Farm Talk

Front page stories

March 20, 2013

Thinking outside the flock

Parsons, Kansas — Sheep producers from across the state of Kansas gathered earlier this month for Kansas State University’s Sheep Producer Day, held at the K-State Sheep and Meat Goat Center which is still sparkling from the final touches of its construction in 2012.

Dr. Brian Faris, Assistant Professor and Sheep and Meat Goat Specialist at Kansas State University, shared with attendees the future for the new center which is now in its second year of use.

Faris revealed that classrooms were going to be installed in the building and that the center would be used for lambing and kidding in the near future. Faris was excited about the teaching opportunities in the center and added that handling classes will also be taught on site.

The center, in addition to hosting Sheep Producer Day, is also used extensively for youth events and area conferences such as the Women in Agriculture Conference and 4-H Discovery Days.

Another advantage of a new livestock facility is the generous attention the center has garnered from students across the United States who are eager to do research with sheep and goats — Faris said he had been in contact with several potential students who are interested in continuing their education at K-State.

Sheep production in the United States accounts for less than one percent of total U.S. livestock receipts, but that doesn’t mean that Kansas sheep producers don’t care about doing things right and earning the highest possible value from their flocks. Attendees were all ears and full of questions and comments for the featured speaker of the day, Dr. Dan Morrical, Iowa State University Sheep Specialist, whose program promised to encourage producers to “think outside the flock.”

Morrical, who is no stranger to the sheep industry, quickly went over the pros and cons of sheep production with affable honesty.

“Sheep are the hardest to raise and the hardest to make money with but it’s cheaper than being a cowboy,” he stated.

 Morrical touted uncertain markets and ever-changing problems at the forefront of challenges to sheep production, but was quick to remind producers that — in his opinion — sheep are better than pigs and most producers admit to enjoying the challenge of raising sheep.

Morrical encouraged producers to evaluate different feeding strategies and abandon some of the age old practices they had been using.

“Plant grass and fence posts, let your neighbors grow corn,” Morrical proposed. “Hay is a better cash crop than corn and if you‘ve got a good border collie, you can graze your ditches.”

Morrical, a supporter of simplified feeding, also explained there isn’t a need for annual planting with forages and there is a lesser need for big equipment.

“All these factors combined point to lower input costs than crops,” he shared.

Acknowledging the labor intensive process that is sheep production, Morrical offered several ways to help producers lighten the load.

“Sheep producers spend more time feeding than anything else,” he proclaimed. “Let sheep walk to the feed! It doesn’t make much sense to drive a tractor, skid loaders and other equipment to take feed to them.”

Lambing ewes in the pasture and lambing later in the year were also suggested to help producers find more hours in the day, although those alternatives can sometimes lead to problems with parasites and worms —  well-known as a severe problem in itself.

A facet of sheep production many producers may not realize is advantageous, is the use or sale of sheep manure. The nutrient dense composition of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium make it an ideal companion for an alfalfa field.

“Each ewe produces approximately a half ton of manure every year which equates to about $2.50 per ewe. Mix composted manure with soil and sell it to gardeners,” Morrical advised.

Switching gears Morrical said, “Agrotourism is increasing in popularity but it’s also a liability”

The number of people who want to learn about food production is increasing exponentially and hosting farm days could help bridge the gap while increasing profits.

“Host a spring shearing day and sell them meat, cheese, wool, manure and a good time. Lambing season will bring out a crowd and shearing day would be a close second to that. Additionally, a border collie could do working presentations,” he added.

The touchy subject of biofuels and the potential future of cellulosic ethanol was eventually broached and Morrical was candid but optimistic.

“If cellulosic plants can get stalks bought cheap enough, it has a chance. But producers then lose the value of crop residue and nutrients,” he attested. “Cellulosic ethanol also appeals more to consumers than corn stalks.”

Morrical then posed the question of how cellulosic ethanol production would affect gas prices, “because essentially everything comes back to oil.”

Morrical’s suggestions are ways to improve the image of the sheep industry and increase visibility while working towards the goal of better sheep and better profits in the long run. Although not everyone agreed with all of his ideas, attendees unanimously agreed with Morrical’s closing message: “You always get what your sheep are worth — good or bad.” £

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