A rumination on shelter


When I say we raise our sheep on pasture it means that although they have access to rudimentary shelter (open quonsets, see below) they spend all of their lives out-of-doors. None is ever in the barn except on the rare occasion that a ewe encounters a difficult lambing. Occasionally someone who hears this will wonder about the wisdom of such a practice and ask whether the animals would be more comfortable inside, especially during winter. Our rationale is based on ruminant digestive metabolism and the generally unhealthy conditions characteristic of big, production, barns. So, how does the fact that sheep are ruminants reflect on the wisdom of raising them entirely out-of-doors? The human digestive tract may reasonably be thought of as a continuous tube (open at both ends) and it helps to understand how it works by dividing it up functionally. So it is that we learn about the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, and colon. The digestive tract of a ruminant is a bit more involved in that its stomach is elaborated into four compartments (rumen, reticulum, omasum, and abomasum) which allow it to do what none of us can, and that is break down plant material (cellulose) and ferment carbohydrate via the action of symbiotic microbes. The largest of these compartments is the rumen and it is here that plant starches are fermented to release sugars which are then metabolized by bacteria to produce fatty acids which are taken up as nutrients by the circulation. What I’m getting at is that bacterial metabolism isn’t all that efficient and it has been estimated that approximately 10% of the gross energy content of forage is given off as heat. The normal body temperature for a sheep is between 102-103ºF. Combine that with a very deep, very dense, and heavily greased wool coat and you shouldn’t have to ask if sheep can comfortably overwinter out-of-doors (and at, in our case, 41°N latitude). The most important thing that a shepherd can do to successfully raise sheep on pasture is to provide a hay supply ample enough to keep their bellies full. I captured the photo above the other day. We were expecting temperatures in the low single digits and rain changing to freezing rain and snow by morning. I was very happy to see the girls tucking in. I remember, when we were living in Indiana, when it got down to -30ºF (-34ºC) one night. I was sure that all of the sheep had perished so suited up to go out and survey the damage. In too much of a hurry to turn on the light I jumped the fence. As I approached a collection of silent, stationary, masses I switched on my flashlight. I startled every last one of them where they lay. They looked up … and blink, blink, blinked the heavy sleep from their eyes. If they could have spoken I am sure they would, in unison, have said, ‘Turn out the light! Can’t you see we’re trying to sleep?‘ As I made for the house I felt a little sheepish for having disturbed them from their deep and comfortable slumber. Having allayed your fear of sheep living on pasture I can also tell you that even the most fastidiously managed barn isn’t a very healthy place for your sheep, no matter how good it’ll make you feel to have them in when it’s cold and blowing outside. One of the facts of farm life is that all animals produce manure and a stall or pen, when left unattended even for a day, will accumulate manure and urine which harbor bacteria, ammonia, and moisture … a combination which, when ventilation is poor, can lead to the development of respiratory illness and pneumonia. Having said all of that, providing some sort of shelter for your animals, even if it is only rudimentary, is critical. Animals do well in the very cold as long as they are dry … they do well in the rain as long as they are warm … but a very dangerous combination, especially for newborns, is wet and cold … and more so when the wind is up. One of our first priorities has always been the provision of ample room undercover for all of our animals to shelter from such dangerous conditions. Our sheep also don’t do well in very hot and humid conditions; here too shelters are critically important. Here’s a link to a site showing the Port-a-Hut Livestock Shelter. We use the 8′ wide version here at the farm. POSTSCRIPT: As I composed this post I took a minute to check the forecast for the coming week. A front will be moving through our area on Monday. In its wake we are expecting rain, sleet, ice, and snow and temperatures approaching 40ºF at midday to -5º overnight. All I have done to prepare is put out a fresh round bale and I know that the girls will be just fine.

13 thoughts on “A rumination on shelter

  1. Very informative! Back on Red Island, next to the house was a small “barn” that everyone called the “Sheep Shed.” Come to think of it I never once saw sheep in it. The top part was where hay was stored and the coal pound was in the bottom. The sheep made their own places outdoors. Funny, I never gave it a thought until you mentioned it. I think we may be getting some of that front you referred to a bit later on Tuesday as our temps are due to climb (for just a few hours) from where they have been (typically -12 to -19 C) all the way to +7. Back again the next day, though. It’s been a bit tricky here the past few days. We were on rolling blackouts due to the extreme cold placing a strain on the grid. We had a blizzard (38 cm of snow and 110 km/hr, gusts over 200 on the Grade Banks) Saturday night and, in its wake there was a fire at a major substation, which had a domino effect on the power grid. Not fun, but things are getting back to normal. The mild weather on Tuesday should make for some interesting times for those whose houses are prone to flooding, unfortunately. I image that does not apply to you, right?

    • Ugh. Sounds brutal. And, I thought we had it bad. Your question about flooding is a good one. We are pretty high up on the side of a hill but when the water is running strong we can still have problems. We once had more than a meter of melt water in the basement … lost washer, dryer and furnace that day … problem solved after-the-fact so it’ll never (EVER) happen again. We are enjoying the calm before the storm. Blue sky and bright sun. As I look to the west however a thin layer of clouds is slowly encroaching. Fasten your seat belt …

  2. You know, when I was replying to your comment on my blog, I was thinking about this very thing, wondering about how your sheep were handling the cold, and whether they come indoors for shelter! And here I have my answer! Very interesting information. So glad everyone is doing so well. 🙂

    • We are, at the moment, enjoying the proverbial calm before the storm. Blue sky and sunshine. The animals are loving it and look so sleepy. As I write, however, a thin layer of clouds is drifting in from the west. I’ll have to suit up and do chores before it turns nasty. If you are in Maine, I hope all is well. D

  3. Very interesting… I have never given that much thought but I guess I would have believed that all domesticated animals need to stay inside when it is that cold outside.
    Trying to extrapolate from sheep to cats and dogs (for example) I wonder if these are also much more resilient than over-anxious pet owners might believe??

  4. Wish I were a ruminant for these past few days! It’s been close to zero! Can’t remember when it’s been so cold! That 10% of heat given off is a blessing in the winter, not so much in summer. Pretty sure that’s why you shear them in the spring! Great image. Chowing down in action! 🙂

    • Hey Dark Creek Farm … thanks for checking in today. It’s always nice to hear from another sheep farmer. I’ll have to check your blog … but, even before that, what sorts of sheep are you raising? We have always raised Shetlands in support of Joanna’s spinning and weaving. Thanks again for the comment, please come back soon. D

    • Hey Charlie … glad to know that you’re considering becoming a farmer in the near or more distant future. Good for you! When you do make the transition please let us know if we can provide advice … always happy to do so. We’ve raised almost everything on the ‘list,’ sheep, goats, horses, hogs, meat birds, layers, geese, turkeys, and rabbits. As far as husbandry practices, each species has its little tricks that have taken us years to figure out … and, we’ve seen ‘it’ all. Thanks for checking in today. D

  5. Very interesting, cold and dry now that’s how I like my winters … warm and wet is unfortunately lots of our summers … no wonder sheep do well in Scotland! Packed full of useful and practical information, this is a great post David.

    • Thanks Seonaid. I’d been feeling that what is supposed to be a farm blog has, of late, been drifting from its original intent. I feel pretty strongly about raising animals on pasture and felt like this was something I needed to talk about. Many folks believe, like house dogs and cats I suppose, that all animals need to be inside and away from the weather. So many people have asked why we don’t bring our sheep in at night. Although most farm animals are pretty thoroughly domesticated the breeds we have raised over the years, including the Shetlands, are close to landrace breeds … meaning that they closely resemble ancient, projenitor stock, such that they are hardy, do well on marginal pastures, and are thrifty. Thanks for the thumbs up. D PS: If I were one for the current fad of making a ‘bucket list,’ visiting Scotland with an eye on sheep would be on it. But, I think you already know that.

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