Establishing and Grazing Native Warm Season Grass: How Average Daily Gain and Internal Parasite Burden are Affected in Weaned Lambs

Progress report for FS21-337

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2021: $2,723.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2023
Grant Recipient: LeeDer Farm
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Principal Investigator:
Lee Holcomb
LeeDer Farm
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Project Information


As stated before, the problem of weaned lambs on pasture in the South is being severely infected with barber pole worms and affecting economic profitability.  This is through death loss of lambs, reduced weight gain, and getting to market later than planned.  Going to market later may affect economics of an operation due to less lambs going to market during prime market days such as ethnic holidays where prices tend to be higher per pound.

My proposed solution was to establish an approximate 1.2 acre Native Warm Season Grass (NWSG) pasture for weaned lambs.  The NWSG pasture consists of mostly Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, and Indiangrass, and was planted on May 1st, 2021 using a No-Till Truax seed drill.  These native plants are more sustainable because they require minimal, if any, fertilization and are prolific growers once established.  They are also more drought tolerant, which is more common during hot summers in the South, because of deeper root systems.  Each species has different maturity rates and can help to establish vigorous growth during the entire warm season growing period.  NWSG’s grow more erect and the average growth point is around six inches above the soil surface.  The proposed research is that the taller growing grasses will allow the weaned lambs to graze at head height or slightly higher heights and avoid grazing so close to the ground where the Barber Pole Worm is more commonly found.  NWSG establishment is more common in cattle operations, but the proposed research is to investigate the effectiveness of their use in small ruminant operations, specifically with sheep.  The other proposed benefit of establishing NWSG pastures for weaned lambs is better weight gains both from reduced internal parasite burden and from grazing nutritious warm season grass versus cool season perennial forage Tall Fescue KY-31 variety.  It has been well documented that KY-31 variety Tall Fescue creates performance issues in livestock in climates such as the Southeast, due to the fungal endophyte located within the plant.  While the fungal endophyte gives the plant improved drought tolerance and survivability it also can cause poor livestock performance when it is consumed in large amounts by livestock.  Common symptoms in livestock are delayed hair shedding and heat stress, along with reduced weight gain while grazing this KY-31 variety during hotter summer months.  Giving the weaned lambs a grass that doesn’t cause these performance symptoms could lead to higher overall weight gains and growing marketable lambs  (60-75 lb. live weight) sooner.  This would be particularly helpful in hitting the target market dates around ethnic holidays such as Ramadan, commonly beginning and ending in the months of May and June.  The other economic benefit would be reduced lamb deaths due to reduced internal parasite burden.

The NWSG pastures were mowed in late January 2022 to put any residue on the ground in anticipation of the prescribed burn before the growing season in 2022.  The Prescribed Burn may also burn the cool season annual weed seeds too.  Spring 2022 has been wet and according to Jason Smith, NCWRC Biologist, we may have to skip the planned burn and monitor weed pressure before grazing in May 2022.



Project Objectives:

To test this hypothesis, it will take two years to get final results.  The first year, 2021, will be used to establish and maintain a Native Warm Season Grass (NWSG) mix pasture of roughly 1.2 acres in size.  Any cool season perennials and other weeds were eliminated from the existing pasture using Glyphosate treatment after grazing a cover crop of Oats and Crimson Clover.  One Glyphosate burn down was done April 2nd, 2021. Then a follow-up burn down of Glyphosate, along with pre-emergent Panoramic, was performed the day of planting on May 1st, 2021.  The NWSG mix was established via no-till methods and with help from Jason Smith, NC Wildlife Resource Commission Biologist.  Jason brings a wealth of NWSG knowledge and experience with many years helping producers establishing successful NWSG plantings in North Carolina.  He calibrated the seed drill according to NWSG seeding recommendations for the planting.  Jason has assisted with monitoring initial establishment growth and giving recommendations on any post planting treatment of weed pressure.  He recommended mowing in January 2022 and Prescribed Burn if possible in year two.  In Jason's experience the first year should be used for establishing a good root system and monitoring plant competition and its effects on survivability.  

In year two, 2022, a contemporary group of lambs will be separated at weaning time.  One group will be put on the established NWSG pasture and rotationally grazed with electric netting and temporary water tanks.  Another group will be divided and rotationally grazed on our base cool season perennial KY-31 Tall Fescue with a mix of warm season annual forbs and weeds/grasses.  Electric netting will also be used and temporary water tanks.  Breeding groups of lambs will be sired by at least two different Rams.  Contemporary groups will be comprised of lambs from both sires to avoid bias and more inconclusive results due to poor on-farm testing setup. 

Lambs from both groups will be weaned the same day, weighed on our W100 Gallagher weight scale for performance records, FEC sample taken, and then dewormed with Prohibit sheep drench before exiting the sheep working system.  All lambs will be kept together as one group for 7 days and fed 1% body weight a 16% lamb grower feed, with coccidistat, to start everyone on an equal playing field.  The lamb grower feed will be given 3 times in the 7 day equalization period.

After seven days, each contemporary group will be weighed again and divided and placed in their respective NWSG or Cool Season Perennial pasture.  Each group will be fed the same sheep mineral and have full access to cool, clean water from our pressurized watering system.  Actual weights will be conducted every 2 weeks during the testing period, mainly on Saturdays or Sundays, due to our full-time job responsibilities.  Weights will be taken for 2 months (~60 days post-weaning), resulting in at least five different weight recordings.  During the grazing trial FEC samples will be conducted at one-month intervals for both groups to see if there is any statistical difference between the two groups.  This will result in three FEC samples during the testing period to hopefully show further proof of reduced parasite burden while grazing NWSG pastures in the immediate post-weaning period of lambs.  Lastly, forage will be tested for protein levels and TDN levels before lambs enter the pastures to get a representative comparison.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Allison Brown - Producer
  • Johnny Rogers - Producer (Educator)
  • Jason Smith - Producer (Educator)
  • Dr. Andrew Weaver (Educator)


Materials and methods:

As of April 1st, 2022 the NWSG pasture of Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, and Indiangrass has been planted and gone through nearly one year of maturity.  Some cool-season weeds have established in Spring of 2022, but Jason Smith advised not to use chemical treatment unless there were annual weeds that overshadowed the canopy of the newly emerging NWSG in Spring 2022.  A wet spring in 2022 hasn't allowed for burning of the NWSG pasture yet, but if the conditions are right the Alexander NCFS will assist with the Prescribed Burn using a wet line firebreak with no needed disced firebreak.

Further research will be done as planned beginning around the second week of May 2022 when lambs are weaned from their ewes.

Research results and discussion:

There are no results to measure as of April 1st, 2022 because the research has not been conducted.  The first year was for NWSG establishment and that has been mostly successful in 2021.  Forage analysis, lamb weights, and lamb fecals will not begin until around the second week of May 2022.

Participation Summary
2 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

2 Consultations

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

LeeDer Farms would like to show the final results and conclusion of this on-farm research preferably through an in-person Field Day and Workshop.  With the group of professionals involved with this SARE grant we could cover multiple items within one workshop.  Jason Smith, with NC WRC, has substantial knowledge of NWSG establishment and management.  He has economic data for establishment costs here in North Carolina and this could serve as Outreach for all livestock producers and not just small ruminant producers. 

Johnny Rogers, with NCSU Amazing Grazing, will speak about the use of different temporary electric fence options and the advantages of rotational grazing from an internal parasite burden perspective for small ruminants.  Johnny is also a sheep producer as well and can speak to his own personal experiences and professional perspective from speaking across NC and the Southeast.

Allison Brown, NCCES Livestock Agent, will speak on weed management in NWSG stands to complete the route from establishment to managing the NWSG stand.  Allison and her family have personal experience managing NWSG hay stands in Alexander County.

Lee and Der Holcomb, of LeeDer Farm, will discuss the on-farm research and can have the workshop participants view handout presentations and live feedback of what went right and what went wrong.  They will also share any personal experiences with collecting Fecal Egg Counts and preparing for lab analysis.

The group of professionals will cover the topics included as part of this grant proposal and it should serve as a great local outreach opportunity to serve Alexander county and the surrounding communities.  In the event that COVID-19 pandemic is still ongoing the outreach topics could still be covered but could be presented during a live Zoom conference.  The advantage of the live Zoom conference could be that the presentation could be recorded and used for even further outreach for years to come.  Even after the 2 year grant process ends in 3/2023 I would hope that I could do even further outreach by sharing my findings to the NC Sheep Producers Association where it may be adopted on wider scale across the State of NC.  There are many small scale sheep producers in NC and many of those folks involve historically underserved races and this research could be further used to help the historically underserved communities.  Another much smaller outreach opportunity would be Grass Prescribed Burn training for local NC Forest Service professionals.  We could educate Forest Service professionals while conducting the Prescribed Burn activities on NWSG uses and how we use them in our farming operation.  It may lead to future prescribed burning events at our farm which has some potential for further outreach to other producers.

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.