Snow viable water source if sheep are monitored

Sheep need adequate forage to stay warm, which can increase their water requirements.  |  File photo

Snow can be a viable option for watering sheep during winter if they are closely monitored.

“This isn’t a short cut … you need to have a plan if you’re going to be extending the grazing season or doing grazing out in pastures and you’re going to be using snow,” said Susan Hosford, a sheep industry specialist with Alberta Agriculture.

Sheep need clean, non-crusted and non-trampled snow.

As well, enough accessible snow to provide sufficient water is rarely available once temperatures drop below -10 C.

“It takes more energy to melt (the snow), and there’s not as much water in it, so you want to make sure that the snow is something that the sheep can eat,” Hosford said.

Corlena Patterson, executive director of the Canadian Sheep Federation, said adequate forage is also needed for sheep to retain body temperature.

“From the heat generated from simply breaking down forages, their body will (generate heat) very quickly,” Patterson said.

Flocks that use snow as their primary water source must be checked daily.

“It’s very important that the producer monitors the body condition of their sheep if water is potentially restricted,” she said.

Forage intake should also be monitored to avoid dehydration, and Hosford recommended weighing animals once a month to ensure health. She said sheep should appear content in their day-to-day routine and may be dehydrated if they aren’t.

“If you notice that your sheep are out there and basically spending the whole day walking, digging, there’s a problem,” Hosford said.

“They should not be extending more energy than they’re getting out of the feed.”

Snow should be used as a water option only if the animals have a body condition score of three to 3.5 and they are in the maintenance or early pregnancy stage.

Martin Catto, a sheep producer from Lipton, Sask., uses snow to water his sheep every winter until lambing time.

“We find that it works as long as there’s clean, fresh snow. It actually works better than water,” Catto said. “If you’ve got clean fresh snow, they hardly seem to go to a watering bowl. You’ll see them chewing snow when there’s a perfectly good water bowl right beside them.”

Watering sheep with snow is a contentious issue and was included in the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Sheep only during revisions in 2013.

The revision committee found no research indicating it did harm to sheep. The code states that a back-up must be readily available when using snow as the primary source of water.


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