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Making a sheperd’s life easier: how to handle a 300-ewe flock without a lot of help (Research Brief #9)

Posted February 1993

There are ways to manage a 300-ewe flock without a lot of hired help or expensive choring equipment.


A research team and demonstration project at the Hayward Agricultural Research Station led to strategies that save time and labor during lambing time and when feeding, watering, and handling the flock. The five-year project assessed whether a farm family could make a living on a northern Wisconsin beef/sheep operation.

Overall project goals included:

  • focusing on labor-saving practices
  • low capital investment and forage-livestock production to maximize profits
  • implementing and refining current technology into the production and management of beef and sheep
  • conducting an economic study of a beef cattle/sheep family-farm operation.

The study found that sheep and beef cattle were a good enterprise mix in northern Wisconsin. A beef herd and ewe flock use forages efficiently with low investment in housing, equipment, and machinery. A beef and sheep operation can provide a modest source of supplementary income if farmers keep debt low, manage carefully, and are willing to work for modest wages.

UW-Madison emeritus professor of Meat and Animal Science Art Pope directed the Hayward project, which ran from 1985 to 1990. Day-to-day operations were carried out by Deb and Bob Huntrods, with consultation by Rudy Erickson of UW-River Falls and UW-Madison emeritus agronomist Dwayne Rohweder. Bob Luening, emeritus agricultural economist at UW-Madison, conducted the project’s farm business and financial analysis.

Model strategies for small or medium farms

Researchers wanted the Hayward project to be a model for a family-sized farm–something a couple could handle without much additional help or expensive equipment. Some of the strategies employed for handling the sheep flock are outlined here.

  • Lambing time. The Hayward researchers set up three parallel rows of 4-foot by 4-foot lambing pens with nine pens in each row and a 3-foot alley between. The 27 pens allowed about 20 percent of the ewes to lamb at any one time. The alleys between lambing pens permitted easy movement of ewes and lambs in and out of the pens.
  • Homemade heat lamps. Each pen had a modified heat lamp left there in the winter. The lamps were made from 5-gallon pails with the handle taken off the top and reinstalled on the bottom and wire netting clamped over the mouth of the pail. The heat lamp was installed inside the pail. The pail directed the heat downward and protected the heat bulb.
  • The lamps were plugged in during cold weather when the ewes and lambs went into the pens. The lamps were on for no more than 24 hours. This gave lambs time to dry off, but they did not become dependent on the heat source. Lambs also survived better under the heat lamps than in places where ewes could step or lie on them.
  • Less hopping in and out of pens. To reduce labor, the shepherd put each ewe and newborn lambs in a pen. He then tried to handle all lambing chores — stripping teats, helping lambs nurse, docking, castrating, attaching ear tags, paint-branding, etc. — in a single visit.
  • Foster mothers. When a ewe gave birth to triplets, one of the lambs was “grafted” onto a ewe that had only one lamb. The grafted lamb was not allowed to be licked by its own mother. Many ewes lambing at once allowed for more ewes and lambs to slime graft.
  • If the lamb was dry, it was grafted onto a ewe in a stanchion. The shepherd put the ewe’s head in the alley between the rows of pens. This allowed the ewe to be fed and watered more easily without spilling both over her head.
  • Feeding and watering to save time. The goal was to stay out of the feed yard or ewe pen in the barn. The farm operators pushed round bales into hay feeders in the pole barn and along the side of the yard. Bales could be placed in the barn or yard and detwined in roughly 15 minutes without having to drive into the pen. After the second year, the farm operators made only large, round bales to save labor in harvesting and to eliminate the need for square bales. Feeding alfalfa pellets rather than square bales saved money.
  • The farm operators fed ewes shelled corn before and after lambing from a fence line bunk feeder. By driving the tractor and unloader along the bunk, it took the farm operators less than a minute per day to distribute shelled corn to the feedlots.
  • Sheep were watered using a five-inch PVC pipe fed with a hose. One pipe served two rows of pens. A large opening at the end for cleaning and flushing saved considerable labor.
  • Lambs not pastured. Lambs were fed a diet of 89 percent whole shell corn and 10 percent pelleted protein supplement plus one percent mineral mixture. Lambs did not receive any forage. This improved feed efficiency; the lambs weight gain was comparable to more conventional diets. The farm operators filled the self-feeders weekly, reducing labor.
  • Less trimming. Feet were trimmed only when ewes began to limp from having too much hoof. In early years, when all hoofs were trimmed, a pneumatic hose trimmer saved labor.
  • Bedding. The farm operators unrolled a large, round bale of oats or grass hay for bedding. This reduced the need for hand forking because the sheep did most of the spreading.
  • Drenching. Sheep were routinely drenched for parasite control in spring. In summer and fall they were treated only when fecal parasite counts dictated it.
  • Rams and ewes together. Rams were run with ewes as much as possible, so they required less attention.
  • Guard dogs. A large population of predators – such as coyotes and bears – live in the area. A female Great Pyrenees guard dog prevented predator losses on the farm. The farm’s Border Collie wasn’t used much, but would be helpful if sheep were pastured more.
  • Later lambing. Some ewes were lambed on pasture in May and June. Midwinter lambing costs considerably more, because of extra feed, labor, and shelter needs. Pope says spring lambing in a large lot near the barn and “drifting” newborns off to pasture right away beats pasture lambing. He thinks it’s best to concentrate lambing of older ewes first, then lamb the first-lamb ewes and avoid moving 3- to 4-day old lambs any distance due to the labor required.
  • Good breeding. Pope recommends using ewes with at least one-quarter blood of a prolific breed like Finnsheep, and crossbreeding them with meat breeds like Hampshires and Suffolks. Such ewes had the best lamb crop – above 186 percent weaned. This was about one-half lamb more per ewe more than for groups of ewes without the Finsheep or Polypay blood.

For more information on this research, contact:

Art Pope
Department of Meat and Animal Science
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Madison, WI 53706
(608) 263-4315

Published as Research Brief #9
February, 1993