We care deeply about our own health and the health of our animals. One of the best ways to maintain our animals’ robust health is to provide them a lifestyle as close to their wild relatives as is feasible, which includes food that they would normally eat. For our sheep that means grass and forbs supplemented with herbs and vegetable scraps. Until this year we used to feed our sheep grain as a winter supplement when the pastures were not growing well enough to support them. After two incidences that put our pregnant sheep in a critical state and caused us to actually lose one, we no longer do that.
Background on Our Sheep Herd’s Health
A little background for y’all. We bought 3 ewes (female sheep) in December of 2019. They were roughly 8 months old and had been free-range pastured with free-choice hay and supplemental sweet feed when we bought them. Since the gentleman we bought from let his herd roam with intact males, he had no idea if they could be pregnant. We assumed they weren’t. Sheep are notoriously hard to tell without testing. Additionally, although they were technically sexually mature, they were a little too young to carry well.
A few months later all three girls surprised us with babies but one of them almost died because of it. Because they were too young to carry and had been on conventional feed for most of the pregnancy, Cinnamon delivered a tiny lamb she was unable to produce milk for and the baby died. The nutritional demands of pregnancy are hard on young animals. When it is not adequate it can lead to a number of issues like low birth weight and inability to produce milk. The birth itself weakened her so much that it took 3 weeks of intense rehab and nutritional supplementation for me to help her recover enough to release her back to the herd.
This spring we lost Clove to bloat. Until I did the necropsy (animal autopsy) I didn’t know she was pregnant. I make it a habit to do necropsies on our animals that die. This is so I can try to determine the cause. If it is something that is preventable we can make immediate changes so we don’t lose anyone else.
Why do I make the assumption we lost Clove due to the animals’ diet?
She was notorious for hogging the food. The symptoms she was showing were synonymous with bloat. Plus, the rest of the herd was lethargic and showing similar albeit much lighter symptoms. We removed the rest of the grains and moved them to another section of the pasture. Within a day everyone was back to normal. That week I changed the supplement to organic alfalfa pellets gradually. Alfalfa can also cause bloat if eaten in too large a quantity by an animal that is not accustomed to it.
It is critical to taper animals off of one feed before switching to another. Sheep are ruminants that have 4 stomachs in which bacterial fermentation breaks down their food into nutrients they can use. Too sudden of a change from grain to grass or vice versa doesn’t allow the rumen to accommodate the new bacteria needed to process the different food. Basically they can starve. They are not able to get any nutrition from what they are eating because the bacteria they need are missing.
Fast forward a few months after the food changed from organic grain to organic alfalfa in addition to their pasture and Cinnamon delivered a healthy large lamb. A few weeks later Ginger surprised us with twins! Ginger had had a good birth last year. However, she was very skinny and the nutritional demands of producing milk were very hard on her. She weaned her lamb early that year.
The difference in their birth experience and the ability to carry to term was worlds away from last year. Both of them had healthy pregnancies and problem-free births. The only thing that changed from their first year to this year was the feed being switched to organic. Aside from the rapid growth of their offspring, I can even compare last year’s babies to this year’s. This second generation is more robust, well-formed, and energetic. I have no doubt that it is related to their mothers having been on an organic, natural diet for over a year and their fathers having been on an organic, natural diet their entire life. From the improvements, it is clear that our animals are getting the nutrition they need for their health.