Raising Sheep - A Profitable Grass Based Model
When it comes to raising sheep many people have the notion of sheep being livestock animals which require significant care and work. We imagine them in softly lit barns with multiple plump little lambs at their side. All content.
Yet raising sheep does not need to be nearly as much work as people make it out to be. Sheep are versatile creatures and they can do very well without all the assistance afforded them in high labor, barn raised operations. So if you have often thought about sheep but are not enticed by the notion of living in your barn during lambing time there is an option for you.
The rancher with an eye on grass can do well with the right type of sheep. With the right type of sheep it is possible to run sheep on pasture year round therefore cutting overhead expenses, time and labor costs. Controlling these costs gives a rancher the ability to control his own profit.
But before you take the leap and buy sheep or switch your existing flock to a pasture system consider these tips. Not all breeds of sheep are created equal. The prolific breeds of sheep are less likely to thrive in a grass based set up. The dairy sheep will need more attention, and some of the hair breeds may not fair as well on a year round basis in colder and harsher climates
Have an idea of what a production year will feel like on your ranch. Are you really aiming for a grass based flock? Will your flock be out 365 days a year, will you be lambing on pasture, how will you manage through your winter season?
Consider what traits in the various sheep breeds are most important in order to work in your production year. Is lambing on pasture what you are after or prolific ewes who can produce multiple lambs? Rank all your traits in order of importance if you need to. Also consider what each trait will cost or save you.
Consider the climate in your area and what your ranch has to offer. What are the disadvantages? Having an idea of what will work in your favour and what may work against will save you some headaches and surprise expenses.
Next ranchers who are interested in raising sheep on grass will want to keep a few selection criteria in mind:
The right type of sheep is one who is of medium size, efficient on feed, lambs without assistance, does not produce litters of lambs (non-efficient), raises vigorous lambs and keeps good body condition on grass without the need for grains and other supplemental feeds.
Typically medium sized ewes will be efficient on grass and feed resources. Larger ewes (above 180 pounds) often require more food to maintain good condition yet they do not raise any more pounds of lamb. Ewes need to be hardy. Sheep are relatively easy to maintain during the grass season however the main concept of a grass based flock is feeding the ewes out on pasture during the winter season as well.
Ewes should be good milkers (not heavy milkers) with tidy udders who can raise lambs without needing extra feed stuffs. Focus on heavy milkers is not ideal in a grass flock as heavy milkers are not efficient animals. Good milkers will raise a hefty lamb without trouble.
Ewes being raised on pasture need to lamb without assistance and have excellent mothering skills. More often than not members of the flock will lamb when you are not there so it is best if they can manage on their own. The ewes mothering skills will assist with lambs getting to their feet after birth.
You may also want to pay attention to the members of the flock that are capable of finding shelter from storms. This is a learned survival behavior that needs to be passed onto lambs. And select for strong flocking instinct. Safety in numbers is one way sheep are able to protect themselves from predators. But if they do not flock together this criteria is lost.
When raising sheep for a living the selection of rams should receive equal consideration. Having a ram from a grass based background is important. The rams should have been allowed time to reach maturity on grass, not pushed on grain.
Being allowed to reach sexual maturity at a natural rate is highly important to the hormonal development of the animal. If the rams can grow up and flesh out on grass you know they will be okay for your grass flock.
The rams should not be so large the prove to be inefficient feeders or throw lambs too big for easy birthing by the ewe.
From here the grass based rancher will be able to develop a flock of animals that are prime candidates for thriving in a natural grass based system and move onto the goal of developing those grass genetics.
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