“It’s the easiest way in the world to make more profit, as far as I’m concerned.”
– LEN LARSEN
Mother Nature doesn’t stick to one species on the landscape, and Len Larsen thinks she has the right idea.
Larsen and his family run 900 ewes and 100 cattle near Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.
“It’s so much more profitable to have both species,” said Larsen. “If you’re sitting there and you’re having financial troubles on your ranch, or you just can’t do anything else, and you’ve hit the line in your management, then try it,” Larsen told the Western Canadian Grazing Conference in Edmonton last month.
He said there are challenges to multi-species grazing, but that it is quite simple to add another species to a herd of cattle, and manage them all as one group.
One of the challenges is mineral management. “The requirements for copper between sheep and cattle do overlap. Copper is possibly the most overfed mineral in the cattle business and the most underfed in the sheep business. There’s a lot of room here to play,” he said.
He advised producers to talk to animal nutritionists to find a good mineral balance, since requirements change during the year, depending on what they are grazing.
Another challenge for multi-species grazers is the creation of proper facilities for sheep. “Our facilities are basically cattle facilities. We just work with what we got,” said Larsen. He generally uses cattle chutes to sort or cull his ewes.
Fencing is also a challenge. He prefers to use three-wire electric fencing with three hot wires for the external fences, and two-wire fences for internal fences. Frequent moves help prevent sheep from getting through the fence, he said.
Another concern is increased workload due to running two species.
“I can’t lie to you,” said Larsen. “Shearing and weaning lambs at different times that you’re weaning cattle is obviously going to increase your workload. The profitability is there to offset it for sure.”
Follow the grass
If producers choose to align their lambing and calving along with the grass cycles, they will not have to worry much about the nutritional requirements of both species, said Larsen.
“If you are going to lamb and calve earlier you’re going to be supplying feed, you have to realize that a ewe is physically smaller than a cow. She generally has two lambs inside of her so it becomes a volume issue inside of a sheep,” he said.
“If you’re feeding poor-quality food they can’t get enough of it, so they can eat until they’re full but there isn’t enough room to give them enough nutrients. This becomes more of an issue the fatter the ewe gets. A really fat ewe puts fat deposits inside her body cavity and that takes away room for forage.”
The take-home message here is that the last six weeks before you lamb, you’ve got to be feeding phenomenal-quality feed if the ewes are really fat, because there is no room in there for anything else. If your ewes are thinner, you can get away with poorer-quality food and more volume, said Larsen.
Sheep will do well in the winter if producers make adjustments to feed their cattle properly. Baled feed works well with both species. Larsen emphasized watching body condition score with the sheep, and trying to prevent sheep from getting fat, as this can cause problems and deaths. Another problem can be cattle crushing sheep to get to the feed, killing ewes or breaking their legs.
Larsen and his family find bale grazing works well. Standing round bales work best for feeding cattle and sheep at the same time.
Predator control is also an issue when grazing sheep. Larsen combats this problem by using guard dogs. “If you bond your sheep to your cattle, you’re not going to have many problems,” he said. “That’s one of the biggest advantages for predator control.” Bonded sheep will run to the cattle when they are frightened, which cuts down on losses. Sheep will bond to the whole herd of cattle, but the cattle will not bond to the sheep, said Larsen.
Larsen advised bonding about 20 sheep to a few quiet cattle to begin with. If the cattle try to trample or attack the sheep, the process will never work. “You’ve got to have nice, quiet cows, maybe about three cows and 20 ewes,” he said.
The process of bonding takes about 45 days, and once the bond is built, it is never broken. “Those sheep, once they’re faced with any sort of stress in their life, they run to the cattle. They’ll stay inside the cattle fence just because they need to stay with the cows. It makes our management system a lot easier,” he said.
He said the animals should never be sorted from each other in the field, and separation should not be promoted. If animals are to be brought in from the field, they should be brought in as a group, he said. “You can sort them for four or five days,” he said. “When we shear, they’re away from the cattle and they’re always happy to go back and see them.”
Sheep are more susceptible to parasites than cattle, said Larsen. He cuts down on parasite infestations in his sheep by practising rotational grazing, which takes the sheep away from fresh dung, allowing parasites to die off.
“We have a huge advantage here in Western Canada,” said Larsen. “Every spring, we start with a clean slate. Very few larvae survive on grass and any larvae that was on the grass from last fall has about six weeks to get eaten. Otherwise it dies, because it runs out of energy and has to get into a ewe that fast.” Parasites will not transfer from sheep to cattle. Larsen also advised producers to buy sheep from their local area.