Expanding Profits for Sheep Production Through Intensive Pasture Management

1995 Annual 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

Expanding Profits for Sheep Production Through Intensive Pasture Management


Vermont researchers and sheep producers are using a cooperative learning and outreach model to investigate the financial viability of pasture-based sheep production.

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

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

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

* Implement a model for cooperative research and information dissemination.

Results to Date
Several farms showed a trend of increasing average daily gain each year as they learned how to better manage growing lambs on pasture.

There were large differences between farms in costs, income and production. The average feed cost per ewe on farms ranged from $13 to $220.

Increasing the intensity of grazing management can lower spring and summer feed costs.

Increased production and improved management of stockpiled fall and spring grazing can significantly lower the quantity of winter hay fed per ewe.

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.

Carefully timing 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.

Method and Results
This project is starting with case studies of Vermont sheep producers currently experimenting with pasture-based systems. The number of participating farms increased from six to ten in 1997, and in 1998 included 620 breeding ewes on ten 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 to measure average daily gains, and we collected flock production and financial information on an annual basis using the SPA (Standardized Performance Analysis) program.

Pasture species composition was measured each year in two pastures on each farm. Species composition changes occurred during the study on many farms due to changes in pasture management strategies. On one farm, clover content increased due to intensive grazing management. Another farm showed an increase in clover and a decrease in weed species because of improved soil fertility and grazing management. One farm was preventing parasite infection by allowing the pasture to grow taller, both pre- and post-grazing; in one field, this decreased the clover content due to shading from 14.5% to 1.2%. Another farm that was trying to improve pasture productivity by decreasing weed species was able to decrease the weeds from 49% to 20.3% by changing grazing techniques.

Soil fertility was tested in at least two pastures on each farm. Soil on many of the farms is acidic and low fertility. This is probably because the majority of the farms are hill farms that were abandoned as dairy farms ten to thirty years ago. One management method being used by several producers to improve soil fertility is wintering livestock out and feeding out hay on pasture. Over two years, one producer was able to increase the soil phosphorous levels by 11% and potassium levels by 10% on one field and by 21% and 36% on another field using this technique. On another farm, soil organic matter was increased from 5.7% to 9.7% with intensified short-term grazing on one field, and from 7% to 10.1% on another field by grazing and composted manure applications.

Forage quality was tested once each year on two fields on each farm. Dry matter content of the pastures varied from 14% to 25% according to the with stage of maturity and the weather. Crude protein varied from 13% to 28% with stage of maturity and species composition.

Lambs were weighed at least twice on each farm during the growing season, allowing us to track average daily gain from farm to farm and from year to year. Rates of gain varied from 0.7 lb. per day to 0.35 lb. per day due to differences in breeding and in management style. As expected, rates of gain on most individual farms tended to decrease as lambs got older and after weaning. On one farm, the average daily gain dropped to below 0.1 lb. per day in the fall in older lambs. Several farms showed a trend of increasing average daily gain each year as they learned how to better manage growing lambs on pasture. One farm stopped feeding grain and delayed weaning, yet the average daily gain increased from 0.34 lb. per day to 0.49 from 1996 to 1998 due to improved pasture management.

All the participating producers are using the SPA computerized record keeping system to track finances and production. Several of the producers have attended Holistic Management courses and are implementing some of those principals on their farms.

In 1998, we held a lamb carcass evaluation and meat cutting workshop on the campus of the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier. Three lamb carcasses were evaluated -- one that was primarily grass finished, one was primarily grain finished, and the last was finished on a mixture of grass and grain. The class compared the differences between the three methods of production and learned what attributes the market was looking for.

Economic Analysis
Annual financial and production data was collected each year on each farm using the SPA program. Data collected and to be analyzed from SPA programs include feed cost per ewe, return on assets (cost basis), return on assets (market basis), gross revenue per ewe, gross revenue per acre, total operating expenses per ewe, total operating expenses per acre, income after expenses per ewe, income after expenses per acre, lambs weaned per ewe exposed, average weaning age, pounds of lamb per ewe exposed, acres per exposed ewe, pounds of lamb per acre, and pounds of feed per breeding ewe.

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

Reported December, 1998. 1999 Northeast Region SARE/ACE Report.