Have you ever wondered what, exactly, sheep do all day?
Maybe not, but I’ll tell you anyway.
Sheep are ruminants, meaning their primary feed is grass and small leafy plants. Each sheep has a rumen that holds a couple of gallons, and they need to fill the equivalent of a 5-gallon bucket with feed each day. Much of their time is absorbed with this effort. When the feed is good, they can fill their faces with large mouthfuls, gobbling hay down. When their preferred feed is mixed with stems and tough hay, they gradually nibble their way through it, carefully selecting only the tenderest bits of hay. While casual observers may think that all grass is created equal, there are actually tremendous differences in the nutritional profiles and digestibility of different species of grass at different times. Haymaking is its own science – we are just beginning to dip our toes into it.
Not only do the sheep need to eat a five gallon bucket of hay, they then need to re-chew all of that hay. After they eat the first time, the hay ferments in the rumen and the fiber begins to break down. The sheep then regurgitates small mouthfuls of grass for additional chewing with their powerful molars. Only once or twice have I accidentally caught a finger in the back of a sheep or a goats’ mouth while administering pills, but those occasions were memorably painful! The sheep chews each cud bolus for a few minutes, swallows, and regurgitates another. The cud smells vaguely like an old ash-tray.
As sheep are somewhat crepuscular, in my observation, they tend to eat in the morning, chew cud in the afternoon, and then eat again as evening falls. Unlike humans, sheep doze in small amounts throughout the day and night but don’t engage in a lot of deep, long sleep. If you thought wolves might be out there ready to eat you, you wouldn’t, either! Our lamb-cam bears this out- we see a lot of quiet time at mid-day and through the night, with lots of active eating in the morning and evening.
While adult sheep aren’t often playful, lambs and even yearlings and two year olds can get a little riled up now and then. A lot of sheep play seems to be centered on exuberant bouncing and joyful movement. I even saw our ram take a solid leap a few days ago, on a very sunny day. We have recently purchased a toy for the sheep to enjoy. Hopefully, they’ll enjoy bopping their ball around. In winter, the sheep love sunshine and appreciate the southward orientation of their loafing area. In summer, they can’t get enough cool shade.
Sheep social order is complex. Families stay together, as do members of small groups who are oriented into larger groups. Often, our bottle lambs are a bit “socially awkward” when they have to live in the main barn full time as sheep. It’s clear that mama sheep do a lot of social training of their youngsters that farmer-raised sheep miss! Larger sheep usually dominate smaller ones, so we have to plan to offer enough feeding space that our biggest gals can’t “own” it.
Rams have their own rules. Ram society is very “winner take all” but yet it is cruel to house a flock creature alone. So we make a big effort to make sure that both of our rams out in the ram house have an opportunity to eat and can share their shelter. So far, so good, though Bob Loblaw definitely dominates Oliver at the feeder.
Sheep really love the stimulation of grazing. I know we are only halfway through winter, but we are all looking forward to the days and weeks of spring and summer ahead.