Making Pasture and Forages Work for Sheep

Dean Oswald, University of Illinois Extension, Animal Systems Educator
(Previously published on Sheep & Goats, Illinois Livestock Trail, January 15, 2010)

Although the original publication of this article was over nine years ago, it still contains useful tips and suggestions when thinking about creating and maintaining pastures for small ruminant production. As we begin to prepare for the 2019 growing season, some of these tips may help you outline the next step in your pasture management program. To view the outlined check lists provided, click below to continue reading.

Grazing Goals:

  1. Construct high quality perimeter fences with enough power to control sheep.
  2. Control problem weeds.
  3. Don’t let soil fertility limit pasture production or species establishment goals.
  4. Optimize forage yield, quality, and persistence.
  5. Use as much forage as possible to meet the nutritional needs of sheep and still allow the forage to grow.
  6. Maintain environmental quality.
  7. Reduce the need for purchased and stored feeds by extending the grazing season. Let your sheep do the work harvesting and fertilizing forages.
  8. Limit forage waste: Employ rotational grazing management. Work smarter, not harder.

Managed Grazing:

  1. Higher stocking density is more efficient as it requires fewer acres.
  2. Paddocks allow easier intensive management. Reduce waste. [The time frame for paddock grazing] should be short, six days or less, before forages re-grow. This reduces spot grazing. Dairy sheep ½ -1 day cycle; lambs 1-3 day cycle; ewes and rams 4-6 day grazing cycle. [Use caution when grazing in the same are for greater than 3-4 days as parasites can become an issue].
  3. Good forage increases grazing efficiency.
  4. Extend the life and quality of legumes. Increased pasture quality.
  5. Sheep are moved more frequently among paddocks or cells, which is based upon pasture quality, quantity, and the nutritional needs of sheep.
  6. Provide for a rest and recovery period for the forages. Minimum of 30 days to maintain legume stands. Plants need time to replenish leaf area for photosynthesis and root growth.
  7. For most cool season forages, leave 3-4 inches of forage stubble when moving to the next paddock.
  8. Closer contact with sheep – means better flock management.
  9. Sustainable, size neutral technology.

Other Considerations:

  1. Identify water availability in each paddock. Research suggests the need for water within 800 ft. of grazing [area] (2.5 gallons of water/ewe & lambs/day).
  2. Evaluate existing forages/browse areas. Inter-seed thin areas to boost productivity rather than destroying root mass. Legumes provide nitrogen to companion grasses & improve summer growth.
  3. Identify paddocks that could be used for hay (equipment access ease). Consider harvesting 20% for first cutting hay.

Drawbacks of Managed Grazing:

  1. Initial investments in fencing and water systems.
  2. Concern for soil compaction. May need an all-weather paddock to move sheep during wet periods to avoid trampling and compaction issues.
  3. Need for increased management skills.
  4. Perception of an increase labor demand.

Extending the Grazing Season:

  1. Each day sheep graze and harvest forages they require less purchased feed and hay.
  2. Utilize crop residues, annual forages, brassica crops, and stockpiled cool-season forages to maximize grazing days.
  3. Corn Crop Residues: Can provide grain and forage for sheep. Vaccinate ewes for overeating disease Clostridium perfringens type C&D two weeks prior to turnout. Strip or rotational grazing can reduce amount of corn offered and improve residue quality. Reduces volunteer corn in soybean crops. Protein and mineral supplementation may be required.
  4. Annual Crops: Cereal crops like wheat, oats, and rye can be seeded to supplement summer or fall grazing. They can be aerial seeded into standing corn in mid-August which can greatly improve the quality of corn crop residue. Oats may be more cost effective because it has more fall growth & productivity and will kill out in December. Sorghum Sudangrass – a warm season annual crop – can be grazed when 24 inches tall. Early grazing or grazing after a frost may lead to prussic acid poisoning. Pearl millet can be grazed earlier than sorghums and has no prussic acid potential but is lower yielding. Grazing summer annuals can increase forage and allow for the stockpiling of cool season forage.
  5. Brassica Crops: Turnips, rape, kale, and hybrids can be used to extend the grazing season. Planting can occur early in the spring (April), or (July) following wheat or oats depending upon when forage is needed. Brassicas are very high quality and can be similar to feeding grain. They should be planted with a fiber source like oats or fed with hay to reduce digestive problems. Strip graze to prevent waste.
  6. Stockpiled Cool Season Forages: Start 70-75 days before a killing frost with 3-4 inches of growth. Apply 50lb. of Nitrogen/acre. This should provide about one ton of forage dry matter per acre. Stockpile should be strip grazed to reduce trampling and waste. Tall fescue is an excellent species for stockpiling.