Feeding the Flock

The most important aspect of raising livestock is proper nutrition. Without proper nutrition, animals are more susceptible to health problems, and poor producing animals can result in lower to no profit. Unfortunately, there is no “one size fits all” approach to feeding sheep and goats. Every operation has different management styles, type and availability of feed and labor, genetics and ultimately different goals. As livestock producers in the Great Plains, we spend the winter wishing for summer and the summer preparing for winter. After investing the effort and expense into putting up hay and/or planting, spraying and harvesting grain, why would a producer not also focus on getting the proper nutrition into their animals at the right time?

When examining the nutrition plan for your flock/herd, consider the following factors:

1. What are your goals? Are you planning on dry lotting or utilizing pasture? Or will you be doing both?
2. When do you plan to lamb/kid?
3. What type of facilities or shelter does your farm offer?
4. Calculate the cost and determine the availability of feed ingredients.
5. Do you want to push productivity of the herd or focus on low input? You can realize both after targeted genetic selection and forage management, but you must have goals in mind from the beginning.
6. How much or little labor are you willing and able to commit to your goals?
7. Do you have data on your herd? Feed intake, rate of gain, etc. will help create a more tailored plan.

One of my biggest pet peeves is producers that refuse to test their hay crop. The process is simple as we take a sample for you, send the sample to a lab and interpret the results we receive. Forage is an essential and large part of a sheep or goat’s diet. If you are unsure what your hay crop is providing for nutrients, how do you know how to properly supplement what is missing? Are you even meeting the basic nutritional needs of your animals? The one-size-fits-all feed program is an extremely common request, and while those can be obtained and will feed your animals, the cost of testing your forage is very inexpensive as it ensures that your feed plan meets the needs of your animals.

During lambing season, we often receive emergency calls about ewes that are undernourished, weak lambs, lambs that fail to thrive, etc. At lambing it is too late to fix the root cause of those problems, which is poor nutrition throughout gestation. Producers need to establish a baseline for what their feedstuffs provide, and we need to account for increased energy needs during times like extremely cold temperatures, post shearing, and when the ewes/does are carrying multiples.

To fully examine their nutrition program, every producer should be:

1. Testing all forages, including bedding (animals will consume some of their bedding and a mold problem in bedding can create respiratory problems, particularly in newborns).
2. Testing all home-grown grains for nutrients. Testing for mycotoxins would also be a good idea.
3. Testing for toxins would be a good idea as well if using suspect grains.
4. Performing water tests.
5. Establishing health plans.
6. Creating targeted nutrition plans per life stage (with the correct feed analysis).

The suggestions regarding testing may make producers grab more tightly to their checkbook, yet the costs could be considered a form of cheap insurance that ensures you are not over or under meeting the nutritional needs of your animals. A successful lamb or kid crop each year is our goal for producers. If feeding animals properly results in more animals saved each year, the question becomes, how much is that worth to you?