Started in 1988, Green Hills Farm Project is non-profit, family-oriented, sustainable agriculture group of like-minded farmer families who support each other in sometimes crazy ideas. Each month, we meet with a potluck and farm tour at members’ farms and ranches and once annually with an invited guest speaker. This year on 4 March, we welcome Jim Gerrish, world renowned grazing expert, back to his old stomping grounds at FSRC (Forage Systems Research Center) at Linneus, MO to share his unique perspective with a presentation entitled, “Grazing Around the World.”
Here is your invitation! (GHFP meetings and farm walks are open to the world)
Jim Gerrish, author of Management-Intensive Grazing – The Grassroots of Grass Farming and Kick the Hay Habit – A Practical Guide to Year-Around Grazing, is our guest speaker at the Green Hills Farm Project annual winter seminar March 4, 2017 At FSRC (Forage Systems Research Center, Linneus, MO). Known world wide as an expert in management-intensive grazing systems, Jim is also available for private consultation. Today’s seminar “Grazing Around the World” will be exciting insight into grazing management in many different climates and cultures from Jim and his wife, Dawn’s, personal experience. American GrazingLands Services, LLC. Jim and Dawn now reside near May, Idaho.
This annual seminar has a cost of $30 per family and will include a one year membership to Green Hills Farm Project. Please bring a potluck/carry in dish for lunch. More information contact Allen Powell at 660.412.2001 or myself (tauna) – email@example.com
This was the first question posed to me after my speaking engagement with Farm Service Agency personnel in Kansas City on July 15. It was after the fact because it wasn’t pertinent to my purpose of being there and we had a limited time frame. Too bad on that, great group of people who truly seemed interested in the ‘boots on the ground’ aspect of farming and ranching.
Now, if you raise sheep and it is not difficult for you, then that is great. But my take on it is that they are far too time-consuming for my lifestyle choices and from a cost effective viewpoint. So bear with me. You can tell your story in your blog and I would like to read it!
Taking the emotion out and just putting economics to it:
Right now, the biggest economic advantage that sheep have over cattle or even goats, is the initial purchase price. Consider that a young bred cow costs $2500-$2800 compared to 5 bred ewes costing a total of $900-$1125. A cow will produce one calf ready to sell in about 10 months. Five ewes can potentially have 10 lambs to sell, but realistically, more like 7 lambs and they can be sold at about 7 months. Now, bearing in mind, that calves and lambs can be sold earlier or later, weaned and unweaned, etc, etc. So, I will try to compare the two the most fairly as possible, but market and weather conditions can often dictate a different scenario.
A 10 month old steer calf with no creep and unweaned, on average comes off momma at about 450 lbs, a heifer maybe 400 lbs. The steer, at auction at today’s prices, will bring $280/cwt or $1260 per head. The heifer about $1008 per head. Since the calf crop is typically 50% steers and 50% heifers, the average will be $1134.
A 50 lb lamb will bring about $1.75/lb and there is no differentiation between wethers and ewes. The average then would be $87.50/head. Better lambs should weigh 80 lbs at seven months, resulting in $980 total – but most likely, not all seven head will do that well.
Seven lambs to sell per year – $612.50-$980
One calf to sell per year – $1134
Labor – significantly more with sheep. They need nearly daily inspection since they tend towards getting caught in brush, fences, ditches, whatever, and need extracting. If not found at least in 24 hours, they will die. Even grown ewes can fall prey, resulting in not only the death of the ewe, but her unborn lambs or orphaning the ones she may already have. This means more work for you if you can figure out which ones are hers. You get to be mom for however long you keep them, including feeding them multiple times per day. The best investment for that task for me is a lamb milk bar with seven nipples.
Consider: 100 ewes and their lambs will consume about 3% of their body weight (similar to cows), so assuming ewes weighing 180 lbs times 3% equals about 6 lbs of grass per day or 600 for the entire flock. If your pasture offers 200 lbs of forage per inch of growth and you have 7 inches of growth and want to leave a 3 inch residual (to facilitate regrowth), then there is 4 inches times 200 lbs or 800 lbs forage on offer. Say you only want to move them every three days, then they should have at least 3 acres. To fence 3 acres in a square takes 1450 feet. Electric nettings are 164 feet long, so you are moving 9 nettings every three days. Don’t be fooled by the advertising that touts that it only takes 10 minutes per net. No way. I’m pretty darn fast at it now, but by the time, you pull the posts, fanfold them, roll them up, tie them, walk to the next location (or load them all up and drive them to the new location), unload (but first you have to untangle them from each other if you stacked them), walk them back out, then step them into the ground (if it’s not frozen or the ground isn’t hard that is). So, for each netting, taken down and reinstalled, you’ve logged at least 656 feet, not counting if you’ve had to pack it a long distance before setting up again. I’m going to give a general 20 minutes per net. This doesn’t really allow much for when you have to hammer the feet of the posts into the ground or unhooking from snags, removing sticks, and just general untangling.
Nine nets times 20 minutes is 3 hours! that’s every three days for only 100 sheep! Compare the equivalent of cows and calves moving everything three days – about 30 minutes and that’s if you have to find baby calves that were left behind. The difference becomes even more significant when one considers that i can shift 250 cows and calves in maybe 45 minutes. These times are taking into consideration strip grazing in winter and taking out hay as well as the easier moves in the spring, summer, and fall. However, ramping up the number of sheep would incur significantly more netting and thus considerable more time. A single strand semi-permanent hi-tensile electrified wire is cheap and easy to install and wiill easily contain cattle and once the fencing is installed, it requires very little time to shift mobs of 1000 or more! Interior paddock division fencing that will actually contain sheep is definitely doable, but is considerably more expensive in materials and labor to install and maintain.
So to compare on a larger scale with 5 ewes equalling 1 cow.
250 cows with 80% calf crop – $226,800 income per year. Shifting every three days or 122 times per year at 45 minutes each for a total of 91.5 hours per year.
1250 sheep with 140% lamb crop – $183,750 (60 lbs times $1.75/lb). Shifting every three days or 122 times per year (this is used for comparison only – realistically, winter time will require set stocking and unrolling hay. The netting spikes cannot be pushed into and pulled out of frozen ground). If 100 ewes needed three acres, then 1250 need 38 acres. Perimeter at 5146 ft divided by 164 ft is 32 nets times 20 minutes per net equals 10.7 hours per move times 122 shifts. Hours spent annual moving fence and/or taking out hay is 1305 hours.
If you have better forage and soil health, paddock sizes could be much smaller, thereby reducing the amount of acreage needed for each shift which would subsequently require less netting.
Sheep in north Missouri must have good fences and excellent guard animals to keep them alive. Coyotes, foxes, eagles, dogs, etc nab them with abandon to feed their young. Sheep also have accidents – but so do cattle – but sheep seem to have a better knack for it.
The death of a sheep is a far less loss of investment than a calf or cow.
Sheep and cattle facilities are different, but if planned in advance there is a good opportunity to use the same corrals.
Some people do get along without netting. From visiting with them, they raise hair sheep and/or use aluminum electric wire which delivers a more powerful shock than hi-tensile. Wool sheep often cannot feel the shock at all, especially when in full wool.
Wool sheep are not ideal for range grazing since the wool clip can be practically ruint if they find a patch of cockleburrs or other clinging seeds.
Though i did not consider it in my time allotment, sheep, ideally, need checking everyday – that fence can be blown over or something chase the sheep into the fence and they get caught up or they flatten it. Rain and flood can knock it over, too. Animals can be caught up in it that need rescuing or they die and the rest will all get out and scatter! If you have 1000 acres and 2 sheep, in five minutes they’ll be at the far corners and separated. When the Scriptures talk about sheep going astray – there is the proof of it!
In my case, i have a 35 minute drive to my farm. Sheep are not practical at all if they are so far away that they cannot be checked on easily. With cattle, unless during calving season or unseasonably hot or cold weather, they don’t need attention anymore than once every three days or so. This greatly reduces my time spent on the road.
Sheep can be used to better clear brush and prepare pastures for renovation and improvement as long as their grazing is strictly controlled. Sheep get out a lot! Perhaps not out of the perimeter fence, but they, like all livestock, must stay within their alloted grazing or they’ll destroy a pasture. If you have beautiful, level pastures with no ditches, draws, dips, or washouts, yet shade in nearly all paddocks (sheep sunburn and get very hot in the summer), you may have an ideal situation for raising sheep.
The biggest advantage sheep have over cattle at least in today’s marketplace is the initial investment. And it is substantial. Taking our above example:
250 bred cow purchase@ $2500 is $625,000 (Requires 6 bulls for breeding – $5000 each or $30,000)
1250 bred ewes purchase $281,250 (Requires 25 rams for breeding – $500 each or $12,500)
However, nets cost $120 each and used regularly MIGHT last 2 years. And as shown the labor is much greater.
So there are advantages and disadvantages. To me, the market dictates raising cattle, because of the reduced cost of infrastructure and reduced labor. However, if one had 1250 ewes, in my opinion, the infrasture needs to be in place to eliminate the labor of netting. This is lots of posts and woven wire.
So, this all begs the question, ‘why did i purchase sheep in the first place?’ To be sure, my plan was that the sheep would basically live with and graze with the cattle and shift with them. However, this never came about since they would not be contained by the 3 wire hi-tensile electrified fencing I installed for this purpose. They learnt to jump through the two top wires, so that even though the wires were ‘hot’ the sheep were not shocked since they weren’t touching the ground as they jumped through. I don’t know if they learnt this by accident or watched the dogs do it. Plus any dip in the ground would provide a large hole for them to duck under. It honestly, is impossible, from a practical standpoint to make them stay within the enclosure. So, until i started containing them with the electric netting, they became regular fodder for predators despite guard dogs simply because they scatter like, –well, sheep. From then on, i have two groups of animals to shift, with the sheep requiring far too much time for what they were worth.
So, the sheep will be sold over the next couple of months to free up time for family matters, to improve my sanity, and give my poor old bones a needed rest.
There are other major expenses involved to have such a scheme. Not the least of which is needing about 1000 acres, which at current prices in north central Missouri is about $2800 to $3400 per acre. (IF you can find it for sale) Some people are very fortunate to find pasture to rent, but consider whether or not you’d want to make $150 per acre in infrastructure on someone else’s property. You’d need a lifetime lease to justify that and they can still sell the land and you’d be out. Plus the owner may not be agreeable to crisscrossing his or her property with fencing. Remember, too, the animals have health issues including treating for disease (albeit very seldom), vaccinations, castrating, as well as marketing and trucking expenses.
This article had been written back in the winter, but could be said for today and many other days as well. Today i found a dead ewe and a dead lamb wrapped up in the electrified netting. Why can’t they stay out of it! Sheep were out, but corralled AGAIN. This is just a regular problem. Half of the sheep are scheduled for sale at Kirksville Livestock Market on August 3rd. The rest will go when lambs are old enough to wean.
Those little woolly buggers! They busted out for freedom, but freedom for sheep generally means something will go wrong and some of them will die. Sheep must be kept in close and protected ALL the time. Since I cannot be there as a full time shepherd, I rely on guard dogs and electric sheep netting. Together, those work about 95% of the time.
Alas, they did bust out at a bad time – the ground was extremely frozen and there was no way to replace the fence, so they ran amok on 320 acres. During their freedom, one orphaned lamb was nabbed by a coyote and a young bred ewe had fallen into a muddy ditch and couldn’t get out – both died of course.
However, today I managed to reset ten nets to give them about 10 acres plus 8 big bales of hay – this should hold them for quite some time. The ground along the ditch bank and out of the sun was still frozen, so I had to use the hammer on about 75 posts to drive them in! Nevertheless, the sheep are now safe once again, so it was all worth the effort.
Sunday – Hot, super hot, so first thing I took down, rolled up, and reset three sheep netting through a bit of timber so that the sheep could have shade! They could die in this heat without. Took up the polytape and posts that had divided the cow’s paddock in half so they had fresh break of grass. Set it up in the next paddock, but boy that was work. Grass was as tall as my shoulders and thick underneath with red clover, birdsfoot trefoil, and lespedeza. Sweatin’ good. Took it easy in the afternoon and drank a lot of water.
Monday – very early departure for Overland Park, KS for Allen’s Aunt June’s brother’s memorial service. Visited with family and friend for the rest of the day. Exhausting and stressful day for June. Her brother was a just a few days shy of 97; June, too, is 96 with a birthday in early fall. She is the last of her family.
Tuesday – Morning chores, then RIck and I went to Chillicothe for appointments with Joyce for back, neck, shoulder treatments. Back home for a late lunch followed by gathering up the tools necessary to begin work setting for sorting off the feeder lambs. Couldn’t quite finish the job since we needed more tools. It’s amazing how many holes there are in a corral when thinking about small animals. They aren’t even an issue with cattle. Very hot, so we cut out early – about 3pm. Later in the evening, I went back up and took out mineral to cattle but found a 150 lb calf stuck in the muddy ditch. I roped it and pulled it out with the four wheeler. He seems like he’ll be okay, but he’s not getting up yet. Will check him tomorrow and take milk for him to eat if he hasn’t gotten up to nurse. Found a long dead lamb in the electric netting – won’t go into details, but got an idea of what it might be like to have worked the Katrina disaster. The smell burns the eyes and throat. Unfortunately, i did not have any rubber gloves with me, but mostly it had deteriorated enough that most fell through the fencing. Man, it was gross – the maggots had done their work well. Could hardly stand riding in the pickup home with myself even with the windows open!
Wednesday – up early again for a trip to Kansas City for a presentation as a female farmer to the Farm Service Agency Payment personnel. I enjoyed meeting everyone and was well received. But turned around and was home by 1pm. Quick trip – took just a hair over two hours each way. Now i have a few hours to clean house before taking out this evening to check on the down calf and muster the sheep into the corral just before dark (after it cools down). First thing in the morning, we’ll sort and load the feeder lambs for weaning and turn the rest back out. If it’s not raining. (Calf died 😦
Thursday – Dallas, RIck, and I met at 6:30 at the farm for sorting and loading the older lambs from about 150 ewes and 100 spring born lambs. We finished off the chore in short order despite the heat and humidity – we were thankful that it remained cloudy for the duration. We hauled the lambs to the Lamme farm and unloaded them into the already prepared paddock to contain freshly weaned lambs weighing 30-50 lbs. Then back to our house to gather up the 10 orphaned lambs. Incredibly, they just followed me straight into the trailer! We were speechless and and shaking our heads in wonder. That was just too easy. After preparing lunch, I headed back to my farm and rolled up seven sheep nettings and installed four of them back around the pond lot. The sheep will be turned in there tomorrow. I was so hot, I just couldn’t quite finish since i knew i still had a reel of polywire and posts to pick up to give the cows a fresh break, take out mineral, and just in general check on them. Water is so important right now, it’s important to check its availability often.
Friday – Excess heat advisory once again today – with heat index at 109 for most of the day. I checked my lambs first thing and rolled up the three 164 foot electric sheep nettings. Then moved the lambs to the paddock to the south. They are chomping through the forage quickly! This paddock had some questionable areas for their escape, so I set up one of the nettings alongside those areas. THe other two, I set up in the areas to which they will go in the next few days. I have eight calves that didn’t sell a couple of weeks ago because of lameness, eye problems, and one had been stung by bees! So, I’ve been shifting them to fresh breaks of grazing each day. They are scheduled to go to Milan Auction on monday. Then went to my farm up north after lunch and rolled up the two remaining nets that were through the timber. Takes longer because of brush, etc. Installed that last one needed around the pond lot, then electrified the whole thing and opened the pond lot gate. A couple ewes and their lambs ventured in but most stayed in the shade – they’ll find it this evening. Allen is finishing up bushhogging my fence rows. Really appreciate him doing that – it is a dangerous job. Helped Rick hook on to the hay baler which was in the barn – WHEW! Just in a few minutes, I think i sweated off a couple of lbs – too bad they won’t stay off!
Could have played that classic Smithfield Fair song yesterday when i received the call from the highway department guys that the highway is full of sheep! Sheep In the Road. Thankfully, Dallas and I were already up at my farm tending to the cattle when the call came through. Frustratingly, however, just 20 minutes earlier we had been with the sheep cutting down scrub trees and brush in the timber for them to eat. Killing two birds with one stone, so to speak. Nevertheless, all but about 20 head were strung out about a 1/4 of a mile along Hwy Y. Usually, I’m absolutely and totally ticked that the sheep are out. This time was way worse, because they had never been out of the perimeter fence, only before out of the confines I had set for them. Although, I kept the sheep netting ‘hot’ (very well electrified), there was always something knocking it over, sometimes deer, sometimes the guard dogs, sometimes a lamb that decides it’s invincible gets tangled in it and through its struggles wads up and takes down a good section. So, even though the tangled lamb didn’t get out – all the rest do. Untangling a struggling lamb from electric netting can be a challenge, but they sure are happy to get free! The sheep have just become FAR TOO burdensome. I’ve tried for three years to make them work in my system, but they are just too much work. They can certainly be used for pasture management, but the constant threat to their lives (predators, mud, water, heat, getting lost) is more than I’m willing to take on anymore. Add to the fact that sheep are worth far less than cattle right now and the economics and quality of life for keeping sheep are simply not there. So, with this escape, the sheep selling off has been fastracked to hopefully within the next 30 days, although some of the lambs may be too young to sell. However, the vast majority of them should be gone soon. At my age, I’m going to to cut back on work load and the sheep will go. The marketing starts next Thursday, with sorting off all fat ewes (those who have lost lambs, so aren’t suckled down) and the older winter born feeder lambs and they’ll go to Midwest Exchange Regional Stockyards in Mexico, MO. Once those are off, then the feeder lambs’ moms will fatten quickly and then they’ll go to market. After that, I’ll see how the nursing ewes and spring lambs look and make a decision as to when to market them. I’m really disappointed that the sheep won’t work out – I had such high hopes of them being part of my grazing management plan, but they are just too much work and worry Perhaps if they were located closer to our home, it would be better, but driving 35 minutes to check them nearly everyday is more than what i want to spend, plus too many times i’d have to round them up and too much death loss to predation. CHeers! tauna
Here in north-central Missouri we’ve continued to stay rainy and muddy since winter. However, we cannot complain compared to the horrific flooding, damaging thunderstorms, tornadoes, tropical storms, and continuing droughts and wildfires other parts of the country and world are receiving. It’s been hard on equipment, livestock, and people, but maybe someday it’ll change and become ‘normal.’ We wear mud boots everyday all day despite 107ºF heat indices on some days and terrific humidity even when it’s in the 80s and pretty sure i’m starting to get foot rot! Gonna switch to 100% wool socks pretty quick if we don’t get relief soon. Any socks with nylon or such in them cause my feet to sweat and peel – kind of gross for sure.
We keep a good supply of coconut water in the cupboard and frig for rehydrating when water just won’t quite supply enough minerals. Bananas and buffered salt are on hand as well to help with muscle cramping at night.
We’ve weaned the fall calves, doctored a good number for bad eyes (pinkeye) already, and sorted off two loads of calves to sell at North Missouri Livestock Auction the 6th of July. The mud and rain has prevented us from establishing summer annual pastures that we had planned to graze and grow out some of yearlings this year. Since we didn’t get that done, we are running out of grass, so the calves need to go where ever grass is available.
Tough on calving, but the cows and calves are really doing quite well despite the heat and rain. A couple of calves lost due to navel ill because of them lying in a muddy spot and allowing infection to develop. There is little help for a calf once it gets navel ill. We always lose some baby calves and this year really hasn’t been any worse in that regard. However, what I call ‘jungle rot‘ is on the increase. It is likely more calves will not survive if we don’t get some dry weather soon.
The ewes are pretty much done lambing and in the timber now which not only helps keep them cool and not sunburnt, but, by their grazing choices, they are helping control the brush which needs taming! Pretty hard on wool sheep all this rain and mud. Constantly wet wool on a live animal can be conducive to parasites that can kill the sheep. Usually not, but any animal with a compromised immune system is susceptible.
Yesterday, I found two ewes and a young lamb stuck in the muddy ditch. Of course, I had not worn my mud boots, so my short work shoes would suffice, though I was up to my shins in sticky clay. They were a bit of a challenge to remove leg by leg out of the muck, but with their cooperation and effort, I made fairly short work of it.
Today, I drove up with the specific purpose of walking the ditches in case more had found themselves engulfed in mud, but none were thankfully. However, the storm moved in and i was completely soaked from the thunderstorm. Additionally, I counted seven live newborn lambs as well as two ewes were beginning to go into labor.
We have missed the worst of these passing storms, however, and for that we are grateful.