In Vermont, winters are long and the pasture has either stopped growing (there may be grass but the nutritional value during the winter is virtually zero) or it is covered with snow. We must provide food for our Shetlands from some time in October (they stay out on pasture into November sometimes but we must supplement their feed almost 100%) to some time in May, varying from year to year depending on the weather. Grass grows well here in the Green Mountain State so there is plenty available - - but it must be harvested and stored to be fed for the six to eight months when fresh isn't available. We have a mountain top farm. While it has great pastures and spectacular views, it is too rocky and undulating to accommodate harvesting equipment. Therefore we have to buy winter feed. Until recently, the choices were limited.
For many years, we fed the small square bales weighing around 50 pounds each. We fed a leafy, second cut grass hay with a TDN (Total Digestible Nutrients) of at least 60% and an average of 16% Available Crude Protein figured on a dry matter basis. Originally we had the hay tested through our grain dealer - - the test was free. Somehow, the test always came back suggesting we needed some additional amount of a product the grain dealer sold. We found we were better off paying the $26 or so for a hay test done through our Extension Service or local agricultural university than the "free" test offered by our feed company. If you have some land where you can cut hay or have your own hay cut for shares by someone, be sure to have it tested. Just because it is green and you don't have to pay for it doesn't mean it is either adequate or free. If you get half the hay and the person who bales it for you gets half, you are essentially "paying" one bale, at $4.00 in value, for each bale you keep. It isn't out-of-pocket money but it still has value.
Shetlands are small and willing to eat almost anything, as long as it is "interesting". We don't think they found hay very interesting. We used an average of 22 bales of hay per animal, per year. We ground fed in a semi-futile attempt to keep the fleeces clean. Although ground feeding isn't perfect, it is far better than coats or any hay feeders we tried, for keeping the fleeces clean. The shepherd must be VERY careful when distributing the hay. Just one session of "Help" from an enthusiastic neophyte can reduce the value of your annual clip significantly!!! We prefer to spread the hay around when the sheep are closed into their buildings, distributing the flakes of hay in as wide a pattern as possible. Shetlands like to look around as they chew so they dribble chaff and other fallout onto the back of the sheep next to them as they eat. They don't like the stems and won't eat hay that has been walked on or rained on so there is a lot of waste.
Hay can be bought behind the baler, for around $4.00 per bale. Plus one must own a tractor and a couple of 8 ton hay wagons and have barn space for 22 bales per sheep. In addition, it takes us about 7 person-hours to get each batch of 300 bales (we used around 3600 bales per year) and stack it in the barn. This happens, of course, during the hottest days of summer because that is when hay dries best, and the farmer must take advantage of the windows of opportunity as they occur. Frequently we are called at the last minute, just before the farmer goes out to bale, because when the hay "comes", it must be baled. Just as frequently, that was the afternoon we had planned a family picnic or a visit to the lake.
In addition to having sufficient barn space, owning a tractor and wagons or a fair size truck, hay for the winter in Vermont will cost $88 plus a half hour of labor per Shetland per year.
Storing feed for the winter has always been a challenge - - - ask any squirrel. Agriculturists have tried lots of different methods with mixed results. One new way that has appeared recently is the plastic wrapped round bales of haylage. Haylage is partially dried grass, baled and wrapped in plastic to form an air tight container. This allows the haylage to ferment, which tenderizes coarse plant fiber and increases palatability. Always looking to improve our methods, we tried several bales a few years ago to see how the sheep liked haylage. The sheep loved it and there was very little waste. Based on these results, we switched completely from hay to haylage. There is very little chaff because the feed is moist. We don't need a barn to store it, and we have to provide only about half the water we provided with the dry hay. If there is plenty of snow, they won't drink any water. We feed a leafy, second cut with a TDN of at least 60% and an average of 16% Available Crude Protein figured on a dry matter basis as with the dry hay. We test the haylage also just to be sure we know what we are getting. Our experience is that grass from the same field cut under the same conditions will test out higher as haylage than as hay. We guess it is because less nutrient value is lost to the drying process.
There are a few down sides to feeding the wrapped round bales of haylage:
1. They weigh around 1100 pounds so handling them is different (you can't just manually pick them up and dump them over the fence).
2. Once the plastic has been removed, the haylage starts to spoil, faster during warm weather. A bale lasts us 3-4 days so spoilage isn't a problem for us.
3. The technique of getting the moisture content just right, wrapping at the right time, not moving the bales while the fermentation is in progress, and keeping the bales sealed until use, is new to many farmers but must be done correctly or the bale will be ruined.
4. Finding an environmentally sound way to dispose of the plastic wrap is also a challenge.
We had a pick up truck with a dump body that could handle two bales at a time so moving the bales was relatively easy. The farmer put them on the truck and we dumped them off where ever we wanted to store them. After a few years, we bought a flatbed truck and a "squeezer" for the front of our tractor for unloading. We use around 3/4 of a bale of haylage per Shetland per year. A bale of haylage costs around $40, and takes about an hour to bring six bales to our farm on our flatbed. The bales should be brought to the farm right out of the baler, before fermentation starts, or after fermentation is finished during the cool days of fall before snow. We must be sure to seal any holes in the plastic with something similar to duct tape, but more weather resistant, to reduce spoilage.
Unwrapping the haylage and feeding is somewhat labor intensive and it certainly has its own olfactory ambiance. We have found that laying the bales of haylage on their sides when unloading them from the truck, makes the unwrapping of the round bales, when they are fed, much more efficient. Our feeling is that the extra time to feed is more than offset by the reduced waste, the cleaner fleeces, the happier sheep and of course, the lower cost.
In addition to owning a tractor with a squeezer and wagons or a truck with a dump body, haylage for the winter in Vermont will cost $30 plus a quarter hour of labor per Shetland per year to get the haylage to our farm but no barn space is required.
We also fed the lambs about 1/3 of a pound of lamb pellets per day, for their first year. Shetlands are a primitive breed and probably didn't need this grain. It really isn't very much, but we liked to do as much as we could to get them ready for the sometimes harsh Vermont winters, it got them used to people, and it gave us a great opportunity to see which lamb may be having a bad day. About a quarter of the lambs weren't interested in the grain and never ate any, but they joined in the activity anyway; others pigged out. Lamb pellets cost somewhere around $14/50 pounds. This price fluctuates depending on a number of factors, none of which we can control. Of course, each lamb also eats as much hay or haylage as an adult Shetland because they are still growing. We stopped feeding any grain and the Shetland lambs continued to thrive.
In addition to having to visit the feed store once in a while, lamb pellets for a whole year in Vermont will cost $20 per Shetland lamb per year. But, not feeding the grain saves $20 per Shetland lamb per year.
For a small flock of Shetlands in 2010, say 2 rams, 12 ewes and 6 lambs, purchased hay and grain in Vermont will cost $1780 plus 10 hours labor for hay for a whole year. If we feed haylage it will cost $600 and 5 hours labor for haylage for a whole year. These figures are just to get the feed stored on your farm, feeding is going to take additional time.