Utilizing Breeding Ewes' Grazing Abilities for Pasture and Crop Residue to Lengthen the Grazing Season

Final Report for FNC99-277

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1999: $4,325.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2004
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:
Expand All

Project Information


Organically established in 1858, Ashley Farms consisted of 680 acres. Currently the farm is operated by Theodore and Tamra Ashley along with their children Bekah, Abby, Chelsea and Austin as well as their son in law Phillip Smith. The farm now consists of 650 tillable acres in a rotational system. Crops grown include wheat, corn, soybeans and alfalfa. Approximately 125 acres are pasture used for a flock of 150 ewes. The flock is primarily Suffolk, Dorset, and Polypay Cross. A majority of the lambs are fed out to be sold as market lambs though several are sold as club lambs. The farm also purchases feeder lambs to be fed throughout the year. In 2003 one thousand lambs were fed and sold at market.

The operation has previously used sustainable practices rotation including some experimental work with using turnips in wheat stubble fields for fall pasture. Practices for pasture improvement have never been implemented to develop existing pasture.

The goals of the project were to demonstrate the ability of breeding ewes to utilize non-productive, unsuitable cropland and row crop residue to lengthen the grazing season. As well, intensive pasture grazing management was implemented during the project to ensure that the ewes’ nutritional needs were being met. It was believed that maximizing the use of underproductive land for pasture and the use of residues could increase the ewe profitability and reduce the row crop cost. The profitability of applying an intensive pasture management system and extending the grazing season was therefore studied as well.

The project arose in order to decrease row crops costs as well as finding a more productive way to utilize under developed and non-farmable land. The acreage used in the project could not be farmed therefore by implementing these strategies it allowed this land to be more productive for the producers. The project was created to find practices that would allow for the lengthening the pasture season and improvement of the quality of the pasture. Despite conducting the experiment during a drought the management allowed us to utilize the pasture for feed and save for winter scarce hay and grain and have the ewes in good shape for breeding and be flushed in pasture.

At the start of the project, initial soil samples were gathered from the land used in the study to identify the nutrients which were present. From the data received from the samples, urea and fertilizers were applied to create optimal conditions to grow the necessary grasses. Native grasses that were already present in the area included assorted marsh grasses and canary grass. Using cages placed randomly in the pasture, grass samples were taken from the cages mid-summer and sent for analysis to study the nutrient content present. The samples measured on July 25, 2002 had 4,500 of DM/A in the swamp area and was reasonable in quality. The sample was 37.2% DM, 13.6% CP, 41.3% ADF, 53% TEN, .81% Ca and .23% P. The land was fertilized one time in early July. The pasture was fertilized with potash and urea and it was several weeks before we had rain to utilize the fertilizer. Despite the dryness of the crop land, this area in a swamp area stayed green and sheep even utilized weeds for food stuffs more than other years where they would have left it.

In the supplemental field after the wheat harvest, the area was soil tested, had an application fertilizer and urea then planted with 3 types of turnips and oil seeded radishes in preparation to become fall pasture. The wheat stubble was seeded with three varieties of turnips and a trial section of oil seed radishes. As the experiment was occurring concurrently in different field with oil seed radish by the Clinton County Soil Conservation District to look at reduction of soil compaction and nitrogen fixing. Therefore we examined if the oil seed radish was something that sheep would eat so a section was added in the field to look at that usability as a feed stuff. The test plot of turnips and oil seed radishes was planted on August 8, 2002 with Globe, Dynamo and Sampson Turnips seeded at 4 pounds to the acre and the oil seed radishes seeded at 15 pounds to the acre. One hundred and twenty pounds of urea and 130 pounds of potash were applied at this time. The sheep were turned out on the field in late November and did well on them. The concern was that they would not eat the radishes; however we noticed no difference in consumption. The radishes with longer roots are supposed to help minimize soil compaction.

Lambs were weaned for the ewes in April then wormed and tagged. Before the sheep were released to the pasture a sampling of the sheep had an initial weight taken. Twenty five of the eight five head turned on to pasture were weighed. As well the sheep were re-weighed mid August and wormed with Valbazen at that time. At that time a 5 pound difference was found form the initial sampling weights.

The sheep were released in to the pasture beginning on April 20, 2002. On December 24, 2002 the flock was allowed on to the supplemental grazing land.

People that assisted with this project included the following:

Assistance with sheep production issues and consultant in pasture research:
- Dr. Margaret Benson, Michigan State University Department of Animal Science – assisted in forage analysis and donation of turnips
- Dr. Joseph Rock, DVM, MSU Veterinary Clinic
- Marilyn Thelen, Clinton Conservation District

Assistance with soil and nutrients and donation of the oil seed radishes:
- Marilyn Thelen, Crops Agent

While using this pasture management system it was found that ewes were sustained during a drought throughout the summer months before being released on the supplemental field of turnips. The average gain of the ewes was five pounds. The summer when this project was implemented was unusually dry and the marshy area was still able to sustain the ewes while other cropland was not surviving. The intensive grazing decreased weed pressure, however it caused on the pressure on the new trefoil seedlings. The survival rate of the trefoil was very low during the study. The saving versus the confinement costs of the ewes was a savings of $0.30 per ewe per day. As well the self feeding was extended by ninety days in comparison to previous years. The total savings during that period was approximately $27.00 and on overall production savings of $2,295.

During the project the field was included in field tours and showcased in an article. On September 19, 2002, 20 visitors from Clinton, Shiawassee, and Ionia counties visited through a program presented by the county extension services. Approximately twenty five people visited the field and listened to a short presentation about the study. As well the Michigan Hay and Grazing Newsletter showcased the field along with a short article.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.