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Cover crops not only benefit sheep as a secondary feed source, but they can also be used to flush ewes, according to a North Dakota Extension specialist. 

Rick Schmidt said producers who want to raise a cover crop for sheep to graze should look for something affordable that meets their objectives. 

North Dakota State University (NDSU) researchers planted 11 different cover crops to determine which plants sheep would seek out to graze. Included were brassicas, like turnips, radishes, red clover and hairy vetch. Sorghum, millet and sunflowers were also planted. 

“We planted them with alfalfa to determine if the alfalfa could be established after the cover crops in a one-pass seeding,” Schmidt explained. “It worked out quite well.”

Once the crops were established, the sheep were turned in, and Schmidt said they grazed the radishes, turnips, red clover and hairy vetch, even before the alfalfa. 

“They left a lot of the grasses and even walked a lot of the grasses down,” he said. “We found sheep like the lush, vegetative, broadleaf plants, while cattle prefer millet, sorghum and sunflowers.” 

Schmidt said the brassicas are very nutritional to sheep. 

“There is a tremendous amount of nutritional value in those plants, and they can really be beneficial in flushing ewes before breeding,” he explained. 

However, producers will want to use caution when they graze the ewes on cover crops prior to breeding. If the ewes are turned into the cover crops too early, they may get too fat, and it will be hard to get them to flush, Schmidt said. 

Some plants contain phytoestrogens that can prevent the ewes from breeding after two cycles. 

“The phytoestrogens can build up in time causing a reduction in conception rates. If the ewe isn’t bred by the second time she cycles, this could be the problem,” he explained. “The phytoestrogens don’t pose a problem for ewes once they are bred.”

Cover crops could be used to feed sheep year-round from a nutritional standpoint, Schmidt said, but the plants have such high nutritional value, producers will have to see what they can do to get the ewes to flush at breeding. 

“Thin ewes are always easier to breed than a fat ewe,” Schmidt said. “Thin ewes can be turned out on a cover crop, and they should breed instantly.”

These cover crops can also make good feed through the winter months. 

Brassicas won’t freeze until it gets below 10 degrees, and radishes and turnips will keep growing through the winter months. The plants will all maintain relatively high nutritional value late into the winter, Schmidt said. 

However, producers may want to have a backup plan, Schmidt warned, in case the cover crops are buried in the snow too deeply for the sheep to reach. 

Schmidt recommends cross-fencing the cover crops with some type of fence, like electronet, to get better utilization and less trampling of the cover crops. 

“It is also important to have a good watering system in place,” he said. “I like utilizing cover crop grazing for sheep.”

“If you can get six inches of growth, I would consider the cover crop a success. Six inches will provide 2,000 pounds of biomass per acre,” Schmidt said. “The sheep can graze off 50 to 60 percent of it and still maintain soil health while providing a secondary food source for the sheep.”

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

According to Larry Prager of Center of the Nation Wool in Belle Fourche, S.D., because many sheep are run on rangeland in Wyoming, which is a contamination-free environment, and because the state has good genetics, that equates an ideal situation for quality wool.
    “Those are the first things you have to have – environment and genetics – and Wyoming is in great shape there,” says Prager.
    However, he says there are several strategies that sheep producers can implement to capitalize even further on shearing day in 2012. With wool prices at $1,200 to $1,500 per bale in 2011, Prager says it’s worth paying attention to add that extra value.
    “We assume wool is like a bale of hay, and we treat it similarly, but really it’s a textile product, and it will be processed, so little things on shearing day can impact the value significantly if they’re not done properly,” states Prager.
Sheep, wool should be sorted
    “Most of the shearing crews in Wyoming are professional, but sometimes you’ll get into situations on shearing day that are less than ideal,” says Prager, commenting that, among other less-than-ideal weather situations, wind can be a big influence on wool quality in the Cowboy State. “I’ve been out on windy days, and as the wool was shorn it was blowing away and compromising wool preparation efforts.”
    He notes that some of those preparation efforts include removing tags or stains and doing some sorting for length and texture to maximize value as the wool is packaged. Prager says sheep can also be sorted for length before they’re shorn.
    “The classic sheep operation in Wyoming shears ewes the first of March and yearlings in May,” he says. “Different lengths should be sorted and packaged separately, because they go to different processing lines and, quite often, represent different values.”
    Rambouillet and Targhee sheep should also be separated from sheep with coarser-wool genetics at shearing, because of the difference in processing between classes of wool.
    Bruce Barker of Great Plains Wool Company in Big Horn says most people in Wyoming run similar types of sheep, but there might be a few black-faced bucks or ewes.
    “Work those sheep off, and shear them last, to minimize contamination with colored fibers,” says Barker.
Who will sort?
    Prager says classing and skirting of wool is typically taken care of by the shearing crew at the ranch level.
    “The warehouse used to do it years back, but as more people became knowledgeable they were able to do it themselves, and it’s easier for the crew to do it, and in some cases the ranchers do it,” he says. “It’s something the rancher and the crew need to agree on how it will be done, and it does take some organization. Working in the open, in the winds of Wyoming, working with loose wool can really complicate the quality of the job.”
    Barker says to be sure to package all types of wool separately, including bellies, tags, sweeps and black-faced.
    “Make sure they’re all sacked separately, because each type has a different use, and if the shearing crews take it upon themselves to do it on their own sorting they may mix the bellies with the black-faced,” says Barker.
    “In the past, many ranchers would end up being in the back of the corral pushing sheep up the chute, but shearing day is an important day for your ranch income anymore,” continues Barker. “If you have 1,000 ewes and they shear 10 pounds a piece, that’s 10,000 pounds at three dollars a pound. It’s not one of those things where you can stand back and let a shearing crew make the decisions. You may know the guy who runs the crew, but you don’t know the shearers and wool handlers, and unless you’re there to tell them how your product is prepared, they will do it the easiest, fastest way they can.”
Use caution with paint
    Speaking of concerns from some about washing paint out of wool, Prager says foregoing paint brands altogether, whether on shearing day or any other time of the year, is not practical for Wyoming situations where sheep mix together. However, he says research indicates that the difficulty of cleaning paint from wool depends on how the paint has been applied.
    “As long as producers use the minimum amount of paint to get the sheep marked and still get the job done, it’s ok,” says Prager. “It makes good sense to use caution – the concern is that they may add something to the branding paint, or brand with paint that’s too thick, which makes wool hard to process.”
Packaging is key
    Barker also recommends putting wool in new nylon bags, because of appearance and marketability.
    “Eighty to 85 percent of U.S. wool is exported overseas, and when those buyers come over to look at wool, it’s amazing how they go straight to the wool in the new, white, clean wool bags,” he notes. “If wool is in dirty, used bags they think there’s something inferior about it. It’s the appearance.”
    So far in the 2012 shearing season, Barker says weather conditions in most of the state have caused freezing at night and thawing during the day, which can make for dirty bales if they’re rolled through the mud on their way to be loaded.
    “Have some pride in your product,” he states.
    Barker also recommends marking bales on both ends, and not the sides.
    “If you write it on the side, that side could end up on the ground,” he says. “If we’re coring and pulling samples for a customer, a producer definitely doesn’t want us to pull a sample from a bale that’s not top-of-the-line.”
One opportunity to add value
    “Many ranchers rely on someone farther down the supply chain – the warehouse, buyer or broker – to try to fix whatever problems are in the wool. We all have the tendency to think that someone farther down the processing chain will take care of it, but wools are typically sorted before processing, and that mentality loses money in this economic climate,” comments Prager. “Any challenge that develops on shearing day – any issue that comes up that could be a problem – starts costing money at the ranch level.”
    “The bottom line is that wool values will be as high this year as they have ever been,” says Prager. “During shearing, the producer has one opportunity to prepare his wool clip on that day, and that’s the one opportunity he has to add value. Wool can be value-added that day, or, by taking a few shortcuts, value can be lost.”
    Christy Martinez is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Shear Texas sheep separately
    “There’s no question that there are a number of truckloads of Texas sheep coming to our trade area,” says Larry Prager of Center of the Nation Wool about the northbound migration of sheep. He adds that it’s important they’re kept separate at shearing time.
    “First, we expect they’ll have finer wool, and that may bring more value at the ranch level. It’s likely that Texas wool will represent more quality,” he explains. “Secondly, we don’t know, in some cases, when they were shorn a year ago, and they may need to be classed separately, because they might be a bit shorter.”

Superwash brings opportunity
    Speaking of the superwash process, a value-added early stage wool process that preshrinks wool using a chlorine-based process, Larry Prager of Center of the Nation Wool says it brings order and buyers into the U.S. wool marketplace.
    “Prior to having superwash in the U.S., those buyers purchased wool from New Zealand and Australia. Because the superwash process came to the U.S., it’s now more efficient for them to source their wool here,” says Prager. “It’s one more piece of the puzzle that strengthens the U.S. wool industry.”
    There is only one major wool processing mill in the U.S., and Prager says the addition of superwash to that facility has certainly attracted more customers, both large and small.
    “Many customers will be small operations that are very specific in their product lines, and that’s something we can supply, and that will mean extra dollars for the producers,” he says. “More demand equals more opportunity.”

Creating a health management strategy can be as simple as writing down a health plan, and reviewing it with your family, employees, and your veterinarian.
    Larry Goelz, who practices veterinarian medicine at Pipestone Veterinary Clinic in Pipestone, Minn., explained how to create a health plan, designed to increase the number of lambs marketed, during the South Dakota Sheep Growers Association annual convention.
    Goelz encourages sheep producers to develop a health management strategy based on the premise that it is easier and cheaper to prevent disease than it is to treat or cure it.
    “As a veterinarian, our goal is to help our clients market more lambs, because that is the number one driver of profitability. If each producer could increase that number by 10 percent, they could do a lot of things wrong and still make money. Along with that, they need to do all this and keep their feed costs at the same level,” he said.
    Goelz told producers the way to shock their veterinarian is to sit down with their family and write up a health plan that everyone in the family can follow. The plan should also allow for changes and modifications, if necessary.
    “I think it is important to write it down,” he said. “I have found if it is written down, it is more likely to be followed. Develop standard operating procedures and share your plan with your veterinarian. They may be able to help you institute changes to your health program with no added labor. For instance, deworming the sheep when vaccinations are given, instead of doing this two separate times.”
Health strategy considerations
    An effective strategy should include vaccinations for diseases that are present, and vaccinations for diseases that may be introduced. Goelz compares the health strategy to an insurance plan.
    The plan should also include prophylactic treatment for diseases that are present. It is also important to set up trigger points to mass medicate animals in case of a widespread outbreak, he said.
    The flock health plan should also incorporate bio-security, which Goelz defines from research as “precautions that we take to prevent disease introduction into a population (flock). Bio-security is not happenstance. It is a process where we identify diseases that have the potential to cause financial damage to the flock, determine methods to limit risk of introduction and implement a plan to adhere to those methods.”
    “It is important to remember that if you don't control the health of your flock, the health of your flock will control you economically, and through more labor,” he said. “Health is just one component intimately tied to production, nutrition and environment.”
    By developing a workable health plan, sheep producers can prevent diseases that have a significant economic impact on their operation, like foot rot, contagious abortions such as Campylobacter and Chlamydia, and parasites. The plan should also cover diseases that are present and need to be controlled, like parasites, clostridium perfringes type C and D, coccidiosis and pneumonia in young, growing lambs.
    Producers who purchase new additions to the flock should only source them from reputable flocks, Goelz said, recommending the animals be quarantined for three to four weeks in a dry lot, with no mud present. During this time, he discourages any contact between new additions and the flock.
    The veterinarian also recommends inspecting any new animals before co-mingling with the flock and treating new animals with a prophylactic foot bath to prevent foot rot.
    The new additions should also be dewormed with a pour-on twice 14 days apart.
    “Introducing new sheep into a flock can be a problem if they carry parasites resistant to our dewormers,”             Goelz said. “I would encourage producers to practice these on-farm quarantines, especially if they are acquiring sheep from the south or far eastern U.S.”
Goelz also feels it is acceptable to ask visitors to the farm to step through a footbath or wear disposable shoes to prevent disease spread, especially if the visitors are touring other sheep operations. He also discouraged producers from wearing clothes they've worn to the salebarn to take care of their own flocks.
    Lastly, he encourages producers to disinfect and clean their trailers that they haul new additions in.
    “When you buy sheep, you are not only buying the sheep, but any diseases that flock potentially has,” he explained. “Be wary of a cheap buy at the sale barn. Those sheep all travel down the same alley, and they are exposed to disease at the co-mingling points,” he said.
Breeding stock
    At the sale barn Goelz also encouraged producers to purchase virgin rams.
    “Plan ahead,” Goelz said.
    New rams should be purchased a month or two before turnout to give them time to adapt to the farm, he said.
    “It also gives the producer time to get the extra fat off of them that the breeder put on to make them look better,” he added.
    Goelz recommends vaccinating replacement ewe lambs for Campylobacter two to four weeks prior to breeding and deworming all ewes at flushing.
    “Rams should be through the quarantine period and semen tested well in advance of breeding,” Goelz said.
    The breeding ewes should also be flushed and vaccinated for Chlamydia 30 and 60 days prior to breeding, he added.
Final recommendations
    Other recommendations for health management include separate considerations for feeder lambs and dryoff or grazing ewes.
    For feeder lambs, Goelz encouraged daily observation, control of coccidiosis, control of barn cough and addressing prolapse.
    He added that acidiosis can be addressed by providing bicarbonate, or Arm and Hammer Baking Soda, as free choice feed in a corner. The product can be purchased at feed suppliers, and ruminant animals are drawn to it if their stomach hurts.
    For dryoff or grazing ewes, he recommends that producers nutritionally shock the ewes when early weaning. Goelz recommends straw and water for one week.
    Also, producers should wean out of sight and out of hearing of lambs, provide deep bedding, graze rough or poor pasture, monitor for mastitis, cull poor doers, provide fly control, monitor foot rot or foot scald progress and deworm if necessary.
    Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Lambing and gestation health
   Pipestone, Minn. Veterinarian Larry Goelz also discourages producers from adding new ewes into the flock when they are gestating.
    “That is the number one risk factor for abortions,” he said. “When they are gestating, they need to be managed as separate units. Contagious abortions can cause a five to 20 percent loss in fetuses if there isn't a control or prevention program in place.”
    Goelz said ewe lambs and mature ewes should be gestated separately. The ewes should be sheared prior to lambing and poured with de-lice after shearing.
    During mid-gestation, the ewes should receive an annual booster or Campylobacter, and two weeks prior to lambing, an annual booster of Clostridia C&D should be given. Goelz also recommends feeding tetracycline to the ewes during late gestation.
    Goelz said if there are any abortions, the aborted fetus, bedding and the ewe should be removed as soon as possible because they are loaded with pathogens, and the other ewes will come and sniff it spreading the disease.
    In a lambing barn situation, Goelz said ewes should spend two to three days in a lambing pen before they are moved to make sure the lamb is nursing and is off to a good start.
    Producers need to ensure the lambing barn has good ventilation and clean bedding to minimize pneumonia. Before the ewes leave the lambing pen, they should be dewormed with a white dewormer like Safeguard, Panacur and Valbazen.
    Lambs should be docked, castrated, identified and injected with one milliliter of long-lasting penicillin at docking.
    Goelz said newborn lambs should be carefully monitored for sickness and to ensure they are nursing. If lambs are weak or not nursing, he recommends tube feeding. Lambs should be vaccinated with Clostridia C&D at four and six weeks of age, and possibly nine weeks of age. He also recommends creep feeding lambs with Decox.

“Most people with sheep use guard dogs, and some raise them. We raise enough to keep ourselves in dogs and I sell what we don’t need. There are those who raise them very seriously and keep them registered,” says Savery sheep and guard dog producer Sharon O’Toole.
“We bought a pair of dogs years ago at the National Ram Sale and started raising them. I stopped for a while, but kept losing dogs and couldn’t find any to buy, so I decided to start raising them again for availability purposes,” adds Otto sheep and guard dog producer Randall Jones.
Jones raises Pyrenees dogs and says today most dogs he sells go for pets. O’Toole raises Pyrenees/Akbash cross dogs and recently acquired three Russian Ovtcharka dogs to incorporate into her program.
“The Ovtcharka are more aggressive and almost look like a big bulldog. Pete Arambel got them for wolf protection, and we are going to cross them with our dogs – it’s about trying to achieve a balance of traits,” notes O’Toole.
The two producers utilize different training techniques with their dogs. Jones bonds all of his dogs with sheep as soon as they’re weaned. O’Toole relies on older dogs to teach younger pups what their job is. She notes that not all dogs are good guarders, and those that don’t excel can be sold as pets.
“I put the pups in a bonding pen with lambs and leave them there for two or three months. Then they are put by themselves in a small, irrigated pasture with sheep and run there for several months. After that they are moved in with the older dogs,” explains Jones.
“Once you get your first dogs working, the old ones train the young ones,” says O’Toole of how she manages her young dogs. “We have range sheep and they’re in camps with a herder. He will have a couple horses and two or three Border collies and two or three guard dogs. The young ones go with the adults and learn their trade.”
Both producers run sheep on a combination of public and private lands and say guard dogs are a necessary tool in predator management.
“I think I’m about like everyone else in that it wouldn’t be feasible to turn sheep out without them. In the fall our ewes run strictly with guard dogs. They stay out with the sheep and every day the herder will go out and make sure the sheep are together so the dogs can cover them.
“I have less loss running with the guard dogs than I ever had with a herder, even if he was with them full time. The sheep also do better, because the herder isn’t restricting their movement and they can get out and fill up better,” notes Jones.
“I don’t imagine people could survive without them. I don’t know what happened to the guy in Colorado, but I know that after pulling his dogs he just got slaughtered. They are a critical tool,” adds O’Toole.
Both producers believe in exposing their dogs to people to make them easier to manage and to reduce the chances of a human-related incident.
“I don’t believe in having feral dogs. Ours are all tame. I know there is a school of thought that says if they aren’t socialized with people they will relate to sheep better. But, they have been bred to guard things for thousands of years. It’s like a Border collie’s instinct to herd; it’s what they want to do.
“I don’t want a dog I can’t catch, vaccinate or put in a pickup if I need to. We also graze on forest permits in Colorado, and if someone goes by on a bicycle or motorcycle we want our dogs to be friendly. I would rather have a dog stolen than have him bite someone,” says O’Toole. She adds theft is a problem at times, both in guard dogs and Border collies.
“I think if you have dogs that are used to human interaction you are less inclined to have problems. One of the reasons I run Pyrenees is they’re a little less aggressive. I don’t think a Pyrenees would ever attack someone, and I think it’s more a matter of people being fearful of guard dogs because they don’t know what they’re capable of,” comments Jones.
Both Jones and O’Toole have had incidents with their dogs and the public.
“We had a lot of bear trouble this summer and in the middle of a big storm a Good Samaritan saw a dog on the side of the road with blood on him from a bear attack. So he stopped and loaded him and flagged down a Department of Wildlife guy, who recommended he take him to animal control in Steamboat.
“By the time we realized our dog was in the pound he had been listed for adoption, so to get him back they told us we had to adopt him. Then, according to Colorado state law, he had to be castrated, which was a problem because he was one of our stud males. Then the guy who picked him up was interested in adopting him.
“We finally called the sheriff and explained we just wanted our dog back. We wanted him back intact, and that from our viewpoint he was abducted, with good intentions, and we just wanted him back. In the end we paid $220 to get our dog back. We actually know the Department of Wildlife individual and he felt bad, but just hadn’t realized it was a guard dog in the storm,” explains O’Toole.
“The main issue I run into is conflict with sportsmen, hikers and recreationalists. Part of it is that people are afraid of them and the dogs will bark at them. I had one hunter say he was hunting deer near my sheep and the dog showed up and barked at him. He walked backwards for about a mile and a half to his pickup because he was afraid of the dog. I think the key is educating the public so they know what the dogs are there for and how to act around them,” says Jones.
While dogs are considered most effective against coyotes, O’Toole notes a story where a friend of hers had a herder attacked by a bear, and the guard dogs helped drive it away.
“My dogs killed a mountain lion who was killing lambs in one of my herds this summer. While flying for coyotes a dead mountain lion was found and they thought my herder had shot it. But upon closer inspection they realized the guard dogs killed it right after it attacked and killed a lamb. They make it feasible for me to continue running sheep,” adds Jones.
Heather Hamilton is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Electronic identification (EID) systems for small operations were not a cost effective management tool for Oogie and Ken McGuire’s small sheep operation until recently.

The McGuires, who own Desert Weyr, LLC have developed an affordable solution called LambTracker. 

LambTracker is a mobile application that works with any smart phone or handheld device that has Bluetooth and an Android operating system. This app is free to the public and only requires a low cost reader to work. 

Satisfying a need

The need to work smarter, not harder, led to the development of LambTracker. 

“We developed this EID tracking system for our own sheep flock when we realized we needed something better than the visual method we were using,” says Oogie McGuire, whose family runs Black Welch Mountain sheep. “Inevitably, one or two tags would be misread and having to go back through all the sheep to find the error costs valuable time and money.” 

“It became more and more obvious that a more accurate electronic system that would read every tag every time was needed,” she explains.

“We chose the Android operating system because their Bluetooth is an open environment. Producers do not have to use specific devices or applications,” explains McGuire, who wrote the software. “To Bluetooth on Apple devices, producers would have to use an Apple-approved Bluetooth chip and application.”

The digital EID reader developed by McGuire’s husband Ken can be built for less than $100.  It is built using PVC pipe, an Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) Reader Module from Australia that reads both HDX and FDX-B tags, a Bluetooth device and a battery pack. 


When processing the animals, the reader activates the electronic ear tag in the sheep and relays the information via Bluetooth to a handheld computer. McGuire says these tags are available from the USDA as management tags that are not Scapie approved. Each tag costs $1.49 including shipping. A second visual tag can be purchased for 13 cents. 

“Most handheld computers may not have the capacity for all the data and information to be stored on it,” McGuire explains, “so producers can need something that will run on a desktop computer to store the all of the information. When producers have management tasks to perform, they would take a subset of that data and put that on the handheld device so the reader can communicate with it and more information can be gathered.”

McGuire says handheld devices can hold smaller data sets for tasks such as lambing. 

“The smaller screen size of handheld computers is also an issue. Producers may keep more information on a single sheep than can be displayed easily on a phone, for example,” she adds. 

Further development

McGuire says that she and her husband are focusing on five tasks that will help improve LambTracker system.

She says the first task is converting all existing ID tags to EID tags and transferring all existing information into the operating system. This will allow for more detailed lambing data to be inputted.

The second is collecting National Sheep Improvement Program (NSIP) data. She says the goal is to be able to scan the sheep as they pass through the chute and record data quickly and easily.

“NSIP is a way to provide phenotypic data measurements for weight, loin eye area, fat deposition, wool data and lambing ease,” she explains. “The data from that animal and for the group they were raised in are analyzed by a computer in Australia to calculate the estimated breeding value (EBV).”

The third task is a way to record and manage drug and vaccine administration and slaughter withdrawal. 

“We want to develop this so we are confidently able to say any given animal is not in slaughter withdrawal as we load them into the trailer,” McGuire states.

The fourth task, according to McGuire, is to produce the required official yearly reports to stay qualified as an Export Certified Scrapie Free flock.

The final task is to expand the lambing data to collect birth weights and statistics on lambs as they are born. 

Their goal is to have a functioning draft form of these programs before Scrapie flock inspection and lambing this coming spring. 


Producers are able to modify this system to fit their operation because it is an open source program. 

“We developed this program for ourselves, but other producers can take that code and can run it for their operation or can change that code to better suit them,” McGuire explains. “We did this deliberately and have already has some interest from different industries.”

“Our vet also works with some of the domestic elk herds in the area and has expressed some interest in using this to manage them,” she continues. “If those producers want to edit the program to fit their operation, they have the ability to do that.”

In addition to the flexibility the program provides, McGuire stresses the flexibility in cost. 

“If producers have a need for EID tags, it doesn’t have to be as expensive as everyone says it is,” says McGuire. “Producers don’t have to be managing large flocks to afford this technology.”

Kelsey Tramp is the assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..