Cooperative Sheep Production Meeting: Clay Center, NE

Last Saturday I spent the day in a classroom at the US Meat Animal Research Center learning about sheep production and tools put out by University of Wyoming Extension to help producers make the best possible management decisions. The meeting was a cooperation between the University of Wyoming Extension, Great Plains Veterinary Educational Center, Nebraska Sheep and Goat Producers and the US Department of Agriculture. There were three speakers each extension educators at the University of Wyoming and consultants at Master Stockman Consulting.

The first speaker was Bridger Feuz, who spoke about the economics of raising sheep.  Economics is important in sheep production to improve profits and build relationships and partnerships with bankers.  As in most of agriculture, tight margins for profit exist when raising sheep.  It is important to budget for every possibility to make the best possible decision for the operation.  The first tool Mr. Feuz introduced was the US Baseline Cost of Production.  This tool allows producers to see where they are relative to the average cost to produce sheep.  It also showed that often in years when the sheep market was down the cattle market was up and vice versa therefore supporting diversification of enterprises in ranching.  The second tool introduced by Mr. Feuz was the Partial Budgeting calculator.  This tool along with the other rest of the tools Mr. Feuz went on to describe can be used for all classes of livestock not just sheep.  It helps producers make better business decisions by answering 4 questions when making changes to an operation:

  1. What new or additional costs will be incurred?
  2. What current income will be lost?
  3. What new or additional income will be received?
  4. What current costs will be reduced?

The other tools Mr. Feuz breiefly explained were the Break-Even Calculator, the Ewe Valuation Calculator, Market Comparison Tool, and Net Present Value Analysis used for pasture improvement.  All these tools can be found at www.uwyoextension.org/ranchtools.

The second speaker was Barton Stam, a forage specialist.  He spoke about meeting the nutritional needs of sheep.  First, Mr. Stam stressed the importance of providing livestock with quality water.  Ward Laboratories, Inc. can run a livestock suitability test to help producers determine if their water is fit for animal consumption.  He recommended timing the grazing of warm and cool season grasses to optimize protein content of the grass with the protein needs to the animal.  Additionally, he recommended grazing the plant before it had reached maturity.  By grazing before the grass has produced a seed head, the potential to graze regrowth later in the season is more likely.  A plant grazed before reaching maturity will continue to grow and trying to produce a seed head.  Once the seed head has been produced however, the plant has achieved its goal and will no longer to continue to grow and produce valuable forage.  His take away was to graze grasses before they reach reproductive maturity to obtain better nutritional value for the animal and potentially stockpile more forage for later grazing.  He also recommended sampling cane type grasses for prussic acid and nitrates.  Producers can send those samples to Ward Laboratories, Inc. for analysis. Mr. Stam introduced the Stocking Rate Calculator as a useful tool for sheep producers to use in decision making.

The third, and final speaker for the morning was Dr. Whit Stewart.  The topic Dr. Stewart addressed was parasite control and resistance of sheep parasites to anthelmintics. The American Consortium for Small Ruminant Parasite Control was introduced to the group of producers as a good source of information regarding parasites, dewormers, and resistance issues. Dr. Stewart recommended producers consider using either the McMaster test or DrenchRite® to determine which dewormers are going to be most effective on their operation and if they have resistance issue with specific anthelmintics. He concluded by speaking about the future potential for natural compounds such as condensed tannins to be utilized to fight parasites.

Overall, each speaker introduced new tools to help producers make the best possible decisions.  Like the tools introduced by the speakers, feed and water analysis at Ward Laboratories, Inc. are also tools to help ranchers make the best possible informed decisions.

Sunflowers in the Sandhills

Over the past three summers working at Ward Laboratories Inc., I have enjoyed the opportunity to spend time in the Nebraska Sandhills.  The Sandhills are a little known hidden gem in the state of Nebraska, large expanses of rolling hills covered in prairie grasses, wildflowers and shrubs, intermingled with naturally occurring wetland areas housing birds and other wildlife.  Driving through the Sandhills taking in the many sunflowers, native grasses and cattle grazing, one can’t help but appreciate it as God’s country.  I have attended various events in the Sandhills including the Gudmundsen Laboratory Open House, Sandhills Cattlemen Association meetings, the Sandhills Ranch Expo, and other extension events.

From frequenting the rest area between Taylor and Rose, Nebraska, I have learned that the Sandhills were first settled by farmers from the eastern United States.  The sandy soils, void of nutrient dense topsoil made farming a futile effort.  With no luck in growing traditional row crops and gardens, those early settlers gave up cultivating the land and turned to grazing livestock for their survival and livelihood.

The Sandhills are a relatively untouched expanse of range land with hundreds of different species of native grasses and wild flowers. Beef cattle graze these forages acquiring key nutrients such as protein, carbohydrates, and fat from the various plants available for them to choose from.  Both the people and livestock of the Sandhills are uniquely acclimated to the harsh winter conditions and hot summer temperatures.  Residing in the Sandhills is not for the faint of heart, but it is worth it to those who appreciate the natural beauty and freedom of the grassy hillsides and ever stretching skies.  The expansive prairie sits on the Ogallala Aquifer.  Windmills providing water to livestock are a common sight against the landscape.

 

The Sandhills are largest untouched prairie in the United States spanning 20,000 square miles of northern Nebraska.  The area is a great example of how grazing animals can be used to convert otherwise inedible plants into a wholesome meat product.  In the Sandhills, livestock and wildlife coexist sustainably making the Sandhills a well utilized natural resource.  The Sandhills are home to many species of birds, small and large mammals and even turtles!

 

Use a Sharp Pencil for Protein and Profits

Last week, I attended the Gudmundsen Sandhills Laboratory 19th Annual Open House.  There, agricultural economist Jim Robb touched on the hardships of the drought and forage and pasture availability but drove home the importance of affordable protein supplementation.

Jim Robb showed that corn prices have remained steady and are projected to continue along that trend.  Dried distillers’ grains (DDG), which have become increasingly common as an on pasture protein supplementation, are projected to increase in price in the coming year.  The average protein content of DDGS is about 30% on a dry basis.  Robb, then went on to point out that the price of whole soybeans has decreased with the trade and tariff turmoil leaving soybean meal (SBM) overpriced. Robb suggested that this showed SBM will likely decrease in price making it a more affordable option for protein supplementation.  The average protein content of whole soybeans is 40% on a dry basis.  The protein content of SBM can range from 53-45% on a dry basis depending on processing technique.  In southern states such as Texas and Oklahoma where the cotton crop was large this year, producers have already began feeding whole cotton seeds and cotton seed meal as a cheaper available option for protein supplementation.  The crude protein content of whole cotton seeds and cotton seed meal is about 23% and  45% protein on a dry basis respectively. Robb expects these cotton sources will be shipped and available further north soon.

Jim Robb advised producers to put a sharp pencil to paper when determining their protein supplementation programs for the winter this year.  Not only does this include comparing the prices of each available feed, but the nutrients as well.  To determine the most profitable scheme, producers should test their forage sources.  Using the nutritional information from the forage report and the extimated dry matter intake for the class of animal to be fed, compare the amount available protein supplements needs as it will vary due to differences in protein content as well as the overall price to supplement. Choose the cheapest possible option and avoid over or under supplementation.  Ward Laboratories Inc. can assist with all your forage and supplemental feed testing needs and questions in the coming months.  Testing forages to determine supplementation strategies typical results in more profit.

Diversity in Grazing Animal Operations

Last week was the 18th Annual Nebraska Grazing Conference.  The theme this year was being a steward of the land and managing for diverse plant and wildlife populations through the incorporation of multiple grazing species. There were three speakers this year that spoke about how bringing sheep, goats or both species into their cattle operation made their business more profitable and more ecologically diverse.

The first speaker was a fellow University of Wyoming College of Agriculture and Natural Resources graduate, Sage Askin of Askin Land and Livestock LLC.  He introduced the idea that sheep and goats are browsers as opposed to grazers and therefore, consume different species of rangeland plants than beef cattle.  Mr. Askin choose to utilize sheep, having descended from species naturally adapted to cold dry climates, in his operations to match the harsh Wyoming environment. In his speech, Mr. Askin demonstrated that sheep consume more of the woody, brush plants available on the range and less of the high-quality grasses that cattle prefer.  He concluded that under most circumstances, sheep would not be competing with cattle for feedstuffs, and therefore sheep only added value to the business.  His rule of thumb was that a wyoming producer could run one sheep for every cow already on the land, however he did caution to be conservative when starting to add another species and to be aware of the grazing environment.  If grasslands are more prevalent, as opposed to the mixed range landscape where Askin Land and Livestock operates, sheep will be put in a position to compete with the cattle and that will not benefit either species. Mr. Askin also spoke about utilizing sheep as a creative solution to other agricultural production issues.  His example was a haying operation that was having a difficulty with loosing yield damaged fields due to the elk herds.  Mr. Askin moved some sheep to browse near the hay operation mitigating the elk problem, because elk do not like to graze where sheep are.

The second speaker on multi-species grazing was Brock Terrell of Terrell Farms LLC and Terrell Ranch LLC.  Mr. Terrell added sheep to his already highly diversified operation which includes cow calf, stocker cattle, backgrounding, hay, forage and row cropping.  He showed the benefits of adding sheep to his operation were monetary, ecological, and familial.  Economically, he was able to spread labor and overhead expenses across multiple enterprises on his operation, and he had two marketable products, wool and lambs.  He also reaped benefits of breaking parasite cycles through the varied species on pasture, utilizing more plant biomass to produce meat product, and increased range health through grazing pressure being put on both brush and grasses.  The children on the Terrell Ranch were also able to be involved in the sheep operation.  Mr. Terrell emphasized that the sheep operation was a low labor, low cost enterprise with high value end products and diverse marketing opportunities, providing him with more flexibility in decision making for his farm and ranch.

The third speaker was Mike Wallace who has extensive experience with a masters degree from the University of Kentucky and having managed research groups at the University of Illinois and the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center.  Today Mr. Wallace owns and operates a multi-species grazing operation called the Double M.  Mr. Wallace has reclaimed previously dryland crop ground as pastures filled with warm and cool season grasses and legumes, as well as abandoned cattle feedlots that grow mostly weedy forbes.  Mr. Wallace’s presentation showed how all three species, sheep, goats and cattle can graze and browse together on the same pasture taking advantage of a diverse variety of available forages.  Like the previous speakers, he too saw economical advantages and ecological benefits of utilizing multiple grazing species on the same operation and even in the same pastures.  Mr. Wallace takes a holistic management approach and utilizes planned rotational grazing with small paddocks and plant rest periods.  Mr. Wallace also uses his sheep and goat herds as a unique solution to occurring issues in pastures.  The example he showed was using goats to control cedar encroachment.

Overall the key point is that multiple grazing species can benefit the operation economically, ecologically and can be used to solve unique issues in a creative way.  The other speakers in the grazing conference were mostly concerned with monitoring of range land and pastures. Monitoring can come in many different forms, record keeping of grazing and resting pastures, taking photos to track changes, visual observation and notes, and taking various samples for numerical data.  Ward Laboratories, Inc. can help with forage quality samples and soil health samples, which can be used to make supplementation decisions and track range and pasture health overtime respectively.

Prussic Acid and Nitrates in Sorghum and Sudan Grasses: Proper Sampling for Grazing Animals

Often, Ward Laboratories, Inc receives sorghum samples and producers want us to test prussic acid and nitrates.  My recommendation would be to send two separate samples when testing for grazing purposes because prussic acid and nitrates accumulate in different parts of the plant. Prussic acid accumulatesin the leaves of the grass in contrast to nitrate which accumulates in the plants lower stock.

Prussic acid is also known as hydrogen cyanide (HCN).  The compound is present in the leaves of the plants in a compound called dhurrin.  Under normal conditions, plant membranes separate dhurrin from the enzyme responsible for hydrolyzing HCN from dhurrin. Monogastric animals and hindgut fermenters such as swine and horses, typically do not have an issue with prussic acid poisoning as stomach acid deactivates the enzyme.  However, ruminants such as cattle, sheep and goats, are more susceptible to prussic acid poisoning due to the chewing of their cud.  As those animals ruminate, the cell membranes are damaged allowing the enzyme access to dhurrin, thereby releasing HCN into the rumen.  The HCN is then absorbed directly into the bloodstream where is binds hemoglobin.  The bound hemoglobin can not transfer oxygen to individual cells and death by asphyxiation is the result.

An additional risk for prussic acid poisioning is posed by stressed and damaged plants , this is when it becomes toxic to non-ruminant livestock.  Drought stressed plants may accumulate more unbound HCN in their leaves.  Frost damaged plants also have unbound HCN in their leaves due to the frost having broken the cell membranes allowing enzyme access to dhurrin.  In the case of frost, outer cell membranes have also been damaged, therefore waiting 4-5 days before grazing is sufficient assurance that the hydrogen cyanide gas has escaped the plant leaves.  After a frost, regrowth is toxic past the 4-5 day time frame and should certainly be tested before turning animals out to graze.

So, for testing prussic acid take leaves from 20 different plants across the field for a representative sample.  Do not cut the leaves and avoid as much damage as possible.  Immediately place all leaves in a gallon sized zip lock bag. Either ship the sample overnight, or drop the sample off at Ward Laboratories, Inc. as soon as possible.  When we receive your sample, we will refrigerate it and run it as quickly as we can as to not loose any HNC and to avoid a false low value.  Samples reported at >200 ppm as received are considered toxic and allowing animals to graze would result in a rapid death toll.

I have covered nitrate toxicity in other blogs including: Do I Need to Test for Nitrates?, 6 Cautions When Grazing Cover Crops, and 4 Considerations for Feeding Hail Damaged Forage and Crop Residues. So, for testing nitrates in sorghum and sudan grasses for grazing go into the field and cut the plant at the point where you plan to pull animals off.  Then, cut 4-6 inches above that, with this small piece use plant shears and snip it into pieces.  Repeat this with 20 randomly located plants across the field.  Then mix all the small plant pieces together and take a representative sub-sample from that pile.  Place them in a zip lock bag and send them to Ward Laboratories, Inc. for nitrate analysis.

In summary, test the leaves for prussic acid and the stocks for nitrate.  It is always important to take a representative sample for the most accurate results and informed production decisions.

Additional Resource:

Nitrate and Prussic Acid Toxicity in Forage

Rain is a Tricky Thing

We’ve all heard the Luke Bryan song “Rain is a Good Thing”. While it may be a catchy lyric, lack of rain can cause livestock producers to suffer from drought and heat stress issues, while too much rain can leave farmers dealing with flood damage.  This year has been especially testing from those aspects.  The southwest is on fire.  Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico and areas of Texas, Kansas and Missouri are suffering from extreme drought and wildfires with surrounding areas battling through severe and moderate drought conditions.

DroughtMapJuly19
http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/CurrentMap.aspx

In contrast, there have been 6 major flooding events due to excessive rain which have been declared disaster states this summer.  There is no denying drought is difficult to handle, but flooding can be just as destructive with obstacles of its own.

flood timeline

To summarize the timeline above:

  • May 30 – Tropical Storm Alberto’s heavy rainfall lead to flash flooding in 10 southeastern states.
  • June 18 – Heavy rainfall in a short period of time lead to flooding mostly affecting the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and parts of northern Wisconsin and Minnesota.
  • June 20 – Heavy rainfall resulted in river levels rising and floods in northwest Iowa and southeastern South Dakota.
  • June 21 – Some areas of Texas received more than 10 inches of rain in a 48-hour period resulting in flooding.
  • July 3 – Torrential rains resulted in flooding in southern Minnesota.
  • July 17- Heavy rain resulted in flash flooding in Washington D.C. and Massachusetts.

Rain resulting in flooding has several destructive effects on agriculture.  First, damage to infrastructure such as roadways and powerlines.  Dirt and gravel roads may get washed away during a flood, which will limit a livestock producer from checking and accessing animals.  In the event of an evacuation often the animals are unfortunately left to fend for themselves.  It is a challenge to put those access points back in place to get any operation up and running after the flooding.  There will likely be damage to other assets as well such as outbuildings and machinery.

Second, the flood waters may carry sand and other debris with it.  This debris will settle on top of fields and may result in a barrier to the soil, creating a challenge when trying to plant crops or maintain a pasture.  Removing the debris and sand can be financially exhaustive and labor intensive.

Third, heavy rainfall producing floods will likely erode the soil and carry away valuable top soil.  The erosion itself, will leave gaps and divots in fields making the next planting season more difficult with new obstacles in fields.  The loss of top soil means the soil in the field will have less nutrients and likely will have lost aspects related to a healthy soil including structure and beneficial microorganism populations such as mycorrhizal fungi.  It will be important for crop producers and pasture managers to consult with soil health experts such as Lance Gunderson or Emily Shafto at Ward Laboratories Inc. to replenish nutrients and rebuild soil health after a flooding event.

Fourth, if there were standing crops or forages in a field during a significant rain and flood event, those crops and forages likely are damaged.  Powerful rains and hail can physically damage plants.  Therefore, if harvesting for grain or planning to feed these crops or forages mold and mycotoxins should be tested.  Additionally, corn, sorghum, oats, and other nitrate accumulating forages should be tested for nitrates due to the additional stress from flooding.

Finally, field operations may be hindered.  Planting, and harvesting of crops may be delayed due to wet sloppy fields.  If the areas affected produce hay, harvesting, drying and baling all present unique obstacles.

In conclusion, rain is not always a good thing.  Too little leaves us with droughts and too much results in devastating floods.  Always consider the obstacles of these disastrous events and make a plan before they happen to avoid panic when natural disasters occur.

More Resources:

Flood List

Farming After Flooding 

The Impact of Extreme Weather Events on Agriculture in the United States

iGrow Flood Resources

 

A Comment on Rain Damaged Hay

The other day while it was raining cats and dogs outside, a customer asked how that rain would affect his freshly cut alfalfa hay.  Unfortunately, rain after cutting and before bailing only decreases the nutritional value of the hay. As the freshly chopped forage lays in the field getting rained on, water soluble compounds leach out of the plant.  These compounds include some nitrogen, some fat, minerals, vitamins, and water-soluble carbohydrates. The loss of the water-soluble carbohydrates results in an increase in the fibrous carbohydrates and therefore a decrease in the energy provided by the forage.  For more on that check out my previous post Carbohydrates and Forage Quality.  The loss of vitamins and minerals may also increase the importance of feeding those nutrients as supplements.

In addition to a poorer quality resulting hay, rained on alfalfa can support more mold.  If the mold count is significant, between 2-3 million spores per gram, it can be a contributing factor in respiratory and reproductive illnesses in livestock.

Furthermore, it is important to allow the rain damaged hay to dry to at least 12% moisture before baling.  If baled too wet, heat damage can occur, further reducing the quality of hay and nutrient availability of the hay for feeding.

Best of luck this harvesting season!

For more information check out this publication by the Iowa Beef Center:

Rain Damaged Hay can be Costly for Farmers