When Ontario grazier Markus Wand hit on the idea of adding sheep to the family’s Northern Ontario cow-calf operation, parents Klaus and Ursula Wand weren’t too keen. “I think it was outside my dad’s comfort zone,” Markus says.
Seventeen years later, sheep fit the two-generation farm like a well-worn wool sweater (or maybe a flock of wool sweaters.) “Sheep are more work than cattle, but they’re more profitable, too,” says Markus. Along with his parents and his wife Jen, Wand runs about 650 ewes and 65 cow-calf pairs on 900 acres near Powassan. Thanks to the two-species approach, “the pastures are more productive, and we’re getting more production out of the animals.”
Further south, in Ontario’s Dufferin County, Mike Swidersky agrees. “We’ve seen almost double the productivity since we added sheep,” says Swidersky, who, with his wife Amber, custom grazes yearling cattle, manages a community pasture, and runs 250 ewes near Ontario’s Melancthon Township. “They just seem to complement the cattle so well.”
These modern multi-species operations aren’t exactly Old McDonald’s farm, with a cluck-cluck here and an oink-oink there. Instead, Wand and Swidersky are striving for large-flock economies of scale while using species diversity to boost forage output and the bottom line.
More meat per acre
Even so, farmers who tout diversity seem to be running against the herd. According to the latest Census of Agriculture, so-called “livestock combination” farms declined more than 18 per cent between 2011 and 2016, to 5,749. Then again, most farm numbers are shrinking. Sheep farms fell 22 per cent. Even cow-calf operations showed a modest decline.
But the science suggests Wand and Swidersky are on to something. The advantage lies in the way different species complement one another, says Texas A&M researcher John Walker. In 1994, Walker published the review paper “Multispecies Grazing: The Ecological Advantage” in Sheep Research Journal. Adding species to a pasture can boost utilization, Walker argued, because grazing competition within a species (cow versus cow, for example), is typically greater than among species (cow versus ewe).
Both species eat grass, but sheep browse more brush and eat more forbs. They graze more selectively, and lower in the sward. When cattle and sheep work the same turf, they utilize the pasture more fully. “As available forage decreases, dietary overlap between sheep and cattle tends to decrease,” Walker wrote. Cattle shift to “lower quality but more available forage, while sheep can continue to select their preferred diet.”
The result is that a well-managed rotational grazing system can carry more pounds of sheep and cattle than it can carry cattle or sheep alone. The payoff, Walker added, can be as much as a 24 per cent increase in meat production compared to a cattle-only operation.
But adding species also adds complexity. Graziers need a season-long plan to move groups through paddocks. Wand subdivides fields with polywire, moving sheep along to new paddocks every two to four days. The cattle follow after about a month’s rest and may linger up to five days. “Sheep do a better job picking out the good stuff, and then four weeks later the cattle come in and clean up what’s left,” he says. “The sheep help keep the brush down, too. They’ve done a really good job on buttercups, and that has saved us from having to clip pastures.”
Swidersky uses more of a mob-grazing approach, putting large numbers on a paddock for a couple of days, then resting the grass for 60-80 days. “We trample a lot and leave lots behind,” he says. “Sheep spend their lives trying to make a desert, so you have to fight that,” he says. “You can’t let them overgraze. You have to leave lots behind.”
The rise of drug-resistant parasites — a major problem among large grass-based sheep operations — is also promoting the two-species approach. “Pasture management for sheep is really worm management first. Everything else comes second,” says Jim Johnston, a New Liskeard, Ont. farmer running 650 ewes and 40 cow-calf pairs and their yearlings. Before farming full time, Johnston was the forage and sheep researcher at the University of Guelph’s New Liskeard Agricultural Research Station.
Since cattle and sheep generally don’t share the same parasites (and cattle seem better able to tolerate worms in general), alternating grazing between cattle and sheep creates a mismatch between worms and hosts. More sheep parasites will either die waiting for their preferred hosts to return, or get hoovered up by grazing cattle, and die in the inhospitable environment of the bovine gut.
By adding long pasture rest periods, Swidersky says he’s virtually eliminated the use of dewormers during the past seven years. Wand, meanwhile, says cattle are part of his parasite-control plan. “Since we’ve been doing a better job of rotating and alternating cattle and sheep, we see a lot less parasite issues — less bottle jaw, less anemia, a lot less parasite-related morbidity and mortality.”
Both simplify management by buying feed. Swidersky buys all his hay and grain. He grain-finishes lambs, and winter feeds ewes by rolling bales out on fields. “That’s one of our fertility sources,” he says. “We’ve seen almost double the (forage) productivity since we added the sheep. Winter feeding has helped.”
Wand buys grain but bales his own hay. Pastures aren’t hayed every year, but sooner or later every field is cut for hay. As well as providing winter forage, haying helps knock down parasite numbers. “We don’t have land that’s exclusively pasture, or exclusively for hay,” he says. “I think grazing and pasturing the same land gives you a greater diversity of forage species.”
Swidersky broke into farming just before the 2003 BSE crisis. As cattle prices bottomed out, “there wasn’t a whole lot of optimism.” Rather than buying his own cattle, Swidersky opted to custom graze other farmers’ animals. “We didn’t have the equity to buy animals, so we invested in grazing infrastructure instead,” including fencing and waterlines.
“We aim to be low-cost producers,” he adds. “Sometimes the money we don’t spend is the money we make.”
Easier to add cattle
Wand’s approach evolved from the grass-based dairy operation run by his parents. After the dairy herd was sold, a shift into cow-calf production seemed the natural next step. Wand was still a University of Guelph student then, but he reckoned adding sheep to the mix could make the farm profitable enough to support both generations.
The trick is generating additional income to pay for increased labour and infrastructure.
As John Walker points out, it’s easier for a sheep operation to add cattle than vice versa. With good pasture, cattle will respect a strand or two of polywire to subdivide a field, but sheep need at least three or better, as well as an effective way to deter predators. The Wands, for example, are fielding nine guardian dogs. Shelter can be a major factor, too, especially if part of the flock is lambing in the winter.
Every producer’s numbers will differ, but Jim Johnston’s own back-of-the-envelope calculations give sheep a clear edge in Ontario’s market, on a farm with a limited land base and competition for rental land with cash croppers. Johnston reckons eight ewes will winter on the same volume of hay as one cow (although the ewes will thrive on better-quality hay than a cow.) While that cow produces one calf, the ewes should turn out around 12 lambs, each fetching a rough average of $250 as well-finished heavy lambs.
As Wand says, “We can make a living off the sheep we have, but we wouldn’t be able to make a living off a comparable number of cattle. I like to gross $300-$350 per ewe. For cattle, the last number of years I’d probably gross around $1,500 per cow, and that would be pretty decent.”
With the right management, he says, two species are better for the bottom line. “I like the cows. We’ll keep them, but I’d also like to expand both sides of the operation,” he adds. “Eventually, I’d like to get to 1,000 ewes and 120 cows. It’s just a better economy of scale.”
This article was published in the 2019 issue of the Forage & Grassland Guide.