Checklist for Flock Managers Dealing with Dry Conditions

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This Week
 This year will be another challenging year. Challenges are nothing new to farmers but they do make the right management decisions very important. Having a plan, with a back-up plan, helps when weather, or markets, or life, isn’t cooperating.
Keep it simple
  • Put some numbers on paper. You know how many sheep you have, what stage of production they’re in, what kind of body condition they carry, and roughly how much feed or pasture they need. You know roughly how much feed you have available
  • Pick some dates on the calendar. Choose dates based on things like: grass growth in the first / early pasture isn’t a certain height or leaf development stage by a specific date; or when you estimate there will be enough hay for two weeks.
  • Decide what you need to do by each date on the calendar. Actions might include early weaning; selling lambs as feeders instead of finishing them; selling a group of ewes; moving ewes to a pasture that can be sacrificed; renting some adjacent grazing; or buying more hay or green feed. Which are right for you?
  • Know your costs and possible costs of proposed actions. Managing cash flow is critical as are decisions on additional operating costs. Compare average seasonal lamb market prices and what it costs you to produce a market lamb. Market price is beyond your control, decisions on managing costs are yours.
Reduce stress
  • Make decisions and set dates to implement decisions early. Successful operations have the ability to make timely decisions based on a plan. Plans need to be flexible, include specific actions, target dates and priorities. Be ready to adapt as resources and circumstances change.
  • Animal welfare first - feed your flock as well as possible. A flock of thin ewes has little to no profit potential. The best ewes, well-fed, will produce better lambs. There is no money in poor, under-finished, underweight lambs. Wean lambs early before they start to lose weight. Decide if you have enough good feed to finish them to market, if not sell them to someone who does.
  • Save your pastures. Overgrazing plants stressed by dry conditions is a sure-fire way to do serious damage to perennial pastures. Reduce animal stocking rates early. Cross fence pastures to maximize use of forages, reduce trampling and re-grazing. Maintain plant litter or residue so plants have the ability to regrow when it rains. Have a ‘sacrifice pasture’ where the sheep stay and get supplemental feed. Monitor older, younger ewes and lambs for parasites. Clip hay and pasture plants so they will re-grow when it rains. Well managed pastures are also better able to resist grasshopper damage and to recover from drought.
  • Plan to have annual pasture mixes (oats, triticale, peas, pasture rape, etc.). Annuals need less moisture than perennial pasture plants. If you have the ability to seed or access annual crops use them and allow perennial pastures time to rest and recover.
  • Balance all feed resources (pasture, stored harvested feeds) with flock feed requirements and cash flow. Feeding livestock until the feed, pasture, or money runs out, or until market prices drop, and then selling is a waste of resources. It’s also incredibly stressful. Know exactly how much pasture and feed you need to get through the coming year.
  • Make decisions early. Keep in touch with your markets. Market all culls as early as possible. Use flock records to identify a group, or groups, of sheep you can sell when a trigger point is reached. If rain doesn’t fall by a specific date, ‘pull the plug’, sell fast. Maintain the best of the best in your flock. Know which are your prime ewes that are in their prime productive years. Having to 'gate run' your flock to save feed is rolling a dice.
  • Match feed requirements to animal requirements. Sample all harvested feeds, particularly forages and have them tested. Build rations specifically for the type of animal (ewes, feeder lambs) and for the production stage (maintenance, lactation, growing, etc.). Avoid wasting feed.
  • Focus on maximizing income rather than reducing costs. Many farm costs are fixed, so reducing costs tends to impact production returns. You can’t just stop buying mineral mixes because they are expensive. You may have a productive ewe flock but don’t feed out or finish lambs profitably. Consider selling weaned lambs or custom finish them in a good feeder operation.
  • Have a water management plan. Know all your water resources both quantity and quality. What water do you have and what will you need? Have a back-up plan. Be ready to move quickly if water supplies deteriorate or decline in quality. Algae growth in dugouts can be deadly. Test water if in doubt.
The stress of rushed, last minute, crisis decisions is hard on you, your business, your flock, or the people around you. Take some time to plan ahead.

Other Information Sources:

Feed & Water Testing Laboratories
Ration Balancing for Sheep

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This document is maintained by Mary Ann Nelson.
This information published to the web on June 15, 2016.
Last Reviewed/Revised on June 16, 2016.