Notes from Windward: #56

Sharing out the bread

#10 and Lambie Pie asking for some of the duck's bread
With the coming of the Hard Frost, the protein content of wild forage drops to almost nil. Rumanents can still make good use of dead grass although as long as they have plenty of water and some source of protein. You see, goats and sheep don't actually digest grass; they run a biochemical plant that does it for them. Indeed, one reason to exercise care in giving them oral antibiotics is because they can't function if you kill the bacteria in their rumen.

These bacteria break down cellulose (which they can't utilize directly) into simple sugars, which are then absorbed. This process also gives off a lot of heat, which is why sometimes after a cold rain you'll see what looks like "steam" rising off the goats. Much of what rumanents do is in service of enabling their rumens to work better. For example, the process of chewing the cud grinds up stems and breaks down the leaf fiber so the bacteria can gain better access to the cellulose. Another thing all this chewing does is to buffer the pH of the rumen since their saliva contains high concentrations of sodium bicarbonate. When an upset stomach can kill in just a matter of hours, this is serious stuff.

The stemmy parts also scour the inside of the rumen; that's good because too great a buildup of bacteria will interfere with the rumen's ability to absorb the nutrients those bacteria are producing. In the cow dairies, when they feed forage that's been ground up too small, they also feed the cows plastic scrubbies like you've used to clean dishes. These float around in the rumen and scrape off the accumulated bacteria. Strange, but true.

The ducks are not amused
In fall and winter, the limiting factor for rumenants is the protein content of their food. Dead grasses have lots of cellulose, but the rumen bacteria need additional protein in order to work their magic. So goats and sheep are constantly on the look out for organic protein wherever they can find it. One source of tasty protein is the stale bread I get from the day-old bread store for my ducks. After a loaf has set on the shelf at the day-old bread store for a few days, they package it up at a dollar a bag for people to use to feed birds. The sheep take the position that stale bread is much too good to waste on a bunch of quackers, so whenever they see me heading toward the duck pen with a loaf of bread, a veritable stampede occurs.

Nobody wants to get left out
Lambie Pie, our ram, is always at the head of the line for bread, and his girls are never far behind. I try to share it out in some reasonable manner, but it's hard to ignore a squad of two hundred pound ewes who want their bread right now. It's a little like being "Lord of the sheep".

It's interesting to note that the title of "lord" comes from a contraction of the phrase "Loaf warden", i.e. the Lord was the guy who was in charge of handing out the bread. That's why the 23rd Psalm, "give us this day our daily bread" is called "The Lord's Prayer." Back in the days when the majority of what you ate was bread, the loaf warden was an important fellow. Lately, the sheep have taken to showing up at my door in the afternoon, hanging around hoping I'll break out another loaf. Fortunately for the ducks, with six loaves for a dollar, there's plenty to go around.

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