A crowd gathered at the Southeast Research and Extension Center in Parsons, Kansas to learn sheep and goat marketing, management and nutrition from statewide small ruminant professionals.
From small 4-H and FFA-centered operations to commercial breeders, producers came from miles around to demystify Kansas’ growing sheep and goat industry. Jupe Allen, a Parsons-based veterinarian and Dorper sheep breeder, shared his hair sheep formula for success.
“When it comes to marketing, many know how but only a few know when,” Allen said. “The hair sheep market we have right now is dictated by a high-end market with educated consumers who think they know what they want.”
Allen currently markets his ram lambs through a value-added marketing style program where the end consumer is paying a premium for what they consider to be welfare-oriented practices — no tail docking, castration or antibiotics. The top priority, for both Allen and his consumers, is consistency and a quality eating experience every time.
Attention to flock health and nutrition helps Allen provide a quality product but marketing continually plays the biggest role in his profitability. The lamb market is incredibly seasonal, with the highest demand February through May and the lowest demand June through October.
“Most people have lambs in the spring, sell them in the summer and are disappointed,” Allen said. “If you can switch your lambing schedule around so you are selling them after the first of the year, you will really enjoy the sheep business quite a bit more.”
Allen advocated for rigorous quarantine protocols to reduce herd health dilemmas like overeating disease and tetanus, while protecting incoming breeding stock as well.
“Whatever you buy when you bring it home, you vaccinated it for CDT, deworm it and put it somewhere where it cannot have access to your other animals for at least 30 days,” Allen said. “I don’t mean 27 days or 24 days — I want strict quarantine for 30 days and you will be amazed how many problems that solves in your herd.”
Both Allen, and Columbus-based veterinarian Kurtis Gregory, who spoke about goat production, are believers in finding alternative worming methods, from strengthening natural immunity to feeding dry laundry detergent alongside mineral for goats.
“Hair sheep have a natural immunity to internal parasites and I think we need to take advantage of that as best we can,” Allen said. “It’s kind of my rule of thumb that if I have to deworm a ewe, I’ll mark her and then if I have to deworm her a second time I will probably sell her.”
Both speakers also advised producers to find a management level that suits their own operation. Goats and sheep can thrive with little attention or nutrition, or alternatively they can be a luxury product — it’s all about individual producer goals.
“On management there’s many different levels,” Allen said. “Sheep are very forgiving so you can put little effort into them and use them as weed-eaters, you can raise them commercially, you can raise replacements, or you can get into the show lamb business.”
Gregory also put flock planning and goal setting into perspective for producers during his presentation.
“It all comes down to what your end purpose and goal is,” Gregory said. “If you’re doing this to support your children and make them a better individual later on, then we’ll do anything and everything we can do to help our kids out.
“If you’re doing this as an extra hobby as something to do with 5 or 10 acres or in your retirement years, then they’re a nice project.”
Alison Crane, Kansas State University’s sheep and goat nutrition specialist spoke about key nutrition concerns for producers, especially pertaining to reproduction. She likened the sheep digestive system to a cow’s stomach and encouraged producers to place water intake at the top of their lists before considering feedstuffs.
“For every 4 pounds of dry matter consumed, it’s an estimate that they’re going to have to drink about 1 to 1.5 gallons of water,” Crane said. “A typical ewe will consume about 0.72 gallons of water in the winter time and about 2.2 gallons in the winter time, so of course they will consumer more water when it is hot outside.”
Crane agreed with both Allen and Gregory on the management of small ruminants, and said grass alone is often nutritionally adequate for sheep and goats through many stages of production.
“Quantity is most often more important than quality for a ruminant animal,” Crane said. “Microbial protein is commonly adequate for ruminant animals but with low quality forage sometimes you need to supply some additional forms of protein, especially as the needs of the animal change through different production stages.”
For feed label considerations, Crane encouraged producers to consider energy over protein. Inadequate energy can limit performance more than any other nutritional deficiency and increasing protein does not necessarily mean increased energy or production.
“Overfeeding protein is very expensive,” Crane said. “Check your feed labels —especially if you are buying show feed or bags of feed, a lot of times those will have some excess protein.”
Late gestation and early lactation are critical times in the health of both mature ewes and does, as well as their offspring. Ignoring signs of distress in pregnant ewes or does, like rapid weight loss, can lead to devastating consequences.
“One of our most common health issues in sheep and goats on the female side is pregnancy toxemia,” Crane said. “Sheep and goats can have multiple births and with their gut fill they suddenly cannot take in enough energy and they get into a negative energy balance.”
Pregnancy toxemia or ketosis can cause downer ewes or lambs and even death if untreated. It is a common but avoidable problem if energy requirements and gut fill are taken into account.
“Lambing rate or kidding rate is also going to effect the energy nutrient demand on the ewes or does,” Crane said. “If they’re going to have multiples, whether it’s kids or lambs, that will take up more gut so they are not going to have enough room to take in as much bulk in the diet, so your diet has to become much more concentrated in energy.”
Once healthy lambs or kids are born, Crane said creep feeding becomes a necessary part of their diets — not only for the nutritional benefits, but to teach the newborns how to eat feed.
“It’s really important to offer free choice creep feed within the first seven days of a lamb or kid’s life,” Crane said. “The earlier you can get those lambs or kids on feed or just experimenting with feed then they will go on through weaning a lot easier and hopefully with less stress.”