Expanding Profits for Sheep Production Through Intensive Pasture Management

Final Report for LNE95-054

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1995: $82,427.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1999
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $84,689.00
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Kate Duesterberg
Center for Sustainable Agriculture, University of Vermont
Expand All

Project Information


Vermont researchers and sheep producers are collaborating on an investigation of the financial viability of pasture based sheep production using a cooperative learning and outreach model. The project is starting with case studies of Vermont sheep producers currently experimenting with pasture based systems. Production methods and financial data is being collected and analyzed to begin to answer the following questions.

Can producers make a profit by more effectively utilizing the pasture resource? What management and/or planning tools are effective for meeting economic and lifestyle goals of sheep producers? Does a cooperatively managed research and outreach program produce more readily usable information for agricultural producers?

The number of participating farms increased from 6 to 10 in 1997, and in 1998 included 620 breeding ewes on 10 farms in Vermont and New Hampshire. On each farm we measured pasture species composition, soil fertility, and forage quality at least once each year. We weighed lambs at least twice each year on each farm in order to measure average daily gains, and we collected flock production and financial information on an annual basis using the SPA (Standardized Performance Analysis) program. When we were collecting our final data, we realized that we would not get good or even nearly complete data from two of the participating farms. This was due in one case primarily to family illness and in the other case to the fact that the producers both worked full time off the farm and were not able to keep up with the data collection process. The case study report that we publish for farmer use will include 8 of the original 10 participating farms.

Project Objectives:

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

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

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

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


Research results and discussion:

A. Investigate the economic feasibility and production capacity of finishing lambs on pasture:

There was a lot of variability from farm to farm in many factors including farm size (land used for the sheep ranged from 17 to 78 acres), breed and number of sheep (flock size varied from 23 to 115), management style and marketing methods. The charts in Appendix A provide the data we gathered on the pasture species composition, the soil analysis, the average daily gains, and the SPA analysis from each of the 8 farms. Our research team had the following observations, based on the data gathered, and more importantly, on the researcher and farmer analysis. The farms are listed by number to preserve anonymity for the producers.

Management styles included lambing dates from late winter through late spring pasture lambing, some grain feeding to zero grain feeding, very intensive grazing management to simple pasture rotations through larger areas, no vaccinations and no deworming to routine vaccinations and worming, and extended grazing into fall and winter months with less hay feeding to more reliance on hay feeding starting in the fall months. Marketing styles included selling lambs to auction, selling freezer lambs, selling breeding stock, selling value added meat and wool products to restaurants and stores and selling whole carcasses to restaurants. This variation in styles gave farmers a great deal of subject material to discuss with each other as they each considered the best way to run their own farms.

Average daily gain of lambs varied on all the farms over a 4 year period from .34 lbs per day to .76 lbs per day. As expected, higher gains occurred when lambs were younger, before weaning, and the rate of gain was lower after weaning, as lambs grew larger. Several of the farms attained satisfactory rates of gain with no supplemental grain feeding while doing very intensive grazing management. (for example, farm 001 went from .50 to .54 lbs/day, and farm 004 from .51 to .54 lbs/day) Farms which practiced less intensive grazing management and also fed no grain tended to have somewhat lower rates of gain. (for instance, farm 003 went from .34 to .40 lbs/day and farm 005 from .34 to .43 lbs/day and 006: .35 to .44 lbs/day). Lambs on farms feeding grain had rates of gain which were sometimes, but not consistently, higher. (farm 007 went from .48 to .61 lbs/day and farm 009 from .38 to .39 lbs/day).

Some of the farms showed improvements in rates of gains during the study as they improved management. Farmer 003 had steadily increasing carcass weights and rates of gain as he improved pasture quality and grazing management. Parasite problems decreased rates of gains on some farms, particularly in 1998, which was a wet summer with higher than usual parasite problems.

Soil Fertility of farms in this study ranged from good quality valley bottom agricultural soils to low fertility stony and steep hill farm pastures. Some of the farms with relatively poor soil fertility were able to make some improvements during the study. For example, farm 001 has raised the fertility of one field by applying manure, winter hay feeding, lime and rock phosphate. This change does seem to be reflected in the soil test results for farm 001 (specific results from soil tests are included in the appendices). Farm 009 used "mob stocking" to clear and improve some brushy pasture land, and this also seems to be reflected in the soil test results. However, many of the participating farmers who saw improved management creating improved pasture quality and animal performance on their farms commented that the soil tests did not seem to reflect the same level of improvement and changes.

Of all the data collected, several farmers commented that the forage analysis was the least useful in the long run. It was helpful in the first season for the farmers to see what the lab's nutritional analysis of their pastures was and to use that information in discussion with other farmers and researchers. Several of the farmers said these discussions were helpful in the early part of the study in their management changes to decrease the amount of grain the fed.

Forage analysis results varied mostly with the stage of maturity of the pasture at the time of sampling. Dry matter content varied from 15.1 to 28.6%, and crude protein varied from 13.8 (in a brushy pasture) to 30%. The information on protein content was useful to farmers as they were able to switch to lower protein (less expensive) grains.

Pasture species composition data was useful in generating discussion between farmers and researchers, but since the sampling areas were so small, they didn't always reflect the changes going on as pasture quality improved. However, on several farms, improved pasture management did change the species composition, and this was both observed by the farmers and researchers, and reflected in the species composition data. For example: The Ridge pasture on farm 001 showed an increase in clover content from 16% to 28.8%. Farm 002's Landing Pasture showed an increase in clover from .3% to 16.4% and the Hovencamp Pasture showed a decrease in forbs (weeds) from 44.8% to 7.6%. Farm 007's Hillside Pasture showed a decrease in forbs (mostly smartweed) from 49% to 20.3%. These changes occurred in pastures where grazing was intensive or increasingly intensive, and pre grazing heights were in some cases lowered to decrease shading of smaller plants. On another farm, a decrease in stocking rate and intensity of grazing of one field seemed to result in less clover growth (the percentage of clover went from 14.5% to 1.2%).

Participation Summary


Educational approach:

As described above, we plan to publish a booklet that outlines the findings from this project. Our goal is to have this completed by the time the y2000 grazing season starts. We will have about 250 copies made to start with and distribute them to sheep producers throughout the state. Outlets for distribution will be the Vermont Sheep Breeders Association, pasture walks, workshops at the Sheet & Wool Festival in October, the Sheeposium in November, the annual grazing conference in February.

No milestones

Project Outcomes

Impacts of Results/Outcomes

The greatest benefit to producers who took part in this study is that it encourages them to take a serious look at their operation. This was done through many different means in this study. We recorded management and financial information through the SPA program. This provide us with accurate records of sheep management such number of lambs per ewe and number of lambs sold per ewe. It provided us with much needed financial information on each producer's enterprise with such things as expenses per ewe, income per ewe, and income per acre. By weighing lambs at different intervals during their growth, we were able to determine the average daily gain of lambs on each farm. Producers kept records of how their pastures were grazed. This gave them a better understanding of how to manage pastures to increase the pasture production. This allowed them to increase the number of animals on the same number of acres. By allowing farmers to see real numbers, they can then make management changes to improve their operation.

Changes in Practice on participating farms included:

* Decreasing or elimination of grain feeding on some farms. One producer cut the quantity of grain fed to ewes and lambs by 1/3 in 1997. Three producers are now feeding no grain at all.

* Several producers increased their ewe flock size to keep up with increased pasture productivity and increased market demand. Some producers decreased flock size due to dissatisfaction with breed performance on pasture, or due to changes in parasite control strategies.

* Several producers invested in fencing to allow better grazing management over a larger number of acres.

* Three producers are used mob-stocking to reclaim brushy overgrown pastures and improve quality and productivity.

* Three producers are now trying to manage their flocks organically.
* Two producers experimented with out wintering ewes and feeding hay out on pasture to
improve soil fertility, organic matter content and pasture productivity.

* Two producers experimented with compost application on pasture. Compost is being made from bedded winter manure packs.

* Several producers changed their marketing strategies. One farmer is now selling retail value added lamb and wool products.

Operational Recommendations

One of the most important findings to come out of this study are base-line numbers that can now be used to construct realistic budgets for these and other sheep producers in the state and surrounding states. This is requested often and in the past we have not had actual figures to use. Also, given that case studies accompany each set of numbers, we have a much better idea of which style of management is the most successful.

From the information gathered, we now can recommend different management techniques, based on real situations. This includes pasture management, lamb management, and different marketing systems. Some of the marketing systems include organically grown lamb, lambs sold to a feeder, lambs sold to a restaurant and lambs sold to the freezer trade.

Increasing the intensity of grazing management can lower spring and summer feed costs. This is due not only to the increasing quantity of forage available, but to the improved plant density and nutritional quality. Increased production and improved management of stockpiled fall and spring grazing can significantly lower the quantity of winter hay fed per ewe. This can significantly decrease the per ewe winter feed costs.

Close attention to forage quality (of hay and pasture) combined with close attention to ewe body condition score can help decrease feed costs by supplying high quality and high quantity forage to ewes only when they need it. In addition to this, timing of when ewes lamb to match seasonal fluctuations in the quality and quantity of forage can significantly decrease the quantity of hay and can decrease (or eliminate the need for grain.

Attention to selecting ewes and rams which perform well on a spring lambing, pasture based management system will, over time, reduce management and feeding costs. This requires producers to keep good ewe records, and use them in a consistent manner when selecting replacement ewes. For some producers, purchasing rams which are proven to produce offspring which perform well on pasture may also be helpful.

Economic Analysis

Economic Analysis The economic analysis was based on data collected through the SPA program. The charts in Appendix A show the raw data taken from the SPA information. Some of the information collected in the SPA program provided very valuable ways for farmers to look at their own farm operation during the study. The examples below show changes and improvements in management that are reflected in some of the SPA data.

--> Several farmers decided to try to decrease the amount of stored (hay) fed and were able to make significant reductions. Pounds of feed fed on farm 003 decreased from 2161 to 1225. Farm 004 went from 654 to 449 while farm 005 went from 1440 to 800, and farm 007 went from 1216 to 840.

--> Decrease use of stored hay fed and decrease or elimination of grain supplementation seems to have reduced feed costs per ewe on some farms. Farm 001 feed costs went from $81 to $28 and farm 003's costs went from $206 to $64. Feed costs were often related to other factors such as repairs to haying equipment, fluctuations in feed costs and weather, so most farms showed variations in feed cost from year to year.

--> Income after expense per ewe varied considerably from farm to farm, and sometimes from year to year ($91 per ewe to $252 per ewe). Farms which were showing mostly positive (profitable) numbers include the farms with the largest and smallest flock size, farms selling lambs mostly to auction, farms selling value added products, farms feeding no grain and one farm which fed a small amount of grain to lambs. Farms which were able to keep feed costs relatively low with good grazing management and extended grazing seasons were more likely to be profitable.

An unexpected result of looking at the SPA data on all 8 farms during the study is the fact that we realized that many of the farms are diversified, and sheep are only part of the whole farm business. These farms which include other livestock and crops were often more profitable during more years of the study than some of the other farms.

Areas needing additional study

We have heard many suggestions from sheep producers and from others involved on the research team that more information needs to be collected on identifying better genetics for grass based production. A program is needed that identifies and tracks ewes and rams whose offspring excel on pasture based systems. The producers are interested in breeding for characteristics that enhance grazing capacity. The information on this subject has not been well documented in this country. We have learned that there are breeding programs in Europe and Great Britain that are designed to help producers breed for characteristics in sheep that enable better utilization of forage. The members of the research team feel there is a need for a literature review at the minimum and, ideally, for a multi year project which examines the effects of introducing new genetics identified as being beneficial to grazing systems.

Farmer Evaluations

For our case study write up, we did interviews with the producers after they had reviewed the data we collected. We will include the producer observations as an important part of the case study report. Included here are some examples, direct quotes, of producers' conclusions about the project.

--> "I have come to a point of view that it is a mistake to have an individual animal promoted as profitable... they are ALL marginal, especially by themselves. The complimentary nature of many kinds of livestock operates at all levels of the farm organism and farm economy. The obvious thing is that you should be integrating a lot of different types of livestock and working with smaller numbers of each. It is more realistic to promote diversified farming than just sheep. Also, unless a person is very dedicated to intensive grazing management, they won't be profitable. " (Producer 001)

--> "This Project was really worthwhile. Improvements on farms can't happen overnight. It takes years because we are dealing with the biological cycle of livestock. The hardest thing to do was to switch my intellectual focus from the animals to the grass.

The project should have done more on grass -- have an agronomist sit with farmers to look at measures of how to see how grass improves. We should have weighed lambs monthly and collected more detailed data. I think you should give a scale to each farmer discussion group and get them to weight their sheep every 30 days.

The thing I relied on was the meetings with the other farmers, especially after the pasture walk when we were able to sit down together and talk. I felt like my colleagues were so honest it was exceptionally useful. After every meeting I would come back and go over everything (in my sheep operation)

I learned a lot about grass and the animals too. But I think that if I had concentrated on grass earlier It would have been better. I would have stockpiled more, had a faster rotation (shorter periods of occupation in each paddock), and better parasite control through grazing. After the sheep go through, they leave some grass behind. I would like to know why they leave what they do and what should/could be done. I should have built better electric fence earlier. First capital expenditure should be on controlling the sheep.

I didn't expand the flock at the same rate that the pasture improved. I had 60 ewes at the start, but by year three, 100 ewes was not enough... I should have gone to 250 ewes.

The flavor and tenderness of my lambs improved steadily and I think largely as a result of this project. Our objective to prove that you could raise lambs to market weight on grass alone... this can be done!" (Producer 003)

--> "What is better and what have I learned as a result of this project? A better defined community of Vermont shepherds has developed in the time of this project, and in part due to this project. I have learned some nuances about profitably using sheep to help a farm express its character and vitality. The scales and the SPA program specifically have made some facts out of thoughts and ideas. The project has given me more confidence to continue farm management along the lines that appear in the farm itself.

This project is the first time that I know of that anyone has collected real information on a wide range of productions and economic figures from a group of Vermont shepherds over several years. " (004)

--> "I have had an improvement of focus... I am going to focus on producing meat from grass. People may need to give up their favorite breeds to do this. I am interested in selecting for or finding ewes that graze and do well on grass. It would be interesting to compare crossbreeds using a good record keeping system.

What have I learned? I need to improve my management, whether on grass or in a feed lot. I need better records and better handling. Records don't lie. I would love to weigh lambs regularly in future years.

What better on the farm? Improved data and records and lamb weights. I don't know if anything has improved in the pastures. I plan to do more winter feeding with more care to improve some poor pastures. This had a significant effect on the pasture it was done on, but it was fed too heavily and the sheep were in one place for too long so the clover was smothered and there was a lot of grass. I feel more solid about ideas on how to improve soil fertility without expensive purchases now." (006)

--> "We have learned a great deal during the past three years, particularly about our farm as a business. And we are beginning to reach our near term financial objectives within the scale of operation we have chosen. We have reduced our real and indirect costs, improved our pastures, and have a higher return per ewe. One of our key objectives was to increase the return from each lamb sold by increasing the market weight. Our goal was to exceed 47 pounds carcass weight on average. During the first third of our 1999 shipping year, our lambs are weighing in at 51.9 pounds on average! This project has contributed to our understanding of our cost structure. And it has had a major impact on our ability to raise quality grass in quantity, thanks to Sarah Flack's tutelage." (007)

--> The most valuable thing was visiting other farms in the project and going on pasture walks. Interaction with other farmers was very helpful, I wish there was more of that. Our pastures are better because we participated in this project.

I think our grazing is the most important thing that we have learned, especially since it has allowed us to have a longer grazing season. The project has also helped us look at costs too. We are more conscious of feeding grain and other costs. The only way we could make more money is to cut costs more... cutting costs right across the board!

We'll make more money in 1999 with fewer lambs (we are keeping more replacements) due to our changes in marketing this year. We are selling light lambs directly to restaurants." (009)

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.