Debunking the ‘can’t finish lambs on grass’ myth

By Janet McNally

Hinckley, Minnesota—One of the more rewarding things I do is visit sheep graziers around the U.S. and Canada who do an outstanding job producing a quality product. I’ve been absolutely amazed at the healthy, well-grown lambs with clean backsides and loads of bloom that reach marketable weights on all-forage programs.

Photo: Janet McNally. Janet McNally’s May-born lambs were raised on native pastures until weaning, then finished for six weeks on turnips. They were wormed with valbazen August 1 and September 15 for flukes. Average weight for the entire lamb crop was 82 lbs. on November 16, and another five weeks of grazing should put the average to 100 lbs. Including the dam’s feed cost, total per-lamb feed cost from birth to 100 lbs. is $18.

While everyone is almost on their own in exploring what works and what does not, many of these people come to the same conclusions on some things, such as breeds that work and those that do not. Yet they may have a dozen different strategies for addressing problems such as parasites, all of which work. The bottom line is that there are a good number of producers around the country producing quality, grass-fed lambs. Continue reading “Debunking the ‘can’t finish lambs on grass’ myth”

Sheep add value to organic crop rotation

Ontario family shows they can cut costs, add income on tillable land

By Janet McNally It has always been my contention that sheep in the Grain Belt should be a part of a mixed crop and livestock farm. In most parts of the world, sheep are not the only enterprise on tillable cropland. They are employed as integral components of cropping programs by assisting with weed control and soil fertility, and in marketing crop residues.

Photo: Janet McNally. To smooth the weaning process, the Boettchers set up a temporary pen and chute, and allow lambs to play there for a few days before they’re sorted. Son Martin is in foreground.

With the right approach, sheep are a very profitable addition to such farms. Modern agriculture has encouraged mono-cropping, with fertilizers and farm chemicals replacing livestock as crop management tools. Mono-cropping livestock has been a growing trend as well. Continue reading “Sheep add value to organic crop rotation”

Tips for strengthening the ewe-lamb bond

By Janet McNally, Hinckley, Minnesota — At this writing I am smack dab in the middle of lambing, so please forgive me if I’m having a difficult time writing about any other subject. I had planned to finish a second article on crossbreeding, and will get to that in the next issue, but I would like to address lambing while it is fresh on my mind.

The subject here is bonding, which is of tremendous importance to lamb survival in pasture lambing programs where there are no pens to keep newborns with their mothers. The bonding process occurs from birth through the first few days of life. The dam may reject her lamb if they are separated for as little as 30 minutes after birth. The more lambs in each litter, the more important it is that all of them remain with the ewe at all times. Continue reading “Tips for strengthening the ewe-lamb bond”

Stop farming your ranch!

By Janet McNally, Hinckley, Minnesota — Seventeen years ago, Kelley O’Neil handed me a tattered magazine clipping from the April 1990 issue of Beef Today. Headlined “Stop Farming Your Ranch,” the article was festooned with handwritten comments, circled paragraphs, and underlined sentences. Kelley, a beef and sheep producer near Rushford, Minnesota, had long been a source of valuable ideas and philosophies.

I was definitely receptive to change in 1990. The lamb market was riding a roller coaster, ranging from $1.00/lb. to below 50 cents over a 10-year period. I had been pushing production continually higher, using all the latest practices promoted at the time. These usually entailed ever greater purchased inputs, such as more feed, higher-performing rations, antibiotics, and more labor. This was the era of “clip, dip and strip,” where we did everything possible to save every lamb and make it grow as fast as possible. Continue reading “Stop farming your ranch!”

Gain without grain: options for finishing lambs

Janet McNally with lambs

By Janet McNally, Hinckley, Minnesota — In the previous two issues I examined late-gestation ewe rations: and ewe lactation/early-lamb growth rations using conventional hay/grain and pasture-based solutions. In late gestation, the relatively little grain required had only a small impact on total feed cost. Pasture presented a much larger cost-saving advantage over grain/hay during the lactation phase. This month, let’s look at finishing, taking the lamb from weaning at 120 days of age (75 lbs.) through to 110-120 lbs.

As the accompanying table (made from available data and personal experience) indicates, there is potential for substantial savings with pasture finishing. Yet this stage and the relative benefits of alternative rations are difficult to analyze, because the number of possible options is so great. Continue reading “Gain without grain: options for finishing lambs”

Fall is for rebuilding ewe body condition

By Janet McNally, Hinckley, Minnesota — How you manage your ewes between September 1 and November 1 will make or break next year’s lamb crop. Once winter weather sets in, outwintered ewes seem to be challenged to gain any further weight, especially if they are starting off thin. For us the magic date seems to be November 1. Whatever we can achieve by then is what our flock has to live with for the rest of the winter. Body condition determines ovulation rate, ability to withstand the cold, and future milk production. Sure, you can purchase body condition by supplementing heavily with the grain pail, but the same can be achieved on pasture through management without spending a dime.

There are three components to fall sheep management that will determine what kind of body condition your ewes will be sporting when the rams go in. The first is weaning date, the second is pasture allowance after weaning, and the third is intestinal parasite status. Mismanage any one of these three, and you have to pay, either through reduced lamb production the following year, or through purchased supplements. Continue reading “Fall is for rebuilding ewe body condition”