Producer shares experience adding sheep to cattle ranch
Multispecies grazing has been discussed as a way to diversify and mitigate risk on cattle operations, better utilize grazing resources and target problematic weed patches. In a recent interview with University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s (UNL) Extension Educator Aaron Berger for the UNL Beefwatch podcast, Jim Jenkins, a Custer County, Neb. rancher shares his experience adding sheep to his cattle ranch.
Jenkins was born on the ranch his ancestors homesteaded in 1876 near Broken Bow, Neb. After growing up on the ranch, Jenkins left the rugged hills for the East Coast and gained experience in the restaurant business before returning to the ranch in 1996.
The ranch is principally a yearling operation, says Jenkins, although they finish some cattle and have backgrounding and feeding facilities. Along with the cattle, Jenkins raises grains, corn, soybeans, alfalfa and a variety of cover crops.
Jenkins shares he was part of the board that developed the Nebraska Grazing Conferece, and through conferences, began learning the potential multispecies grazing held.
“Before this area was settled, the Great Plains had multispecies grazing with buffalo, elk, antelope, deer and more,” he notes. “As I read and did research on land stewardship, I got into rotational and planned grazing and started to break the ranch up into more pasture units with water systems to better distribute grazing.”
“All along, I felt like there was an opportunity to do multispecies grazing, especially when I learned goats and sheep are forb and weed eaters. They all eat grass, but when looking into integrating cattle with sheep, there appears to be a free lunch for livestock,” Jenkins continues.
Knowing feed costs are the number one cost of owning livestock, Jenkins says he wanted to give the opportunity to experiment with sheep a try.
“At a grazing conference I spoke on the possibility of multispecies grazing,” he says. “An Extension Educator spoke to me after the talk and shared a list of people with me to help me learn about sheep.”
In doing some groundwork for adding sheep to his own operation, Jenkins traveled for a couple years to gain experience herding and lambing with multiple sheep producers.
Jenkins started with 1,080 head of Merino sheep and found this number to be a good amount for one herder. The herder, he explains, is especially important to the success of the grazing system.
“We didn’t build any new fences or water sources thanks to the herder,” he says. “Running sheep in the summer is great because the herder can move the sheep to small areas and graze as intensely as we want to, while targeting weed patches. There is a ton of flexibility with running sheep and the ability to capture forage which would remain unavailable while only grazing cattle.”
In the winter, Jenkins supplements his cattle and prefers them to be closer to home. He enjoys the fact sheep can run in the hills during the winter and survive extremely well.
Jenkins lambed from the pastures, splitting his herd equally between three pastures.
“My first time around the sun with sheep, I had weather and predator issues and ended up with about a 110 percent lamb crop,” he notes. “While I was hoping for a lamb crop around 120 or 130 percent, I feel like this was a good place to start.”
He shares the sheep were easy to herd and manage, but predation was a large contributor to his lamb crop losses. In the future, Jenkins looks to add electric fencing to bedgrounds to help his livestock guardian dogs and cross breed to take advantage of heterosis for hardier lambs.
“I love steak and I love cattle, but I think it is important to be open minded,” Jenkins adds. “I think this is an opportunity in the low-margin ag business most producers try to exist in, and I think it helps to manage risk in my cattle business.”
“From an economic development standpoint, I could see cattle producers adding sheep as an additional source of income for everyone and contributing to our local economies.”
Averi Hales is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.