Outwintering sheep management in extensive orchard

T.Vidrih and M. Vidrih
e-mail: Matej Vidrih

Agronomy department, Biotechnical faculty,
Jamnikarjeva 101, 1000 Ljubljana, Slovenia


Some data and experiences on outwintering management of sheep are presented with the main aim of developing a low cost, low input livestock farming system. At the end of the season of grazing communal pasture, the group of sheep was moved to an abandoned extensive orchard. Small movable plastic covered structures were used as an occasional shelter for the animals. The sheep were fed hay to appetite and given a daily supply of some grain and drinking water. Body condition score for the ewes and liveweight gain for lambs are used as indicators of the success of sheep outwintering.

Keywords: Sheep, extensive orchard, outwintering, pugging


Sheep farming has increased in popularity on smallholder farms in Slovenia. Most of these animals spend the grazing season some distance away from the farm on mountain or communal pastures. For wintering, sheep are sent back to farms and often put into dark and small stalls. There is a need for better ways of keeping these sheep on farms during winter and to develop such farming systems in which the animals could contribute to the farm land, rather than just requiring labour and attention through the winter. All people have a right to a work load as low as possible and to consume high quality food produced organically. We need to produce such food at the same cost as is done with conventional farming. Many extensive orchards (fruit tree gardens, Streuobstwiesen) in Slovenia have been abandoned. The weeds flourish intensively under old trees and woody plants from nearby hedges invade the formerly cultivated land. Animals, soil, fruit trees and people might profit from outwintering sheep in extensive orchards.

Materials and methods

An extensive orchard of 0,5 ha and NE exposition, adjacent to a dairy farm, was used to outwinter five ewes of the Jezersko-Solčava breed. A temporary grazing site of 25 m x 25 m was fenced with electric netting. When the ground was not hard frozen the “grazing” site was changed every four weeks. Two light constructions (each 2 m x 2 m in size) covered with plastic sheet were used to provide occasional shelter for animals. The sheep were fed hay and given a daily supply of some grain and drinking water. The quantity of each used was measured during a 5-month period. Daily minimum and maximum temperatures were recorded and observations made on weather conditions, the effectiveness of the electric fence and the use made of the shelters during the night periods. At the end of the wintering period fodder beet (Beta vulgaris) and swede (Brassica napus L. var. napobrassica) were planted on bedded packs. Grasses (L. multiflorum, L. perenne, Dactylis glomerata, F. pratensis, F. arundinacea) were broadcast on severely poached areas to investigate which species would be most suitable to renew the grass sward.



Five days after the sheep were brought on to the outwintering site the real winter started. Snow cover was unexpectedly deep for the time of the autumn and night temperature were down to –10 0 C. Very cold weather lasted the whole of December and minimum temperatures dropped to –15 0 C. Low clouds and fog often covered the region and there was less sunshine than the average. January 2000 was also colder than average. The lowest temperature was -18 0 C on 26 Jan. That day followed cold advection, during calm and clear nights, and the presence of snow cover, radiative cooling was intensive. As the month was very dry, there were only few days with precipitation. Quite dry weather continued through February. This month was warmer than average. Compared to the 1961-1990 normals, March as a whole was warmer than on the average. There was more precipitation than on average with most registered in the first and last third of the month. The first half of April was close to normal; the weather was cloudy and rainy with minimum temperature close to zero.


Sheep in good condition (3,5 score) were brought from communal pasture to the outwintering site on 14 Nov. 1999. Initially the outwintering sheep slept outside on snow and didn’t use shelters with dry straw bedding. Two ewes lambed in December, another two in January and the last one in April. Most sheep lambed under shelter, so it was easy to close the entrance of the shelter with a mesh wire door for a few days, to feed the ewe with a lamb better than the other animals. From mid November to mid April, six lambs were born with liveweight 5,01 kg on average per lamb. Their liveweight gain was from 242 g to 295 g d-1. After a few days fed under the shelter after lambing, some sheep and especially lambs learned to protect themselves under the shelter later during rainy weather. There was enough room for all animals to be under the shelter, but less than one third of them occasionally spent the overnight period under the shelter. When the bedded pack (straw plus excreta) under the shelter was wet, additional bedding was added to the pack to provide animals with a clean, dry place to bed if they needed it. The scattered hay provided bedding for the sheep on the feeding site and this was the preferred site to camp. Shelters had to be secured from the outside with electrified polytape to prevent rubbing by sheep and lambs jumping on the shelter cover. The ram was put out with the sheep at the beginning of March. Sheep were in good condition (3,0 score) at the end of outwintering period (14 April 2000). They were sent back to the communal pasture to start the new grazing season.

Feed, minerals and water

Almost from the beginning of the outwintering period the ground was covered with snow and no grazing was possible. Moderate-quality grass hay (ME 8,0 MJ kg-1) was offered to appetite for the whole time as a big round bales. The iron mesh (15 cm x 15 cm openings) was bent round the bale to reduce scattering of hay. For the 150 days of outwintering, 1,9 t of hay was brought and approximately 10 % was scattered round the place of feeding. In addition to hay, 250 kg of grain (barley) was fed to the sheep over the 150 days. Salt was available to sheep all the time and a mineral mix was fed in quantities recommended by the manufacturer. A trailer –mounted tank was used to provide drinking water at the outwintering site when there was no freezing. Otherwise, the water was brought to the animals each day. The sheep learned to eat snow as their water source, but this approach only worked if there was clean snow cover.

Manure distribution and poaching

Because of the long period of snow cover, sheep moved around mainly on paths connecting the feeding site with the water trough and shelters. Thus the manure was distributed very unevenly and there was not much poaching because of the frozen ground. The animal excreta, scattered hay and bedded packs could be more evenly distributed over the whole site if the hay feeding cage, shelters and drinking trough were moved more often to new sites. Before the end of outwintering, severe poaching was induced by fencing the sheep on a small area to conduct the small plot experiment on sward re-establishment by oversowing with different grass species. Bedded packs established on feeding sites or under shelters were 8 – 10 cm deep and already too thick for the vegetation under it to successfully grow through. The bulk density of the bedded pack was 270 – 350 mg cm –3 and half of it consisted of excreta. Fodder beet and swede germinated very slow and unevenly because the top layer of bedded pack was often dry during spring. Later development of the crop was very good and free of weeds. Oversowing of grass species on the poached site was successful, with orchard grass competing best with tall plants from the previous sward.


In locating outwintering sites the convenience to feed sources and water are important considerations. Any preparation work that can be done before snow is time well spent (Vidrih et al. 1998). Most watering systems used for the growing season will be unworkable in winter. The extensive orchard had a wide spectrum of environments, because of its location (near buildings, south aspect, boundary hedges) and sheep can select preferential sites for camping. Beside this, sheep are provided with insulation in the form of subcutaneous tissue, skin, and wool (Kotnik et al., 1996). If the outwintering site is severely poached it can be reseeded by oversowing just before animals leave for the next grazing season. The sward would then not be utilized until late July. This will allow plants to grow to full vigor and contribute organic matter to the soil. The hay produced with such a late cut could be used for winter feed or as bedding. Only one cut would be taken with the sheep brought in again for outwintering at the end of the growing season, thus producing a low-input system


Keeping sheep outside for all of the winter is a practice that is somewhat controversial among conventional livestock farmers and even more with the general public. They should realize that the ruminant has an internal source of heat generated by bacterial activity in the rumen, which keeps them comfortable, if fed properly, at temperatures far below our own comfort level. In our experience stock are healthier and more comfortable than they would be in a confined setting. There is a need to design a system that works with the natural qualities of the animal and can be sustainable even in the regions that are not the most suitable for modern plant or livestock production. Planning an outwintering strategy to avoid problems is not difficult, but often requires ingenuity and flexibility with good management being a key factor as with many other grazing systems.


Kotnik T, Vidrih T, Pogacnik M, Kotar M and Kompan D (1996) The suitability of the climatic conditions for all year outdoor sheep rearing in the karst region. In: Holo I (ed) Animal production, healthy nutrition, environment. 4th International Symposium Animal Science Days, Kaposvar, Hungary. 105-112.

Vidrih T, Kovacic M and Kocjancic M (1998) Cattle outwintering on pasture. Znanost in praksa v govedoreji, 21. zvezek, Biotehniska fakulteta, 131-136.

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