THE OFFICIAL BLOG
On the feeding of donkeys... and other creatures.
I am just going to jump right in and say it: We people tend to feed our animals too much. Maybe it is an American thing. I have no experience anywhere else. But it is a thing. That is not to say that I do not know people who follow their veterinarian's advice to the letter and measure out their dog's food with great care. The fact that I know anything at all about the details of how and when acquaintances feed their pets -- because they went out of their way to explain it to me as if it were a matter of importance -- tells me that this is something that is hard for them. Not hard for them to do, but hard for them to wrap their mind around.
I was the same once upon a time. I would read the suggested feeding amounts and schedules on the back of the dog food bag and scoff: "What? My dog eats a lot more than that!" Not that he should have, just that he did. As if that makes sense at all.
Of course, my own eating habits were much the same. I am pretty sure from the barrage of news headlines about Americans and obesity that I was not exceptional.
Then I moved to Oklahoma and bought a donkey. I recognize that the things that motivate me to self-improvement are often a little unusual. But caring for a donkey changed a lot about how I viewed diet and health.
On donkeys and... camels.
Donkeys are creatures of the arid regions. They have survived and thrived in the harshest of conditions for a very long time. I read all of this in a little e-book I bought when I first brought home my donkey. I learned other things, too! For instance, did you know that donkeys store water like camels? Except... that isn't true. About the camels, I mean. Camels do not store water in their humps as if they have hairy water tanks strapped to their backs. (I may be alone here, but as a kid that is always how I imagined it.) Those humps have nothing to do with water, and everything to do with energy. The camel hump is actually a big mound of body fat which the camel accumulates quickly when food is available. With all that stored fat energy, a camel can survive up to three weeks with no food. Yes, they can survive long periods without water as well, but that has nothing to do with water storage and everything to do with highly efficient kidneys and intestines.
The part that the e-book got right (although this is not enough to warrant a recommendation of the publication from me) is that donkeys are a lot like camels. They also very efficiently store body fat when food conditions are good - mostly in their necks. And they are second only to camels in hydration efficiency.
How much do donkeys actually need to eat?
The short answer is: very little. A small handful of formulated grain packs enough calories to get one of my mini-donkeys through the day. This is exactly what the breeder told me the day we brought Fatima home. He showed me the amount in the palm of his hand and warned me: "No more. It isn't good for them." My brain reeled. It could not be right. That could not be enough. Sure, this was a miniature donkey, but even with that I knew she would weigh in around at least two-hundred fifty pounds someday. That would be like me living off a couple Snickers bars per day and calling it good. I may or may not have actually tried that before. Calories in, calories out - right?
Though I started out following the advice and measuring out the tiny amount of grain each morning, something was wrong. She just seemed so hungry all the time. Weird... I could relate.
It just so happens that at the time Dave and I had changed our own eating habits. We were following a ketogenic way of eating and carefully weighing and measuring our own foods each day. Much because of this, it started to click into place for me mentally: It is not just about calories. Where those calories come from matter. When those calories come matters.
Fatima was not so much hungry as bored. She had the instinctual drive to browse constantly. She was designed to munch on low quality grasses and brambles scattered over many square miles all day long. We decided to remove grain from her diet entirely and allow her to browse on our poor and sparse winter grasses and weeds. We, thankfully, do not have lush pastures here. As a matter of fact, in the winter, there is not a green thing to be found on all seventeen acres. (That upset me our first winter here... I'm from the deep south where winter is just a different shade of green.)
It was perfect for a while, at least. After a few weeks there was not enough for even one miniature camel-like donkey to eat and we set off to find a supply of low calorie, clean (but poor quality by other livestock standards) hay. That is a lot harder to find than you would think. Horse-quality hay is all the rage. We eventually settled on straw which is not at all nutrient dense but satisfies the need to chew and browse.
That all works just fine for winter, but when spring comes and everything turns green again. There is spring grass, after-frost grass, and after-rain grass.. and clover... and blackberry brambles... And all of that is fattening when you are a little donkey with a potential camel-hump in your neck. We quickly learned that it would be necessary to limit time on grass if we wanted to keep the donkeys healthy.
Many years and four more donkeys later, we are confident in our feeding and general care routine. We do get questions about this from time to time - particularly from people who are shocked (as I used to be) when they see our donkeys on a dry lot that looks like the surface of the moon rather than out roaming the greenness of Green Country, Oklahoma.
Our donkey feeding protocol.
As a general rule, our donkeys are not fed formulated grains. Our pregnant jennies are the exception and they are given a cup of low-protein (12%) pelleted feed as a supplement daily throughout their pregnancies and the first three weeks of nursing foals. We feed seven pounds (total for all of the donkeys) of oat straw in the spring and summer mornings on a dry lot while the grasses are still high in sugars. (That's a thing!) We carefully monitor the intake of oat straw as it is high in calories compared to other straws. Plus, they really like it and there is very little waste, unlike with some of the grass hays we have fed in the past. In the early to late evening, they are all released from the dry lot to browse the property until sundown when they return to the barn by their own volition until dawn. With this method their browsing is limited to the evening hours and early dawn hours when the grasses are not as nutrient-dense, and can do so safely. In the winter when our land is moonscape anyway - they are free to browse all day and we add an evening feeding of trusty oat straw.
For more information on donkey care, we suggest you visit The Donkey Sanctuary website.
Do they still beg for treats? Yes. Do they still explore every bucket and chicken feeder for something forbidden? Yes. (Especially our jack, Loreto, who will do anything for peppermint. And I mean anything.) I remember reading in that same not-recommended donkey care e-book that donkeys will not eat grain to the detriment of their health if it is available. That is about as accurate as the camel storing water in the fur-lined Igloo cooler on its back. They cannot moderate their feeding behavior. They are wired to eat when food is available. Moderation is my job.
I do not have much in common with a donkey (or camel) physiologically - besides the biological similarities among all mammals, of course. However, there is plenty of room for metaphor here. I do not know the conditions under which my ancestors lived that contributed to my metabolism today. They must have faced a lot of famine -- and survived because here I am. I could blame these anonymous ancestors, or just own up to my more recent lifetime of indulging and crash dieting so that I could indulge some more. For whatever reason, I became highly efficient at storing fat when food conditions are good. And... food conditions are always good these days.
Also, I do not have the kidneys or intestines of a camel (or donkey) and have to force myself to drink water all day long to avoid perpetual dehydration. So much for evolution. Should I not have evolved to be able to simply drink when I feel thirsty and that would be enough? What gives?
Unfortunately, hunger works (or doesn't work) the same way. I have learned and am still learning how to eat what I need for optimal health and no more, no less. I worry myself each day with balancing my animals' diets, keeping up with their mineral supplements, and satisfying their exercise requirements because I understand that the slightest excess or deficiency can severely impact their overall health. It only makes sense that I would have taken a clue from that necessary vigilance and start to do what I must for my own health. I need to be well enough to keep Loreto out of the feed cans and other such important things.
Posted by Anita.
Keeper of the peppermint. Ketogenic diet advocate. Recovered junk food junkie.