And it is that way with sheep too. The production farmers who raise sheep want bigger, fatter, faster growing lambs so they stuff them full of grain as soon as they are able to nibble food. I cannot find evidence of my theory on this, yet, but I think that the early feeding of grain forever ruins the sheep's ability to thrive on forage, and that is likely the same for goats and cows as well, also being ruminants. I am basing my idea on only what I have seen in the past three years as a farmer. The sheep I have acquired as adults, who have been fed grain from babies, do not adjust well to a grass fed operation. They are always 'hungry' and some even have to be taught to eat hay.
The Angora goats that came to the farm were from a fibre farm where they were fed pelleted feeds and straw for roughage. This was done to keep the coats clean so the fibre, mohair, would fetch top dollar. When the goats came home, they were fed hay, as rumunants should be, and they nearly starved to death. I eventually had to go buy some pelleted food, that which they were used to, and sprinkle it on the hay, to teach them to eat hay. Two of the does never did thrive and were made into meat, which, I must say, was delicious. The third managed to adapt and has done very well.
Many of the sheep that have come from grain heavy farms also struggle with forage based feeding. The Cotswolds were from two different farms, the ram from one and three ewes from another. Only one ewe managed to switch over and I have kept her. The ram and the other two ewes could never gain enough weight to thrive, so I sold them (to a grain feeding farmer). The Cotswold ewe I have kept is robust, fat and healthy and has given me one single lamb per year for the past two years. Cotswolds are not known for multiple births, but twins are not uncommon. Her lambs are big and healthy, so I am fortunate there. One of her lambs, is like her mother, thriving on the hay and pasture, but the other is smaller and thin. All ewes, sheep, get the same care, with worming and supplements in the form of alfalfa at the onset of pregnancy and the month prior to delivery and the month after. They do not get grain, though sometimes I have given them some field peas.
The sheep that seem to thrive on the forage based feeding system also seem to be more worm resistant than the grain pigs. I , so far, cannot find research that shows a correlation between grain feeding and poor worm resistance. I am only going by what I observe in my small flock. The animals that do not thrive on hay and pasture are sold or go for meat. I am particularly interested in breeding those that not only do well on the grass feed, but also are parasite resistant, and have strong hooves. Good feet are paramount to health for ruminants. The breeds that I favour are primitives, those that have not been improved by man and are the way they have been for centuries on end. The Icelandic, Jacob, Shetland, Finnsheep (to some degree, but lots have been altered) are all short tailed naturally and do not require tail docking to keep the flies from chewing them alive in the summer. They are hardier than the commercial 'white' sheep breeds that have been created by man and which did not evolve long ago.
I am not really interested in a lamb that is for production. This started out to be a little fibre farm and as soon as I find ways to keep the fleece free of vegetative matter, because they are hay fed for 7 months of the year, the fleece quality will be good enough to sell for hand spinners and felters. But, well fed sheep also have better pelts. That does not translate to grain fed sheep.
The grain fed sheep that have been on the farm are greedy sheep who fight for a morsel of grain. It is like heroin to them, fixating on a sugar high immediately. Research has shown that grain is not the answer to keeping the sheep warm in winter. It is akin to coffee for humans, or sugar, where there is an instant rush and then nothing except the desire for more. Hay is proper food for runimants and it is digested slowly, chewed twice and provides energy to the sheep, provided it has adequate protein. Not all hay is the same, so I have discovered. The hay I had last year was planted hay and the sheep did extremely well on it. This year's hay is just pasture grass and is variable from bale to bale, with some being better than the others. With the alfalfa supplementation, they seem just fine. When they are shorn, then real condition scoring can take place. It is harder to asses when they are wearing their thick wool coats. They will be shorn at the end of this month.
In conclusion, I want to stress that sheep farmers are not doing the sheep any service when they feed them grain and when they worm them routinely, whether they need it or not. Instead of breeding the parasite resistant sheep that thrive on forage based feeding, they shove grain down them as early as they can, never giving the sheep a chance to live naturally. And, with routine worming, the worms are now resistant to many of the antihelminics out there, and they are no longer working. What if only the parasite resistant were kept as breeding stock? The flock would be a hardy, naturally resistant flock, strong and the costs to the farmer would be way down through parasite deaths, plus the elimination of grain would cut the feed bill.
Grass fed meat has been proven to be much healthier for humans to consume, though here in Alberta, most won't touch it because they are used to sweet, well marbled meat that grain produces. I want to say that there is a direct correlation between human health and grain fed meat consumption, too. But that is another topic for another day. Suffice to say that this farm will endeavour to breed the sheep and keep the sheep that thrive on our forage based feeding system and are parasite resistant naturally. Too bad I have just started farming. If I had another thirty years (I would be ninety then if that was to happen), I would have created some darn healthy sheep! In the meantime, I am doing my best to learn as I go and have a thriving, healthy and well loved flock of sheep at the Fat Ewe Farm.