Challenges to Ohio sheep production

By Brady Campbell, Assistant Professor, Ohio State University State Small Ruminant Extension Specialist

Ohio sheep production faces many challenges, however, in my opinion, some of the greatest arise from environmental changes, land mass availability, and predators. To start, we’ll discuss the environmental challenges that producers commonly face. The biggest environmental challenge in my opinion is directly related to excessive rainfall that much of the state has experienced in the recent past. As of late, because of excessive and unpredictable rainfall events, both crop and livestock producers have been unable to harvest and store quality feedstuffs in a timely fashion. 

Arguably, the spring of 2020 alone presented the greatest challenge as excessive rain events led to delayed planting of crop fields, making of hay, in addition to resuming normal pasture grazing. As a result, crop planting and harvesting was delay, if at all. Excessive moisture in the fall of 2020 was just as challenging during harvest as it was during planting. As a result, issues with mold at harvest became a quick reality. Over the last 5 years, hay of adequate quality has become scarce, mainly due to delayed harvest resulting in the production of poor-quality hay as the result of increased forage maturity. Pastures in general also took a hard hit as excessive rainfall in the spring seemed to have drowned out pasture growth, thus resulting in a lack of a “spring flush” as we are normally accustomed to. 

In 2022, the saga continues. Pop up showers with enough moisture to ruin the chances of dry hay production seemed to foil the most well thought out plans. As we have discussed here in the past, prior to making hay you must decide if you will be putting it up wet or dry. Once the hay is cut, there is not turning back. Unfortunately, I’ve encounters phone calls over the past 2 years related to baleage that was made too wet because hay makers were trying to beat the rain. 

Furthermore, in the sheep industry, many producers rely on hay as a “cheaper” feed source that can be easily acquired — especially when compared with the prices of  by-products (i.e., soyhulls, DDGS, etc.) skyrocketing today. Now this isn’t to say that hay can’t be acquired, but hay of decent quality will come at a premium which presents itself as an additional challenge. Therefore, it is important to calculate your winter feed needs today, if not sooner. Trust me, you will thank yourself for buying your hay now, if needed, as compared with March of 2023. Aside from the effects directly related to plant growth and maturity, excessive rainfalls have increased the prevalence of hoof related issues (hoof rot and scald) and severity of parasitic infection. Wetter springs and summers when flocks are on pasture lead directly to these health-related issues. For those that have been tracking our weather patterns, I think that we can all agree that our seasons have changed. Therefore, we must learn how to adapt our production systems to fit current situations.

A second challenge Ohio shepherds face is purely based upon land mass availability. Whether your flock is housed in confinement, on pasture, or a combination of both, your operation will require land to feed your flock and or house them. Confined production systems may require less land due to the lack of extensive pastureland, but in return require a greater amount of labor to maintain. A vast majority of our state is intensively used for row crop production. However, in areas in which row crops are not practiced because of geographical challenges or the integration of agrivoltaics (the production of agricultural products in a solar system), sheep are able to be managed on pasture. Therefore, agricultural land is needed, either in the form of pastureland or crop ground, to produce feed for these livestock. In addition, with the concerns of water quality, it is becoming more challenging for our crop and livestock producers to produce their commodities. If ground near water ways and other water resources can no longer be used for agricultural practices, in order to continue raising the same number of livestock additional ground, which is already limited, will be needed.

A third challenge that Ohio shepherds face are issues with predators (coyotes, domestic dogs, black headed vultures, and parasites). An easy management procedure to mitigate the losses associated with predators is to rear the animals indoors, however, as mentioned above, this requires a great deal of investment. Currently, there are programs and permits to help alleviate some of the pressures associated with wildlife predation. Coyotes can be removed via trapping or lethal termination, but both require time and investment in equipment. Because of their protection status, black headed vultures are protected by the migratory bird act. However, with the permission of the federal government permit, selected birds can be taken. Thankfully, during the first year, permit fees are waved. However, additional permits may come with a fee dependent upon government funding opportunities. An additional predator is the one producers don’t commonly see, parasites. Damages and sustained infections caused by parasites can go unseen in flocks that are less frequently monitored. Appropriate management strategies needed to mitigate the effects of parasitism come with many costs as well.

Of these three major challenges listed above, many occur in other parts of the country and across the globe. For example, many sheep are raised in the state of Oregon. Sheep are grazed in the spring on fields of grasses that are used to produce forage seed in the fall. During the spring, excessive rainfall makes managing flocks a challenge, especially if these flocks are lambing on pasture or encounter serious health concerns. Other states out west deal with predator issues, but the predators that they deal with do differ. New Zealand is challenged with land mass availability. To overcome this, they focus on producing and managing high quality forage stands. Globally, I believe that land mass is not an issue when it comes to sheep production. Look at parts of the western U.S. and Australia, there is plenty of space available for sheep production; rather, in these areas, nutrition is much sparser and therefore more land is required to rear the same number of sheep.

This isn’t to say that Ohio shepherds or others across the world don’t face additional challenges, but rather that from a 30,000 foot view, these hit as my top 3. If you are new to the sheep business or a seasoned veteran, feel free to connect with me to chat about your operation. I find that we in the agricultural community learn the most when we connect with one another. Until next time, Happy Shepherding!

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