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Raising sheep depends on healthy pastures, experts say


For the Capital Press

CANBY, Ore. -- Raising sheep successfully involves maintaining healthy pastures, experts told a recent workshop.

Hosts Sue and Dan Wilson have been raising lamb since 1996 and direct marketing since 2001. They sell grass-fed lamb, wool products and breeding stock at their SuDan Farm.

"We have a closed flock," said Sue Wilson, who grew tired of problems that came with introduced sheep. They raise Border Leicesters, 150 in all, that graze on 11 1/2 acres of pasture.

Pasture management was a major topic.

Gene Pirelli, Oregon State University extension animal scientist, held up a 3-foot-tall clump of grass and its dirt ball and asked, "When does forage season begin?"

Fall, he said, because it sets up the whole next calendar year of grazing.

Grass plants store their essential carbohydrates in the lower 3 to 4 inches of the stem. Then in the fall the plant regenerates and resets its roots, putting out new tiller fronds.

It's always important to protect the lower section of the plant, but especially in the fall, he said.

"The lower part of the plant belongs to the plant. If you take it, you're taking away from the long-term health of the pasture," Pirelli said.

Fall also is when it's most common to let animals stay on the pasture and eat down the dry feed. Pirelli advised the participants to remember the pasture starts to regenerate in the fall.

Dan Wilson showed the group his pasture area.

"We didn't have one interior fence here when we bought it," he said.

Wilson uses portable electric fences and usually sections off a one-acre area. He puts the sheep there for 3, 4 or 5 days and then moves them to another area.

"In the fall, we have to expand that to a three-acre area," he said.

He mixes different species of grass in a pasture so one type doesn't outgrow the other.

"We have clover, rye and fescue," he said.

He trims or clips the grass often, especially when it gets seed heads, to promote vegetative growth.

"We graze hard, then clip it, to promote growth," he said. "Know what your animal likes to eat."

Although he doesn't recommend overgrazing a piece of land, he does have a "sacrifice area" as a holding pen.

During the breeding season, the critical times for feeding are the six weeks before birth and the six weeks after. He prefers to give his ewes good orchard grass.

"We feed 20 tons of orchard grass or alfalfa during the winter," he said. "We try to get our lambs in time to meet the grass, usually in March."

Sue Wilson handles most of the breeding activities. She said it's important not to overfeed the ewes. Overfed ewes have small lambs.

The majority of the lambs are born in the early morning. Once in awhile, the ewes need help and even more infrequently they may require a veterinarian.

She records all of the births, weighs them, handles the selenium shots and tail docking and treats the ewes for parasites.

"We're not organic," she said. "You can't be organic in this valley and manage parasites. We don't have the time for all the paperwork. And the cost is prohibitive. We want to be affordable. We find that animal welfare is really what's important to people."

Other topics covered included information about the scrapie eradication program, wool production and marketing and lamb finishing and marketing.


SuDan Farm


Oregon State University small farms program



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