I’m moving up in the world this year! I have always fed my sheep hay on the ground during the short winter duration when we have to feed. Lots of people do this, and it’s often the only practical means to deliver hay for very large herds of animals. Ruminants eat off the ground the rest of the year, after all.

But there are some downsides.

One is that it can increase their parasite load. Worm eggs come out in feces, and hatch into larvae that hang out low in forage, waiting to be re-consumed. Since sheep tend to poop in the hay and then pick around for leftovers in the subsequent days, they can pick up a lot of worm larvae. This can be remedied by increased de-worming, but that’s both cost-wise and labor-wise inefficient. And it accelerates the rate at which a particular de-wormer becomes ineffective.

The second downside of feeding on the ground is just waste. The sheep eat their meal, then bed down in the  comfy leftovers. The laid-on, pooped-on hay is no longer palatable, they refuse to eat it, and it goes to waste. Tight portion controls help with this, but when feeding lower protein hay, it’s ideal if the sheep have it in front of them 24/7, to be sure they eat enough. It’s tougher to feed them only twice a day and make sure they are taking in an optimal amount. Given their choice, my sheep will eat three or four times a day, starting very early in the morning.

And that leads to the third downside: feeding twice a day. Sheep fed on a schedule need to be fed at consistent times. So it’s very constraining to one’s lifestyle. You have to work dinner plans around feeding sheep, and have to get up early on weekends to maintain their early morning mealtime.

Time for Hay Bunks

So, it’s been on my list to build some feeders, and I finally was able to fit the project in. They took me several weekends, first to build one prototype, then to build seven more. I finished them around Thanksgiving. Indeed, they solve the problem of waste- I’m getting almost zero waste now. Even what hay the sheep dribble out of their mouths falls into the feeder trough area, staying clean and dry, so they eat it later. Now I can feed just once a day, leaving enough hay out for 24 hours, plus a little, so I’m always sure they have plenty. I can fit two days’ worth of hay in the feeders if I need to, which enables me to do some weekend fun without having to plan around sheep meal times!

I think the sheep are eating better, too. Before, they’d come rushing when I’d bring them hay, always over-anxious for the next meal. Now, they can eat whenever they want, and when I bring fresh hay, there is still some left from the day before. Sometimes they come to eat when I deliver, other times they don’t. This is good, it means they are keeping themselves topped-off and aren’t in a hurry to eat again.

The Specs

I started with Premier’s plan for “large sheep and rams” (the variant on the last page where the sheep only eat from one side, so you can fill from the back). But, I modified it a bit. I figured that making the “back side” of the feeder only two feet high (instead of 27”) would make better use of eight-foot boards. Same with the 25” floor supports: shaving an inch off made it so you could get two out of an eight-footer. This makes the cutting math easy: all 2-, 4- and 8- foot sections.

I thought all-2×4 construction seemed overkill in expense and weight, so I switched to 1×4’s for most of the 8’ horizontals. I didn’t find it necessary to put a strip of plywood on the top, front face by the sheep, as the plans called for.

I wasn’t keen on the sheep putting their tongues on treated plywood for the bottom of the trough, so I switched to using untreated 1×4’s there. I butted them loosely, so they can drain water. I used untreated plywood for the sloped section on which the hay sits, because I put roofs on them, so it’s protected from the weather. I did use treated plywood for the sides, however.

Premier sells galvanized welded wire panels, which force the sheep to nibble little bits of hay through the squares. This prevents them from taking big mouthfuls, swinging their heads and dropping half  the hay on the ground. But shipping of the panels is expensive. So I purchased utility panels at a local feed store, and cut them up. The panels come in 4×16’ lengths, with 4×4” squares. They needed to be 2×8’ panels, so I trimmed every-other-square along the lengths of the sub-rectangles, giving me enough edges to staple to the feeder.

This made panels that were a slightly different dimension than the Premier design. But it’s ok, I just jockeyed the position of the connector boards, and changed the dimension of the sloped plywood “slide” to accommodate.

I added lift-able roofs framed with 1x4s and topped with plywood. I hinged them on the top 1×4 front face. I can open them from the back and fill them. I added 3’ 1×2’s with angle-cut ends to prop the lids open (kinda like propping open a car hood). The props just lay down inside the feeder when not in use (they are unattached).

I’ve noticed that the front, inside of the trough does seem to get wet with rain (or maybe just wet from sheep heads). So I think that an improvement would be to cut the tops of the front vertical posts at a 45-degree angle, and have the roofs jut out in front as an overhang. If the vertical posts were angled, they would allow for the swing of the roof when it opens, even if it had a long overhang.

I split the roofs into four-foot sections because I figured eight-foot-long ones would be too heavy for me to easily lift with one hand. I worried that too much rain would leak in between the sections and get the hay wet, but didn’t think there was another option. It turns out, they hardly leak at all (I butted them as tight as I could and still have them open freely). They hay gets consumed fast enough that it’s ok of a few rain drips get in. Indeed, even at this length they are weighty. So definitely full-length lids would have been uncomfortably heavy for me. I find I have to be careful not to drop the lids when closing them, I think it could kill a sheep if it clipped her in the head just right.

I assembled the feeders over a week or so in the pasture, and started feeding out of them as soon as some were put together. Roofless, they were a little top-heavy on the front and were frequently tipped over. I’m not sure if this was from wind, or the sheep scratching against them. But with roofs, so far, they’ve stayed upright, even through some strong storms.

I pondered how to cover the plywood roofs. Not keen on painting  in winter, or costly roofing options, I slapped on some inexpensive rolled asphalt roofing, single-ply, with nails. I think this might have worked ok, except that right now, the sheep have access to the backs of the feeders (eventually I will probably fence them out, because they annoy me when I’m filling the feeders with hay). They like to scratch themselves on the corners of the lids, so naturally this is damaging the brittle-in-the-cold roofing. So I will likely need to rip off the roofing in summer and resort to paint. Oh well.

I wasn’t sure on paper how many ewes could fit at an eight-food feeder. I guessed six. It turns out, right now, eight sheep can comfortably eat at one feeder.

But we’ll see if that ratio changes when the ewes are in their last week of pregnancy and wide as trucks! Since they now have hay available all day, it’s less critical; sheep which are hungry can beat the rush and eat at alternate times to get their fill. But I plan to feed grain out of these things too, so wanted to make sure they could all eat at once.

The next challenge posed was mud control in front of the feeders since there is such frequent traffic. Before when I was feeding on the ground, this was less of a problem since they spread hay all over the place. But hay is expensive bedding! Now, I’ve been adding mulch and straw, to keep their footing reasonably non-mucky.

Overall, I’m really pleased with the design, Premier has really well-thought-out ideas. It saves labor, time, de-worming, and hay. I spent over $1K in the project, but it’s worth it to me. Now I have an extra 20 minutes every day to do something else besides a second delivery of hay!