Although this probably won't be my final thoughts on grass-fed, I'll be putting it down for a while after this. Grazing season is coming to and end, the last of the hay is being harvested, baled, and brought inside, and thoughts are fast turning to next year's plans for lambing, milking, and mitigating chaos.
But, I need to add one final thing. This blurb is in response to a comment on part 1. I have to admit, I didn't actually think about writing how researching into what grass-fed is affects what we do, but I think it's a really good topic. How does all this impact us as a farm?
As much as I'd like to put "it depends" here, I can't, because it doesn't really depend, it now comes down to choice. When we started with sheep, NOT feeding any grain whatsoever seemed like the most important thing we could do. It worked too. It worked as long as we had an appropriate sheep breed such as the tiny Shetlands, or maybe Icelandics, or perhaps another breed specifically selected for grass. They're out there. As we become more specific about our needs, which changed the breed selection, we had to change our feed management.
Finnsheep were the first step to that change. Finnsheep are prolific sheep, meaning they have LOTS of lambs. I believe the world record is a total of 8 lambs to one ewe at one time. That is more akin to a litter of puppies than a sheep. Keep in mind, sheep only have two teats. All but two lambs need to be supplemented somehow. Yes, some ewes can feed all, but they may not be the most robust lambs. Most of the time, lambs are taken away and bottle fed.
Our finns had come sight unseen from a accelerated lambing barn in southern Ontario. The ewes were used to getting quite a lot o grain all year round. In an accelerated system, that's not unusual as often the ewes need that level of nutrition. We realized pretty quickly that we needed to feed these poor girls grain. This was made even more obvious by the fact they were afraid to go outside. At that time we weren't milking, so the ewes were always together in the same space. Somehow we needed to balance getting grain to the finns, but NOT to the plump shetlands, or at least not much. All this became a challenge, and taught me the importance of breed selection. If nothing else, these handful of pure finnsheep ewes taught us a lot. They were a completely different type of sheep to what we had been used to. Over time they did go outside and graze, but due to their profligacy and genetics (which were outstanding BTW) being wholly grass fed just wasn't an option, at least not in the same way the shetlands were.
Finding a balance is the end goal. When milking sheep became part of our farm, it became easier to balance the two very different breed types. At this same time, new research came out about feeding whole grains to lambs. What this research found, was that by feeding whole grains to lambs, it assists in the transition from being having a "single" stomach where it gains nutrition form milk, to a multi-gastric animal that uses microbes in it's rumen to digest food. In a nut shell, the whole grains help the lambs digestive system get used to novel foods and digest them better. Keep in mind, this isn't the same as only feeding grain. This is similar to a sheep eating the tops of long grasses, which of course are the seeds.
Another of our challenges is that every lamb has the same chance of staying and becoming part of the flock. We have a number of requirements that need to be met for a sheep to stay, becoming a member of the adult flock. It takes several months to know if an animal is doing well here. Some we know within the first weeks, some will take a couple of months, some take an entire season. Separating out the "meat" sheep, and the "replacement" sheep is a long, drawn out process based on long term observation.
A further challenge is not getting replacement milking ewe lambs too fat. Fat collects in udders, reducing the capacity for holding milk. I didn't actually believe this at first, until I bought a milking ewe that had been a 4-H lamb. Her body condition score was amazing, including her udder. I didn't realize that her udder size is mostly fat. She keeps her body condition and is a decent milker, not to mention a sweetie. Her name is Jake, and she is part of the milk flock.
The Ideal Season
There are other things too, but I don't want to bore you. Needless to say, nothing is as easy as it looks. Back to being grass-fed though. The choice we made, and continue with, is that we still want as much of our sheep's diet to come from grass, whether dried or fresh. It really comes down to time of year and purpose for us. This is what our perfect season looks like...of course, it never works out this way.
A feeding cycle begins once all sheep are no longer being milked and are together again as a flock. By this time the majority of lambs going to freezer camp are gone, and the flock is mostly made up of milking ewes, replacement ewe lambs, and the breeding rams. We have 3 rams right now, but only one truly active year-round breeder - Ben, the milk sheep.
This is the time of year where the grass quality isn't as good. The entire flock will be grazed as a group until they no longer can. Usually this is around early to mid October. Ideally at this point the last of the freezer lambs are gone, the ewe flock remains. This is when we like to do the fall shearing, and a winter barn clean-out if we can.
Then the girls are split into breeding groups in the barn with their ram. They stay in these groups for around 40-60 days, depending on how long the ewes are cycling. The groups go outside on alternate days, but often at this point they prefer to stay indoors. Around late November, early December is when breeding groups are disbanded and the flock becomes one again.
We know that some of the ewes were bred as early as Mid-August, meaning the first lambs will arrive in mid-January. A ewe's biggest nutrition requirement is the last 6 or so weeks of gestation. Making sure she is well fed is essential. So the grain begins. It takes a week to 10 days to get up to the minimum needed amount for a the ewes. Having enough feeder space is essential so everyone gets grain equally. Some sheep will literally follow their human around waiting for the next scoop of grain.
This goes on, with the grain increasing gradually until lambing begins in earnest. Over lambing grain and hay is steady. The grain supplements the hay ensuring that the ewe gets enough nutrients. It continues like this through to the beginning of milking. At around 6 weeks old, lambs are eating hay and grain regularly. It then that the milking ewes are separated at night, milked in the morning (getting an extra lot of grain) and then they go back to their lambs for the day. As the grazing increases the lambs, shetland "nanny" sheep, and the rams get less and less grain. Once all the milking sheep are being milked, grain stops for everyone but the milking sheep - they are getting grain on the milking stand. By this point the lambs are eating only hay and pasture. The miking sheep get an extra lot of grain while being milked, but after milking, go out with the rest of the flock.
What we've learned over the years is that, each farm needs to tailor it;s feeding schedule based on the needs of it's animals in an effort to keep them as healthy and happy as possible.