When we bought our first flock of sheep 16 years ago we had 12 leased farms and were being overrun with sprouts and weeds. The cattle would eat some of these undesirable plants but we needed more pressure put on them. So sheep piqued our interest.
My biggest concern with bringing sheep onto our farms was the fencing. How in the world could I affordable fence 12 leased farms to keep sheep in? We brainstormed a plan to start our sheep operation on part of our lifetime-lease farm. Since we will have this farm lease for the rest of our lives, we can make some capital improvements that we normally would not make on leased land. In this case, we put in permanent electric hi-tensile 4-wire fence on part of this farm to hold our sheep. We had 16 weeks of paddocks that we could rotate the sheep through with their guardian dogs.
It was a ton of work to put in that much fencing to hold the sheep. But once it was completed, all we had to do was open a gate once per week to move them. It was 16 weeks before we returned to the first paddock – enough time to allow the plants to fully recover from grazing and ensure parasites were not there to re-infect the sheep.
I was still working in town at the time and moving 3 herds of cattle morning and night. I physically did not have time to be moving sheep every day as well. So the permanent paddocks were a great compromise for our sheep operation at the time. It always bothered me, though, to see the effects of leaving a sheep flock for 7 days in one 5-10 acre paddock. The sheep always picked out a campsite for the night, usually up on top of a hill where they could easily see predators approaching. (Of course with our guardian dogs, predators have never been an issue.)
This constant camping out on one site for 7 nights is a perfect environment for infecting sheep with parasites. It is amazing how much manure can build up in a campsite area in 7 days, and the sheep are getting constant parasite pressure through exposure to their own manure. This was not a good management practice, but at the time it was the best we could do. Overgrazing was another issue I had with this kind of rotation. The sheep ate the best plants into the ground which weakened their root systems.
A 3…2…1 Strand Solution
Jacob, our ranch manager at the time decided that he would like to try strip grazing the sheep flock with daily moves using polybraid. We started at our water source within each large paddock and made wheel spoke shaped paddocks. We kept a back fence and started with 3 strands of polybraid electric wire powered by a Stafix 36 Joule charger. The charger put out 8,000 volts, and some days, with low vegetative load, we would hit 10,000 volts. You sure did not want to accidentally touch it. Most electrical fencing problems are because of inadequate grounding fields and grounding is even more important with sheep because they are much lighter than cows. Our grounding system for this fencer consisted of 12 galvanized six foot ground rods that were driven in the ground around a pond.
We used 3 polybraids for 3 months to contain the sheep. One very important lesson we learned is when strip grazing sheep with daily moves keep your temporary posts spacing close. Our post spacing when we first started was 15 feet. The 3:1 geared polybraid reels must be tight, no saggy wires.
We had to eat a couple sheep that decided they were not going to honor our 3 wire fence. They were delicious trouble makers that needed to be culled from the flock. You all have heard that it only takes one bad apple to ruin a bushel. Well with a sheep flock, one single sheep that does not respect your wire must be dealt with immediately. Never let it go more than one day, two at the most! That one trouble maker will ruin your whole flock in two weeks. Every sheep will learn not to respect your hot wire. This is no time for emotions, eat the trouble makers or sell them.
Our next step with daily strip grazing of the sheep flock was moving from 3 polybraids to 2 polybraids. At this point I was not certain what would happen. My fear was that we could possibly be training our whole flock to be fence jumpers by going with 2 wires instead of 3. Well I was pleasantly surprised when the sheep we had left respected the 2 polybraid fence. The guardian dogs were even staying in the fence. We stayed with 2 wires on our daily strip grazing of the sheep flock for another 2 months. By this time we were feeling very confident that we could try going down to one polybraid wire to contain the sheep. If it didn’t work, we could always go back to two strands to contain them.
When we erected our first fence of one polybraid, I fully expected a few sheep to get out and be grazing where they shouldn’t be. It didn’t happen. The dogs were all still in with the sheep as well.
Here’s Why It Works So Well
Our sheep do not get hungry. They are moved every day and have no ambition to tackle an 8,000 volt fence. Over the course of the training period, the troublemakers were removed immediately. We do keep in a back fence with the sheep because it is so easy to do. Simply roll back the single wire that allows the flock to enter the new paddock and re-hang the reel to power up the back fence.
The Benefits of a 1-Wire Flock
Here’s what training your flock can do for your operation. First and foremost, we have eliminated the costly infrastructure for holding sheep on our various farms. Instead of just grazing the permanent sheep pastures on our lifetime lease farm, we now have all of our farms open to potential sheep grazing. We have a flock that we can take out onto land where there is no fence and graze it with one hot wire! You talk about an unfair advantage, we have most definitely found one. Thank you, Jacob, for getting this ball rolling.
By exposing all of our 16 farms to sheep, the brush and weeds are in for a rude awakening. There is no other animal that I know of that will wreak havoc on brush and weeds while being controlled with one hot polybraid. Heck maybe a person could train goats to respect one hot wire if they had the right training, or maybe not! By putting our sheep flock on new ground where sheep have never grazed, the results have been dramatic. The single best medicine for a sheep is a fresh piece of ground devoid of parasites. Our animal performance is through the roof.
By having well trained guardian dogs that live every day with sheep, the predators on these new areas have not been a problem. Our dogs think that they are sheep and they are always with the sheep. They prefer to lay in amongst the sheep, and heaven forbid if a predator is brave enough to stalk the flock. At the moment we have 10 guardian dogs living with the sheep, they don’t miss anything. The guardian dog’s nose is incredible for scenting potential danger and they react with constant loud barking until they feel like the threat is gone.
With our newly developed silvopasture areas we are getting a healthy population of new woody sprouts. Most of these sprouts are on terrain that would make mechanical control impossible. Our sheep flock, with the one polybraid wire, absolutely vacuum cleaned these sprouts last summer. I have never seen anything like it before in my life. The sheep even ate the hickory sprout leaves, which are very unpalatable. You talk about a labor saver, no chemical or mechanical sprout control, just sheep them off.
The profit potential of 1 wire sheep is staggering. We will easily be able to double our sheep flock now that we have access to more land. The other beautiful thing about sheep is that they produce more twins than singles, making it easy to grow our numbers quickly. The sheep clean up farms that are covered in thorns and weeds while making it better cattle pasture in the end. The cows and sheep are dead end hosts for each other’s parasites as well. The sheep can ingest a cow parasite or the cow can ingest a sheep parasite. In the end, the parasite does not get to complete its life cycle. How cool is that? If you train your sheep to one hot wire, you will have endless opportunities on your farm as well.
Want More on Fencing and Gates?
Here’s a past article where Greg talks about other fence options and his gates. You can also visit his website to learn more about his grazing management, cattle, sheep and guardian dogs.