Before receiving the grant, I was not very involved with sustainable agriculture activities. I raise and show club lambs and also work with my neighbor who had a small pasture for his ewes. He lost the flock in February of 2009 in a barn fire. He rebuilt his flock and barn. With the help and advice of extension agents and sheep producers involved with pasture grazing, we both learned new techniques such as smaller grazing paddocks and temporary fences to implement this project.
The overall goal was to implement a grass-fed lamb system in my small flock and also to work with my neighbor to implement one for his mature ewe flock and replacement ewe flock. To measure growth on the ewe lambs, they were weighed periodically to see if their growth was comparable to grain-fed lambs. I also wanted to work with producers who had implemented a grass-fed system to learn the in’s and out’s of making the project successful.
As mentioned before, I wanted to implement a grass-fed lamb system with my small flock of 10 mature ewes and replacement ewe lambs. In order to keep the sample consistent, I measured growth on a group of black-faced ewe lambs born between December and February after weaning throughout the summer. The ewe lambs were sired by the same ram in my flock and those in my neighbor’s flock were of common genetic background. Common age and common genetics help make the group as consistent as possible in the project. I chose not to include wethers in the project as they tend to grow more quickly and I also needed them for showing during the time of the study.
The grant funds were used to purchase posts and wire which allowed me to create a grass-fed system for my lambs. My neighbor, who had a group of 50 ewe lambs and 100 mature ewes, converted about 25 acres of hayfields to sheep pasture. As the fall approached, ewe lambs that were at least 130 pounds were put in with the ram for spring lambing.
I am thankful for the many resource persons in this project. My neighbor, Joe Marhofer, was helpful in allowing me access to a larger group of lambs to research. Pat Henne of Springport, Michigan, was another great resource. I had the opportunity to visit his pasture-based operation to see how he manages nearly 200 commercial ewes in a pasture-based system using grass and turnips along with May lambing. I also used MSU Extension agents and ideas from the Michigan Club Lamb Association and the Michigan Sheep Breeders Association. I also utilized the livestock scale from my school’s agriculture program for weighing purposes.
In this study on grass-fed replacement ewe lambs, I found that growth rates averaged about 0.35 pounds per day over the months of May through September. In addition to acceptable growth rates, a visual assessment of body condition resulted in selection of over 75% of the flock that were in good condition for fall breeding. In my research on lamb growth, average rate of gain is between 0.25 and 0.75 pounds per day. I was pleased with the results of this study because it shows that normal growth can be achieved without expensive inputs of grains in lamb rations. The project resulted in a working system for my lambs and also a larger system to study at my neighbor’s operation. In the future, I plan to look at nutrient management in my pasture system to determine if additional fertilizer needs to be added in addition to the manure that is being returned from the sheep.
I learned three important lessons from this project. The first is that sustainable agriculture is a better production system if the land resources are available for grazing. Start-up costs and time are reduced as the system costs are spread out over a number of years. Manure management is much simpler as nutrients are returned to the soil. The second thing I learned was that the grass-fed system allows my ewe lambs to grow at a gradual rate which allows them to mature at a more natural rate as a ruminant animal. The third is that the land my lambs are on is taken care of in a more natural state compared to dry-lot operations that removed plant cover from the soil. It has been a great learning experience for me and my family in implementing this project. It is also educational to work with my neighbor and see the positive effects of pasture-based systems on his operation. It has diversified his farm and created a potential market for grass-fed lamb in the community.