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No wool over their eyes

Grazing preference, fencing, and parasite issues are among the quirks sheep producers deal with when attempting high stock density grazing

Markus Wand can draw on a long family history of high intensity rotational grazing and adapting it to different species.

His operation, Wand Family Farm near Powassan, Ont., has been rotationally grazing since the ’70s when Markus’s father, Klaus, bought a dairy farm and turned to the practice to help manage the farm’s purebred herd.

The practice followed decades later, when the Wand family made the shift from dairy to a cow-calf operation in 1996, and again in 2003, when the farm added sheep.

Today, the farm markets itself on both its sustainably produced sheep and beef herds, livestock that was on pace to reach to 70 cow-calf pairs and about 700 ewes this year, and in 2017 earned the Ontario Forage Council’s Mapleseed Sheep Pasture Management Award.

“Having grown up with dairy cattle and then having beef cattle after the dairy cows were sold, sheep definitely put us in a relatively steep, quick learning curve,” Wand said. “Some people said that they are ‘just like little cows.’ That is true in some ways, but very different in many other ways.

“I would say that the biggest difference between the two is their difference in hardiness,” he later added. “Not so much outwintering (the sheep outwinter just as well or better than the cattle), but just in general survivability. Cattle just seem to have a lot more toughness and don’t seem to die as easily as sheep or lambs.”

Fenced in

Fencing is perhaps the most obvious infrastructure shift between cattle to sheep. Based on a short, intense graze, followed by a move to a new paddock, sometimes in the course of a single day, fencing and water are among the biggest needs of an adaptive system. That need is less for many beef producers, who use temporary paddocks with a single strand of polywire. For sheep, however, the number of strands must be bumped, adding labour to a system that already involves moving fence.

Bill Gibson, who grazes 200 ewes off a quarter section in central Alberta, says he uses three strands, a number that Wand has echoed.

“There’s more labour and management involved, but it’s paid huge dividends in dollars earned per acre,” he said.

Gibson has adaptively grazed since 1984, a philosophy that has extended to his work with cattle, on the rare times that he has added calves to his operation.

Allen Williams, a well-known grazing instructor and regenerative agriculture advocate, also noted the need for additional strands. The American grazing expert commonly adds a second strand close to the ground when training smaller animals to an adaptive grazing system. In sheep, the thick coat on wool species insulates and lends less immediate respect for an electric fence, he added, although a hair variety is more likely to feel the shock.

Grazing habits

Williams is an old hand at adapting high stock intensity systems. Outside of cattle, he has helped develop and train systems for bison, dairy cattle, goats, pigs, alpacas and sheep, to name a few.

In broad strokes, there is little difference. The concept of high stock density, followed by months of rest, does not change. Similarly, the concept of disruption shifting densities and grazing areas so that a system looks different year to year or even month to month, is held in common.

“Take time to observe how they are reacting and responding in that new paddock,” Williams advised, regardless what species the farmer is grazing. “Watch what they’re grazing. Watch their movement pattern around that paddock. Watch how they are reacting and responding to each other, and then pay attention to the impact on the paddock. What degree of trample are you getting in terms of your forage? What is your manure looking like?”

Selective appetites are among the quirks farmers must deal with when introducing sheep to high intensity grazing.
photo: Alexis Stockford

That observation will be critical when deciding on animals to cull or keep to grow the herd, Williams said during a 2017 cattle workshop taught near Brandon.

Wand similarly uses animal behaviour to inform his cull.

“If we have mature sheep that do not respect fences (go under, through or over), then we make sure we mark them and cull them, so that they are not teaching others,” he said. “In my opinion, it goes along with poor flocking instinct and I don’t want sheep like that either. If they don’t want to stay with their flock, then they are teaching bad habits to others, usually don’t move well with the group when we want to run them through the handling facility and they are more likely to be preyed on by wolves, coyotes or bears.”

Despite those similarities, the results of grazing might look very different with sheep. Unlike cattle, which have only lower incisors and use the tongue to help rip up plants, sheep will clip plants and may graze closer to the ground.

“Sheep can be highly selective grazers if we allow them to be,” Williams said. “Cattle can be selective, but sheep are even more so, so that’s an issue. That means that under more extensive grazing situations, sheep are going to tend to be very patchy in their grazing.”

An adaptive system may actually be the answer to that problem, he argued, since most feed is eaten or trampled by the time the herd is moved and animals are trained into more general grazing.

Parasite problems

Internal parasites provide another quirk for the species.

“Internal parasites will kill sheep very quickly versus a cow and they’ll become reinfested very quickly if they’re allowed to graze down tight,” Williams said. “We want to move them forward very rapidly and not let them graze down below about five inches so that they’re not continually reinfesting themselves with heavy loads of internal parasites.”

Wand says he has also noted the problem and that it took, “a number of years before we figured a system where we could use our cattle and sheep together, to lessen the parasite issues the sheep flock was facing.”

Commonalities

Today, both Wand and Gibson follow a similar schedule, despite farming three provinces apart.

Wand moves his herd every two to three days, while Gibson says three days is also his upper limit before paddocks need to be changed. Gibson’s paddocks range from three to five acres, while Wand calculates his paddocks based on animal density and available forage. Gibson has shifted the permanent paddocks and predictable movements he started with in the ’80s and now uses more flexible temporary wire inside a permanent perimeter fence, a setup echoed on the Wand Family Farm.

“Be flexible and find mentors who have done it,” Gibson advised interested sheep producers.

“I’m quite sure that it has at least doubled our productivity here,” he added.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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