Wyoming Sheep and Wool Festival
UW Extension outlines benefits of sheep grazing during inaugural event
Kemmerer – The Wyoming Wool Growers Association and Wyoming SHEEP Foundation hosted the first-ever Wyoming Sheep and Wool Festival June 30-July 2 to celebrate the state’s sheep industry.
Festivities over the three-day event included an art show and reception, a panel discussion, a sheep trailing tour, a vendor fair, a dinner party, dancing with live music and educational programming provided by the University of Wyoming (UW).
Hot Springs County Extension Educator Barton Stam kicked off UW’s programming on June 30 with a discussion regarding the benefits of sheep grazing.
To begin, Stam noted one of the greatest benefits of grazing sheep on rangelands is their ability to target graze, meaning they can target forage that may be invasive or undesirable to other grazing animals.
This ability comes from their nimble mouthparts, which allow sheep to be incredibly selective.
Stam nodded to a specific area in Uinta County, used for both sheep and cattle grazing, which was set on fire after a transformer blew up a substation in late August 2020.
“It burned up about 500 acres of private and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land just east of Evanston,” he explained. “Immediately after, this site was black, and I mean the kind of black where there is nothing left – the sagebrush was reduced to very small stems.”
After a burn occurs on federal land, Stam noted the BLM will usually opt to rest the site completely for a few years or delay grazing until later than normal. However, in this instance, because the producer utilizes multi-species grazing, they were able to go in early with their flock.
“The benefit of having sheep available is they are able to target some of the invasive, less desirable species such as thistle and snowberry. Then, producers can let cattle go in later in the summer to restore some of the competitive advantage for the grass,” he said.
Although this particular burn site is still healing, Stam noted the landscape has ultimately improved and new growth is popping up.
“One of the coolest things about grazing with sheep is the ability to use a targeted grazing approach, in which we are not only producing lamb and wool, we are also improving the habitat,” he said.
Because they are able to target specific plants, another benefit to grazing sheep is the ability to use them in multi-species grazing operations.
Many cattle producers – especially those across Western Wyoming this year – have to fight larkspur on rangelands. According to Stam, larkspur kills more cattle in the U.S. than any other poisonous plant.
“There are several species of larkspur – low larkspur, tall larkspur and plains larkspur – and there are some slight differences in how to manage the risk of them in cattle,” he explained. “They are all extremely toxic to cattle, but one of the biggest problems, depending on the time of year and environmental conditions, is that there is a great deal of palatability for cattle.”
Stam further explained there are a few other issues with larkspur. For instance, in the spring, it is one of the earliest plants to come up, so cattle start picking at it.
With low larkspur, plant density is more important than timing as seven to eight plants per square yard can prove lethal.
Additionally, with tall larkspur, spraying herbicide may actually increase palatability of the plant, while toxicity remains the same.
“And, even if a plant is dead and laying on the ground, toxicity is often still high enough to kill cows,” he said.
However, operations utilizing multi-species grazing are able to use sheep in places with larkspur to minimize risk before sending cattle out to graze.
“On a pound per body weight basis, sheep have a much larger tolerance for larkspur,” Stam stated.
He mentioned although there is technically a lethal toxicity level in sheep, larkspur has never been reported or proven to intoxicate and kill them in Wyoming.
Stam also referred to a study conducted by UW researchers who have found sheep not only reduce larkspur density, they also gain weight on it with no clinical signs of poisoning.
“And, in years with a lot of productivity, cattle can go in and graze the remaining grass after sheep have reduced the risk of larkspur,” he said.
The third and final advantage to grazing sheep discussed by Stam is the ability to distribute animals. However, he doesn’t believe producers have taken full advantage of this yet.
“When I look at areas of private and public land, I would argue in most cases, while there may be localized instances of overgrazing, what we actually have is a distribution problem, not an overgrazing problem,” he stated.
“But, one of the coolest things about sheep is we have the ability to put them where we want them, much more so than with cows because of their tendency to herd better and because they usually have herders with them,” he added.
Stam encouraged producers to take a hard look at how they can improve distribution on their operations.
“It isn’t just about how to avoid overgrazing, it is also about taking advantage of places on a ranch that may not be the most natural places for livestock to graze – steep slopes, long distances from water, etc.,” he said.
“Producers have the ability to increase the efficiency of grazing by working on distribution,” he continued. “Don’t let this advantage to grazing sheep slip by, because if producers can improve distribution and increase efficiency, it may mean more dollars in their pocket.”
Hannah Bugas is the managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.