It wasn't quite David Letterman, but University of Wisconsin sheep production specialist Dave Thomas gave his own top-ten list during a recent session for sheep producers at the Arlington Agriculture Research Station.
His list comprised the top ten management tips for economic sustainability in commercial flocks producing lamb and wool.
At the top of Thomas's list was using productive ewes. "The number of lambs marketed per ewe per year is the most important factor in profitability in a sheep operation."
These good genetic ewes will be able to give birth to and raise a 200 percent lamb crops on average and give plenty of milk to their lambs. These productive ewes should be of moderate body size and have white fleeces because wool prices drop if there is colored wool or hair in the fleece.
The productive ewes would most likely be made up of crossbreds or composite breed animals and should be easy to care for. It might be another factor in profitability if they have the ability to breed and lamb out of season to add another possibility to the farm's profit potential, he said.
Second on Thomas's top-ten list is the use of rams with good genetic merit — EPDs and EBVs (estimated breeding values) — the statistical measurements of genetic potential.
Thomas advised purchasing rams with high estimates of genetic value because that is the fastest path to flock improvement. Rams that are intended to sire future productive ewes should excel for the maternal traits — number of lambs born and weaned and for milk production.
If rams are intended to sire terminal market lambs they should be chosen for the ability to produce growth rate and carcass merit in their offspring, he added.
Performance data on rams is available through the National Sheep Improvement Program (NSIP.) Thomas showed an example of a Wisconsin ram in the program whose offspring could be expected to produce nearly six pounds more meat than those sired by an average Hampshire ram — an obvious boost to profitability.
Third in the top-ten list was to use an organized crossbreeding system to take advantage of hybrid vigor and the increased performance of crossbreds over the average of purebreds. In one area he estimated an 18 percent increase in lamb weaning weights per ewe mated compared to purebreds.
In another example the advantage to crossbreeding ranked as high as 46-50 percent in pounds of lamb weaned per ewe.
"You can't afford to leave that on the table," he said.
The fourth point in the sheep specialist's top-ten list included a caution to feed ewes what they need, but don't over feed them.
He urged shepherds to make sure they know what the feed requirements are of their ewes at that point in the year. Ewes have fairly low maintenance requirements, but if they are lactating and raising twins, they need a lot more.
In terms of feed, Thomas also urged flock owners to reduce their feed waste. Using good feeders for hay is a good way to reduce losses due to waste.
"A good hay feeder can reduce hay wastage by as much as 40 percent. There are lots of good manufacturers with good feed equipment.
"When hay is close to $200 a ton, that's a lot of money."
His sixth point was to maximize the use of pasture because grass on pastures costs about 8-10 cents per day compared to roughly 37 cents per day to feed hay in a barn, using Thomas's "cowboy arithmetic."
"Every day of grazing reduces feed costs by 29 cents per ewe," he said, although it could vary with values on land prices and other factors.
With 100 ewes and seven months of grazing that could amount to over $6,000 in saved feed costs.
"It would have to be some awfully expensive pasture to get close to the hay feeding value," he added.
In addition to saving money, maximizing the use of pastures is also a great way to lower bedding needs and costs and minimize the need for hauling manure.
"There's no data on this but I think the animals are just healthier too."
There is also a net gain in public perception as people love to see cattle or sheep grazing on green pastures, he said.
Thomas's seventh point was for producers to reduce lamb losses through added attention to management and health concerns.
"We all lose more lambs than we should through abortion and early lamb losses and even to predators in older, feedlot lambs. This is a very important area where most sheep operations can improve."
Prevention or control of the abortion-inducing diseases can be accomplished with good herdsmanship including vaccinations and other drug protocols.
For example, chlamydial abortions can be controlled with a veterinary prescription for chlortetracycline, if it is used in late pregnancy. Vaccination and the same antibiotic can help control camplylobacter fetus (vibrio.)
Thomas said that controlling the cat population on the farm can also be a step in reducing abortion losses in ewes due to toxoplasmosis, a protozoan parasite for which cats are intermediate hosts.
Reducing lamb losses can also mean culling poor-milking ewes or ewes with damaged udders to prevent baby lamb starvation.
Another thing that factors into this equation is adequate nutrition for ewes in late pregnancy. Their nutritional needs at this time rise to 50 percent above maintenance levels, he said.
Thomas also urged flock owners to eliminate Ovine Progressive Pneumonia (OPP) from their ewes in order to improve overall milk production. "This virus can set up housekeeping in the udder and cause poor to no milk production."
In order to get lambs off to their best start Thomas urged sheep owners to make sure the newborns get enough colostrum even if it means using a stomach tube. Lambs need up to 250 milliliters at each of four feedings, four hours apart during the first 24 hours of life.
Good fencing and guard animals that keep predators away from the flock are additional methods to prevent lamb losses.
Controlling common diseases can also help cut losses. Pneumonia, coccidiosis, parasites and enterotoxemia are all diseases that should be managed.
Lamb diets should have a 2:1 ratio of calcium to phosphorus to prevent urinary calculi. Flock owners should also take care to avoid sudden changes in diets for grain-fed lambs because it can cause polioencephalomalacia — an ailment that can be treated with thiamine, but which is one that can be avoided.
Thomas said he is a little concerned in diets that use levels of dried distillers grains with solubles (DDGS) as a large part of the ration with regard to polio.
Good biosecurity measures, hygiene at shearing time as well as vaccination and culling can help sheep owners eliminate caseous lymphadenitis — a disease in which lymph nodes become infected with a pseudotuberculosis strain after which the sheep waste away.
Another disease that can waste ewes away is OPP. Thomas recommended blood testing animals over seven months of age annually and culling the positives. If keeping positives they should be kept separate from test-negative sheep.
Thomas also recommended using rams with the haplotype 1,1 at the TMEM154 gene. Sheep with this type of genetic makeup are three times less susceptible to OPP than sheep with one or two copies of the haplotype 2 or 3. Using the ram with built-in resistance to the disease can help create a flock with less susceptibility to OPP, he said.
Johne's disease, caused by mycobacterium paratuberculosis, is traditionally a problem in cow dairy herds in Wisconsin. "I think we have more of it in sheep than we realize. It's a hard disease to get diagnosed in your flock."
He suggested blood testing animals or culturing the organism from manure and then culling animals that test positive for the disease. Management for prevention includes preventing manure contamination of feeders and waterers.
One way to prevent the spread of this disease is to remove lambs from their mothers and raise them artificially. "That breaks the cycle of this disease."
Knowing the profit potential of various management options is another way flock owners can improve the bottom line of their sheep enterprise.
Having genetics from the various hair-breed sheep will diminish the value of the wool and hair-breed sheep generally bring less in the market because their pelts are considered to be worth less than wool-breed sheep.
Knowing what the marketplace is looking for is a big part of profitability in the sheep operation, he said. For example, a 130-pound lamb may sell for less per pound than a 90-pound lamb and that could be because the market is looking for smaller lambs for the booming ethnic trade.
"If you're producing outside what the normal market wants you need to investigate alternative marketing options or take that loss."
Some ideas for alternative marketing options including direct-marketing locker lambs and raw fleeces to individual consumers, further processing wool at the farm and direct marketing wool products and direct marketing lamb cuts, meat products and wool products at farmer' markets.
Thomas said some sheep producers have had success direct marketing lamb carcasses or cuts to local supermarkets and restaurants or even selling products from their farm through internet sales.
Returns over annual operating costs are probably about $118 per ewe, he said, but with the addition of locker lamb marketing to the mix, that raises the return to $151.
Adding in the sale of spinning fleece to the profit stream means $128 per ewe over annual operating costs. Combining the sale of spinning fleeces and locker lamb could total $161 per ewe, in his example.
In this budget example traditional marketing was 120-pound lambs at $1.80 per pound and 50 cents a pound for wool. In his alternative marketing scenarios he figured half of the lambs from the flock sold directly at $2.20 per pound and half of the wool harvest sold into the specialty market for $3 per pound.
In his example of the differing market values, Thomas calculated that a flock of 100 could generate up to $4,300 more with the marketing of the specialty wool and locker lambs.