Expanding Profits for Vermont Sheep Production through Intensive Pasture Management

Final Report for LNE94-047

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1994: $10,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1995
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $7,700.00
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Kate Duesterberg
Center for Sustainable Agriculture, University of Vermont
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Project Information

Summary:

A proposal was submitted to SARE in January of 1994 outlining the following objectives.

1. Investigate the economic feasibility and production capacity of finishing lambs on pasture;
2. Test the applicability of management systems, specifically Holistic Resource Management (HRM) and the Standardized Performance Analysis (SPA);
3. Identify and evaluate potential alternative lamb markets as an addition to, or a supplement for, commercial lamb sales; and
4. Implement a model for cooperative research and information dissemination.

The overall goal of the project was to expand the sheep industry in Vermont by increasing profitability for producers through more effective production methods, alternative marketing, and cooperative learning. A broad-based research committee had been organized to put the original grant proposal together. Included were representatives from the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture, UVM Extension and research faculty, the Vermont Department of Agriculture, and the three sheep producers who would participate in the case studies. The committee was firmly committed to the idea that grass-based lamb production is the most cost effective and environmentally friendly way of raising sheep.

The Administrative Council did not fund the project as proposed. Instead, they asked the research committee to do more investigation in several areas, including an evaluation of the market potential of grass raised lamb and how to involve more farmers in the project. The Council awarded $10,000 as a planning grant to carry out this process and requested that the research committee come back the next year with a more comprehensive project proposal.

This report describes efforts that took place over the year to gather information and ideas about the best way to craft a participatory research project. The research committee wanted to focus on a project that would result in practical and useful information for a range of producers throughout Vermont and the region. The committee concentrated its information gathering in the following areas:

  • an in-depth investigation of the market potential of grass-finished lamb;

    gathering of input from sheep producers throughout Vermont regarding their information needs, especially pertaining to managing pastures more effectively and pasture-raised lamb production issues/problems; and

    an initial collection of data from several of the sheep producers in Vermont who currently are experimenting on their own with finishing lamb on pasture.

The planning grant enabled the research committee to accomplish its goals which were to conduct more market research and collect additional input from producers before designing the expanded proposal, and most importantly, to finalize the expanded proposal. In addition, the committee was able to use some of the funding to gather baseline data which will be used as the three-year project gets underway.

Project Objectives:

A proposal was submitted to SARE in January of 1994 outlining the following objectives.

1. Investigate the economic feasibility and production capacity of finishing lambs on pasture;

2. Test the applicability of management systems, specifically Holistic Resource Management (HRM) and the Standardized Performance Analysis (SPA);

3. Identify and evaluate potential alternative lamb markets as an addition to, or a supplement for, commercial lamb sales; and

4. Implement a model for cooperative research and information dissemination.

The overall goal of the project was to expand the sheep industry in Vermont by increasing profitability for producers through more effective production methods, alternative marketing, and cooperative learning. A broad-based research committee had been organized to put the original grant proposal together. Included were representatives from the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture, UVM Extension and research faculty, the Vermont Department of Agriculture, and the three sheep producers who would participate in the case studies. The committee was firmly committed to the idea that grass-based lamb production is the most cost effective and environmentally friendly way of raising sheep.

The Administrative Council did not fund the project as proposed. Instead, they asked the research committee to do more investigation in several areas, including an evaluation of the market potential of grass raised lamb and how to involve more farmers in the project. The Council awarded $10,000 as a planning grant to carry out this process and requested that the research committee come back the next year with a more comprehensive project proposal.

Research

Materials and methods:
Project Results

This report describes efforts that took place over the year to gather information and ideas about the best way to craft a participatory research project. The research committee wanted to focus on a project that would result in practical and useful information for a range of producers throughout Vermont and the region. The committee concentrated its information gathering in the following areas:

  • an in-depth investigation of the market potential of grass-finished lamb;

    gathering of input from sheep producers throughout Vermont regarding their information needs, especially pertaining to managing pastures more effectively and pasture-raised lamb production issues/problems; and

    an initial collection of data from several of the sheep producers in Vermont who currently are experimenting on their own with finishing lamb on pasture.

The committee surmised that it would be helpful to gather the baseline data if the larger grant were to be funded (which it subsequently was). In addition, a supplemental grant (in addition to the SARE planning grant) was obtained by this committee from the American Sheep Industry Association to establish trials for the Standardized Performance Analysis (SPA) program. SPA is a computerized data collection program designed specifically for sheep producers.

Market Potential of Grass-finished Lamb.
As a member of the research team, Roger Clapp, animal marketing specialist with the Vermont Department of Agriculture lead the research activities regarding the market potential for grass-finished lamb. The Vermont Dept. of Agriculture, in collaboration with the Vermont Lamb Promotion Board and the Center for Sustainable Agriculture, mailed out a marketing survey to 240 sheep operations in May 1994. Of these, 115 returned the completed surveys and another 15 were added through follow-up calls. The results showed a diversified flock spread throughout the state on small farms averaging 31 ewes on 41 acres. The most popular breeds are Dorset, Romney, and Suffolk in that order with several marking “other” than the 13 breeds listed. Most operations are marketing finished lambs in the fall and winter, however the number of baby or hothouse lambs marketed primarily in the spring or summer amounts to about two thirds of the finished lamb market. Relatively few lambs are marketed as feeders and less as breeding stock.

In terms of developing a sustainable market for a grass-based sheep industry, we have identified four volume markets for further study. Both Yankee Shepherd Co-op and Hirsel Ultra Lamb have developed a market for relatively lean, yield grade 2 carcasses. Hirsel is just completing a covered feedlot and would like to buy in 70-80 lb. feeders off grass for $75-95/cwt. Yankee prefers to buy finished lambs but has not had great luck with grass-fed lambs meeting their specs. Processors Jeff Nichols and Bill Yates both have ethnic markets in southern New England and will pay somewhere around $55-60/cwt for grass-fed lambs, quality seems to be less of an issue. Producers Dave McDonough, the Stowe-based Green Mountain Shephards and others have established a market for those who will pay top dollar for a completely natural grass-fed lamb. At present, marketing has not developed beyond the freezer trade and farmers’ market approaches. This is an area where more work needs to be done.

Several of the marketing structures are in place for an expanded grass-based sheep industry in Vermont and neighboring states. With the supply of Western lamb declining with the demise of the wool incentive, lamb prices have been climbing and are expected to stay high in the foreseeable future. The new opportunities have attracted some new producers to the industry, including a commercial sheep raiser just back from Florida where he marketed to the ethnic market. A Vermont dairy farmer with previous sheep experience, has recently switched his dairy herd to rotational grazing and would like to add a ewe flock for additional soil health, reduced parasite load and more volume of sales from the same land base. In short, there is considerable reason for optimism that the grass-based sheep industry will continue to expand in Vermont if adequate technical and financial support structures are put in place.

Gathering Input from Vermont Sheep Producers.
Over the course of the year from the time we received the planning grant until we formulated the full proposal, members of the team met with other producers and attended meetings of sheep producers to seek input on this project. The main question was – what were the producers’ primary production and marketing information needs in order to utilize the pasture resource to its fullest potential?

Research team members attended meetings of the Vermont Lamb Promotion Board, the Vermont Sheep Breeders Association, and the Rutland Area Lamb Producers. At each meeting, a presentation about the general nature of the project was given, followed by discussion and a request for input and involvement. A Vermont Sheep Summit was held in Berlin, Vt with about 40 producers attending, during which more discussion about the project took place.

The research team, which added three more producers during the year, met three times to process the input gathered at the larger meetings and to discuss potential designs for the project. At a meeting in December 1994, we came up with a list of priority areas that producers thought were most important to study. These included specific information needs regarding (1) pasture management, (2) animal management and genetics, (3) record keeping and other management techniques, and (4) marketing. The team decided that the expanded research/demonstration project proposal would explore these four areas in the following ways.

Pasture Management:
a) Analyze current pasture performance and make changes to increase effectiveness through forage analysis, soil testing, and tracking rotational schedules.
b) Evaluate winter feeding techniques by stockpiling grass for lambs and ewes.
c) Work with one to three dairy farmers (documenting changes, gathering data) interested in grazing sheep following dairy.

Animal Management and Genetics:
a) Weigh lambs throughout the grazing season to calculate average daily gain.
b) Track each producers’ lambs through carcass evaluation to identify sheep with superior finishing qualities on grass diets.
c) Gather and compare data on lambing techniques, such as lambing on pasture vs in the barn, for the purpose of reducing labor required at lambing time.
d) Identify each producer’s method of predator control, documenting successful alternatives.

Management:
a) Facilitate better record keeping and continue using SPA to measure profitability.
b) Monitor reductions in feed purchases as an indicator of more efficient grass utilization.

Marketing. Roger Clapp will work with producers and other researchers to:
a) Evaluate the requirements and returns for each of the following markets: finished lambs to Yankee Shepherd Co-op, feeder lambs to Hirsel Ultra Lamb, finished natural lambs for the local freezer trade and farmers’ markets, Easter “hothouse” lamb markets, ethnic markets via Jeff Nichols, Bill Yates and others, and other markets as they develop.
b) Coordinate genetic and feed protocols between producers and buyers for the purpose of matching carcass characteristics (through breeding and feeding) to market demand.
c) Coordinate three graded and pooled sales to provide a low-input marketing opportunity for producers less interested in targeting their markets.

Initial Data Collection. During the fall of 1994 and the following winter, Extension professors Chet Parsons and Rick Wackernagel (members of the research team) worked with four producers to help them put their records on the SPA computerized record-keeping system. Data collected on these farms includes precipitation, grazing acres/exposed ewe, lambs born/exposed ewe, lambs weaned/exposed ewe, average fleece weight/ewe, average weaning age, average weaning weight, and lbs weaned/acre. Because supplemental funding for the study was obtained from SARE in April of 1995, we know that this information can be used as baseline data for the case studies we proposed to conduct in the expanded proposal.

The site descriptions of the farms involved in the case studies for the new project are as follows. These producers have all been members of the research team for the past one to two years as well.

Tom Cope – Bath, NH. The farm is 110 acres of pasture, hay meadow and alfalfa meadow. The land is located next to the Connecticut River, on a series of flat plateaus, so most of the land is fairly flat. The elevation is 600 feet. There are 166 ewes and 7 rams, most of which are Pollypay. The current grazing management is fairly intensive. There is high tensile fence around large pastures, which are then subdivided with electric net fencing. Sheep are usually moved every 12 hours to 3 days. Hay is harvested from many of the pastures during the summer. There are several guard dogs to protect the sheep from coyotes and other possible predators. The flock is lambed in May on pasture, using set stocking while “drifting” the un-lambed ewes onto fresh pasture several times per day.

Carol Dunsmore – Swanton, VT. Carol farms cooperatively with Doug Flack, often moving lambs and ewes between the farms to take advantage of the best quality forage. The topography of the farm is fairly flat, with a few rolling hills, and the soils are clay. There are about 30 ewes (soon increasing to 45) which are mostly Montedale crosses. Using “management intensive grazing,” Carol’s system uses 5 strand high tensile perimeter fencing with electric net fencing subdivision. There are four permanent paddocks with are half an acre each, as well as several larger permanent paddocks. The sheep are moved every 12 hours to once a week. Some of the farm is harvested for hay in June and July before being grazed. Forage quality and grazing management on this farm are good enough that no grain is fed to lambs, which are entirely finished on pasture.

Doug Flack – Fairfield, VT. Doug’s farm consists of 14 owned acres and 18 leased acres of pasture and hay meadow. The farm is moderately hilly, with very few steep areas. The elevation is 900 feet. There are 26 breeding ewes, and two rams. The sheep are mostly Montedale Leister crosses and come Coopworth. The flock size is being increased. Doug uses management intensive grazing, using five to seven strand high tension perimeter fencing, with subdivisions of pollywire and electric net fencing. A lot of the farm is harvested for hay during the summer, as well as being grazed. The sheep are moved to fresh pasture every 12 hours to three days. Forage quality and grazing management on this farm are good enough that no grain is fed to lambs, which are entirely finished on pasture.

Dave Martin – Underhill, VT. Dave’s farm is 48 acres of pasture. The farm is hilly, with several steep areas. The elevation is 1500 feet. He has 97 ewes and two rams. The grazing management is not very intensive. The sheep are moved on a rotating system between three or four large pastures, with access back to the barn most of the time. Most of the fencing is woven wire, with some electric fencing. Although Dave has not lost any lambs this year, predators have been a major problem on this farm, so the sheep are moved back to the barn yard every night. He has two guard donkeys.

Dave McDonough – Brookfield, VT. Dave’s farm is 59 acres of pasture and hay meadow. The farm is located on a hillside, although there are very few steep areas. The elevation is 1350 to 1550 feet. There are 64 ewes and 2 rams, most of which are colored breeds. The grazing management is fairly intensive. The sheep are grazed on a rotational system through three or four pastures, which have high tensile perimeter fencing and are subdivided with electric net fencing. The sheep are moved every 12 hours to every three days. Dave cuts hay from some of the flatter meadows on the farm which are not grazed. There are several guard dogs to protect the sheep from coyotes and other possible predators. His lambs are considerably heavier this year, and he believes it is due to his improved grazing management.

During the 1995 grazing season, Professor Parsons and grazing consultant Sarah Flack visited the case study farms several times to gather additional data. For example, lambs were weighed at each farm three times during the pasture season. In addition, soil and forage samples were taken and analyzed from each farm. Pasture species assessments were conducted on all farms. All this information will give baseline data to compare changes in, for example, rates of gain per day, species composition of the pasture, soil quality, etc. Economic data was also collected on the participating farms. This will enable the producers to compare net profitability, especially due to decreases in feed and vet costs, over time as changes are made on the farm.

In addition, pasture walks were held on three of the participating farms (Cope, Flack, McDonough) during the summer of 1995. Approximately 45 people attended these walks to learn from the experiences of the sheep producers. The focus was primarily on pasture management, but there was also considerable discussion on lambing and breeding techniques, animal health, and predator control.

Research results and discussion:
Conclusion

The planning grant enabled the research committee to accomplish its goals which were to conduct more market research and collect additional input from producers before designing the expanded proposal, and most importantly, to finalize the expanded proposal. In addition, the committee was able to use some of the funding to gather baseline data which will be used as the three-year project gets underway.

Participation Summary

Project Outcomes

Impacts of Results/Outcomes

With funding for the three year project secured, the potential contributions to the Vermont sheep industry are many. The research team will be able to work in depth with the four (during the first year) to ten (years two and three) producers who are the case study participants. The team will be able to document changes in the quality of the pastures, related animal production methods, the market viability of the pasture-finished lambs, and the financial status of the lambing operations. The information will be widely available to other producers through pasture walks, workshops and written reports. If the research team is able to successfully document that raising lamb primarily on pasture can enable producers to cut expenses significantly, more producers will adopt this method of production. Environmental problems associated with raising sheep in confinement, such as nutrient runoff from manure storage and excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides for feedgrain production, could be significantly reduced as well.

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.