MineralFeederThis is a really bad spring for mud. Several weeks ago, I moved all the sheep into what’s called a “sacrifice area.” The idea is that if you let them loose in your pasture all winter, they will cause a lot of soil compaction as they walk around on the wet soil. And, when the grass starts to grow in the spring, the animals will abusively graze the tender growth and never let it gain a foothold. This prevents you from getting the full potential volume out of your grass, as compared to letting it get to high stage 2 growth, and then grazing it. So, it’s considered a GAP (Good Agricultural Practice) to move the animals off the pasture and into a small area that you will “sacrifice” by letting it get totally trashed while preserving the rest of the graze. Smile with tongue out 

Last year by this time, I was already moving them out of the sacrifice and into graze. We had 6” of reed canary grass (RCG) growth by the end of February in 2010. But not this year! It’s hardly even starting to green up. Here, RCG dies back completely each year and re-grows, so it’s a good baseline measure of how warm or cold the springtime has been. Our second pasture, which is a mix of traditional grasses, had 4” standing over the winter. It seems like it’s starting to take off, but barely as well.

This winter I let the sheep loose in the RCG much of the winter, so they and the LGDs could acclimate to each other more. Since RCG dies back anyway, there was no harm in letting them graze it to zero in the fall. But now that it’s starting to grow, I definitely want to keep them off of it.

So, <sigh>, it may be a muddy lambing year. I have been putting down straw about once a week, in an attempt to give the sheep someplace dry to rest. But it doesn’t last long, in a day or two, it’s ground into the mud. There has been so much rain, the soil is just saturated, and makes squishing sounds when you walk on it. Here are the sheep “shopping” for wheat berries in the fresh straw bales. I don’t have to spread them very much, the sheep will do the rest from rummaging around in it, then later bedding down on it. StrawBales

They look miserable in their muddiness, but I actually don’t think they mind it as much as I mind looking at them being all muddy. They have such thick and wooly winter coats, they can’t feel any mud or dampness at the skin. A good rain will whiten them all up again once they are on green grass.

When I feed, I lay down flakes of hay flat on the ground, and then I pour their scoops of grain on top of the hay flakes. In theory, this gives them a nice clean “plate” on which to eat their grain. But in practice, they dash around greedily and kick and spill bits of grain here and there. Then they try to resurrect every last morsel of spilled grain out of the mud, and get muddy noses. I am feeding them slightly more hay than they can eat, plus fifty pounds of grain per day. So they aren’t starved for calories, but the grain is such a treasure they covet every tidbit.26InMud

The mud is not ideal, for sure. It is thought to encourage foot rot, for one. But it is one of the tradeoffs of balancing what’s good for the soil and the environment with what the animals might prefer. We could house them up in the barn to keep them drier, but that has a different set of tradeoffs. Then they’d be cooped up with ammonia smell from over two tons of animals urinating in a small space. I’d be incurring significant costs in bedding to absorb all of that, and major labor in mucking it out of the barn and into compost management systems.

And they’d have very little room for movement inside the barn. Given all that, the sacrifice area with frequent addition of bedding is about the best you can do to get through this challenging Northwest season. At least when you have more than a few animals. Our friends to the east are currently lambing in wind-chill-forty-below kind of weather, so our temperate rainforest sheep really have it pretty easy by comparison.

ChickenHousesI put straw down in the poultry pasture as well. I have been moving them so they always have a partial square of green grass to eat all the time. But they definitely “bomb out” a section they’ve been on for a while, with the area around their houses getting the muddiest. I put straw down more for me, so I can walk on that slippery Mukilteo Muck without falling. The birds stay pretty clean on their own, with their dainty steps and roosting at night. But they delight in spreading the straw and also finding the tidbits of grain. The fresh straw keeps the duck eggs cleaner too, since they lay eggs all over the place.


The mud around our barn is getting on my nerves too. Between gutters not yet installed, construction and concrete trucks, the tractor and ATV, and trenching, our well managed, graveled and French drained area is not looking so good these days. We are holding back from bringing in more gravel until we’re done trenching for power. Oh, how green spring grass will be a welcome sight!