Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Hay for Four/Fourteen/Forty

This morning was taken up by rearranging hay feeders.

It is so easy to think "this will only take a minute." It is so easy to think "feeding big round bales means I won't have to spend time dealing with hay." Two hours later, I have 10 minutes left to divest myself of barnyard slime and don my work uniform before riding my bike down to the bus stop to go to work. And I still haven't got the mulch unloaded from the back of the truck!

As the fourteen ewes (7 ewe lambs, 7 aged ewes) that I bred in November near the beginning of their lambing time, they are obviously consuming more and more hay. And the ewes that have already lambed are voracious; they are all heavy milkers and their lambs are growing fast. Altogether the ewes are eating for a total of probably nearly forty lambs! I'm feeding them a diet of free-choice alfalfa hay in big round bales, and brome hay in big round grain. I've done the calculations based on Sheep Industry nutritional/life cycle data, and it all pencils out that be feeding part brome and part alfalfa, the ewes will get all the nutrition they need for late gestation and early lactation.

Many stockmen I've described this arrangement to shake their heads. "They'll never eat the brome if they've got alfalfa," or "They'll eat themselves to death." But they do eat the brome...even if the brome bale is 75 feet from the alfalfa, they'll deliberately go over there. The closer they get to lambing, the more alfalfa they eat, as if they are intentionally (instinctively?) matching their changing nutritional needs.

I do encourage them to eat the brome. I leave it loose (after carefully removing the twine or net wrap), so it's easy for them to pick through it and find the best parts. I don't care how much they waste, because I'll use it for mulch in the garden. Since it soaks up a lot of the urine and catches a lot of droppings, it's really as much "sheet composting" as mulching. So I use the sheeps' leftovers to fertilize, control weeds, and manage soil moisture and temperature...for free, if I allocate all the cost of the hay to the sheep.

Alfalfa is a different story. For one thing it's hard to find big round bales of decent alfalfa hay. Most folks put it up in small squares for sale, or in big bales for their own use only. Then, too, alfalfa is significantly more expensive than brome. And, the waste doesn't work as well as mulch--too stemmy to block weeds well, and too rich if applied that heavily with so much manure/urine in it. Finally, the wool is really damaged if the sheep are allowed to wallow in the alfalfa bales.

So I use some sort of feeder for big round alfalfa bales. In the past, that's been sections of welded wire "cattle panels" clipped together. The holes are just barely big enough for the sheep to stick their heads through. But I've found that the panels really take a beating, and end up broken and deformed. Every now and then a sheep gets its head stuck. Not good.

This year I'm trying tubular steel "economy" farm gates, and really liking the results. Quite an investment...until I compare them to the cost of the hay that isn't wasted, and the cost of the grain that isn't fed because I'm feeding alfalfa instead. And if I ever decide not to use them for feeders, they will be good gates! So far they are holding up well. The sheep get their heads in and out easily. As a bonus, the lambs can slip through them to get the best feed access.

I'm trying out various connectors. For connecting cattle panels, quick links work pretty well but tend to either jam so that a wrench is required (or, rarely, bolt cutters), or work themselves loose. "Carabiner" style "gate hooks" work better. For both these connectors, the panels must be aligned "just so". A better approach is a quick link or carabiner attaching a snap hook to one panel...this gives some flexibility to the alignment.

For the gates, short chains with brass snap hooks attached by quick links work best, but cost as much as $4 or $5 apiece to assemble, and each enclose requires 8 at a minimum (2 per "seam")! Baling twine works well, but tying and untying the knots gets old. The new method of using 1/8" polyestercord tied through a snap hook seems to work best for the money, and works no matter what I'm tying to what.

The system still takes near-daily monitoring and maintenance. Picked-through stems will build up and block the ewes' access to the main bale; that has to be cleaned out now and then. As the ewes eat the bale down, they're less able to reach it through the gates, so I have to rearrange the gates to make the enclosure smaller. I also cover the alfalfa bales because they don't shed water as well as the brome does, and they spoil faster. So I have to adjust the tarp or plastic that's spread over them and fastened to the gates, too....

"Hey for Four" is the name of one of my favorite "figures" in contra dancing, a long-time hobby I don't get to indulge in enough these days. It's a weaving/circling move performed with four dancers. Working among the nosy sheep who are trying to get at the bale I'm rearranging is, I suppose, as much dancing as it is a melee....

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