The Nantucket Conservation Foundation maintains a flock of sheep at Squam Farm as part of our conservation efforts. You can read more about how effective sheep can be as a grassland management tool in our previous blog. During the growing season our sheep are rotated around Squam Farm, browsing on native growing vegetation but what happens in the winter when the vegetation is no longer growing?
We keep the sheep outside on pasture year round. In the winter, we usually move the sheep near the Squam Farm barn in permanently fenced pastures. Though the sheep’s wool is weatherproof and keeps them very warm, wind can be a major stress on livestock. We all know how windy it can get on Nantucket, particularly in the winter! We make sure the sheep have wind protection in their pastures either from a natural source such as bushes, trees, hills or we use easily constructed windwalls assembled using plywood board and T-posts pounded into the ground.
Once winter sets in and the vegetation becomes dormant we need to supplement the sheep forage. Aside from providing the sheep with fresh water and minerals the majority of the sheep’s diet this time of year is our locally grown hay. It is important for us to use locally grown feed hay for the control and prevention of invasive plant species which is often a problem with livestock and feeding hay. Commercial livestock and feeding hay often contains seeds of weedy and non-native plants which can quickly invade a pasture area. We make sure to only feed sheep hay in the permanent pastures so we can more easily control any weeds that may be produced from the hay. Our local hay is not weed free, but at least it only has weeds currently on Nantucket and we are not importing more foreign invasive plant species. It also helps that the sheep love and prefer our local hay! Knowing the nutritional value of the hay we feed our sheep is very important. We used a lab to analyze our hay so we could understand how much protein and nutritional energy the hay will provide as well as its mineral content. This helps us know what supplements the sheep need to receive to satisfy their nutritional needs at their various stages of growth.
Our local Nantucket hay generally holds enough nutrition for ewes in mid-gestation and un-bred sheep on a maintenance diet. We do still need to provide supplements for energy and important minerals. Analyzing our local hay also helps us improve hay production from year to year, allowing us to pinpoint the most nutritious stage of growth to cut and bale the hay. All of this helps us make sure our sheep stay healthy through the winter months.
Keeping sheep in the permanent pastures through the winter poses its challenges for sheep health and pasture care. During the growing season, sheep get to spread out and roam while grazing but during the winter, sheep are fed at feeders in set locations around the permanent pastures. The sheep will tend to do more pushing, shoving and generally have more arguments which creates more stress and potential injuries than is likely during the grazing season. Also, because the sheep have closer contact in the permanent pastures, they are more likely to spread illnesses. To help alleviate some of these issues we spread out feed and feeding stations around the pastures, which also helps ensure everyone gets their fair share of food. Since the sheep are kept in one location for a longer period of time than in the grazing season the manure build-up and pugging (over-trampling) creates the potential for internal parasite burdens and can expose sheep to bacteria that live in the soil. All of these things create hazards for the pasture land as well as sheep health. Pasture care is very important because without healthy land it’s hard to keep healthy sheep. To aid in the management of the winter pastures we regularly move the feeding stations and drag the fields. This helps prevent build up of discarded hay. Some hay cover can be healthy for the pasture by covering and protecting the native warmer season vegetation and replenishing soil nutrients as it decays. Too much hay cover can negatively affect this natural process by stifling and shading underlying vegetation and not decaying in time for the native vegetation to start growing in the spring. Over-trampled (pugged) and compressed areas in the pastures create bare spots where it is difficult for the native plants to grow, inviting unwanted invasive plant species. To help solve this problem, we drag the field to break up and evenly distribute manure again helping the good replenishing nutrients to get in the soil so they can be utilized by native plants in the spring. This also aids in internal parasite control for the sheep’s health by breaking up the manure and exposing the parasites to the sunlight killing the parasite before it can be re-consumed by the sheep.
If you would like to see our sheep out grazing in permanent pastures this winter – take a walk on our Squam Farm property – you can see them up by the barn. And keep your eye out as we get closer to spring and we will post a lambing update!