Sheep are ruminants like cattle, but otherwise they are very different. Most types of sheep must be shorn every year, though hair sheep (such as Katahdins) do not need shearing. The time from birth to harvest for a lamb is about five months, while cattle are 18-24 months for a grass-fed steer or heifer. On the other hand, a lamb weighs less than 10% of what a heifer might.
Sheep are notoriously poor survivors. They are prone to many different kinds of illness, and wet weather is also hard on them. If they get sick, they often die quickly. An old saying goes, “You can always tell a sick sheep ‘cause they lay real still and don’t breathe.” Some growers have more success with sheep than others. Like the broilers and other animals, a few years of practice will often show dramatic increases in the resilience of the herd.
Another interesting fact about sheep is that their teeth are positioned so they can clip the forage very close to the ground. They will graze an area much closer than cattle will. If they’re hungry enough, they also eat some weeds that cows won’t touch. This makes rotational grazing extremely important with sheep, because leaving them too long in one spot will destroy the most palatable forages. On the other hand, by grazing an area quickly with a large group of sheep, a producer can increase fertility and set back the weedy, less palatable growth.
A Look at Managed Grazing
Here’s an illustration on how this works: Imagine a weed and a fescue grass plant growing side by side. Around them is a whole field of weeds and fescue. To sheep and cattle, the weeds taste like cardboard, but the fescue tastes like ice cream. Also, the fescue has more energy stored in its roots, while the weeds’ energy is concentrated in the stems and leaves.
So, the farmer fences the whole field and puts ten sheep in it. They go around, finding all the yummy fescue plants, grazing them down to the ground. They ignore the weeds because there’s so much fescue. But the farmer doesn’t have to think about them for a month. This is called “continuous grazing.” Meanwhile, the weeds are growing; in fact, they’re getting fertilized by the sheep, but never grazed. The fescue, however, is grazed down to the ground. Now the sheep are starting to get hungry, but the weeds they’ve been walking on don’t smell very fresh. Every time a little fescue plant shoots up a new blade, though, some sheep trots over and scarfs it. It doesn’t take very long before the fescue plant isn’t getting enough photosynthesis to survive. The weeds gladly crowd the little grasses and choke them out. This is called “Regression” and it happens every time a farmer grazes an open field continuously. Every year, the farmer has to put fewer sheep out than the last time, and feed more hay.
One day, the farmer realizes how foolish he has been, so using electric fence, he divides his field into twenty-seven little pieces and puts the same ten sheep into the first paddock. It may take the sheep a while to figure out the new routine, but once they realize that they get new grass every day, but just enough for that day, they get much more aggressive about eating everything while it’s still fresh. The more animals in the group, the more aggressively they eat.
Now they go around their little paddock and eat all the fescue and munch on some of the weeds, too. The next day, they move out of that paddock and into a new one. The old paddock is at rest for twenty-six days until they get back around to it. Remember how the weed stores its energy in the leaves, but the grass in the roots? The grass takes the grazing and jumps back, utilizing the fertilizer the sheep left behind. New, tenders blades grow quickly to start photosynthesizing. The weeds, however, wither from the damage of the graze, and die back a little before recovering. When this happens over and over again, the good species grow stronger and the bad ones weaken. This is called “Succession.” As succession continues, the soil gets richer, the grasses more luscious, and the re-growth after grazing happens faster. After a while, the farmer can feed more sheep on the same area. That’s sustainable agriculture!
Back to Our Sheep
Hopefully, you found that illustration interesting. But let’s return to the model of raising sheep. Our sheep get a diet of grass and hay exclusively, because, like cattle, they are herbivores and designed to eat grass. They are raised rotationally using electrinet. After weaning, they grow for several more weeks on their own, before being harvested at 4-6 months old. Of course, we don’t use any drugs, medicines, or steroids on our sheep, or any other meat animals.