Technology Boosts Rate of Gain: Evaluating the Effects of Repurposed Poultry Housing Versus Intensive Grazing for the Modern Sheep Producer

Final report for FNE23-035

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2023: $29,997.00
Projected End Date: 10/31/2027
Grant Recipient: Shepherd's Hope Farm
Region: Northeast
State: Delaware
Project Leader:
Steven Breeding
Shepherd's Hope Farm
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Project Information


This project aimed to compare and contrast how technology can boost the rate of gain for lambs raised in repurposed poultry housing versus intensive grazing pastures for the modern sheep producer. Although prior research has been conducted in a similar fashion in different regions of the country, it is believed that the Delmarva Peninsula presents an interesting set of environmental challenges for the raising of sheep. Addressing and overcoming these challenges would open an emerging market and new revenue stream that would allow existing farms to be more sustainable. This study was going to examine the weight gain, FAMACHA scores and body condition scores of two separate groups of genetically similar lambs, one that will graze intensively on pasture while the other is fed in a controlled environment of a repurposed poultry house. It is our belief that with the ability to control multiple
environmental factors, the poultry house lambs would outperform their counterparts within the study. Unfortunately in March 2024 the barn and sheep were lost and we were unable to perform enough of the project to have meaningful results.

Project Objectives:

This project seeks to compare the rate of gain and feed efficiency in pasture based lambs with those of contemporary animals raised in an intensely managed poultry house setting. Therefore, as my hypothesis, I plan to prove that poultry house lambs will outperform their counterparts due to the more controlled environment that is fed a ration versus grasses from a pasture. Through the use of electronic identification, digital scales, and the sheep management system, we will ensure not only accuracy with our data, but also that our sheep will be calm and transition smoothly through the sheep management system.  The second objective of the project seeks to help educate the current poultry producers that may be seeking another income stream or additional options for the housing that they already have set up for production animals.  Lastly, our third objective seeks to develop and be the source of educational outreach to sheep industry partners and the next generation of agriculturists that are a part of the Maryland Sheep Breeders Association, Delaware 4H, Delaware FFA, University of Maryland, Delaware State University and Delaware Technical and Community College. 


Our grant work will address the opportunity of studying intensively managed sheep in abandoned/converted poultry housing compared to intensive grazing pasture based housing. We will study how each production system has an effect on the rate of gain and overall quality of meat for increased profitability of market lambs. This opportunity presented itself when we began examining what could lead to a greater economical impact while supporting conservation practices; therefore for our first half of our research, we came up with using abandoned poultry houses as a means of ensuring a smaller carbon footprint by using a production structure that already exists and was vacant than erecting a new one.  

With 4,901 chicken houses that are independently owned and operated on the Delmarva peninsula in 2021 (DCA Facts & Figures, n.d.). These houses go in and out of production and often sit empty once the contract is no longer in effect becoming abandoned. Historically female farmers and ethnic immigrants are the primary operators in the poultry side of the total farming operations. The loss of a grower contract would be catastrophic to the sustainability of the farm as a whole. We see raising lambs in those same abandoned poultry houses also as a possible new source of income. 

For the second half of our research we will look at how raising lambs on intensively grazed pastures will allow a rate of gain that also concentrates on conserving soil and a reduction of costs.  Practices of conserving soil will be done through the utilization of pastures to maximum feed potential while maintaining optimal soil health which in return will cut down on impaction of the soil since animals are on land for a timed period and then the pasture is allowed to rest.  The reduction of costs will be seen through the cutting down of feed expenses since forage is grown rather than purchased.  

The emergence of technology in the livestock management industry has given producers the opportunity to greatly improve productivity and improve animal welfare. In the current society, farmers need to be even more mindful of animal wellbeing, using these new technologies will ensure that animal standards will be at a gold standard. Therefore, utilizing the combination of RFID tags, an automated sheep handling system, and the integrated flock data management system will allow for a more timely and accurate data collection. The desired outcomes in return will be the reduction of stress on both animals and farm workers, accuracy in the data collected and an increased profitability overall that ensures a sustainable operation.

The sheep industry is an emerging niche market since the United States produces less than half of the sheep and goat meat it consumes, it is safe to say that the U.S. is not meeting the demand for non-traditional markets (ethnic and direct-to-consumer).  These ethnic markets usually favor local and domestically-produced lamb and goat which can be difficult since 64% of U.S. lambs are majority produced from West of the Mississippi River (Top 10 States With The Most Sheep & Lambs, n.d.).  In fact, when looking at the Northeast Region geographically, there are minorities that account for 35 percent of America’s population that rely on lamb and goat for consumption such the Muslim society.  In fact, Muslim dietary restrictions require lamb and goat to be slaughtered according to Islamic law, which is why many seek the meat outside traditional channels such as supermarkets (Scheid, 2017). The Ethnic population in the United States is steadily increasing and the need for higher lamb production is at an all time high to meet the needs of this growing market. While commodity lamb producers face stiff competition from imports, an increase of the supply of locally grown lamb would be contracted through my operation.  I have a direct buyer that represents the Middle Eastern market and I sell my lambs to him currently.  

Description of farm operation:

Our farm has two out-of-production poultry houses and strategically retrofitted it for sheep and lamb production by adding sheep feeding and handling systems. Our farm currently cares for approximately 200 ewes and their offspring. We have built a niche business selling lambs to the metropolitan ethnic markets and by selling the overflow lambs to New Holland Sales Stable, our regional sale barn.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Karen Breeding (Educator)
  • Kurt Chellberg
  • John Clendaniel - Technical Advisor
  • Dr. Bart Gill (Educator)
  • Dr. Danielle Kidd (Educator)
  • Susan Schoenian


Materials and methods:

From Proposal

The study will start with 42 crossbred Hampshire/Dorset/Polypay crossbred mix of ewe and wether wool lambs (bred and born on the farm) that will be split into two equal groups.  The two groups will make up our study in which one group will be housed in intensively managed poultry housing, while the other will be out on intensively grazed pastures. The groups will then be broken down further by being split into three pen groups of seven (poultry house) and three paddocks consisting of seven lambs each (pasture based). It is believed that groups of seven will be an adequate number considering current pen sizes but allows enough data to ensure a viable research study compared to the lambs available on the farm at the start of the study.  

Lambs will be born in the February and March months, will be weaned at approximately 45 days of age, vaccinated (industry standard CD&T vaccination that is available at the time, currently we experiencing supply issues with some vaccinations), tails banded and fitted with an Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) ear tag. The start of the research will begin when lambs are approximately 55 days old in the April and May months. 

Each Saturday for four weeks, lambs will be weighed and go through a routine well-being examination consisting of checking for worms (FAMACHA scoring) and body condition scoring.  Weights, FAMACHA scores and body condition scores will be electronically recorded with the Te Pari system, which allows data to be preliminarily sorted chuteside in order to make corrected feed calculations for the upcoming week. The Te Pari system is designed with sheep safety in mind by being fitted with RFID readers embedded inside the walls of the working system, this allows for minimum actual human handling. Integrated cloud based operating systems within the data collection allows for a single farmer to be chuteside, hands-on with the lambs all the while someone else can be in the farm office reviewing the data in real time. One limitation we plan to overcome is the limited internet signal inside a poultry house. Cell signal boosters and a hotspot are imperative to use this technology to its full potential to ensure collected data is uploaded correctly to the cloud. All lambs in the study will be evaluated under the same criteria and treated consistently during weekly evaluations.  

As previously stated, for my hypothesis and my first objective, I plan to prove that the poultry house lambs will outperform their counterparts due to the more controlled environment. Lambs being housed in the poultry house will be divided randomly into three groups of seven and kept in this group for the duration of the study.  Each group will be penned in a 120 sq foot pen that is clean and disinfected at the start of the study then bedded with a mixture of fresh wood chips and straw mixture. These pens will be separated within the poultry house to help prevent any spread of communicable diseases. Over the four week study fresh bedding will be added as needed to insure safe, dry and healthy conditions.  Each pen will also include a water trough that will be checked, cleaned and refilled every day. Lambs will be fed twice a day a balanced total mixed ration consisting of corn, barley, grass hay, minerals and a coccidiostat for the prevention of coccidiosis, in a bunk line feeder to ensure minimum transmission of fecal matter and other health concerns through the feed. Lambs will be fed three to four percent of their body weight each day, gradually increasing the total feed volume as the study continues and lambs grow larger. Being inside the poultry house, the farm has the ability to control the temperature with the use of fans in order to control as many outside variables as possible. 

Pasture lambs will be housed in a heavily managed rational pasture setting. This group of lambs will also be divided randomly into three groups of seven and kept in this group for the duration of the study. 

Each group will be fenced in separate one third of an acre plots on a fescue and clover based pasture. This pasture would be irrigated as needed using commonly accepted farming management practices. Using temporary woven fencing the three groups will be moved weekly to ensure optimal grazing opportunity while ensuring a minimum parasite load. Each management plot will have a temporary animal housing structure in the event of bad weather and for shade. Water troughs and free choice mineral tubs will be checked and cleaned twice daily. 

Since the pasture based are not housed on the same farm as the working system, they will need to be loaded and transported weekly in our trailer to be evaluated. This and all sheep handling will be done with low animal stress practices in mind to ensure animal health and human safety is at the forefront. 

Data will be collected in four separate trials over a two year period, both Spring and Fall of 2023 and again in Spring and Fall of 2024, in which the methods will be conducted identically across all four trial periods to ensure sufficient number of data points to prove the hypothesis.  We feel that having both a spring and fall study allows the data set to be larger within the same farm, it will be interesting to see if the difference in warm versus cool season forages change any results compared to the controlled environment of the poultry houses. 

The second and third objectives sought in the project is 1. To help educate the current poultry producers that may be seeking another income stream or additional options for the housing that they already have set up for production animals and 2. Develop and be the source of educational outreach to sheep industry partners and the next generation of agriculturists.  My breeding program utilizes breeding within photoperiod protocol (controlled lighting) and naturally in season.  During the field days put on by the farm, I will be presenting my breeding initiatives and the strategies behind raising animals in controlled environments; especially in the controlled environment of poultry housing.  Presentations will focus on photoperiod protocol, retrofitting abandoned poultry houses and practices that work in the intensively managed poultry housing.  Also during each presentation, PowerPoint slides, housing plot dimensions and other important information will be shared through a QR code that will be provided on the field days’ agenda. Using the existing wifi signal upgrades, the use of QR codes can help limit the amount of printed paper during the field day. It is our experience that handouts during a hands-on situation are often inadvertently left behind. The use of QR codes will help ensure the ability to access any information after the field days. Surveys will be given to each participant to assess the effectiveness of each field day and what topics of interest remain and may need to be further explored. Youth field days (4-H, FFA & Collegiate) will have additional opportunities to work on the handling system, data collection and RFID.  

2023 Progress report

With high hopes of starting our project strong, we quickly realized that supply chain issues might plague our project's beginnings. After receiving approval from SARE, we immediately ordered the supplies and Te Pari handling system. With Te Pari being located in New Zealand, I experienced some major hurdles in supply chain Issues. The handling system was officially ordered on March first and slated for delivery in April in time to start our first study. Due to shipping challenges, the working system did not arrive until August 15th. With the handling system being a major part of our study due to safe handling practices, we decided to start weighing the sheep later than stated in our proposal. In order to complete our obligations, we decided to use the existing system to weigh our first round of study lambs. Quickly realizing that the current system with a scale platform is not to the degree of accuracy needed for repeatability in a research study. After reviewing the data, I do not feel that it fair to use this data set because of the inaccuracy.  After working with Te Pari to get our working system set up in our poultry house, we quickly realized there was a need for more technical support to use the system to its full potential. During all the trials and tribulations, it became too late in the year to execute a fair research trial based on grazing animals. 

In March, 2024, the farm suffered a devastating loss and we are unable to complete any further work on this project.

Research results and discussion:

In March, 2024, the farm suffered a devastating loss and we were unable to complete any further work on this project. There is no data for results and discussion.

Research conclusions:

In March, 2024, the farm suffered a devastating loss and we were unable to complete any further work on this project and there is not enough information to reach conclusions.

Participation Summary
1 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

No outreach was performed.

Learning Outcomes

Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:


Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:


Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:


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.