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If sheep raising is going to be a profitable business, it's important to limit how much money you spend on inputs such as hay and other feeds. Grazing as much of the year as possible is a smart way to reduce the cost of being in the sheep business. It's also healthier for the animals, and produces what many feel is better-tasting meat.

In order to graze as much as possible, you need some pasture to graze them on. I won't go into establishing a pasture on cropland or anything of the sort, as we didn't have to do that, so I don't know anything about it. We'll start with a field that was previously used for grazing animals or for haying.


Good quality fencing is the first requirement when planning to graze sheep. We opted to use permanent fencing because it will last much longer than any form of electric fencing we've seen. From what we hear, too, permanent fencing keeps Shetlands in better than eletric fence of any type.

We installed our fences in stages. The first was just the winter paddock, the following year (99) we put in the perimeter fence of the eastern pasture and fenced a smaller area for the rams. In 2000, we perimeter fenced the west pasture and subdivided the east pasture into four quadrants. Finally, in 2001, we sudivided the west pasture into 12 approximately equal sections so we could begin rotational grazing. Then in 2002, we refenced the winter paddock, having learned a lot about fencing in the meantime :)

It's certainly a lot of work, but will pay for itself in the time and trouble caused each time sheep break through temporary fencing, or electric fence when the power is off.

How big to make your paddocks, and what shape? The size will depend on your stocking density. The shapes should be as uniform as possible, and as nearly square as possible. Uniformity makes it easier to know how long to keep your animals in a given paddock. The shape is so the animals don't perceive one end as being too far to bother with, and so graze the paddock unevenly. In addition, try to not have any dimension of the paddock reach more than about 600-800 feet from their source of water, or they will graze near the water and neglect the further areas.

Rotational Grazing

What is 'rotational grazing'? It's a management system in which sheep are intensively grazed over a limited area, then moved to the next area when the grass is sufficiently grazed. The smaller the area, generally, the more effective the system because the sheep will then have to eat plants they don't like as well as plants they do.

Sheep should enter a given area when the grass is about 6-8 inches tall, depending on the types of forages in that paddock. If the grass is allowed to begin to go to seed--in other words, if it begins to develop stalks with seed heads at the top--it's too late in terms of good grass management because once the plant produces its seed, it goes dormant. Sheep need the leafy parts of the grass rather than the seeds for nutrition. A field full of stalks and seeds will not provide them with adequate nutrition.

There are cool-season grasses and warm-season grasses. The cool-season grasses logically grow fastest in the spring and into early summer. At that point the heat and/or daylight length causes them to go dormant even if they haven't produced seed heads. Growth will resume, though at a slower pace, in the fall. Sheep must be moved through cool-season pastures rapidly during the spring to keep them from going to seed early. In the fall that's less of a problem.

Warm-season grasses don't compete well with cool-season, because the early growth of the cool-season grasses shades them out, so are not combined with them in the same pasture. Warm-season grasses grow strongly during the hot summer months--they like temperatures over 80 degrees F. Most of these are annual plants and must be reseeded each year. This may not be practical for a small farm with little if any large equipment.

So, grazing sheep on a cool-season grass pasture is a balancing act between the first flush of spring growth, grass going to seed later in the spring, and the hot weather dormancy. How do you know how to manage this?

Watch the length of the grass, for starters. Put the sheep into a field when the grass is about 6-8 inches high, and move them to the next field when they've grazed the first to about 3-4 inches. Keep moving them, but also watch your other paddocks. In the spring, it's easy for the growth to get ahead of your sheep. You may need to mow a paddock or two to make sure they don't go to seed before they are grazed.

You need to have enough paddocks that you won't need to return the sheep to one they've already grazed before a minimum of 10-14 days. This is the minimum amount of time needed for the grass to recover somewhat from the previous grazing, pulling energy into its roots to survive another onslaught of grazing. It also is the minimum amount of time for most parasite eggs to die outside their host, the sheep, so the animals don't reinfect themselves. This will not totally eliminate internal parasites from your flock, but should at least reduce their wormload, especially for lambs.

Stockpiling grass is a technique used to extend the grazing season either into the hot summer months or the colder months of late fall/early winter. In this case, paddocks are set aside and deliberately not grazed for about 5-7 weeks prior to when you want to use them for stockpiled grazing. In the case of stockpiling just before the winter, if the grass freezes it keeps its nutritional value. This doesn't work for perennial rye grass because it will kill the roots to be left standing into the cold months. Graze that down before freezing.

A good book to help you learn how to manage your grass is the Pasture Mangement Guide put out by the Iowa State University Extension Service. Call 1 515 294 5247 to order this book (PM 1713) for $14.25 including shipping. It's also available in PDF format at Pasture Management Guide, look for #1713.

Stocking Density

How do you know how many animals a given area of grass will support? The answer to this question is called the stocking density, and there are no fast and easy answers. A combination of the size of the animals grazed, how many are grazing, and the condition of the grass all play into the stocking density. When this is brought up in books, the term 'animal unit', or AU, is used. No, this isn't equivalent to one sheep! Instead, it's 1000 pounds of grazing animal, or 10 Shetland ewes and 10 young lambs. Of course, as the lambs get bigger, your stocking density must be recalculated.

The quality of the grass may be challenging for a new farmer to assess. One method is to build a 12 inch x 12 inch square template that's hollow in the center. Lay it on the grass you wish to sample, and cut the grass at about 2 inches from the ground, saving all the clipped grass in a container. Repeat in several areas of your field, keeping track of how many samples you have altogether.

Next, dry the grass at low temperature in a conventional or microwave oven. Finally, using a scale that measures grams to the nearest 5 grams or better, weigh the dried grass. Divide that result by the number of samples you took. Multiply the result by 95.95 to find out how many pounds of dry matter (DM) you have per acre.

Now you have the DM value per acre. Multiply this figure by the number of acres you have available to graze. Because the sheep will not graze the field completely clean, and some grass will be wasted, divide the result by 2, to allow a bit of a fudge factor, and you have the approximate amount of feed available to your animals as they graze.

Now you can figure how much grass is available, at least on the day you took the sample. Divide the amount available in one paddock by the number of pounds the sheep need to maintain their condition (4% of their body weight), and you will know how long they can graze the area without overgrazing or underutilizing your grass.

Do you want to know how good your grass is? You can take that batch of grass you dried, cut it into small bits (1/4 inch long or so), and measure about 2 cups, loosely packed. Take that sample to your local extension agent. For a small fee you can have a forage anaylsis done of that sample. Typically the report will tell you the protein level, total digestible nutrients (TDN), and relative feed value. It will also give you percentages of micronutrients and the parts per million of trace elements. These are most important in their relationship to others, not in absolute terms.

Soil testing is another option you can access through your extension agent. In this case, they will loan you a core sampler, which you will use in several places throughout the field being tested. Place the dirt in a zip-lock bag and take it to your extension service. Be sure to tell them you want your soil tested for permanent pasture, not field crops. It will be analyzed and you will receive a report, again describing the nutrients and their percentages, in your soil. You will also receive a fertilizer recommendation, but be aware this will be couched in the usual NPK terms.

In the real world of farming, there will be droughts and cold summers and warm falls and other challenges, just to keep things interesting. Pasture management is an art, not a science. These figures can help you get started in assessing your fields, but only your observation and experience will really allow you to maximize the potential grazing.

Other Forages

Sheep can eat lots of forages, not just grasses. If you have areas you can seed in other plants, you may be able to extend your grazing season well into the fall. Brassicas are regaining popularity as easy crops to seed, even without big tractors, and yet provide valuable nutrition to sheep. Turnips, for example, can be broadcast sown over broken ground, and will grow very quickly. Until the ground is hard frozen, the sheep can paw the roots up to eat, after having grazed the tops. You may need to 'introduce' your sheep to this new cuisine. Pull a few roots up, cut them into pieces, and strew them around. The sheep will quickly understand this is gourmet sheep fare. This can extend the grazing season another month or more.

Sometimes you may have a field in corn or other crops, or have a neighboring farmer who has one--just about any plant that was leafy could be good. Sheep can browse these areas for a time, but keep an eye on their condition. Corn stubble really doesn't have that much nutrition in it.


What's the point of all this hassle? To minimize the feed you have to buy from off-farm for your sheep. The more you can feed them that you produce on your farm, the less money maintaining those sheep will cost you, and the more profitable your sheep operation could potentially be.

Ultimately you are a grass farmer, and your sheep are harvesting that grass and turning it into high-value breeding stock, meat, wool, and possibly milk for you, your family, and your customers. Treat your grass carefully, and it will take care of your animals.

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