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Multi-Species Spread The Risk

You won’t find many ranches — let alone “flerds” — in the heart of the Regina Plains. If you’re a Corner Gas fan, you’ll be able to visualize the flat, open, prime grain-growing land around Rouleau, Sask., where Len and Lisa Larsen live.

Several years ago the Larsens set out to switch their 2,100-acre grain farm to a multi-species grazing operation. Today, Lars Acres carries a bonded herd of sheep, cattle and horses. They started with sheep, added the cows, overcame the challenges, and are now reaping the benefits — which aren’t all monetary. Quality of life, a positive work atmosphere and stewardship are equally important in their farm plan.

“In nature, you never see a single grazier — we have the deer and the antelope — so we thought we’d add a species we can at least sell,” Larsen told a packed roomful of ranchers at the Western Canadian Grazing Conference in Edmonton earlier this year.

And selling they are. Domestic demand for lamb far outpaces production and that gives sheep producers bargaining power. This past year, buyers have been willing to pay top prices with no shrink for live animals picked up at Larsen’s yard. All of Canada’s lamb production has been sold into the domestic market since trade issues surrounding BSE shut off markets for all Canadian ruminants six years ago.

“Canada produces 45 per cent of the lamb it consumes. Consumption has risen 10 per cent in the last two years and is expected to increase by 50 per cent in the next five years,” he says. The industry is promoting multispecies grazing to beef producers as one avenue to increase production.

Research has shown that cattle and sheep complement each other. Animal units per month of grazing were not affected by the addition of three sheep per cow. In Larsen’s case, adding cattle to the sheep operation greatly improved pasture utilization and increased the time the herd could stay in a pasture.

The sheep didn’t like going into the tall grass because they couldn’t see approaching predators. Even after a week, they couldn’t eat their way clear, he explains. That’s because sheep are selective grazers. The split upper lip allows them to take the leafy forage, but they leave behind plenty of good grazing for cattle and horses, which are nonselective grazers. Sheep prefer leafy weeds and forbs, whereas cattle prefer grasses.

Overall, multi-species grazing and biodiversity has reduced risk and increased profit on their ranch. For example, a disease or weather event may affect one species and not the other. Though live cattle prices were in the dumps, adding the cows and shifting their production cycle forward has greatly reduced predator losses in the sheep herd. And the horses — well there’s always a steady market for well-broke saddle horses and chore teams.

You can raise a flock of sheep and a herd of cows, but you don’t have a flerd until the animals bond — that is, the sheep bond to the cows, because the cows could care less, Larsen adds.

To create a successful bond, you have to commit to managing the herd as one all year round. That means if you bring in the cows, you bring in the sheep. Sheep have a wider flight zone than cattle, so it’s possible to separate them on pasture, however, that defeats the whole purpose of the flerd. You want the sheep to run to the cows for protection — if you take the cows away, it will increase the stress level for the sheep.

The Larsens and their kids, Josh and Renee, run about 800 ewes and 50 cows. The flerd calves and lambs together on pasture in June, so bonding begins at birth. Newcomers are bonded by putting them in a pen with a couple of gentle cows and feeding them together for a month to six weeks. This works best if you do it when the sheep are young, after weaning at three to four months of age.

“The best method to get started is to buy 20 lambs, get them bonded, see how it works, and go from there,” Larsen advises. “My ratio is 10 ewes per cow, but they say the bond is stronger with five ewes per cow.”

Predator policy

Bonding is a key feature of Larsen’s predator control program. Other management practices that reduce predator losses include weaning the lambs in early September, ahead of the peak period for predator attacks from mid-September through December, timely and proper disposal of deadstock, and strict culling of fence crawlers.

Even the guard dogs are bonded to the flerd. He maintains one guard dog for every 200 sheep. These aren’t family pets — you don’t pet them and you don’t take them to the house. You have to be diligent in training them for the job you want them to do, he stresses. If you want them to leap fences and chase down predators, place a self-feeder on the outside of the fence. If you want the dogs to stay in the pasture with the flerd, place their food inside the fence every couple of days.

Larsen has a written plan of counter attack when predator losses happen.

First, he shrinks his pack size, from 80 acres down to 40 or even 20 acres. Then he goes hunting — immediately. You can’t afford to put off the job because once a coyote starts killing sheep, it will keep on killing and teach its young to do the same. Not all coyotes will kill sheep, he adds. You’ll know when you have the killer because it will have wool in its belly.

Management tips

Probably the greatest challenge of a multi-species operation is managing the workload. Each species has to be sorted, culled, weaned and processed separately.

Of course, if you’re adding sheep, you’ll have to learn about shearing. Larsen hires a custom operator to get the job done about six weeks to a month prior to lambing. Canadian sheep are bred for meat, not wool quality, so its all graded as mixed wool. Canadian Wool Growers purchases it for about 35 cents a pound, which is enough to pay the shearer’s bill. They usually charge about $3.50 per head and one guy can do 150 to 200 sheep a day.

Cattle handling facilities can easily be adapted to sheep, though your fencing may have to be upgraded. Larsen has nothing but electric fences with three-strand perimeter fencing. Reminding or training sheep to the electric fence is best accomplished just after shearing in a corral with wet ground.

“The more often you move them, the less tendency there is for them to want to get out of the fence,” he says. Moving sheep isn’t a problem at all because they keep step with horses at a walk, so its the cows that slow the pace.

The cows are boss when it comes to eating, so try to avoid feeders and situations where ewes can get pinned or crushed. Even bale grazing out in the open can present problems. Larsen used to move the wire every five days and roll out one day’s worth of feed to make room for all of the animals on the first rush to the feed. Now, he uses his team to unroll all of the bales out in the field.

Parasite control is more of an issue in sheep herds than in beef cattle. The Larsens use management practices such as selecting breeding stock for parasite resistance, planning rotations to interrupt the life cycle of parasites, and trying to graze the most diverse pastures during the peak parasite load. The New Zealand school of thought is that the cows vacuum up the lamb worms because they won’t survive in the rumen of cattle. They look at cost-benefit when deciding whether or not to use chemical products or vaccinate for parasite control.

“The nutritional requirements are different, but my rule of thumb is that if the cattle body condition score is okay, then the sheep will be okay,” Larsen explains. It’s really important for reproductive reasons that sheep don’t get too fat. Therefore, a flerd with small-frame-size cows is easiest to manage.

Another consideration is the mineral program, mainly because sheep have low tolerance to copper. You’ll need to work with a nutritionist to develop a plan that works for your operation.

Larsen says the key to a low-cost, high-profit operation is to select locally-adapted sheep and cattle from a producer who has an operation similar to yours. There are livestock specialists and knowledgeable people within the industry who will be able to advise you about what to look for and what to avoid when selecting breeding ewes.

For more information, contact the Larsens at 306-776-2427.

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