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Dave Thomas

Dave Thomas Photo By Jan Shepel

Sheep producers facing high feed costs

March 21, 2013 | 0 comments

Feed is the largest cost of raising sheep, and with the economics and last year's drought changing the landscape of feed costs, the topic is of more concern than ever to state sheep producers.

Dave Thomas, sheep production specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison said this year the high cost of feed is a topic that is of concern to everyone. Feed costs are up to 70 percent of total operations cost on a sheep farm.

Since ewes must be fed all year that cost can be up to 40 percent of the total cost of the operation, he said during Sheep Day, March 16, at the University's Arlington Agriculture Research Station.

"Ewes don't need much grain and 85 percent of total ewe feed costs can be due to purchased roughage - hay.

"The days of $2 per bushel corn are gone and the days of $80-$100 hay are gone too," he said.

The prices farmers are forced to pay for hay today are no doubt a reflection of last year's drought, but with more land going into corn production, there is less forage to go around and that contributes to the price picture going forward, he said.

The price structure has been a bad one for sheep producers. During the past 14 months, corn prices reached a record high of $8.50 while lamb prices fell. "It has been disastrous for the sheep industry," he said.

Thomas talked about the actual nutritional needs of ewes and lambs and how producers are used to feeding them on premium alfalfa hay and corn. He noted that this top-quality alfalfa hay, with crude protein at 19 percent, provides twice the protein that ewes need at most stages of production. The exception would be when they are lactating.

"This kind of hay is too good for our ewes and it's expensive. Other than during lactation ewes don't need 19 percent crude protein."

With today's feed costs, it could cost as much as $216 per ewe per year for feed, he said, meaning each ewe would have to produce 1.6 market lambs just to cover that cost.

Thomas advised the shepherds that they need to analyze what they are feeding to their flocks and stop paying for nutrients the ewes don't need. One suggestion was to feed lower quality, lower protein hay during all stages except lactation.

This class of hay could include lower quality alfalfa, grass-legume hay and grass hay. These kinds of hay could have similar total digestible nutrients (TDN) as alfalfa hay and lower, but adequate protein.

Grade 2 hay, with relative feed value of 103-124, and 13 percent crude protein fed during all stages of the year, except lactation, reduces annual hay costs and total annual feed costs by $50 per ewe per year, he said. That would bring down costs to $166 per ewe for the year.

Ewes would have to produce 1.2 lambs to cover that cost. "We've got to do even better than that," he said.


Though many old timers in the sheep business, including his late father, would not be comfortable with this thought, today's shepherds should think about feeding corn fodder to their ewes Thomas said.

"We've talked for years about grazing ewes on corn stalks after the harvest and now we need to talk about feeding ewes corn fodder. There's almost as much energy out of corn stalks as fair alfalfa hay but there's not enough protein."

With a ration that includes corn fodder, some hay and corn, the cost of feeding ewes was still in the range of $164 per ewe per year - not much different from his cost example using poorer quality hay.

Using corn fodder and soybean meal can provide a decent feed for ewes. Though soybean meal costs $420 a ton, the corn fodder costs only about half the price of premium alfalfa hay, he said. "We need to be concerned about the amount of nutrients fed."

Thomas suggested that a ration built around corn fodder and dried distillers' grains with solubles (DDGS) would be a pretty good feed for ewes. This combination can bring the cost down to $129 per ewe per year. It would take an average of .9 market lambs produced from each ewe to pay for this feed, which is much more achievable, he added.

The use of corn fodder in this kind of ration would require access to a tub grinder as the feed would need to be processed. Most corn fodder is harvested in large, round bales.

Another way for producers to cut down on their feed costs is to graze sheep on productive pastures. Hay fed out of the barn costs about 40 cents per day per ewe, he said, but pasture costs about 10 cents per day.

"Every day of grazing reduces feed costs by 30 cents per ewe. With 100 ewes and seven months of grazing, that means a savings of $6,300 saved in feed costs.

"Grazing is one of the things we have to take a closer look at."

Raising lambs with ewes on pasture can reduce lamb feeding costs as well, he said.

"My take home message is that you need to think more about pastures, use more corn fodder in your rations and think about DDGS. You need to be very serious about reducing feed costs. Don't feed the best hay during most of the year."

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