Integrating Sheep into Organic Production

Using domestic sheep rather than traditional farming equipment to manage fallow and terminate cover crops may enable farmers who grow organic crops to save money, reduce tillage, manage weeds and pests and reduce the risk of soil erosion, according to Montana State University and North Dakota State University researchers.

The preliminary results are from the first two years in a long-term USDA research, education and extension project, which is showing several environmental and economic benefits for an integrated cropping and livestock system, according to Perry Miller, MSU professor of land resources and environmental sciences.

The project featured a reduced-till organic system, where faculty researchers used domestic sheep to graze farmland for cover crop termination and weed control. Placing sheep at the heart of the project helped MSU scientists find out that an integrated cropping system that uses domestic sheep for targeted grazing is an economically feasible way of reducing tillage for certified organic farms.

Early project results suggest that grazing sheep saves money on tilling costs.

The simulated farming operation also made money when the lambs were sold for processing after grazing cover crops. In providing alternative practices to organic and non-organic ranch and farming operations, the project also makes a case for a closer relationship between livestock and crop producers, said Patrick Hatfield, MSU animal and range sciences professor.

“Using sheep as the central tool in an integrated system like this is unique because it looks at agro-ecosystem management from a holistic perspective,” Hatfield said. “Our study is unique in that it’s bridging farm systems and ranch systems in an enterprise-level manner and finding very real economic and agronomic benefits.”

According to MSU Department of Agricultural Economics and Economics Assistant Professor Anton Bekkerman, American consumers spend about $30 billion on organic foods each year.

“Montana is the third largest producer of organic crop and livestock in the United States, and this study is looking at how organic food can be produced and brought to market in an efficient and cost effective way,” said Bekkerman. “The study also provided us with alternative ideas of how to manage cropping systems, with the potential for sustainability and entrepreneurship.”

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This article appears in the June 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Pasture Vs. Shed Lambing

By Denice Rackley

Profit margins are slim in livestock operations; it only makes sense to match the sheep and lambing system we use with our goals, objectives, resources and market. Shed lambing and pasture lambing both have advantages and disadvantages; it is up to each individual to choose the best system for their operation.

Every year on livestock operations we anticipate the arrival of new life. Months of work go into planning so that we can be as prepared as possible for our busiest season. I have been raising lambs for more than 20 years. I have shed lambed in January and February in South Dakota and Indiana and also pasture lambed in Indiana in April

Dr. Bob Leader, D.V.M. says, “From a profitability standpoint the single most important decision you can make is when to lamb. That is because the costliest animal to feed is the lactating ewe.”

ewe with newborns
Shed lambing and pasture lambing both have advantages and disadvantages; it is up to each individual to choose the best system for their operation.

There are many factors to consider when deciding which system of lambing will work best for you. Climate, feed costs and available labor are should be weighted heavily. Disease and predation should also be taken into account, as well as available markets and market highs and lows.

Shed Lambing

Most sheep in the United States are raised in smaller farm flocks where shed lambing is the norm. Shed lambing can be most advantageous with out-of-season or early lambing and highly prolific flocks. The use of barns can ensure successful winter lambing that would not be possible otherwise.

Due to more intensive management, the system can be more effective at controlling losses. Treatment of ewes and lambs is simpler; vaccinating is easier, and often there can be a high percentage of lambs successfully weaned. Shed lambing allows for quicker access and intervention — you have more control or at least can attend to problems quickly when they arise.

Typical lambing barns should house at least 10 percent of the flock. Ewes are shorn two to four weeks prior to lambing. Some are brought inside to lamb and remain there until grass is available; others simply lamb inside and are then moved to another area.

Most lambing barns are set up where a drop pen is used for ewes that are close to lambing. Depending on the size of the flock, there can be several drop pens to contain a certain number of ewes helping to lower chances of mismothering or ewes stealing lambs.

Once a ewe has lambed, she and her offspring are typically moved into jugs (individual pens for the family). The ewes and lambs can be processed in the jug — tagged, banded and/or dewormed — whatever your particular protocol is can easily occur while the family is confined together.

The ewe’s bag can be checked to make sure she has milk and both teats are functional. Bonding is easily accomplished as well.

Most producers will take families from the jug in 24 to 48 hours and move them to a mixing pen containing pairs. This allows them to further bond and learn to find each other when they are in a flock setting.

Bottle lambs are almost inevitable so it is best to have an area set up ahead of time for them as well. Every step of the process can be observed for potential problems and adjustments made as needed. In a barn it is relatively easy to take a lamb from its mother if she cannot feed it and give it to another ewe or keep a family in a jug longer to make sure all the lambs are doing well.

The disadvantage of a shed lambing system is the high capital investment for barns, pens, corrals, water, feeding equipment and barn cleaning equipment. Feed costs are significantly higher if you are caring for ewes lambing in winter versus spring. Creep feeding of lambs raises feed costs as well. Shed lambing systems are also very labor-intensive.

You are checking ewes and lambs every couple of hours and carrying feed to individual pens, feeding inside as well as cleaning and bedding pens. Mortality in lambs is usually the highest in the first 30 days, and more animals grouped together increases the chance of disease.

The most common problems are mastitis for the ewe and pneumonia and scours for lambs. Keeping things clean and draft-free and not overcrowding goes a long way in keeping everyone healthy.

Pasture Lambing

Pasture lambing has the advantage of needing significantly less in the way of capital investments. Ewes lambing on pasture have their feed at their feet so it does not need to be brought to them. Barns are not a necessity because pasture lambing is best done when temperatures are above 45°F. Natural shelter is usually sufficient for newborn lambs, but a contingency for foul weather is helpful.

ewe with lamb
The author uses sheep spray paint for identification, placing the birth number on the ewe and lambs.

Ewes on pasture getting daily exercise have less dystocia problems. Mismothering is also significantly reduced because a ewe that is lambing will distance herself from the flock and can remain undisturbed.

Labor requirements can be significantly lower in pasture lambing systems. Most who pasture lamb do not check pastures after dark. My experience has been that most of the ewes will lamb in the early morning or during daylight. It sure is nice to be finished at sunset and not feel like you need to go out in the middle of the night.

Lambing later in the spring can take advantage of improved fertility for both the ram and ewe. Delaying breeding until the middle of breeding season can result in a 5-10 percent increase in the number of lambs born. Lambs born in later spring can benefit from spring, summer and fall forages, significantly decreasing the cost of finishing.

Pasture lambing’s disadvantages include more difficult treatment for both the ewe and lamb because it is not as convenient to catch and treat them as it is with shed lambing.

Ewes with lower milk production or bad mothers will be evident without the hands-on care and supplementation shed lambing requires, thus they can be culled from the operation, improving the remaining flock. Predators can be a huge detriment when lambing on pasture. Processing ewes and lambs and record-keeping can be more challenging with pasture lambing because you need a way to keep the family together while working with them.

I believe pasture lambing requires a better shepherd with good skills, and an experienced lambing dog makes a world of difference. Pasture lambing requires more attention directed at pasture maintenance for the ewes to milk well, lambs to grow and parasites to not become a large health issue.

Set Stock & Drift Lambing

Set stock and drift lambing are two common ways to address pasture lambing while maintaining the health of the flock, adequate nutrition and getting the most of your pasture.

Some producers find set stock pasture lambing works well for them. A certain number of ewes are moved to a lambing pasture with ample grass and remain there until the group is finished lambing. Once the lambs are a week old or older it is relatively easy to move everyone and begin pasture rotation to take advantage of the spring growth of grass and decrease parasite exposure.

Most producers practicing drift lambing move ewes that have not lambed to new pasture daily, leaving behind ewes with newborn lambs. This allows the new family to bond in the lambing bed the ewe has chosen. In a couple of days these new families are gradually grouped into pastures together. Some producers move the ewes with one- or two-day-old lambs to new pasture, leaving the ewes yet to lamb.

This method of drift lambing has the advantage of moving new families to the best grass available. Drift lambing makes checking for new lambs easier since there are not older lambs in the pasture, and it can limit ewe access to newborn lambs so they cannot steal them. Many people who use pasture lambing methods employ guardian dogs that remain with the flock 24 hours a day to protect them from predators.

Combining Methods

I use a combination of methods that works for me and my flock. I shed lamb if I lamb before April. Ewes are vaccinated for C/D/T about a month before lambing and ideally shorn, but it can be difficult to find a stretch of dry weather here in Indiana. Shearing before lambing keeps the barn drier, shorn ewes take up less space; it is easier to see what is going on without the wool; and the lambs have better access to teats.

When the ewes do not have wool they will prefer to lamb indoors if given the option, thus the lambs are born where it is warmer and dry.

As the ewes bag up they are brought closer to the barn for access to an indoor drop area. The sheep being close at hand makes anything I need to do simpler. I do not have jugs set up, but I have a couple of pens if I need to provide a quiet place for new mothers and their lambs. My older ewes usually do not need to be separated.

I use Border Collies, even in the lambing barn, to assist me. My flock is acclimated to the dogs, and I choose the best dog to help with a particular chore when needed during lambing. I do not have another person available so the dogs are my other set of hands.

After a ewe has lambed I check bags, making sure I get milk from both teats, and lambs are banded and given identification. I use sheep spray paint for identification, placing the birth number on the ewe and lambs. If the ewe has twins she gets a dot of paint on both hips to indicate she has two lambs, and one of the lambs gets a dot on its rump to differentiate it from its sibling. I change the paint color that I use every few weeks, enabling me to tell at a glance who belongs with whom, how many lambs a ewe has and approximate age of the lambs.

ewe with lamb
I use sheep spray paint for identification, placing the birth number on the ewe and lambs.

I have had small lambs with ear tags get their heads stuck in square mesh fence, even with 2-by-4 squares, and because of this I let the lambs grow a bit before I put permanent tags in their ears. The darker paint colors last about three weeks so that gives me some time. I record the ewes’ tag number and information about the birth and lambs in my lambing records. The number on the lamb’s tag is determined by the year they are born followed by their paint number.

If I am keeping twin lambs the second one gets a 2 at the end of the number. For example, 6352 would be a twin born from the 35th ewe to lamb in 2016. This allows me to look back to see who the mother was and trace the parentage even further.

When a ewe loses a tag I usually know what year she was born, and she gets a new 2 number tag if I am not sure of other information. Raising commercial lambs makes the need for identification important, but not critical. Here in Indiana we can have extended periods of rain in late winter so the barn provides needed shelter.

As soon as there is adequate grass, pairs go to pasture during the day and may be brought in at night with the help of Border Collies, depending on temperatures, grass growth, weather and any issues with the lambs.

My barn is rather small; in order to expand my flock I added ewes that I pasture lamb in April. Those ewes are shorn with the others and vaccinated on schedule. They remain in the winter pasture and are moved as they lamb. This works for me because the winter pasture is easy to observe and close to the barn if I need to assist a lambing ewe.

Newborn lambs are banded and identified and the family is moved to an area with fresh grass and trees for shelter with the help of my dogs. I enjoy pasture lambing — I do not have the added chores of cleaning the barn or carrying feed to individual ewes.

I can spend my time directly involved with the sheep. I check for lambs first thing in the morning, a couple times during the day and about 30 minutes before dark.

All the processing work I do is a bit weather-dependent; if it is a wet, chilly day I take that into account and will not band lambs because they can lay on the ground for an extended time and get chilly.

If you band male lambs right before you move them some will lay down, kicking and carrying on, not moving with mom, so you have to decide when it is best to band and move the lambs.

The lambs can move faster than I can, and this makes them hard to catch if I wait more than a day or two. Sometimes I band and put marking paint on them several hours before I plan to move them; other times I do it at the new pasture gate. I trust my ewes to remain with their lambs after they are moved.

Most lambs do not worry so much about banded tails. Every ewe is a bit unique, so I take that into account as well. Most of my ewes will calmly move away from a dog with her lambs, making putting her into a fresh pasture easy, while others are more concerned by the dog, and both the dog and I walk behind the family, heading them in the correct direction.

Other ewes will follow the lambs if I carry them, and the dog brings up the rear, ensuring the ewe is following and not tempted to head back to the place she lambed. Once the group is finished lambing pastures are rotated where the families have access to natural shelter for the next month and are then moved to more open pastures fenced with portable electric netting.

I employ livestock guardian dogs to protect the flock from coyotes and vultures. I use Great Pyrenees that are with the flock all day, every day, and the Border Collies assist me in the movement and management of the flock.

We are fortunate in the United States to have such diversity; diversity of environment, breeds of sheep, markets, production systems and producers themselves. Taking a hard look at your situation, the resources and advantages you have, as well as potential challenges, will enable you to choose between shed and pasture lambing.

Both systems have their advantages, and it comes down to what works best for you. You can always take a bit from both systems, tweak it and make it your own.

This article appeared in the August 2016 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Denice Rackley has run a commercial flock of sheep since the mid-1990s. Degreed in biology, an associate in veterinary technology, certified in canine massage, she worked as a registered vet technician and runs her own grooming business, raises and trains Border Collies and organizes herding dog clinics, lessons and demos. Reach Rackley by phone at 605-842-6321.

Mob Grazing Sheep

Acres U.S.A. reader query: I am looking for information on mob grazing sheep. I am most interested in how it is done; what kind of fences or techniques will hold sheep in; and what kind of animal impact results.

When mob grazing is written about it is almost exclusively about cattle. Cattle are great, but sheep seem more profitable in our situation. We have been trying to direct market our cattle for increased profits, but in the rural West too many backyards contain livestock. Plus, trying to deal with butchers that don’t care enough is highly frustrating. Can you point me in the right direction for any information on mob grazing sheep?

Brett Williams
Northwest College, facilities assistant

Response by Nathan Griffith, editor Sheep! magazine: By “mob grazing,” most operators mean very high stocking densities per acre for very brief durations and very long recovery times. Notice there are three “veries” in there. I’ll add one more: Historically, it’s very labor- and capital- intensive.

Last I checked on mob grazing with sheep (admittedly several years ago) No-Risk Ranching guru Greg Judy was starting to dabble with sheep, so he’d probably have some good tips for the practice. That said, it’s important to remember that — especially with sheep — highest productivity doesn’t always translate into highest returns on investment.

Productivity Vs. Profit

The highest returns per acre of which I’m aware came from the now-forgotten process of “soiling.” This means growing and harvesting crops on a schedule designed to use each feed at its best ratio of nutrient concentration and volume yield: Each successive removal of forage from the land is transported to the livestock, which are kept in small enclosures designed to maximize comfort and conserve both liquid and solid manures.

Those valuable outputs are immediately spread on portions of the farm that need it most.

The practice of soiling livestock was introduced in the early 1800s into New England by the legendary Josiah Quincy of Massachusetts. In New England, soiling was found to average about four to six times the livestock output per acre of well-managed production by more consuetudinary methods.

A sheep looks directly ahead
It’s important to remember that — especially with sheep — highest productivity doesn’t always translate into highest returns on investment.

Soiling of livestock was the subject of numerous investigations and big enthusiasts for about 100 years, after which it completely disappeared. Under some conditions, it could be made to pay with dairy cattle, but in all, the semi-skilled labor requirement was exceedingly high, as was the management requirement.

These two inputs, together with the vagaries of weather and occasional absences of workmen familiar with a given farm’s characteristics, upset the whole apple cart repeatedly, causing major disturbances in flow of operations.

The theory with mob grazing is that yields — in pounds of livestock harvested per acre per year — should go up, sometimes up to double or more the yield of low intensity set stocking. There is some question whether the labor and capital inputs for mob grazing will be repaid at the final reckoning.

Most mob grazing sheep experiments and reports were carried out in Britain in the 1960s and ’70s. The big authors for these data have been Malcolm McGregor Cooper (1910-1989), Robert John Thomas (d. 2013), C. R. W. Spedding (1925-2012) and Henry Fell (1929-present). Others too, factor here, but the list would be too long to hold your attention.

Sheep Vs. Cattle

Neat cattle (i.e., bovines, or kine) are very different from small cattle (sheep, goats and most farmed deer species) in grazing behavior, nutrient requirements, fencing requirements, parasite and predator susceptibility and their average yields on grass. So cattle data don’t really apply directly to these forms of livestock.

Sheep for example, require considerably more protein in their diets than cattle, which isn’t surprising, considering the greater output per ton of livestock and per acre. So, waiting until grass is tall and then grazing it — as is done with mob-stocking of cattle — is apt to be a real loser in terms of financial and animal welfare successes, because at that height it’s usually gone below the 11 percent absolute minimum protein content (dry basis) for sheep health.

Short grasses, richly and tightly grown, are the goal for sheep, even considering their greater parasite proneness. If you drop a quarter in a rich sheep pasture, you should be able to easily find it by simply retracing your steps. Of course, on the unfenced range it’s all different, but it doesn’t change the application of principle.

Even at high stocking densities, sheep tend to be more selective than cattle, having “the lips for it.” Sheep have very agile, prehensile lip operation, able to successfully sort their foods with great effectiveness. Not so cattle: The big square mouths of kine and their raspy tongues shovel in big boluses of a variety of grass mixtures gulped down in a practically indistinguishable blob. And yet, alas, cattle don’t like weeds in those mouthfuls unless “trained” to it. They just stand around mooing and defiling their weed patch, unless forced to “eat it or starve.”

Then too, bovines’ gelatinous manure limits any grazing within a foot of their plops, unless cruelly forced to do so. Furthermore, confining sheep to certain swards that would’ve been great for cattle will sometimes have other deleterious physiological effects.

flock of sheep
When bunched tightly behind electric fences, sheep are very easily spooked en masse by a sudden aggressive predator appearance.

For example, confinement to a paddock with diseased, droughted or bug-distressed clovers, particularly red clovers, causes conversion of the clover’s formononetin and biochanin A into estrogenic equol. Cattle convert that too, but can rid the equol from their bodies within about 8 hours. It takes 30 days for a ewe to get rid of equol, and during that period, she will normally remain sterile, or possibly lose her current conceptions. If grazed continuously on such swards for longer than 30 days, ewes have been known to go permanently, irreversibly sterile.

Certain nasty parasites, notably of the Nematodirus and Bunostomum groups, have potentially very long pre-patent periods in soils, often overwintering and appearing with a vengeance on heavy spring growths. Both these groups can be very deadly to lambs in particular, despite long resting periods. They’re especially bad when grass is tall and eaten down to the moisture zone. Lowered protein content of long-recovery swards after mob grazing can be deadly in view of the rise of 50 percent or more in protein needs by heavily parasitized sheep.

Often a single strand of hot wire will contain cattle. If tightly confined, sheep need either netting, or at least four hot wires. Sheep also are more strongly affected by predators. When bunched tightly behind electric fences, they are very easily spooked en masse by a sudden aggressive predator appearance. Spooked sheep will commonly stampede an electric fence and be off. This may even happen if sheep are surprised by the unexpected appearance of their own attendant, with whom they’re trusting and familiar.

Ineffective Trampling

One of the principles of mob stocking (in the 1970s known as HILF stocking, for High Intensity, Low Frequency) is the intentional encouragement of trampling of around a third to half the vegetation by the cattle.

The trampling of vegetation helps knit together the surface soil to prevent erosion in wet seasons and offers better germination success for new seedling emergence. Sheep aren’t really good tramplers: A 50- to 75-pound weaned feeder lamb is about a tenth the weight of its corresponding weaned calf. But a sheep’s hoof area may be a sixth to a fourth that of the calf, often resulting in only half the pounds per square inch trampling energy. In other words, ineffective trampling of the ground occurs with sheep. This is an advantage in steep wet pastures, as there is little pugging (deflocculation) of the ground with sheep. The ratio of a 120- to 160-pound ewe is again about a tenth that of a 1,200- to 1,600-pound cow, with hoofs only one-sixth to one-quarter their size (a lot fewer pounds per square inch).

Because the average live carcass tonnage yields of sheep per acre of grass are so much higher than cattle to begin with, mob stocking has in the past offered little further advantage.

Capital and Labor

A large number of paddocks are needed for three or four-day rotations, 19 paddocks to 26 paddocks are commonly recommended for intensive rotational sheep grazing, which demands a lot of capital per head of grazing capacity, plus a lot of labor to keep up.

Nineteen paddocks wouldn’t be nearly enough for the several-times-a- day monitoring and/or moving required in true mob stocking. Doing the math, a 45-day minimum rest period (some rest theirs 120 days), and rotated only twice a day, would demand 90 paddocks. That’s a lot of fences and gates (or netting moves)!

Not to mention watering facilities, shade, salt licks, etc. Some “less intensive” mob stocking sheep experiments have been conducted in Australia and the British Isles.

Alas, most sheep HILF grazing research was done in pre-internet days. Great sheep ag libraries such as Massey University in New Zealand have little interest or resources for digitizing their mass of literature.

Just scratching the surface here has resulted in more text than the average sheep enthusiast would want to read, I suppose. And we haven’t even looked at the fact that all grazing systems put back into the soil (in the form of urine and dung) significantly less fertility than they’ve removed in the form of meat, milk, hides and fiber.

Encouraging vegetation to do its best isn’t a substitute for feeding the soil, unless something substantial replaces the extra nutrients removed by all that extra growth stimulated by “pulse grazing.”

Then too, researchers at the University of Virginia years ago began recommending sheep rotations not be shorter than eight to 10 days, due to higher coccidiosis levels when forage gets eaten down quicker than that in a paddock. Personally, I haven’t seen problems with this one, but it’s a factor when considering mob stocking.

Sheep operators should honestly consider and project whether their investments in a mob sheep outfit will at least cover its labor, land, management and livestock inputs — at reasonable prices consumers and/or processors will not hesitate to patronize — before making a bold, hard-to-reverse move in the direction of such a high labor production system.

And of course, any high-labor management should always consider operator labor (and family labor) as an expense, and never regard it as a “free” resource. Why? Because unrequited effort brings resentment and a hatred of the activity. And eventually outside help will be needed due to factors beyond the operator’s control. United States Department of Labor stats indicate an average payment schedule of about $9.66/hour for uneducated farmworkers and $30.85 for trained or credentialed farm or ranch managers.

Personally, I’ve seen very few novel sheep husbandry methods that paid well, but maybe that’s just my limited exposure to these systems due to the parts of the country I’ve lived in.

Sheep operators should honestly consider and project whether their investments in a mob sheep outfit will at least cover its labor, land, management and livestock inputs — at reasonable prices consumers and/or processors will not hesitate to patronize — before making a bold, hard-to-reverse move in the direction of such a high labor production system. If so, then by all means go for it. And make sure to hit it hard, or not at all.

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This article appeared in the October 2017 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.