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. Read the first in his series here.
We went into with the idea that the sheep weren’t going to add much labor to the daily requirement on the ranch and I, personally, went into with the idea that these things need to make it on their own or they’re going down the road.
Do not do what I did. Pay attention, step in when necessary, but don’t interfere.
I don’t want to scare anyone off because it is not a big undertaking, but I have found from lambing last year, and again this year, that a little extra time spent with them during lambing season can pay big dividends.
At the same time, too much time, oversight and interference can cause problems too, especially with ewe lambs and twins. I left some twins on the ewe lambs the first year and removed some also. I think in the future all ewe lamb twins will stay with their mother unless they get left behind. I also ran into some trouble with triplets(3 sets) this year on the mature ewes, mainly due to my interference. I think those will be treated the same or maybe pull one off after a few days and a good start.
I try to ride through them twice a day on a normal day, more with bad weather, and I try not to disturb them. We do have our ewes tagged in order to identify what is what and when there are problems. I do not process the babies and have absolutely no intentions to do so. I’ve learned from cows that sometimes I don’t need to go see if it’s a male or female or how big it is. The important thing is that they’re up and nursing. I use a pair of binoculars to record how many lambs they birthed so I can keep track of that and begin culling the ewes who only produce singles year after year. It also allows me to calculate percent born, percent alive and then eventually what percent was weaned from the ewes that were exposed via a spreadsheet that I built and keep on my phone and Google Sheets.
We do end up with a few bottle lambs that were triplets, abandoned, etc. We try to sell them about a week old for $50 and figure that is better than a dead one. But if you have kids, they do make a cute chore responsibility.
Production Cycle and Health Practices
We lambed in March the first year because that is when they were bred to start. I would not do that again. We have cold/damp springs here in Northeast Oklahoma and that is rough on the newborn lambs. They do not seem to have enough vigor to overcome the extra cool and rainy nights. I lost a few that we could not bring back because of that.
This year we turned out rams November 16 of 2019 and had the first lambs on April 6th. While I would venture to say 75% of the ewes lambed in the first 15 days, we did not flush them. I think we will back that date up a couple more weeks next year because we still had some nights that did not cooperate with some of the babies. I am also brainstorming ways to “flush” the ewes on pasture before breeding this year also. It might be winter annuals or an untouched piece of good stockpile.
Since they were not going to be bred until November, we did not manually wean the lambs. We let the ewe lambs do it themselves and I was incredibly pleased with the results. Around the middle of October, I noticed they had been weaned. This worked well because we ended up selling 65-75 pound lambs around Christmas time. We just sold them at a nearby sale barn that specializes in sheep and goats.
We did castrate(band) at about 2 months old and at that time we wormed every lamb. We also gave mothers and lambs a C,D & T shot at that point per recommendation from our vet. We had to worm about half the ewes again in August due to visual observation and Famacha scoring. I’m not sure if it’s the ewes or the weather but everyone I talked to last year had more worms than normal. The only reason we opted to worm them all the first time was because we had not had a successful lambing crop and we could not afford to lose anymore! We may keep a couple ram lambs back this year and those will need to be weaned about 2 and a half months to keep from breeding. We tagged the ewes when we purchased them and we will continue to tag replacement females. The plan right now is to use a different color each year to easily identify age of the ewes.
Do not be scared to doctor one or worm one that doesn’t seem right. If they are not doing well there is likely a good reason. One thing I haven’t done is trim feet. Even though one limps from time to time they seem to get over it just fine. Along those lines, I have been told several times that foot rot comes from a sale barn.
The Numbers and Conclusions
|Ewes Bred||Ewes lambed||Lambs born||Lambs weaned|
*still 10 days left to lamb
As I said previously, the first year was ugly. We had a lot of discussion about whether we needed to let them go. But, we had heard too many successful stories to give up so we decided to continue with the flock and up to now, I am happy we did.
We still have a lot of kinks to work out and the learning will never stop. We currently have plans to continue growing the flock and will likely keep every ewe lamb we can from this year’s lambing. Eventually selection pressure will be put on survivability and prolificacy but as we grow, we are balancing the selection criteria.
Good Livestock Guardian Dogs are critical to an open pasture system like ours. We have 3 dogs with the flock but I think 2 could do the job. This may sound contradictory, but we are discussing a 4th to train up because if something happens to the ones we have, we have nothing to replace them with.
I would encourage you to buy your sheep from a reputable flock and, if possible, mature ewes (but that tends to be hard to find in our area). Be prepared for increased labor during lambing season. Be prepared to adapt until you’re able to get a system figured out that benefits the flock and the caretaker(s).
We’ve got a number of articles on parasite control for sheep, something that’s an important part of maintaining a healthy flock. Here are just a few:
There’s a lot to know when you start adding new animals to your operation. For all our sheep-related articles click here.