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Livestock

Building markets - Ehrhardt looks at accelerated production

Written by Saige Albert

Accelerated production for sheep producers is an option that can provide increased profits, says Michigan State University Small Ruminant Extension Specialist Richard Ehrhardt.

“Accelerated lambing is a production system for sheep producers that decreases the birth interval to less than 12 months,” Ehrhardt says. “By decreasing the interval, we create a moving birth period throughout the years, creating multiple birth periods.”

Essentially, the system requires that sheep are being productive at all times, he says, noting that sheep don’t take a break or sit in a non-productive states. 

“It is key to improving production efficiency that we don’t have sheep that are non-pregnant or not lactating for long periods,” Ehrhardt adds.

Comparison

Ehrhardt figures a good annual program with a conception rate of 95 percent,  will result in 1.9 lambs born per year per ewe. 

“If we consider 85 percent survival rate from birth to market, which I would argue is fairly reasonable, we come to 1.6 lambs per ewe per year on an annual system,” he says. “In the accelerated system, we have more than one birth per year.”

On average, in an accelerated system, ewes are going to have 1.3 to 1.4 lambs at each lambing period.

While ewes have a slightly lower productive rate per lambing period, they are also lambing multiple times per year, so Ehrhardt estimates that each ewe produces approximately 2.2 lambs per year to market age.

With a replacement rate for ewes in the flock at approximately 22 percent, ewes in an annual production system will yield approximately 1.38 lambs per year, compared to 1.95 lambs per year from an accelerated system. 

Ehrhardt comments, “In this scenario, the accelerated production system provides 40 percent greater annual ewe productivity.”

Advantages

In addition to greater lamb crops to take to market, Ehrhardt mentions that the system provides more marketing flexibility and, as a result, less risk. 

“We can hit more markets, so we can be more opportunistic in our marketing,” he comments. “We can take lambs that are born at every point in the year and sell than as 140 pound lambs in a traditional market, or we can target the ethnic trade with 40 to 50 pound lambs.” 

Year-round supply also creates additional markets and consistent supply. 

“Market access might be the strongest advantage of accelerated production,” Ehrhardt says. “We have reduced risk due to price fluctuations, and we are marketing lambs throughout the year, creating cash flow.”

Using two production examples, Ehrhardt points out that both large-scale and small-scale producers can utilize an accelerated production system. 

One ranch with over 2,000 sheep utilizes the system, seeing a rate of 2.32 lambs per ewe per year. Another operation with only 150 sheep realizes a rate of 1.9 lambs per ewe per year. 

Two systems

There are two primary systems utilized in accelerated production – the Cornell STAR system and the eighth-month system. 

“In the STAR system, developed at Cornell, we see five lambing periods over three years,” Ehrhardt explains. “We have ewes lambing every 7.2 months in this system, which is a little more efficient than the other system.”

The STAR system results in an average of 1.67 lambs per ewe per year, compared to 1.5 in the eighth-month system. 

“The calendar year is broken into five periods of production,” Ehrhardt explains of the STAR system. “We have a 73-day period of lambing and lactation. Then we wean lambs and the ewes are exposed again.”

A ewe that breeds in early January, lambs in late June and is rebred. The same ewe will lamb in January at the beginning of the second year, is bred in early March and lambs a third time in August. 

“Year three, she will lamb in March,” Ehrhardt says. “She is going to lactate, get bred and lamb again for the fifth time in October.”

Ehrhardt notes that often two bunches of ewes are managed in the system, and while one bunch is lambing, the other is being bred. 

“Over the three-year period, the ewes gives birth at a different time of year each year,” he says.

In the eighth month system, ewes lamb every eight months. 

“The advantages of this system is the flexibility,” Ehrhardt comments. “We only have three lambing periods per year instead of five.”

As a result, the timing is not as strict, and producers can extend lactation or breeding, for example, to hit a target market. 

“The eighth-month system also allows the ewes a bit more recovery, so they regain the energy reserve and body fat they need,” he says.

Additional resources

To switch to an accelerated system, however, additional resources are needed on an operation. 

“Producers need a birth facility,” Ehrhardt says. “A climate-controlled barn would be best, since we have to lamb in the dead of winter.”

The facility should be capable of housing at least two-thirds of the flock. 

“We also have to provide an increased plane of nutrition over the year than in annual birth,” he comments. “The ewes are in a more productive state, so we have to meet their needs.”

In addition to high energy forages, supplements or concentrates should be provided at the appropriate times. Ewes have higher energy requirements in an accelerated production system to maintain their condition and productivity.

A breed of sheep that is capable of off-season breeding is also important. 

“We also have to carefully manage or eradicate chronic diseases,” Ehrhardt notes. “They show up as ugly things in an accelerated system.”

“Overall, we need precise management in terms of nutrition, reproduction and health,” Ehrhardt comments. 

Just a piece

Richard Ehrhardt, Michigan State University’s Small Ruminant Extension specialist, emphasizes that using accelerated production is just one piece of improving the efficiency of a sheep operation. 

“This is one of a number of strategies to improve efficiency,” he says. 

Other management strategies to improve efficiency include lowering feed cost by extending grazing seasons and using inexpensive by-product feeds when available. 

“My number one way of improving efficiency is strategic nutritional management,” Ehrhardt explains. “I make nutritional investments where they pay off and improve productivity and welfare.”

Decreasing labor also plays as role, as well as increasing production using genetics, terminal sires for growth advantage and, finally, reducing birth intervals – which is accelerated production.

Other options

Michigan State University Small Ruminant Extension Specialist Richard Ehrhardt marked controlled use of lighting and hormone therapy to further improve production and reproductive abilities of sheep. 

“There isn’t a lot of published data comparing the system, but Canada’s government research center for sheep did a study where they compared lighting control with progesterone therapy,” he says. “In the light-controlled system, the ewes are lambing at a rate of 2.81 lambs per lambing period, or nearly four lambs per year.”

Using hormone therapy resulted in 1.37 lambs per ewe at each lambing period, or 2.86 lambs per year per ewe.

 

Ehrhardt presented during a webinar offered in cooperation with the American Sheep Industry Association’s Rebuild the Sheep Inventory Committee.

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..