VIP ARTICLE – News From Premier August/September 2010
Have you ever driven by a lush green pasture filled with ewes and their lambs and thought, “How idyllic; I want to farm like that.” We remember thinking how easy it would be to raise sheep if we would just turn the sheep onto grass and let them do all the work, while we leaned on the fence and enjoyed the pastoral setting. It hadn’t occurred to us how much mental work it would take to actually maintain our idyllic image. Managing ewes and lambs on pasture can be not only pleasurable but also profitable, if the shepherd learns how to balance the needs of the pasture with the needs of the sheep. Grazing is not as simple as feeding the correct quality and quantity of feed on a dry lot to meet the nutritional needs of the production stage of the animals. Critical analysis, creativity and luck are all required to create and maintain the pastoral ideal of our dreams.
A grass farmer must understand the solar collectors he is using to harvest energy and protein for his animals. Knowing the life cycle of each forage species allows the grazier to harvest the crop at its peak nutritional value and maintain optimum production. As novice graziers, our biggest mistake was to graze too closely. By removing most of the top growth, there is very little surface area to harvest solar energy and the plants must use root reserves to replace the leaves before starting to collect solar energy again. This stresses some desirable species and they will be unable to compete with less desirable species like bluegrass, which can tolerate close cropping. The paddock will also have a longer recovery period before it can be grazed again. Conversely, if the forage is allowed to grow too tall, the solar collectors are shaded from the sun and become less productive. Turning the animals in when the forage is too tall also leads to trampling and waste. At this point it is preferable to harvest the crop as hay.
Most plants have the single-minded goal of having sex. It is the grazier’s job to prevent that from happening, because nutritional quality decreases once flowering starts, and the vegetative growth is greatly reduced. It is nearly impossible to prevent some pasture plants from reproducing. The weather and animal numbers must be perfectly in tune, which rarely happens. Removing the seed heads after they form is imperative to maintain productive paddocks. On-farm trials have proved to us that production is increased considerably by clipping the pasture. Once the seed head is removed, most species remain vegetative for the rest of the growing season. An alternative to clipping would be to use beef cattle to remove the coarse growth that the ewes and lambs can’t easily eat. The disadvantage of using cattle is that you have added another species to manage and face the risk of contracting Johnes disease in your flock. On the other hand, cattle grazing can help with parasite management.
In order to efficiently graze animals, some method of control is required. If sheep are turned into a large pasture and left there all year, it will become a weed-infested, overgrown and unproductive eyesore. The animals will graze the most desirable species first, eventually removing them from the sward, leaving over-mature, non-nutritious weeds. Instead of fertilizing the pasture evenly, they will leave most of their manure in favorite bedding grounds, usually in shaded areas or near the water source. Because of heavy use, these most fertile areas will become the least productive part of the pasture. Since sheep often choose to congregate near where they drink, it is important to provide a water source in each paddock to keep the fertilizer on the pasture, not in the barnyard. Potential graziers often are concerned about what species to plant to get the “best” pasture. They should be worried about fencing first. The way a paddock is grazed ultimately determines its species composition. Reliable fencing allows us to use management intensive grazing to harvest pasture growth in a controlled manner. We use a permanent five-wire high tensile electric perimeter fence with semi-permanent three-wire poly fences to define fields, and moveable electric netting to subdivide each field into paddocks to last twenty-four hours. By allowing the animals on a paddock only one day, we can mimic the effects of harvesting by machine. If forced to graze competitively, the sheep do a much better job of evenly removing the forage. The paddock is less likely to have over-grazed and under-used areas. The manure is also much more evenly distributed. Regrowth starts within five days, so the animals should never be left on the same paddock for more than four days.
Once harvesting can be controlled, it is time to improve species if necessary. Adding legumes to the sward is the most cost effective improvement. Legumes do however, require higher soil pH, which may be expensive to achieve. On our silt loam soils, we can effectively get excellent stands of red and white clover by spreading the seed on the paddocks in early spring and using the animals to trample the seed into the damp soil. If maintained at about fifty percent of the stand, grass/legume paddocks do not need nitrogen fertilization. Legumes are also higher in protein and more productive in hot weather than cool season grasses. Unfortunately, legumes also increase the risk of bloat. Before letting animals into a paddock with a high percentage of legumes, we add dishwasher soap to the mineral per the advice of our vet.
Animals are also moved when the foliage is dry, if possible. About half of our farm is Plainfield sand. It is difficult to establish clovers in this soil type and the clovers die out during dry summers. Therefore we have opted for quack grass as our forage of choice on the sandy soils. With sufficient water and nitrogen, it is productive and nutritious. It can also take abuse and recover well. The quack grass paddocks are where we feed hay during dry conditions and in the winter. These paddocks have the most grass growth the next spring. Unfortunately, nitrogen fertilizer is now over eight hundred dollars per ton. It may be time to convert some of these paddocks to an alfalfa/orchard grass mix, which does well on sandy soil. Even when factoring in the costs of establishment, the alfalfa/orchard grass may provide an economic alternative.
The most cost effective way to feed sheep is to let them graze as much as possible. Since forage quality and quantity varies throughout the year, a plan should be developed to match the growth curve of the forage with the nutritional needs of the flock. Late gestation and lactating ewes have the highest nutritional needs and forage has the highest nutrition and growth rate during May and June. Spring forage, therefore, meets or exceeds the requirements for lactating ewes and growing lambs. If you were to lamb in March or earlier, peak lactation would be over and pastured ewes would be getting feed far better than they need. This can result in obese ewes with difficulty breeding and reduced milk production in subsequent lactations. By lambing in May on pasture we are able to match the forage quality with the ewe’s nutritional needs.
Our ewes are fed low-protein (11%), low-potassium hay during mid and into late gestation. Grazing usually starts in mid April, so the ewes are receiving excellent feed during the last three weeks of gestation before lambing starts the second week of May. No corn is fed during gestation or lactation. This gives us vigorous, medium-size lambs that present few problems with being born or getting up and nursing. Before lambing, the ewes are moved daily, rapidly through all the paddocks to just remove the leaf tops. The grass is growing well and responds to this topping by producing more tillers, thereby thickening the sward. This is also when the ewes “plant” the clover seeds that have been spread.
As lambing starts, we use a modified set-stock system. The ewes are divided into groups of fifty and spread out in four different fields. These have been divided into three- to four-acre paddocks. After the grass has been grazed sufficiently, the fence is opened to the next paddock and the ewes and newborn lambs find their way into the new grass. This is done three or four times during the month of lambing. With adequate rainfall and moderate temperatures, we are able to set aside one-third of our pasture to make hay in early June. As forage growth slows in the heat of July, these paddocks are added to the rotation.
By August, the lambs are eating more grass and the rotation speed has slowed. This is the time to wean the lambs and give them the remaining grass. Our average ninety-day weaning weight is seventy pounds. The ewes are dried-up and given poor quality hay fed on a paddock that needs improving. The lambs are rotational grazed through the best quality paddocks. If we have plenty of grass, in about two weeks after weaning we follow the lambs with the ewes to remove the lower quality feed that is left. By weaning, the rains and cool nights have usually returned and forage growth increases again. We stockpile as much as we can for flushing and breeding in December.
The lambs are kept on grass until mid-October when the quality seems to decline dramatically. From weaning until they leave the pasture the lambs gain about four-tenths of a pound a day and average eighty-five to ninety pounds off the grass. Until last year we would sell them at a good price as feeders at this time. High corn prices have made selling feeder lambs an iffy proposition. If not sold as feeders, the lambs will be dry-lotted and started on grain until finished at about one hundred thirty to one hundred forty pounds.
In order to be a successful grazer, it is critical to also manage parasites. Just as with the forage species, the grazier needs to understand the life cycles of the various parasite species. An understanding of evolution and how worms can become resistant to the various chemicals used to kill them is also necessary. Knowledge of how the immune system can reduce the population of parasites and become immunized against them is also useful. Older ewes and lambs as well as stressed animals are more susceptible to parasite infections. There is also genetic variation within the flock. We routinely check fecal samples to learn the populations and species we are dealing with. Some species are not susceptible to every dewormer, so the right product must be used. Fecals are also checked five days after deworming to make sure that the majority of the worms have been killed.
By rotating wormers and deworming strategically early in the grazing season to reduce the number of eggs shed on the pasture, we have been able to keep worm loads at acceptable levels as the season progresses. There are many different strategies to manage parasites. Your veterinarian should be consulted and her advice followed. Too many people use the wrong product at the wrong time and create an even worse problem. With parasites, knowledge is power.
Sooner or later, every shepherd with grazing sheep will have to deal with predation. We went many years with no problem, then lost 30 lambs in two weeks. It is easier to prevent predation from occurring than it is to stop it once it starts. We had success using guard dogs at first, but they created problems with the neighbors and took as much time to manage as the sheep. We now use llamas with good results against coyotes, foxes and eagles. If we get an established wolf pack in the area, we will have to go back to dogs.
Sheep behave much better and move easily and calmly to the next paddock if you have a good herding dog. Ewes can be led and coaxed to where they may want to go without a dog, but moving to a place they consider undesirable or trying to move lambs anywhere is actually pleasurable with the help of a dog. It has taken us twenty-five years of trying to develop a dog that works well for us. Our other dogs were useful, even if a bit inconsistent. Now we have a dog who understands me even when I’m not sure what I’m doing. I can’t imagine grazing our sheep without Roscoe.
Grazing ewes and lambs can be pleasurable and profitable. It can truly become an idyllic (when the weather cooperates) way to raise sheep. Successful grazing requires a balance of scientific knowledge and creativity. It needs both the left and the right brain. It also takes years of experience to learn the intricacies of your farm’s environment.
To successfully raise sheep on pasture it is necessary to match one’s resources, both human and environmental, to a system that maximizes them. Personal preference is also important. A shepherd who loves what she is doing will much more likely be successful creating and maintaining the grazing environment of her dreams.
Jim and Ruth Ann Schultz