Making Pasture & Forages Work For Sheep

Sheep! Preview Story from the May/June 2017 Issue

Making Pasture & Forages Work For Sheep

By Dean Oswald—Animal Systems Educator —University of Illinois
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Grazing Goals

Sheep producers should set annual goals for the forage and pasture grazing system. Under most farm circumstances a forage grazing plan will require several years to implement selected goals. Fencing is a key factor in controlling sheep, which is necessary for animal control and predator reduction. And makes a managed grazing system work.

Adequate fencing should be employed early in the planning process. Problem weed control should also be executed as an early goal, to reduce competition with grazing plants and before adding legumes or forbs to the pasture mix.

Control could be mechanical, chemical, or a combination depending upon the type of weed or brush. Don’t let soil fertility limit your pasture productivity. Test to determine the pH (acid/alkaline balance), P (phosphorus) and K (potassium) available for plant growth.

Corrected pH is necessary when establishing legumes. Frost seeding small-seeded grass (orchardgrass) or legumes (red or white clover) can be accomplished by broadcasting seed in mid-February. Freezing and thawing of the soil surface is critical to provide seed soil contact and success.

Legumes are deeper rooted than grass and have more summer productivity. They provide nitrogen to the companion grasses, thus adding quality and crude protein to the forage.

Sheep producers should use as much forage as practical to meet the nutritional needs of the sheep. This will help to reduce the costs for purchased and stored feeds.

Grazers should try to optimize pasture yield, quality and persistence of the forage. This can be done with the development of a managed grazing program. This allows the grass producer to work smarter not harder and limit forage waste.

Managed Grazing

Managed grazing allows shepherds to use a higher stocking density that requires fewer acres. This would permit either additional sheep numbers or increased grazing days for the operation. A series of smaller paddocks are used to rotate animals, which allows for a forage rest period. Rest periods of 30 days are necessary to maintain legumes in the stand. Sheep are moved more frequently among the paddocks based upon forage quality, quantity and their nutritional needs. The grazing period in each paddock should be short (six days or less). This reduces spot grazing and re-grazing palatable plants. Paddock grazing cycles for dairy sheep of one half to one whole day provide very high quality forage.

Finishing lambs on forage requires one to three-day cycles. Rams and ewes would have four- to six-day cycles, depending upon nutritional needs.

Weaned lambs might be given access the first few days in a grazing cycle, followed by mature sheep to clean up the lower quality forage.

Good quality pasture increases the grazing or harvest efficiency of forage. Continuous grazing may only capture 25 to 30 percent of the available forage. Managed grazing may more than double the forage utilized by the sheep. Animals should be moved to the next paddock when three to four inches of forage stubble remain for photosynthesis (plant growth) and to prevent overgrazing.

Managed grazing means closer contact with the sheep and better flock management. Managed grazing can be a sustainable, size neutral technology that can be used if you have five ewes or 500 in the flock.

Other Considerations

Identify water availability in each paddock. Research suggests the need for water within 800 feet of grazing animals for best pasture utilization and waste recycling. (2.5 gallons of water/ewe & lambs/day.)

Evaluate existing forages and browse areas and inter-seed thin spots rather than destroying root mass.

Identify paddocks that could be used for hay (according to ease of access with equipment).

Consider harvesting 20 percent of the paddocks for first cutting hay to feed during winter shortages or during rainy periods on newer pastures. This will keep forages more vegetative (higher quality).

Hay-harvested paddocks can be brought into the grazing rotation later in the season, when there’s a natural slump of forage production due to hotter and dryer weather.

Drawbacks of Managed Grazing

Initial investments in fencing and water systems may limit adoption by some producers. Soil compaction concerns can be reduced by having an all weather paddock, or sacrifice paddock to move sheep during wet, thawing or muddy periods. Increased grazing management requires improved management skills of the operator. There is a perception of an increased labor demand. After the system is set up the labor demand is actually reduced.

Extending the Grazing Season

Each day sheep graze and harvest forages they require less purchased feed and hay. Sheep producers should use crop residues, annual forages, brassica crops (turnips, rape, & kale), and stockpiled cool-season forages to maximize grazing days. Corn crop residues can provide grain and forage for sheep. Vaccinate ewes or lambs for overeating disease two weeks before turnout. Strip or rotational grazing can reduce the amount of corn offered and improve residue quality. Grazing cornfields can help to reduce volunteer corn in following soybean crops. Protein and mineral supplementation may be required. Annual cereal crops like oats, wheat or rye can be seeded to supplement spring, summer or fall grazing. They can be aerial seeded into standing corn in mid-August which can greatly improve grazing quality of corn residue. Oats may be more cost effective because it has more fall growth and will winter kill in December. Sorghum Sudan grass and hybrids are warm-season annual crops that can provide grazing during the summer slump of cool-season grasses or when stockpiling forages. Early grazing (less than 24 inches tall or following frost) may lead to prussic acid poisoning.

Pearl millet, a leafier warm season grass, can be grazed earlier than the sorghums and has no prussic acid potential, however, it yields less. Brassica crops like turnip, rape, kale and hybrids can be used to extend the grazing season. Planting can occur early in the spring (April) or July, following wheat or oat harvest, depending upon forage needs.

Brassicas are very high quality and can be similar to feeding grain. They should be planted with a fiber source like oats or fed with hay to reduce digestive problems. Strip graze brassicas to reduce waste.

Stockpiled Cool-Season Forages

Start stockpiling 70 to 75 days before a killing frost with three to four inches of growth.

Apply 50 pounds of Nitrogen per acre. This should provide about one ton of forage dry matter per acre.

Stockpile should be strip grazed to reduce trampling and waste. Tall fescue is an excellent species for stockpiling. Stockpile can be grazed until spring if you have enough acreage. Sheep will graze through six inches of snow but can be limited by ice.

Happy grazing in 2017!

Originally published in the May/June 2017 issue of sheep!. Subscribe for more great stories!

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