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Sheep & Goats
Illinois Livestock Trail
Accelerated Lambing and MIG
by Terry Becherer

Rocky Ford Ranch is a small family owned commercial sheep operation. The sheep flock currently consists of 175 Finn and Dorset ewes, which are bred to either Dorset or Ile de France rams. The ewe flock is managed under the “star” lambing system. This system allows the ewes to lamb five times in a three year period. The “star” lambing system is essential for supplying hot house lambs to the Mt. Vernon, Ohio market.

The forty acre sheep operation is fenced with three strands of electrified wire. The wires are spaced from the ground as follows: bottom wire ten inches from the ground, middle wire twenty-two inches from the ground, and top wire thirty-two inches from the ground. Permanent pasture divisions also use the same three wire system. All temporary pasture divisions use only one or two wires.

To economically feed our ewe flock we rely on both annual and perennial pasture. Our annual pasture can be put in two categories: summer and winter.

Summer Annuals

Sorghum-sudan has excellent summer production. It does have a few draw backs. It can not be grazed until it is at least thirty inches tall and it can not be grazed for at least ten days after a frost because of prussic acid poisoning. Another draw back is if it is not planted heavy enough (fifty pounds per acre), sorghum-sudan develops a thick stem which reduces palatability for sheep. The higher seeding rate also makes sorghum-sudan more expensive to plant than pearl millet.

Pear millet also has excellent summer production. However, it does not have the draw backs of sorghum-sudan. Pearl millet is safe to graze throughout the growing season. Pearl millet has a smaller seed so a seeding rate of thirty-five pounds per acre is adequate.

We have tried both types of summer annuals on our farm. We prefer pearl millet over sorghum-sudan; but more importantly, our ewes preferred pearl millet. When given a choice, our ewes grazed the pearl millet into the ground before they started grazing the sorghum-sudan.

Winter Annuals

We have used several winter annuals in our grazing program. These annuals are easier to manage if they are planted by themselves instead of combining all together. The winter annuals we use are listed below with a brief description on how they are grazed.

Oats and Turnips

We usually plant oats and turnips together in mid to late August. Oats are added to help supply fiber to the diet because turnips are too lush by themselves. This mixture can be grazed within fifty days of planting. Either rotational grazing or strip grazing should be used to prevent the stock from wasting too much forage. We strip graze our oats and turnips using plastic step-in post and a single electric wire. The sheep are given one acre at a time, which lasts for three days.

Cereal Rye

Cereal rye is planted in mid September. It possesses the ability to continue growing in cold weather. If possible, we strip graze cereal rye in early to mid winter and again in the early spring. The only disadvantage to using cereal rye is it matures early in the spring.

Annual Ryegrass

Annual ryegrass is also planted in mid to late September. It responds very well to rotational grazing. If the weather cooperates, we will get two rotations in the fall. Annual ryegrass has the longest growing season of the winter annuals that we use. The extended spring growth allows us to graze it from early April until the end of May.

By using all of the annuals listed above, our ewe flock can be kept on pasture the entire fall season. We just rotate them from one field to another until all the annuals are utilized. After this cycle is completed, the ewes are shifted to stock piled perennial pasture.

Perennial Pastures

Our perennial pastures serve two purposes:

  1. Hayfields in the summer
  2. Grazing in the winter

The primary component of our perennial pasture is orchard grass. This fall we replaced some of the orchard grass with the novelty endophyte fescues. We are hopeful this switch will increase our winter stock piling capabilities.

The legume component of our perennial pasture is white clover. There are four reasons white clover is used instead of any other legume.

  1. White clover is not known to effect breeding abilities of sheep on pasture.
  2. It does not lignify in the summer months.
  3. It holds up better than other legumes for winter stock piling.
  4. It grows well on our farm.

Pasture Layout

Water location is the determining factor for pasture design. Sheep are very efficient water users. With this in mind, we do not have any watering sites in the pasture. All waterers are located in the barns. To keep our ewes from walking more than eight hundred feet to water, the paddocks closest to the barn are used solely for annual forage crops. These are the only permanent paddocks on our farm.

An alley system is used to access the perennial pastures and most of the winter annuals. These fields are usually grazed in late fall through early winter when cooler temperatures and favorable moisture conditions make water requirements extremely minimal for the ewes. In fact, the sheep seldom return to the barns during the day. They get enough water from the dew and lush forage to meet their needs.

Proper Grazing Management Cuts Costs

Below is a list of seed cost per acre of different annual forage crops. When comparing costs, our figures show a savings of at least eight cents per ewe per day while grazing annual forage instead of receiving four pounds of $90 per ton hay.

Pearl Millet
Price: $23.50 per 50 lb bag
Seeding rate: 35 lbs per acre
Seed cost per acre: $16.45

Annual Ryegrass
Price: $32.00 per 50 lb bag
Seeding rate: 30 lbs per acre
Seed cost per acre: $19.20

Price: $13.00 per 2 bushel bag
Seeding rate: 1.83 bushel per acre
Seed cost per acre: $11.92 per acre
Total cost: $19.25 per acre for oats and turnips combined

Price: $21.50 per 50 lb bag
Seeding rate: 50 lbs per acre
Seed cost per acre: $21.50

Cerel Rye
Price: $7.50 per 50 lb bag
Seeding rate: 100 lbs per acre
Seed cost per acre: $15.00

Price: $2.75 per lb
Seeding rate: 2.67 lb per acre
Seed cost per acre: $7.33 per acre

Most people think lowering production costs through the use of pasture results in lower animal performance. After looking at the production records of two ewes in our flock, you will see that proper pasture management can support a very productive animal.

#25 yellow – born 5/11/01
1st lambing, 4/25/02 – twins
2nd lambing, 1/11/03 – twins
3rd lambing, 8/15/03 – twins

#18 blue - born 1/14/00
1st lambing, 1/22/01 - triplets
2nd lambing, 8/30/01 - triplets
3rd lambing, 4/24/02 - quads
4th lambing, 1/12/03 - triplets
5th lambing, 7/29/03 - twins

The secret to maximizing the productivity of grazing lands is to utilize the forage through a highly productive animal. Each lambing period on the star system is preceded by grazing a pasture that was in peak production. By coordinating the lambing dates with the peak production of the various forages, the ewe flock can be economically fed. Ewe #18 blue’s lambing record is a prime example of how the “star” lambing system and a properly designed grazing system go hand in hand.

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