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Ollila: Water and forage requirements help sheep withstand drought better

Written by Gayle Smith
Sheep producers seem to be making their way through the historical drought better than their cattle counterparts, according to an area sheep specialist. This is largely because sheep can withstand lower quality forages and less than ideal water conditions while still maintaining their body condition.
    According to Dave Ollila, sheep extension field specialist with South Dakota State University in Rapid City, S.D., most sheep producers should be able to hold on until they run out of grass and water. Then they will have to make other arrangements to either feed the sheep or sell them.
    “In regards to water and forage quality, sheep can withstand less than ideal standards and still perform and maintain their body condition,” he explains. “When water gets to the point where it could cause cattle to decline in performance or condition, it won’t necessarily affect sheep – yet. They are better able to accommodate themselves to greater extremes of feed and water quality than beef cattle, so they can withstand drought conditions longer.”
    Sheep consume plants and forbes that are more drought resistant – ones that most cattle don’t prefer.
    “Sheep utilize a wider range of plant material, will eat less desirable plants and still maintain their body condition,” Ollila says. “They eat more weeds, woody vegetation and a wider range of grasses and forbes than cattle.”
    Area markets are starting to see more sheep trickling in – primarily culls that producers don’t plan to maintain. The big run of feeder lambs hasn’t happened yet, but Ollila expects them to start funneling in towards the end of the month.
Tough management
decisions ahead
    In the meantime, stockmen are struggling to find winter feed supplies, and some may have to make some difficult management decisions in order to survive if the drought continues. Some producers are already making a plan by looking at whether to sell their older animals or younger animals, if they have to downsize.     
    Ewes typically reach their peak production when they are four- to six-years-old, Ollila says.
    “Three-year-old ewes are highly sought after because they are just entering the peak of their life,” he explains. “At six, the ewes are still desirable, but may be developing health issues and are starting to lose their teeth.”
    Most stockmen rotate ewes out of the flock around six- to seven-years of age, depending upon their management and the type of operation they have.
    “If the ewe has to make it on her own out on the range, she will start losing her teeth at a younger age,” Ollila explains. “In a farm flock, ewes may stay productive up until 10 to 12 years of age. It just depends upon the type of sheep operation and the resources available.”
Keeping the older ewes
    In making a decision regarding which age of ewes to retain, most producers will say the older ewes are easier to keep because they aren’t growing, Ollila says. They are more adapted to performing during a drought and are easier to lamb. They will have a higher lambing percentage and lamb survivability ratio.     
    On the other hand, they can be harder to maintain nutritionally and may have a harder time milking and producing a lamb next year if the drought persists, he continues.
    “If the older ewes are kept and her replacements are sold, then the average age of the herd will be older, which means less equity,” he said.
Keeping the younger ewes
    If a producer keeps the younger ewes, they will require additional supplementation because they are still growing. They have no performance history, and some may have to be culled later because they could not conceive or are poor mothers. However, the ewe flock would be younger and more viable, which puts a producer in a more equitable position when the sheep market returns and the drought is over.
    “There could be a flock of some highly productive ewes,” Ollila says.
Breeding ewes this fall
    In the meantime, producers are looking toward the upcoming breeding season, and trying to locate supplements that will best serve the ewe and help her rebreed. A number of feeds can be used to supplement ewes, Ollila says. If producers have some grass still available, it should provide enough energy that only protein will need to be supplemented. Lick tubs, cake and distillers grain are all good sources of supplemental protein, he says.
    The goal is to help the ewe retain her body condition from pregnancy until lambing. Management is key.
    “If the lambs are going backwards, chances are they are also pulling the ewes down. They need to be weaned so the ewes have a chance to regain body condition before breeding. If the ewes are pulled down enough, it can affect their ability to rebreed,” he cautions.
    Nutrition and water quality can also affect rebreeding, Ollila says.
    “If the ewes are lacking in condition because of the range conditions, it may be beneficial to flush them with corn or some other supplement to help them cycle and produce more twins,” he says.
    “The ewes are bred for this climate. They are used to hot, dry weather and low quality forage. If the nutrition is there and the water quality is there, they should breed,” he explains, adding there shouldn’t be a problem with sperm viability of the rams, as long as the temperature cools down in the evenings.
    Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.