2014 Great Lakes Sheep for Profit Program highlights innovative production practices

Farmers exchange ideas and learn new techniques to improve profitability of sheep farms.

Experienced and beginning farmers interested in sheep production gathered for a series of four educational programs hosted by Michigan State University Extension during the summer and fall of 2014. These programs highlighted innovative sheep production practices developed on private farms and at the MSU Sheep Research and TeachingCenter.

The goal of these programs was to strengthen and facilitate farmer-to- farmer exchange of ideas and to identify and promote management practices that improve the profitability of lamb production in the Great Lakes region. Each program began with a seminar detailing a production practice and assessing its economic impact on the farm. These seminars were interactive between the host farmer, the facilitator and participants. Each seminar was followed by a farm tour where participants got a firsthand look at each practice and had a chance to ask questions and gather important details necessary to evaluate the utility of adapting these practices to their own farms.

The first program was hosted by the Matchett Sheep Farm in Charlevoix, Mich., owned and operated by Tim and Linda, Isaac and Brianna, and Noah Matchett. The program focused on building a highly productive forage base. The Matchetts explained how they doubled the carrying capacity of their farm over a five-year period to expand their flock to more than 900 ewes through the prudent use of annual forage crops, manure and fertilizer to build their soils. A tour of the farm revealed how they apply precise grazing management to optimize forage utilization. The Matchetts also shared details on their preventive health and pasture lambing program, which allows newborn lambs to thrive and grow fast on the emerald-green pastures of their northern Michigan farm.

The second program was hosted by Paul, Laura and Tony Wernette of Remus, Mich., at Shepherds Cross Station, their family farm. Attendees learned the economics and practice of grazing lambs on irrigated standing corn. The Wernettes graze more than 1,000 lambs born on their farm each spring on irrigated corn starting in early August continuing through late November. This corn grazing system, been developed and optimized by the Wernettes over the past six years, improves lamb production efficiency over standard grain feeding by eliminating bedding and manure handling costs and reducing respiratory disease. They are also able to capture efficiencies through compensatory growth when they transition lambs to standard feeding conditions during early winter. A sage age and experienced shepherd, Paul Wernette also shared lambing tips gleaned over years of experience managing a large sheep flock.

Producers travelled to East Lansing to attend the third program, held at the MSU south campus Sheep Research and Teaching Center farm, to learn how planting annual forages can improve whole farm forage use. Attendees toured annual forage plots of various long-season forage brassica varieties including swedes (rutabagas), turnips, radishes and rape/kale hybrids to be grazed by sheep in early winter. The group also travelled to my farm in Eaton Rapids to learn how I utilize annual forages and cover crops grown on neighboring land to manage my flock of ewes, which give birth every eight months.

The final seminar and tour of the program was hosted by the Oswalt family farm, located near Vicksburg, Mich., and focused on feeding systems for modern sheep production. The Oswalts’ multigenerational farm, run by Gordon and Bonnie, Scott and Steve, and now Taylor, as a third-generation shepherd, is home to more than 1,100 ewes raised on their productive pastures and in their modern housing system. The Oswalts have developed a very efficient feeding and housing system for their flock, making efficient use of labor and of byproduct feeds including husklage, a byproduct of the seed corn industry in southwestern Michigan. Attendees learned how the Oswalts formulate diets using byproduct feeds to meet the needs of their highly productive ewes, which produce lambs throughout the year.

The Great Lakes Sheep for Profit Program provided a unique opportunity for participants to learn from successful and enterprising farms that have developed profitable sheep farming programs, each from its own unique resource base. During 2015, we plan to expand this program. For more details, contact me, MSU small ruminant specialist, at ehrhard5@msu.edu, or 517-353-2906. 

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