Picture a ranch scene from the 1940s or 50s, and maybe even the 60s. What images appear? A diversified scene, with some chickens pecking around the yard, a milk cow around the barn, perhaps a few hogs nearby and, of course, cattle and sheep in the pastures.
Now picture that same ranch today. What’s missing?
Everything except the cattle.
There are lots of reasons for that, not the least of which is the economic push toward specialization in livestock production. But beef producers, considering ways to weather the next few years of higher cattle numbers and lower cattle prices, are looking at diversifying their operation with sheep.
That was a common combination a generation or two ago on many Northern Plains ranches, says Dave Ollila, Extension sheep field specialist with South Dakota State University. The baby boomer generation now running the ranch likely grew up with a cattle-sheep grazing combination, then got out of the sheep business for various reasons. Now their sons and daughters are preparing to take over and grandpa is telling them to get back into sheep, he says.
A quick look at the pros and cons shows that the once-common practice is worth considering, notes Kris Ringwall, Extension beef specialist with North Dakota State University.
Research in the early 80s at the Dickenson center found sheep diets complemented the grazing of cattle extremely well. The sheep production cycle, breeding, gestation and lactation of ewes compares favorably with the quality of forage selected seasonally by ewes, the researchers noted.
“The biological needs of sheep fit very well with cattle,” Ringwall says. That’s because cows and ewes tend to eat different things, Ollila says. Cattle eat the taller grasses while sheep eat forbs and short grasses.
Running the numbers
“Previous work at the Dickinson Research Extension Center revealed that for every cow on the operation, one ewe could be added with no reduction in stocking rates. Sheep do not compete directly with cattle when grazing a mixed-grass and forb forage base. So adding sheep offers production advantages. Those advantages help diversify grazing and grassland management,” Ringwall says.
Assume you’re running 200 cows on 5,000 acres, Ollila says, a fairly common stocking rate for the Northern Plains. You can graze 200 to 300 ewes on the same range and increase your cash flow accordingly.
Obviously, market factors will prevail, but Ollila says each ewe can produce a profit of as much as $100 per head. “That’s the wife going to town and having a day job.”
What’s more, sheep can help drought-proof your operation. During last year’s drought in the Dakotas and surrounding states, ranchers running sheep didn’t have to destock. “That’s because sheep are a desert animal,” Ollila says. Even during a drought, some plants will grow, such as sedges.
“Sedges run about 12% protein,” Ollila says, “and the sheep did well on them last year in the drought. The ewes milked well and the lambs came off in great shape.”
Now the cons
Operations have implemented cattle and sheep grazing and have been very successful. Also, some have tried the implementation of cattle and sheep on the grasslands and have failed.
It’s possible for the cow herd and the sheep flock to bond to one another and that’s far and away the best scenario, largely for predator control. But it’s not easy to achieve. So Ollila recommends running the cows and the ewes as separate enterprises, with the sheep either grazing ahead or behind the cowherd as animals are rotated through the pastures.
That’s because cows that aren’t bonded with sheep can be pretty rough on their smaller counterparts. When cattle and sheep drink together, the sheep can be pushed into the water tank. So Ollila recommends building a stair-step with cinder blocks to allow the sheep to wade to safety.
And when ewes and lambs run with cows and calves, “the cows will pound the lambs into the ground,” Ollila says.
Then there are production and marketing issues.
“To begin, the sheep industry, like most agricultural industries, has improved product output. Wool and lamb products are marketed to specifications that have market rewards and more work but, one hopes, more payback. The same is true with cattle because calves are marketed to meet increasing specifications for the market,” Ringwall says. The hope is that these specifications will embrace market rewards as well as increasing net profit.
But travelling down a more diverse agricultural path is all right, Ringwall says. The path is not simple, nor will it be quick, and producers have no assurances. Education will help, some ability to withstand growing pains is needed, and the time and labor to implement a new enterprise are essential, he adds.
“The Dickinson Research Extension Center is no different. Adding sheep has not been easy. In fact, the internal stories are rather harrowing – and I am not talking about tilling the ground; it was more like pillage and plunder.”
However, the center still has sheep. What makes sheep so difficult? The center’s ewes average 160 pounds, the cows 1,440. You need about nine ewes to equal one cow. If a lamb weighs 9 pounds at birth and a calf weighs 81 pounds at birth, nine lambs equal one calf.
“That’s the start of the problem. The smaller the animal is, the more care required. Sheep don’t die easier than cattle, but it means that one must respond quicker to a problem.
“If a coyote or other predator comes along and the choice is a 9-pound lamb protected by a 160-pound ewe or an 81-pound calf protected by a 1,440-pound cow, which does the coyote choose? The answer is a no-brainer: the lamb, and more than likely, the ewe will have two lambs, so the meal is easier and dessert is provided.”
Neither of these issues is insurmountable, just problematic, Ringwall says. “For sheep to survive within a cattle operation, a paradigm shift is necessary: Producers need to respond quickly to illness and weather issues. Except for susceptibility to parasites, sheep do not have an increased incidence of health issues, but an internal and external parasite program is needed.”
Fencing also must be considered. “With new electric fence techniques, cattle and sheep can cohabitate without predator issues. I am not going to say that step is simple or cheap. Recent understanding indicates that bonding cattle and sheep decreases predator loss; plus, the use of guard dogs offers good predator control. Bonded cattle and sheep work together and help the grasslands,” he says.
Finally, a ewe should wean 80%-plus of her body weight annually, while a cow most likely will wean a little more than 40%. Twice the production requires better nutritional monitoring during pregnancy and lambing, so producers can make no nutritional mistakes.
“Nevertheless, the opportunity with cattle and sheep is real,” Ringwall concludes.