Jim Schultz knows the importance of looking at the economics of any farming system. Speaking at the Dodge-Columbia County grazing meeting in the town of Columbus last week, this Clintonville shepherd described his successful pasture lambing system and the things he has learned about raising sheep for more than thirty years.
“Look at what your land would be worth if you rented it out,” he says. “Then look at the buildings you have available and how they could be put to good use. If you don’t have the facilities you might consider lambing outside. You’ll also need to consider labor.”
He points out that every farm is different and grazing sheep is different than grazing cattle. He notes, “If you’re raising sheep on pasture you need to be good at raising forage and you need to manage well. Sheep are not as forgiving as cattle.”
Schultz has been pasture lambing with success for the last twenty years. He has learned to let the ewes choose the lambing bed, noting that they know better than he does where the best spot is in the pasture.
“It’s good to match the nutritional needs of the ewe with the grass. Lambing in May works well for this because the ewes get plenty of good grass just before lambing,” he notes. “I move them quickly from one paddock to another so they just take off the top,” he says.
He adds, “You need to have enough grass available so there is enough feed in the lambing bed. You don’t want the ewe and her lamb moving around a lot right after lambing.”
He likes May for lambing because it is important to avoid the earlier cold rainy weather or the later hot weather.
If the plan is to graze sheep and lamb on grass, it will be important to choose a breed that works well with this system. He points out that the long lean lambs like are generally shown at fairs aren’t wide enough in the middle and won’t do well on grass.
“They need the rumen capacity to consume enough forage,” he says. “You also need to have ewes with excellent milking and mothering ability and you want the majority of them to twin. They should have enough quality and quantity of wool to pay for the shearing.”
Schultz’s ewes are one-fourth East Fresian crossed with Dorset/South African Meat Marino. He breeds 75 percent of the flock to meat breeds (Hampshire) and the top indexing ewes to a maternal sire.
Fencing on Schultz’s farm is five wire high tensel electric fence on the perimeter with three-strand poly wire for sub-dividing into paddocks. Electricity flows only in the wire at the sheep nose level. He uses rolls of electronet to subdivide the paddocks because of their flexibility for use and ease of taking up and down. Since he moves about 200 sheep frequently he says this is important.
He provides water in the paddocks using permanent lines and then hoses leading off those lines to reach along the temporary fences in the individual paddocks.
He uses tubs for water but cleans them with bleach several times a year to prevent algae growth. In winter the lambs have snow to satisfy their thirst but when there isn’t snow he has a few heated watering jugs available.
The choice of pasture grasses and legumes will be dependent on the farm and the type of soil. On his farm he uses red clover and orchard grass on the silt loam but has success with volunteer quack grass on the sandy soil. He frost seeds or trample seeds early in spring. Trample seeding (letting the sheep step the seed in) doesn’t work on the sand, though.
Asked about concerns about causing breeding problems when feeding red clover to the sheep, he acknowledged that this has been an issue for some producers but he has not encountered any problem. Bloat has not been an issue, either.
He states, “I put powdered dish soap in the salt, at the suggestion of my veterinarian, if I’m concerned about it. I have not had a problem but I cannot say for sure if that is why.”
Schultz says it is also important to have a breed of sheep with a good temperament when working with them on pasture. Lambs must be easily caught for tail docking, castrating or putting in ear tags. Processing lambs should be done within 24 hours of lambing but not too soon because it is important to give the lamb time to nurse and form a bond with Mom.
He strongly recommends removing granny ewes to a separate pasture. He notes, “Their hormones are fired up and they want to latch on to the other lambs. They will steal the lambs but then when their own are born they abandon the ones they were with.”
Ewe condition should score at 3.5 for lambing. He does not recommend grain before lambing but they do need to have enough energy. He says, “The grain goes into the lamb and then you may have problems lambing.”
Lambs should be 8 to 10 pounds at birth. Bigger lambs cause problems in lambing.
The only grain he feeds is in December to the ewe lambs that are still growing and will be lambing in spring. Others do not get grain.
Parasites are of particular concern when raising sheep on pasture. He deworms just before lambing so the wormer will last through the lambing. He also does fecal egg counts to be sure that the wormer is working because there may be resistance to particular wormers.
Coccida can be a problem and he uses six percent Decox with salt.
Finally he says, “When you raise sheep on pasture you must address the predator problem. I lost 30 lambs in one year to coyotes and eagles and fox will also steal the lambs.”
He now uses guard llamas with success, pointing out that they should be castrated males. Some producers use donkeys with success.
Going through the economics of raising sheep he says it can be a very profitable venture, particularly once the initial investment has been covered. In the beginning there will be investment in fencing, facilities and sheep.