I read this week that the cost of feeding hay can be estimated at twice the cost of feeding grass. That is, maintaining and grazing pasture with some fertilizing is roughly half as costly as baling hay. As I’m looking to be more and more profitable, this is a big thing to keep in mind.
I begin with this note because it’s an important bit of information, marking a turning in point in my approach to raising sheep. I’m already committing to grain feeding lambs only as a last resort this summer. Now, I’m looking at how I can transition, over a period of years, to feeding little to no hay, by way of stockpiling grass.
Until I do, though, I want to share a few things I’ve learned and some guidelines for feeding hay. Do or do not try this at home.
But first, you must listen to your girls. Or, rather, watch them. I use mineral and/or protein tubs at 2-3 months gestation and early lactation, at least. They’ll tell you when they need more nutrition, but don’t be afraid to let the ewes slim down on winter hay. Let them bulk up again on summer grass later.
The first rule of hay feeding is . . .
Don’t feed hay.
Your grazers are going to take what they’re going to take (and drop it behind them), so make them take it first, and feed hay later. Conserve supply by putting off use until later.
Semi-weekly, I monitor the pasture’s forage level, and push the ewes to eat 75% of it before I feed hay. Today, there is very little salvageable grass left, and the ewes are 90% reliant on hay.
Considering that today is March 8th, and I expect to have less than one month of winter weather left, this is a big deal. I still have about 50% of my 270 fescue bales left, so I have the potential to save 25% of my hay crop. As I look toward a minimal hay system of year-round grazing, that kind of saving back is promising.
Holding back on the start of hay feeding will allow you flex time to pen the ewes during the pastures spring greening period.
Sheep have “dexterous” mouths, the ability to pick and choose through straws of hay individually with some ease. And pick they do. So eliminating waste begins with giving them only what they are going to eat in one “sitting.”
When the ewes walk away from the hay bunk, estimate the percentage left in the bunk, plus what they dropped on the ground, and eliminate that from their next feeding. In fact, I will wait them out again, making them eat what they left, sometimes adding molasses, before I feed hay again.
I have fed only clover over the past few years, and much of the coarser straws from a crop that was cut too late will be consumed once molasses is added. Fescue will sometimes be revisited without.
To 17 head, I feed 50-80 lbs of hay per day when the pasture is clear, and 100-120 lbs when covered in ice or 3 or more inches of snow. (In light snow, they will still graze.)
I only use molasses on leftovers. The sheep will eat what they want to eat the first time around, so save the dressing for the coarser stems or dry hay that you picked up off the ground.
I have a life-changing idea for you. About two years ago, I first read about bale grazing. What is it?
Rather than feeding in a barn, lot, or roving bale ring, one feeds bales in various spots throughout the pasture. I feed small squares by spreading the “flakes” out into a solid line, or spaced by six feet. Round balers may consider unrolling.
Why bale graze?
- Keep waste out of the barn. Reduced feeding in the barn means less hay and manure piling up inside. That pays twice: less manure removal, and manure already in the pasture, going to work as fertilizer.
- Once more, reduce waste. I have found that bale grazing on snow under prime conditions reduces waste by approximately 10%. The hay does not come into contact with manure present on the pasture, thus the ewes are more willing to eat what touches the ground.
- As I pointed out above, ready fertilizer. Notice in the photo below how fresh manure is added to the feeding area.
- In conjunction with the above, seeding. I try to target areas that have been grazed thin. The timing of baling allowed this fescue crop to retain the seed, which comes out wherever I feed it. The ewes will work it in as the ground thaws.
- Waste warms the surface. What hay is left forms a bit of a thatch, which warms the ground and help sprout grass earlier in the spring.
A related note to hay feeding is bedding. I don’t really use it. Since, barring precipitation, I keep the ewes outside, I’ve cracked only three or four bales of straw this winter. I also began shifting the hay bunk across the pen each week, so that the waste is distributed, not heaped, and there’s always a new dry spot in the pen.
Again, why do this? It takes grass to make hay, and wheat to make straw bales, and that’s got to come from somewhere. I have little of both right now, and want to make the most of them. I’ll have to continue baling hay (a little), but at this rate I could go years with the straw I have.
It all adds up.
Everything I’m doing is intended to save time and money, and I’ve definitely saved some time so far.