The biggest pitfalls to producing grassfed lamb

By Janet McNally

Hinckley, Minnesota — There is no denying that producing a grassfed lamb requires skill and know-how. Grazing is about replacing purchased inputs with knowledge inputs. Unlike grains and stored forages that can be tested and formulated into a ration with a predictable result, green and growing forages are constantly changing.

Therefore it is impossible to offer a cookbook for producing grassfed lambs and expect everyone, everywhere, to achieve the same result. A lot of education is required. Most importantly, the grazier needs to train his or her eye to observe forages and animals so they know when to make changes. This will not happen without just jumping in and getting some experience — hopefully first in the pastures of a mentor, then later in your own pastures.

With all of this in mind, I will attempt to describe the six biggest pitfalls that get in the way of producing grassfed lambs.

No. 6: Predators
You are likely to lose a substantial number of lambs in your first encounter with predators if you do not have a viable strategy to stop them. I get calls all the time from people who thought that because they had suffered no prior losses, the coyotes would always leave their flock alone. But then a serious problem develops overnight.

In my opinion, it is only a matter of time before your lamb smorgasbord is discovered, so it is best not to count on good fortune alone to keep them safe. I will not go into a detailed discussion of predator management strategies here. However, if you are not using electric fencing and guardian animals — yes, I mean more than one —you are probably vulnerable. Predator losses are the most discouraging sheep problem, and will cause more people to exit the business than any other single issue.

No. 5: Forage quality
This is the trickiest aspect of grazing. While you can test your pastures, and I recommend doing so to help train your eye, most of your management is going to depend upon visually assessing the paddock and your animals. While it would seem ideal to graze the paddock when it is at an optimal nutritional state, always doing so may cause more problems than it solves. (See No. 3.)

It is very difficult to describe “lamb-quality” forage in words, and I highly recommend going to pasture walks to learn by seeing. If I were to try to capture this in words, I would describe quality forage for lactating ewes and growing lambs as being the newest three leaves and the stem tips of grasses, and just the top halves of red clover and alfalfa. Anything lower on the plant is maintenance-quality forage that produces lower gains, or none at all.

Forage quality also varies with the season and management strategy. When using mob stock grazing with six-week rest periods, almost the entire plant is nutritious during the first trip around in early spring. By the second trip the plants will have gone to seed, and only the very top three leaves are adequate for lactating ewes and lambs. Often lamb performance will suffer some in this second grazing unless one is diligent about moving the sheep after grazing only the top 30%. The third trip around will provide more tender grass, and the lambs will make up for some of the earlier lost gains. But again, one must be diligent to prevent the flock from overgrazing the paddock.

No. 4: The finishing plan

Most grasses and legumes go dormant after being frosted a time or two. Grasses start pulling the sugars from their leaves and storing them in their roots, making the forage less palatable. As it takes seven to eight months to produce a finished lamb on grass, and the growing season in the North is only six months long, a high-energy annual crop such as turnips can help finish lambs after the end of the growing season. The other choice is to lamb early to finish on cool season grasses prior to the first hard frost.

No. 3: Parasites

Even if you do a bang-up job of grass management, lamb health and growth will be significantly impaired if your sheep go onto a paddock that has a heavy load of parasite larvae. Unfortunately, the management that gives us the most vegetative, high-quality grazing typically will put the sheep back in the paddock at the peak of the larvae population.

Hemonchus contortus is one of the most economically damaging sheep parasites. H.C. eggs hatch five to 10 days after the manure hits the ground, and the larvae will live an additional two or three weeks. This means the sheep need to move out of the paddock before the hatch begins. And they should not return to that paddock three or four weeks later even if this is when the forage is at its quality peak, as this time frame will also be the peak in the HC larvae population.

These larvae will start to die off and, under ideal conditions (hot and humid), the paddock will be significantly less contaminated eight weeks after the sheep left the paddock. For most of us, resting a paddock six to eight weeks means grazing forage considerably more mature than the ideal. However, my observation is that it is probably more important to accept a lower plane of nutrition in keeping the sheep healthy than it is to graze a paddock at the perfect stage of maturity.

There are other strategies for managing parasites depending upon your situation. A few Katahdin breeders are starting to pay attention to parasite resistance, as are breeders of Dorsets and White Suffolks in Australia. Plants such as birdsfoot trefoil and chicory contain tannins that can help keep the parasite load in check. Some find the use of copper wires in the rumen beneficial.

Probably the biggest management errors I see in terms of controlling parasites are continuously grazed pastures and using the same lanes or barnyards to access water, as such areas become heavily contaminated with parasite eggs. One thing for sure: depending upon drenches is no longer a sustainable approach to parasite prevention.

No. 2: Genetics
I deliberated over whether or not this should be the most important stumbling block. If you do not have the right genetics for your environment, the rest of this discussion is moot. Some breeds that excel in dry country just cannot thrive on forages in humid climates. Animals with large frames tend to require more time to finish and may not do so in the time allowed by the grazing season.

Choose breeds or crossbreeds appropriate for your level of management and forage quality. If you tend to be a low-input manager and graze more mature forages, an easy-keeping breed that produces a smaller lamb crop might be more suitable. Those who always have high-quality forages can manage a more prolific breed or one with greater growth potential. A parasite-resistant breed is a necessity if you are not going to manage to avoid infections. The best way to decide which breeds best fit your climate is to get out and visit other sheep producers in your area to see what is working for them.

No. 1: Observation
The most powerful tools you have in the grass-finished lamb business are your eyeballs. Successful production of grassfed lambs heavily depends on observing and making changes on the fly. If off-farm jobs or other responsibilities make this impossible, then grass-finishing lamb is probably not a good fit for you.

While there are plenty of potential pitfalls to grass-finishing, they can be avoided with proper attention to detail. The rewards can be lower production costs, less labor and the potential to tap the growing premium grassfed lamb market. It’s up to you to decide whether the risks are worth the rewards.

Janet McNally grazes sheep near Hinckley, Minnesota.