12 Ways to Prepare Sheep, Goats & Pastures for Grazing

Apr 25, 2020

Tara Jo Bina
Countryside Feed Livestock Nutrition
It’s common for producers to chomp at the bit to turn their animals out to pastures during spring green up. After all, there are several benefits to putting sheep and goats out to graze, including:
  • Health & Nutrition: Animals can get plenty of exercise and access to forage.
  • Economic: Grazing is the least expensive means of feeding small ruminants.
  • Environmental: Their manure enriches the soil and helps build organic matter.
That said, there are several steps to take to prepare your small ruminants and pastures for grazing. I recommend performing the following tasks before turning your animals out to pasture.
  1. Sheer your sheep. Removing excess wool allows you to accurately evaluate how your animals performed over the winter.
  2. Trim hooves and inspect feet to make sure animals are moving around properly. Forgoing this simple step could lead sheep and goats to experience a lot of pain while walking, which often causes them to stop eating and exercising.
  3. Vaccinate and deworm all animals before turning them to spring pasture. Vaccinating protects against a number of diseases, including enterotoxemia (aka overeating disease). This is of higher risk in the spring, because there are excess sugars and starches in grass that trigger bacteria in the lower digestive system to produce a lethal toxin that causes the disease. Deworming animals before turning them out into clean pastures will help reduce the chance of contaminating these pastures with parasites.
  4. Assign each animal a body condition score and affix I.D. tags so you can keep tabs on their progress and overall health. Hold back the ones that need some extra TLC before turning them out to pasture, and cull the old or under-performing animals.
  5. Check your fences. As they say, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Make sure you don’t have any sagging or gaps in fencing where animals can escape and wander into neighboring corn or soybean fields.
  6. Provide an adequate water system for your flock or tribe, and a shady, 3-sided shelter to protect animals from late spring snows, heavy rains and hot, sunny conditions.
  7. Ensure that your pasture has adequate grass levels, and identify which types of species are present. If you have a lot of tall fescue or brome grass, provide animals with a magnesium supplement to help prevent grass tetany. If your pasture mainly consists of alfalfa, limit feeding intervals to prevent bloat.
  8. Don’t turn your animals out hungry. Keep an adequate supply of quality feed in their pens to help ensure they aren’t allowed to graze on empty stomachs.
  9. Work with your local Countryside Feed nutritionist to determine which protein and mineral supplements to keep out for your animals that coincide with your desired level of performance. Whether you’re looking to contribute to weight gain, lactation or reproduction, your nutritionist will be able to recommend the right products. 
  10. Prevent pasture damage by limiting the number of animals let out to graze. As a general rule of thumb, you can put out 10 ewes per acre if your pasture is in good condition. If grass conditions are on the poor side, you might need to pull back to five ewes per acre.
  11. Establish a good predator control system. Dogs, donkeys or llamas can be effective at keeping coyotes and wild dogs at bay. Provided they’ve been bonded, running sheep with cows has also shown to reduce predator losses, according to the American Sheep Industry Association. If you decide to try this, start with a 1:1 ratio of cows to sheep or goats and be certain that you have adequate space for all animals – especially around water. Due to their dominating size, cows can end up severely injuring or killing small ruminants by stepping or laying on top on them, or pushing them into water sources and causing them to drown. Cows prefer taller grass and small ruminants like short grass, so they don’t generally compete for forage. Sheep and goats will also browse weedy forages if allowed to do so, keeping those otherwise unwanted plants under control.
  12. Gradually introduce animals to pasture and let them work up to longer feeding periods to prevent overfeeding. Start grazing during the day and bring them in at night, when lambs are most likely to nurse. Be sure to walk the pasture daily within the first week or so to make sure animals are active and not bloating.
As the grazing season progresses, continue to observe your animals on a routine basis. You know them better than anyone else, so if something is off, you’ll be the best person to catch it. And finally, don’t hesitate to call if you have questions about grazing your sheep or goats. You can reach me at 785-294-0412 and I’m always happy to help out.

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