(Editor’s note: This story is the first in a three-part series on sheep farming. Each story focuses on a different type of sheep production.)
SHREVE, Ohio – John and Jim Anderson stand among the pastures on their farm, analyzing the growth with a critical eye. They talk about the soil, the plants, the nutritional value, the sheep that graze there.
The father-son team looks at the rye, the rape, the clover, the chicory, the mustard, the vetch, the alfalfa, the corn. They mull over how to make it better, how to get more from their rotational grazing program.
The Andersons have been grazing sheep on Summerhill Farm in Wayne County for more than a decade. They’ve been willing to change as the industry progressed, trying new ideas and staying flexible.
Chicory. For instance, the most recent addition to the farm is two patches of chicory. Not the kind of chicory you see growing along the road in the summer, but a species developed in France.
In the field, chicory is blended with plants like alfalfa or clover. The Andersons aren’t the first to try it, but chicory is still experimental when it comes to grazing. So far, they’ve had good luck.
One of the advantages of chicory is its dietary value. The plant pulls minerals from the ground, offering a variety of nutrients to the animals. Plus, it grows well in dry conditions.
This summer, about 35 lactating Polypay ewes, along with 80 lambs, grazed on the chicory patches for 18 days. By mid-July, it will be ready for another round of grazing.
Besides serving as a food source, John said chicory also helps suppress internal parasites, like barber pole worms.
Jim and John had been wondering for some time if there was a plant that could help fight worms. When they read about chicory a year or two ago, they knew they wanted to give it a try.
Although the chicory has been successful this season, Jim is quick to caution that it won’t solve a producer’s worm problems.
“Our experience so far is good, but we’re not claiming it’s a cure,” said Jim, the father in this father-son team.
Try new things. The chicory experiment is similar to what these graziers have done all along. They try small patches of many different plants to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t.
To an outsider, the pastures may seem like a hodge-podge of random plants. But there’s a reason for them – sheep need diverse grazing.
“We wouldn’t have done it except we’re trying to get maximum power from the sheep,” Jim said.
In the past, they’ve tried plants like turnips, sorghum, kale and orchard grass. The kale, sorghum and orchard grass didn’t work out, although the turnips were successful.
With this kind of grazing program, it’s also important to have plants for different seasons, as the sheep are rarely brought into the barn.
Balancing act. With rotational grazing, there’s a lot to juggle, according to Jim. But the father and son learn as they go and the more they learn, the more they like it. And it fits with their goals as commercial producers.
“We make use of our fields as much as possible,” Jim said.
Polypays are a ewe breed and most of the Andersons’ female lambs are sold as breeding stock. About 15 percent of the males also go for breeding purposes.
Polypays are prolific animals that can lamb out of season. This allows Jim and John to use an accelerated lambing program, with three lambing seasons per year. Lambs are born on the farm in January, May and September. Each ewe has an eight-month interval between births, but the farm has three lamb crops each year.
This has several advantages. It allows the Andersons to make better use of their facilities, it generates a few more lambs each year than conventional once-a-year breeding, and it spreads out income.
About Polypays. A cross between Dorsets, Rambouillets, Targhees and Finns, Polypays often have multiple births. For instance, the Andersons have seen two of their ewes have and raise quintuplets recently.
The multiple births are natural and it’s something the father and son strive to improve. Their goal is to breed ewes that average 3.5 or more fast-growing lambs each year.
“We wanted something that would produce more than one lamb a year,” John said.
As commercial breeders, they don’t see a better way to get the job done.
“A guy who wants to make money on sheep needs to have some high-producing ewes,” Jim said.
Not only do the ewes have to produce at Summerhill, they must also be able to care for their young.
“If they have more lambs, they have to be able to raise them,” Jim said.
Genetics. The Andersons keep about 100 ewes and 10-15 rams in their flock, which is named Lambshire. By keeping a large number of rams, they get a higher level of genetic diversity within the group.
The Lambshire flock has been a work in progress for the Anderson family. It’s taken 12-14 years of breeding to get ewes like the ones that raised quintuplets.
“It’s taken awhile, but we’ve been making pretty good progress,” John said.
They’re always looking for that perfect ewe and they keep replacement lambs from every crop in order to move toward an ideal flock.
But perhaps more than anything else, it’s flexibility that’s kept Jim and John headed in the direction of their goals.
“We just don’t have any one way of doing things,” John said.
Summerhill Farm will be featured on a grazing tour July 13. For information see the related article on this page.
(Reporter Janelle Skrinjar welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)