Building pasture capacity with sheep following cattle

If you’re looking to build soil nutrient levels in pasture, do you order fertilizer or do you buy sheep?

If you’re Mike Swidersky and family, you buy sheep as a complement to raising cattle. How does it work? You run the sheep after the cattle (they utilize pasture differently and aren’t susceptible to the other species’ parasites) and you bale graze, adding much-needed organic matter and nutrients back to pasture.

Swidersky recently spoke at the Ontario Sheep Farmers convention at Alliston, Ont. about some of the challenges of expanding a sheep flock and of running a pasture-based livestock system in Dufferin County.  While on a map it may seem like a long-season area, Swidersky says they often contend with a late spring and shortened growing season due to elevation.

Once they figured out a spring lambing date that would minimize the risk of lambing in cold and snow (remember that elevation thing?), Swidersky says they’ve been moving forward, steadily expanding the sheep flock. (Story continues below…)

Grass management and fencing are always considerations, absolutely, but some may be surprised by what other challenges hold back expansion, such as finding suitable sheep genetics for a grazing system and predation control.

Not all sheep breeds thrive in a pasture-based, pasture-lambing system, so sourcing stock and especially rams can be a challenge. Often, rams are housed and fed separately from ewes except during breeding season, but Swidersky says he needs to know the rams thrive under the same conditions as the ewes — they make up 50% of your lamb crop, after all. They leave the rams to graze with the ewes right up until August, at the first signs of ewes coming into heat. Rams are re-introduced in late December for May lambing.

Finding and keeping good guardian dogs is also a challenge in a pasture-based system. Guardian dogs are essential predator protection on grass, but not all white dogs make good guardians. Sometimes the dog hired to guard the sheep is ineffective, or worse, preying on the sheep themselves.

Adding sheep has improved pastures in step with how the flock has grown, Swidersky says, so much so that the next step is, you guessed it, to add more sheep.

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