Sheep are happiest outside, even in winter. They have a thick woolly coat which is great at keeping them protected from the cold. Their digestive system is optimised to process grass at different times of the year, even when nutritional value wanes. So how can we go about helping them make the best of it; especially if they’re a small flock, or even much-loved pets?
Grass, grass and grass…
As the grass quality and its growth rates decrease over autumn/winter, it’s best to make sure we can provide larger areas (for a less hands-on approach) or introduce strip grazing to make sure each small section is well used before moving onto the next. This latter system may not be beneficial to all as it does also involve more handling. For someone who has enough land to subdivide it could mean longer resting periods for the grass in between grazing sessions.
At any rate, always try to make sure that your stocking density is always a little below what your land could theoretically sustain; just to avoid nasty surprises in terms of bad weather or unavailability of grass/forage. Sheep are well equipped to withstand cold and dry winter conditions. But they would struggle if forced to stay on very wet ground with poor grass cover, as the mud would coat their fleece and keep it too damp.
The more native (or hill-type) the sheep, the least human input is usually needed. Although at times of very harsh weather they would appreciate some hay or silage as top up (especially if pregnant), concentrates are usually not needed in these flocks. However, this is not meant to be fully comprehensive ration advice. You should always consult your own farm vet for feeding consultations.
Concentrate top ups
Most commercial breeds are generally a bit higher maintenance. If you are looking after breeding ewes who may be carrying more than one lamb, it’s best to be prepared and think ahead of bad weather. Ewe lambs may be better trained to eat silage and concentrates for a short period of time (2-3 weeks) in their first winter, when they are usually not pregnant yet. This would have the advantage of them not having to learn (and potentially be underfed for a few days) in their gimmer winter when they are pregnant. Any sudden changes in feeding, especially in pregnancy, are to be avoided.
Consider supplemental forage
For all sheep, if the grass cover is poor and the weather deteriorates, make sure you can bring good quality hay or silage to the field; consider access, and how much would be needed for the number of sheep you have there.
Larger breeds would need larger amounts of forage; an adult ewe can eat 2-3% her bodyweight per day in dry matter. For example, a 70kg ewe would need 1.4-2.1kg of dry matter per day. This is not the same as fresh forage. Forage dry matter can vary from 20% of grass to around 50% in silage crops, and >80% in hay; the rest is water. This means that one kg of grass provides 200 grams of dry matter; and at the other end of the range one kg of hay provides >800 grams of dry matter.
To achieve the rough quantity 2kg/head/day of forage dry matter, you’ll have to allow access to 10kg of grass per day, approximately 4kg of silage or 2.5kg of hay. In cold, wet weather grass dry matter can be as low as 10-15%. Therefore contingency planning is essential to make sure sheep receive adequate nutrition and don’t lose weight. Offering alternative forage is often required between January and March. But this could extend either side depending on where you are, the weather conditions and the general health of the flock.
Monitoring the body condition score (BCS) is ever important in winter
This is especially true for pregnant ewes that should not be allowed to lose too much condition. If they arrive close to lambing with BCS less than 2.5 or over 4, they are at higher risk of metabolic conditions such as twin lamb disease or prolapses, even if fed adequately. Use every gathering and opportunity to do a quick BCS session. And keep track of how well the ewes are maintaining condition. If they appear to be losing weight, don’t be tempted to start feeding lots at once, but rather introduce extra forage (and hard feed, if necessary) as gradually as you can.
Personalise feeding plans
After scanning, you should be able to feed separately and according to litter size. Often ewes carrying single lambs don’t need extra feed until much closer to lambing, compared to others carrying multiples. Some people house their ewes shortly after scanning, which makes feeding much easier and keeps them out of the worst weather. Avoiding over-crowded conditions is a must. As a general rule, feed space (trough space and/or feed fence) has to be available for each ewe at feeding time, with a bit of spare. You should be able to see each of them coming up to feed when you bring fresh rations, without anyone having to stand back and wait for their turn. The ovine rumen prefers a constant regime that doesn’t change much; having to wait because of lack of feed fence space causes unnecessary unrest in the flock and can facilitate bullying.
As they approach the last 6 weeks before lambing, make sure you carry out BCS sessions ideally weekly and find out if your vet can assist in formulating a ration.
Usually a friendly farmer may be able to offer advice on what they feed and how much; you can use that information with more confidence if you have the same type of sheep/land/forage available. There are many variables and as always, strict and frequent monitoring is the best policy; if you notice anything out of the ordinary, call your vet for a chat and decide if investigations are needed.