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Morrical Discusses Saving on Feed Costs

by Bev Berens

Published: Friday, January 10, 2020

The Michigan Sheep Producers Assn. held its annual Shepherds Weekend Jan. 3-5 in Lansing. Dan Morrical was the featured speaker and discussed management practices and strategies to control feed costs and decrease feed costs per ewe in the commercial flock. A retired Iowa State University small ruminant Extension specialist, Morrical is now a part of Premier One Co., working as a consultant and nutritionist within the organization.

"Feed costs are going up, not down, and the days of cheap feed are gone," Morrical said, saying that it is critical to get an accurate handle on annual costs per ewe.

Accurate and realistic returns per ewe are critical numbers for the shepherd, and while many believe they are receiving a higher return, realistically, the targeted return is about $50 per ewe each year

According to Morrical, hay is the most valuable feed fed to the flock but is usually the most undermanaged. A forage test using twenty bore samples costs about $20-$25 and will provide an accurate analysis of available nutrition and give the basis for building rations around the forage values.

"Corn is the cheapest feed we've got right now, and I compare everything against corn. Ewes don't waste corn; if they waste it, you are feeding too much," he said.

Calculated at today's price, corn is .087 cents per pound of TDN (total digestible nutrients). One strategy he suggests is to feed only 1-1.5 pounds of hay per day with one pound of corn during periods of low energy requirements. Corn stalks are another alternative to provide roughage.

Reduce feed waste at the bunk by limiting the amount of time ewes have access to hay unless they are lactating. Adjust feed bunks to reduce waste. It is feasible to limit exposure to hay to one or two hours per day during open periods and early gestation.

If hay is stored outside, invest in net wrap technology or tarp cover bales after adequate respiration time of about one week. Covered or wrapped hay reduces losses by thirty percent.

Be proactive in feed procurement because a feed bargain won't last. "Purchase hay in the summer if you need to, even if you have to borrow the money to do it," Morrical said.

Control portion size and feed according to needs based on stage of production, body condition of sheep and mature weight. Morrical says to never feed more than four pounds of hay per day except during lactation. Unlimited access to hay gives opportunity for sorting out less palatable stems and wasting.

Each farm should have a minimum of three management groups—rams, ewes and ewe lambs—with each group fed according to actual nutrient need, not what the sheep will eat.

"If you have sheep, you know that sheep will keep eating until they are dead, so you can't base your feeding on what they will eat," Morrical said.

Splitting ewes into groups based on singles and twins during lactation is a good option to optimize feeding by providing more nutrition to the higher producing group, eliminating the opportunity for ewes who need less from getting more feed than they need to raise a single lamb versus a twin.

Morrical believes that most underfeeding happens during lactation and prefers that ewes do not lose significant body condition during that time. Protein and energy need to be in balance to keep ewes producing milk, and underproducing ewes hurt lamb growth rates.

"It takes five pounds of milk to produce one pound of gain in a lamb, with some adjustment for creep feeding," he said.

Soybean meal is an ideal supplement during lactation, especially for the high producing ewes.

"We probably need to feed a lot harder than we are in most cases during lactation," he said.

Outside of lactation, protein is typically the most overfed nutrient and is a potential savings niche. If barns are smelling of ammonia, excess protein is being excreted through the urine, a signal that a dietary change should take place.

Flock management practices such as short breeding windows is another strategy in cost reduction. Morrical suggests a breeding window of 35 or 36 days, the equivalent of two estrus cycles, during breeding season. Fetal scans can determine open ewes who should be culled; open ewe lambs can be sold as market lambs.

Minimal pasture management can create big returns of feed. A 50-pound application of nitrogen applied in early June can boost pasture yields by a ton per acre, a cheap input to obtain a large amount of feed. If using a rotational grazing system or considering a switch to rotation grazing, pasture yields will increase each year for the first few years, providing up to fifty percent more forage by the third year of implementation.

By carefully managing and implementing only a few of his recommendations, Morrical believes that a $10 per ewe feed cost savings is an easily achieved target, and will result in increased returns to the flock and farm.

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