Preface - we feed hay all year long and don't put our sheep out on pasture ground here, instead the ground is reserved for hay production. Nancy commented that she felt sheep should be grazing on pasture, and others also commented that they don't pasture either, but for many different reasons. Here's my response: (note - copying and pasting makes some of the words run together, so forgive the odd spots in this post!)
Re: hay feeding ?
LOL! It's ok everyone, I doubt Nancy meant harm (G).... you DID shock a few folks tho Nancy! Bad girl! Not really!
My working flock are, for those who don't know, used for training stockdogs to work. They do their best to earn their hay and living quarters. That means that on a good day, they leave their paddock, travel down the open trail to the arena snatching grass along the way. Then are put in holding pens down at the arena to wait their turns. When they are out in the arena - 110'x 210' which is approximately a half acre, we're teaching the dogs to move them quietly and efficiently from point A to point B and they graze along. The arena is kept in very good condition and the graze is mostly brome that they keep down to a length of between 2 and 4 inches. So, Nancy, you can think of them as traveling souls snacking along the way. The amount of graze they get is equal to what a shepherd would do is you are taking them from their winter quarters to introduce their rumens to spring grass - limited to prevent bloat or grass tetany. During herding trials, after they are done each day working, they are turned out on the arena for a few hours of R&R. The transition from low moisture bailage to fresh grass is not as dramatic on their gut processes as would be dry to grass, so they can stay out longer. I will say tho that be the end of a 2 day trial, they get much looser poops so are at their maximum allowable consumption of green grass.
Certainly the visions of sheep grazing on open pastures with not a predator insight are idyllic. It's what we were shown that sheep do when we were children. But it's also our responsibility as Shepherds to keep them safe, which for us means confinement in clean, large paddocks. Our bailage is made from our 2nd cutting - like Northern Ireland, getting dry hay from 2nd growth is all but impossible because of the cold fall temps, high dew point, and little ability todry it to 12% before the dew hits it again. We individually wrap each round bale and make sure it's sealed tight with no rips in the plastic and then it's stacked and stored for the year.
Kate - our first cutting is generally ready for cutting by the 3rd week of June into 4th of July. Right now our grass is just starting to green up on the hayfields and lawn. 2nd cutting is ready late August into September most years.Last year was so bad that we couldn't even do a 2nd cutting on 1 of the 3 fields, the growing season was so cold and cloudy, there wasn't enough grass to justify running the haying equipment to break even. Our hay ground is organic BTW. This year's fishbone meal is over $800 a ton. Commercial chemical fertilizers are about $100 a ton less. Ours last for years with residual effects- theirs, only the growing season
Confinement in a controlled area means they also contribute to the longevity of the hay fields with composted manures. Yes, sheep grazing contributes fresh manure pellets directly to the ground but those aren't composted, may contain live organisms such as worms and eggs that other sheep come in direct contact with too soon and provide cross-contamination, and also weed seeds passed through the digestive process - where composting, when done correctly, kills worms and eggs as well as any seeds. Grazing over large areas reduces the likelihood of cross-contamination, but also requires diligence on the Shepherd's part that the grazing is nutritionally at it's peak value,animals are always provided fresh clean water close to their grazing area, loose minerals be also set near their grazing area to make up for the natural nutritional deficiencies found everywhere, and predators are non-existent. Fencing in smaller areas for high-density rotational grazing is nice, but again parasite management is a key issue. In 14 years of raising Shetlands we've never had to worm our sheep. The occasional poor-doers have been tested through the years with no significant worm load found, and have usually come from someone else's flocks interestingly enough. Since we switched over to bailage, our lambing rate and ease of lambing has nearly doubled. The final numbers are coming in, and including 6 yearlings that were bred, 4 of which have birthed and have had singles, our final lambing rate is around 170% or greater. Almost every mature ewe had twins, 1 had triplets, none had to be pulled, and only 1 ewerejected her lamb but that's her 2nd time in a row for complete rejection even being tied up, and has been sold for human consumption. They are in the best body scoring immediately after lambing I've seen. They are rarely fed grain,only the bailage which is mostly (Manchar)Brome with some (Egmo) Timothy. Our flock is also OPP and Johne's negative, no CL, and we live in a blue tongue negative state. I lost one new ewe this year just prior to lambing with suspected Hypocalaemia with treatment obviously being administered too late. No one else exhibited any nutritional deficiencies. No lambs have been lost to predators this year so far which is in and of itself amazing considering our location and high predator numbers.
Each Shepherd has to provide the best that they can, both cost-wise and management-wise. Everyone has to do what they feel is best for their flock, and each area will have best choices for management practices that not all can or should adhere to. That's what makes raising livestock so interesting! It's is very much like the micro-climates found on any given piece of property that serious gardeners certainly understand well. My little 24 foot wide English garden at the front of the house is a perfect example - on the east side I can grow big peonias, on the west side every planting for consecutive years has died. The same can be said for pastures.