For the past few weeks we’ve been sharing articles from folks at the American Solar Grazing Association about the business of using sheep to manage vegetation in solar arrays. It might have some of you cattlemen/women thinking about raising sheep. With that in mind, here’s the voice of experience from someone just like you – Brandon Fix of Bell Rule Genetics, a well known registered and commercial beef producer.
This is a topic that has been on my mind for quite some time. I wanted to put something together for folks who are considering adding a flock to their cattle herd or maybe even just starting with a new piece of land and trying to decide which route to go. We have had the flock of 87 initial ewe lambs for 15 months now and I’m not going to sugar coat it: the first year was ugly to put it mildly (We will dive into the numbers later.) Yet I was able to learn a lot about what to do and what not to do and thought it might be valuable for someone starting out. I am not sure I need to say it, but clearly I am not an expert and there are many more qualified people to get sheep advice from when it comes to production practices but I wanted to talk a little more about some of the things I thought I had figured out, but didn’t, and also some of the things I learned.
In the Beginning
Let me start by saying that if I had been told 10 years ago I would day be caring for a flock of sheep, I would have told you to get lost. But after some eye-opening experiences (stemming from the Ranching for Profit school) we decided to explore the idea little more in depth.
We have a deep history in the cattle business going back over 100 years. But my family has also had an open mind to new business ideas as well. We have had commercial hogs, row crop (corn and beans), purebred cattle, commercial cattle, and many other enterprises mixed in among these over the years. But sheep…. I can still see my late grandfather chuckling at the idea while shaking his head in disgust.
The main reason we began exploring sheep was for weed control when we decided to quit using 2-4D and after more exploration we realized it could be a profitable enterprise as well. In fact, we have concluded it will be more profitable than cattle IF we can get the kinks worked out.
We already had fairly good 6-wire barbed fences as borders and some cross fences for cattle. The cross fences that are not barbed wire are high tensile electric, either one or two wires. The barbed wire fences have not changed but we adapted the electric divisions to 3 wires with the first being about 8 inches from the ground, the second at 16” and the third at 32”. The sheep do not bother the hot wire but I keep it running 6,000+ volts. I have begun some polywire training this spring and am currently using two wires, with hopes to be down to one this summer.
Corral and Handling Facilities
For a corral, we built a single file alleyway with a sorting gate. To catch them we invested in twenty, 10-foot high galvanized metal panels, along with another fifteen that are 4 feet long. This proved to be very beneficial especially once I had to pen them up every evening due to predator problems I will discuss later. We also ran woven wire around the inside of a half-acre lot in order to contain them if needed whether for the evening, working, sorting, etc. We use a Bud Box leading into the alleyway and it has proved successful thus far with only being run through twice.
Livestock Guardian Dogs
I thought I was a little bit ahead of the curve on this front. I had anticipated we would likely be acquiring some sheep at some point, so I found a couple pups from breeders that came recommended by people I knew. I had the pups a full year before we bought the flock. I borrowed a neighbors bottle lambs after weaning and put the dogs with them and raised them up until shortly before purchasing the big flock.
I thought we had found some good dogs- boy was I wrong!! As lambing season began, they spent their time with the ewes (or so I thought) and I would see them guarding the newborns as they got up to nurse. But it was too often I would find the female wanting to be up around the house and at the barns and, as could be expected, the male followed. This went on for a little while until I lost 5 sheep in 2 separate nights to a rogue mother coyote and her pups that were on a warpath.
At this point it was pretty obvious that I had to do something different and we began penning them every night. I knew this would not be sustainable but what else could I do? We began calling around and asking people what they thought and if they had any good dogs in order to try anything at that point!
Shortly after lambing season the female had a litter of pups by the male and we decided to keep the 2 from the litter that appeared to be the most bonded to the sheep. The litter was raised in a 30 x 30 pen with a handful of ewes to bond. The pen was built on the backside of the barns so that the pups had minimal interaction with people other than feed and water. I did NOT want pets out of these dogs.
We re-homed the female dog, neutered the two pups and turned them out with the flock and their father at about 7 months old. The lambs were 4-5 months old at the time, so I was not as worried about them chasing and harassing the babies and they proved to bond and do a very good job with the flock. I am happy with them thus far. I think that if we had a couple better dogs from the start, we would have had much more success the first year.
As I stated already, I do not think this is sustainable way to raise sheep unless you are able to run a thousand or more to justify the labor costs. It is not difficult work, but it is similar to having a dairy that requires you to be there every morning and every night.
The sheep have really proven to be easy to handle and work with. A herding dog will really help speed up the driving process. They do not care much for crossing water, but my flock has learned to as there are several creeks on the place they are. It was towards the end of having to pen them every night where we were trying to make a decision on whether to sell out or buy more. We had figured that we could double the flock size with basically the same amount of daily labor in order to increase profit if we were going to have to be doing this, but we were not able to close any deals on new flocks to bring in so we did not expand other than retaining every ewe lamb. It was sure a relief when I felt comfortable with the 3 dogs doing a good enough job that I could start leaving them out.
We used the 20 galvanized panels to make the night pen once I got them away from the barns and lots. This worked fairly well and 2 people could easily move the pen with a front end loader in less than an hour. We left it in the same spot for 2-3 weeks and I also used it as a little bit of an experiment to see what the concentration of nutrients would do to the soil. Those spots sure grew more grass this spring but I think ideally the pen needs moved once a week.
This is just the first in a series. Next, we’ll look at lambing season and labor involved in production and health practices. Stay tuned!