Considerations for Winter Grazing Your Sheep
By Ulf Kintzel
Winter is here once again. In this article I would like to share what I have learned over the years when it comes to grazing in cold and freezing conditions and with snow on the ground.
Snow on the ground does not necessarily mean that the grazing season ends. Sheep have the ability to dig through the snow to get to the grass. It matters, though, what kind of snow it is. Light and fluffy snow can be as deep or deeper than a foot and there will be no problems for the sheep to dig through. In fact, they will do so with relatively little effort. Wet snow takes more of an effort. Drifted snow is even harder and at times impossible for the sheep to dig through even when there is less than a foot of snow on the ground. Ice on top changes everything, again for the worse. Sheep don’t have the weight and force of cattle. No matter how little snow there is on the ground, it will be impossible for the sheep to get to any forage when there is a solid sheet of ice on top.
The length of the forage underneath matters as well. The longer the grass, the more it will stick out and entice the sheep to make an effort to dig. Secondly, for each time the sheep dig they get to more forage when the grass is long versus short. How does that matter? Digging causes the sheep to burn some extra energy. It must be worth the effort. Also, ice will have a harder time forming a coherent sheet when there are bunches of grass sticking out. The ice breaks at these bunches and gives the sheep a starting point to dig.
How can one assess if there is enough forage for the sheep to meet their needs? Whenever I am not sure I simply put a couple feeders with round bales of good first-cutting hay out for my sheep. If the grass is good and fairly easily accessible, they will hardly eat any hay. If they need it, they will eat it. Just be careful, don’t put the fanciest hay or good baleage out. The sheep might choose convenience over grazing when the stored forage is of the best quality.
I still work with my electric nettings during the winter, at least until late December or early January when I run out of hay or when the snow gets too deep. A common comment I get from other producers is that they can’t do that since their ground is frozen and they cannot work with electric nettings anymore. In pastures with short grass the ground indeed freezes up early on. Tall grass will keep the frost off of the ground much longer than short grass. The difference is indeed stunning. Short pasture may be solidly frozen while pasture with long grass will have very little frost on the ground. A snow blanket not only keeps the ground from freezing, but it also takes moderate frost back out of the ground. Also, I never step the double-spiked posts fully into the ground when I expect frost or have some already. That makes the removal easier. The occasional post that is frozen solidly into the ground can be removed by using a metal stake (i.e. a three-foot piece of a ground rod) as a lever underneath the double spike.
Water is a major concern when we have heavy frost and no snow on the ground. Bringing water to the sheep to let them drink can become a cumbersome daily chore. That all changes when there is snow on the ground. A field trial conducted in Wisconsin examined if snow, as the only source of water, is sufficient for sheep to maintain themselves (the results were published in “The Shepherd” magazine). A group of ewes and yearlings had snow as their only water source while a comparison group received water throughout the winter. In the following spring, there was no difference in weight among adult ewes, while the yearlings that received only snow didn’t gain as much as those receiving water.
In essence, snow can be a fine water source but here are some helpful tips: The snow should be clean and soft. It should not be solidly frozen, covered with ice, or dirty. I do not advise having snow as the only water source for lactating ewes. However, ewes with young lambs are likely to be in the barn at that time of the year anyway where water can be given and can be kept ice-free. Lastly, if it is convenient and an open water source can be provided even though there is snow on the ground, you will find that the sheep prefer drinking water over eating snow. However, that in itself does not mean that the sheep cannot meet their water needs by eating snow.
Snow also changes the eating behavior of sheep. They usually eat very selectively. With snow on the ground, they eat whatever they can get.
A word of caution when grazing sheep in the winter: While cold temperatures generally do not bother well-fed sheep in full fleece, cold winds do. One must be prepared to provide shelter on a moment’s notice if the weather changes. Check the weather report frequently. When it is cold and the wind starts hauling, I want to make sure that my sheep have the appropriate shelter. This does not necessarily mean that they need to be locked up in the barn. A thick hedgerow that breaks the wind can be used to provide the necessary animal comfort.
Ulf owns and operates White Clover Sheep Farm and breeds and raises grass-fed White Dorper Sheep without any grain feeding and offers breeding stock suitable for grazing. He is a native of Germany and lives in the US since 1995. He farms in the Finger Lakes area in upstate New York. His website address is www.whitecloversheepfarm.com. He can be reached by at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 585-554-3313.