have to use $3 a gallon fuel mowing them. In the Midwest, small grain fields commonly have giant foxtail, pigweed, waterhemp, lambsquarter, cocklebur and maybe bindweed. Graze these weeds before they set seed and you’ll have forage that often equals or exceeds alfalfa in nutrition.

Don’t let the lack of fences or water deter you. All that’s needed is step in posts, poly ribbon, a battery or solar energizer and a portable water trough you can haul water to. Don’t overlook hay fields immediately after baling. Sheep will clean up any hay missed by the rake and will suck up fine leaves the baler lost like a vacuum cleaner. Again, tell your neighbor you’ll do him a favor free of charge. The sheep won’t hurt the freshly baled fields but they will clean up crop smothering leaf piles as well as weeds and brush in his fencerows, thus saving him money and time. Remind him that in a few years it’ll cost $70 an hour to get those sprouts sheared off but let your sheep have at them a couple of years in a row and they’ll be controlled.

I’ve talked about finding forage wherever you can. Last year, after eight hot, rainless weeks I did have fall rains. That brought on some late growth and the best grass on the farm was in my yard. Yep, you guessed it. Using poly tape to protect shrubs, I grazed the yard and gave my pastures a chance to rest and recuperate.

Even on clean snow, feeding hay on the ground costs a lot in hay wasted.
Even on clean snow, feeding hay on the ground costs a lot in hay wasted.

Don’t laugh, on three separate occasions that fall I grazed 160 lambs for three days, 140 ewes for two days and 80 lambs for two days on maybe three acres of yard. That’s a combined total of 480 ewe days of grazing and is nothing to laugh at. Well, maybe the sheep poop on the sidewalk was. I’m not recommending everyone turn sheep loose in the yard, but I just want to give an example of “desperate times require desperate measures” thinking.

In the tall fescue growing region of the country, seriously consider “stockpiling”. Stockpiling is nothing more than not grazing or harvesting fall growth and then letting your animals utilize it come winter. Don’t think for a minute that sheep need hay when there’s snow on the ground. My sheep have ignored top quality grass/legume hay to go root through four inches of snow for green fescue.

Extending Hay Supplies

Often times it’s impossible to purchase additional hay, so the answer is to make more efficient use of the hay you do have. If your hay needs are higher than your supply, you must decrease the demand for hay, increase the supply of hay or do both. Reducing the amount of hay wasted does both and has the same result as increasing your supply. The trick is to recognize where your losses are and how to reduce those losses. Here are a few of them:

Reduce Hay Spoilage

Most large producers feed hay in big round bales. Dry matter losses when stored outside, unprotected and on the ground can average 25-35%. Net wrapped bales stored on the ground will average 15-25% loss and elevating the bales to improve drainage will drop that another 5% or so. Bales stored in a shed, under a tarp, with a bale sleeve or plastic wrapped will all have losses of 4-7%. Such losses are often nearly invisible to the eye but can make an astounding impact on your hay needs vs. supply.

For example, the unprotected 1,000-pound bale you rolled up this spring will provide 700 pounds of usable hay this winter while 300 pounds is rendered unusable. Let’s say you provide some sort of protection and reduce the loss to 10%, or 100 pounds per bale. An average ewe will eat 4-6 pounds of dry matter per day, so the 200 pounds of 15% moisture hay a bale sleeve or tarp saves could feed over 30 ewes for a day. It’s not possible to have 0% loss, but keep in mind that every five pounds of hay you save will feed a ewe for a day.

I use a lot of plastic bale sleeves to protect my hay. They cost around $2.50 each and if cared for I’ve found I can get two seasons’ use out of most of them. If a sleeve will reduce losses to even 15%, that’s $3.75 worth of hay on a bale costing $25. What’s more important is 6.5 bales with 15% loss have the same amount of usable hay as eight unprotected bales with 30% loss.

Whether you buy hay or bale your own, taking care of what you already have is economical any way you look at it. Barns are nice but will cost you about $5/bale/year, plastic tarps $3/bale/year and single use plastic wrap or two years with a plastic sleeve will run around $1.50/bale/year.

Reduce Feeding Losses

Children and animals both tend to be sloppy eaters and waste a lot of food unless you intervene. I’m sure at one time or another every parent has told their kids “Take all you want but eat all you take.” And while sheep don’t understand or really care to understand that statement, you need to treat them the same way when feeding hay. From a practical and economic standpoint, feeding losses of 3-6% are considered acceptable. Your actual losses are going to vary according to what type of bale and feeder you use, the size or breed of sheep and the weather. Turn any type of animal loose on a bale of hay and they’re going to eat about half of it and sleep and defecate on the rest.

Sheep could thrive where cattle would starve.
Sheep could thrive where cattle would starve.

The lowest hay losses are with small square bales fed once or twice daily in a proper feeder. This is a very good system for the small operator because many purchase their hay. Small bales maximize storage space and allow better control of forage quality when being purchased. I still put up some small bales, but to do so with my entire hay crop I’d need a new barn for storage, several more teenage sons to haul it, quit my town job because of time constraints and a monster mudder truck for feeding. Anyone familiar with “Missouri Mud” knows that oftentimes a large tractor is the only way to get hay where you need it. A run of the mill 4-wheel drive truck won’t get much past the driveway before it’s stuck.

Because of the above, I feed most of my hay in big round bales. To be truthful, feeding big bales to sheep is kind of like a dog walking on its hind legs. Sure it can be done, but when it is, it isn’t done very well.

To begin with, animals initially consume the lower portion of the bale, which creates a big “mushroom.” When surrounded by a bale ring, this mushroom eventually becomes top heavy and topples over, usually onto the most valuable animal on the entire farm, killing it. The second bale squashes the second most valuable animal and so on. That gets costly in a hurry if you aren’t there to manually tip it over before it falls.

Without any type of feeder, even yearling Katahdins have a tendency to play king of the mountain by climbing atop the bale and will ruin it in short order. Rings reduce losses but not to the same extent as with large animals. Most rings are designed for large animals and have openings large enough for sheep or goats to get inside with the bale. In wet weather they track mud as well as manure onto the lower portion of the bale, which tends to make them turn up their noses at it.

A skirt on the lower portion of the ring accentuates the problem. With a 12-inch skirt you can be guaranteed of at least 12 inches of muddy, soiled, compacted hay. When given several days’ supply of hay, losses even with a ring can approach 50%. Using cattle panels to make a four piece hay feeder tightly surrounding a bale helps considerably but is still far from perfect.

Weeds not grazed by sheep will be planting more weeds all winter for next year.
Weeds not grazed by sheep will be planting more weeds all winter for next year.

I always thought the cradle feeders would work great but I’ve yet to talk to anyone that likes using them for sheep. Hay losses will average 15% in addition to wool quality being reduced when fines fall onto the sheep’s back and become lodged in the wool. Worse yet is when animals pull a mouthful of hay through the bars, the bale settles down a little lower each time. Sheep will pick out the fine stems leaving the coarser ones which eventually keep the bale suspended until the animals have access to nothing but large stems (which they won’t eat). The slickest hay feeder I’ve seen for sheep is made of pipe or square metal. Two stationary end sections support two hanging side panels that animals slide inward as they consume the bale. Regardless of bale size, there’s never room for the animal to get inside the feeder. They’re pricey at $350-$400 apiece but can save a large amount of hay. My next job is to build some of my own.

Regardless of the bale size or type, another method of reducing waste is to feed as few bales as possible at any one time. While this requires you to haul hay every day, the increased competition forces animals to better clean up what’s available. It also reduces problems associated with partially eaten bales soaking up rain like a sponge. If you must put a large bale out for a small number of animals, consider covering it to shed rainfall. The big old fiberglass satellite dishes work great for this and fit most bale rings nicely. With daily feeding, just make sure everyone is getting a chance to eat all they need.

As A Last Resort…

Reduce demand by reducing animal numbers. I’ve found this suggestion can really get people fired up. Like really, really fired up! I’m not suggesting you grab the trailer and load up whoever is closest to the barn, but rather to selectively cull the loafers, dead beats and otherwise poor performers. The surest way to know who those old gals are is by keeping adequate records. Don’t immediately tie a ribbon around the fattest ewe’s neck and stuff the skinniest, boniest old rip into the trailer without checking your records. “Tubby” may be fat because she hasn’t produced a live offspring in the last two years and never produced more than a teacup of milk her entire life. “Old Bones” may be skinny because she milks like a Holstein and weans the heaviest set of triplets on the farm every year.

Remember that animals look the way they do for a reason and good records will help you determine what those reasons are. Those reasons can be either positive or negative.

A fat animal may be that way because she’s an easy keeper, very healthy, parasite tolerant or a good forager. Then again, she may be infertile, open or a poor milker.

A thin animal could be wormy, had her intestines damaged by coccidiosis or parasites, be chronically unhealthy, a poor forager because of bad teeth or lameness or even timid and reluctant to compete for feed or hay. As a positive, she may be quite healthy but a very heavy milker that produces milk at the expense of her own body condition.

In short, unless you’re taking them to the fair, don’t base your culling decisions solely on outward appearances. Know what traits you wish to perpetuate and go from there.

In Summary

I’ve always believed that when faced with adversity, do your best to turn it into an advantage. Lessons learned in hard times can be useful and produce positive results even in good times.

For example, when animals graze dry, poor quality forage in extremely hot temperatures, it’s easy to pick out the tough, resilient individuals. Selecting these animals for breeding stock will produce offspring better able to withstand harsh conditions in the future. Or if drought has severely damaged your forage stand, use it as an opportunity to renovate your pastures with improved higher yielding varieties. The next time drought visits your farm, remember what my dad always said, “Things have to get worse before they can get better.”

[Photos except “Hay bale covers” ©2006 by Nathan Griffith]

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