Most books on animal care will tell you to contact your local extension office for advice on animal feeding. Good luck! Most extension agents are tax-funded university people whose job it is to make simple things as technical as possible. In the past, herdsmen who attended to the feeding and management of animals were the simplest of people…today they are Ph.D.s. If you enjoy playing this game of “Look how complicated I can make this.”, then go ahead and enjoy yourself. If you want to enjoy farming, I suggest a better way.
Animals have a simple natural routine, and here I’m talking about cows, sheep and goats. They rise with the sun, when the grass is covered with dew and is succulent. They want to eat at this time, in the cool of the day. Then, they’ll be interested in a drink–fresh clean water. As the day warms up, they want to find a comfortable place to rest and digest their morning belly-full of food. The routine begins again as the day draws to a close, with the ideal night being spent like the ideal midday–resting with a belly-full of food.
In ancient times, the shepherd oversaw the animals during these times, driving them in the morning to pasture and then to water. They led them to a midday rest spot and then as the sun descended from its height, returned to the pastures, then watered the animals and finally brought them to rest for the night. Other activities, like breeding and healthcare were managed according to the signs of the heavens, with the constellations marking the times for dietary changes, mating preparations, etc.. For example, in Rome, mating season for cattle begin when the contellation Delphinus appeared in the east and ended approximately 40 days later. This allowed for calves to be born the following Spring, when the land was ready to feed the weaned calves. Eveything was harmonious and ordered for the good of man and animals.
Today, we do not need to follow the insanity of the extension offices that are speaking to one modern goal: exploiting nature for money. There’s much more to life than making a profit and animals were not created to be turned into coins. (I write this, not intentionally, on the eve of St. Francis’ feast day.) To manage the feed of our animals, we can and should follow the natural course, which has been approved by experts herdsmen for centuries. We may not lead our animals out to pastures, but their feeding patterns remain the same. They need to be fed in the morning and then watered and left to rest. This is done twice daily–at sunrise and sunset.
As for WHAT the animals should eat, this is simple as well. Cattle and sheep eat grass and goats eat brush. All of their nutrients would be provided by these alone if there were changes in seasons and insufficiencies in quantity and quality. Normally, when we attempt to keep animals near our own homes, we need to supplement their lack of quality grazing with hay, grains and nutrients.
But how much…and what kinds? These are the questions most folks have getting started and the extension offices just never seem to come down to earth and answer the questions. It’s very simple. When there’s lush, green grass available for grazing, no supplementation is needed at all. Everything the animals need is available in the grass. You will know when the quantity is sufficient when the animals stop eating. If the animals never stop eating, it’s an obvious sign that they’re not getting enough…just like people. A healthy diet fills us.
When the grass supply is not sufficient, whatever is lacking must be supplemented. The roughage of the grass and some of the nutrients can be supplied by hay. Some of the energy can be supplied by cracked corn and some of the protein by rolled oats. A nutrient block can supply needed minerals and nutrients. It’s that simple.
These supplies should always be in stock and the easiest way to tell what the animals need is by observing their behavior and appearance. An animal not getting enough food will begin to lose weight. The ribs of the cow will become visible and it will be mooing and bleating for food anytime you walk by the barn. A content animal will be quiet and calm.
There is, however, another important guide: your money. The goal should be to provide no supplementation unless it is necessary for the animals’ health. Therefore, we should always be seeking to know how little is necessary for health and production. We should not be feeding animals for fun–this is the folly, not farming. Americans eat for fun and they usually do the same with their animals. “A fool and his money are soon parted.”
In conclusion, cattle and sheep need grass and water. Goats need brush and water. When the grass and brush decrease in quantity and quality there may be a need to supplement with hay, grain and minerals. This is a common sense issue, though, not a complicated science. The animal’s health is the ultimate test…not lab numbers from the extension office that make farming miserable. If your animals never seem to stop grazing, give them some hay (cows: 1/4 bale each in morning and evening) and grains (cows: 1 lb. each in morning and evening). Keep a mineral block in the barn for the animals to lick freely–they will find it and use it if they need to. If the need for more is discerned, add more and observe…if not, then stop there and see if less can suffice.
When an animal becomes pregnant or is milking, things are different…we’ll deal with that another time. For now, let’s just keep it simple. It really is.