The ground on Pat Henne’s farm in Eaton Rapids isn’t the best-suited for crops, so a few years ago he started raising sheep on a grass-based system. “I figured I could raise lambs cheap,” he says.
“The ewes would lamb on grass, and it would only take a little bit of grain to finish them out. Then the price of lamb went to an all-time high and that changed things. We really wanted to ramp up production.”
Henne was part of a group of about 25 sheep producers who took a trip to New York to investigate a different method of raising sheep called accelerated lambing that increases production without adding ewes.
• System allows a ewe to lamb three times in two years.
• A shelter will be required for lambing in February.
• Keeping a level of high nutrition is essential to a productive system.
Unlike the traditional system, where ewes lamb every 12 months, accelerated lambing reduces the interval to seven to eight months, allowing a ewe to produce three times in two years.
Method cashes in on prices
“We wanted to take advantage of the market price, but replacement ewes are expensive,” says Henne, who is president of the Michigan Sheep Breeders Association. “It made sense to have our ewes work harder for us, while the price of lamb is high.”
The New York trip was guided by Richard Ehrhardt, who came to Michigan from New York’s Cornell University about a year and a half ago to serve as Michigan State University Extension’s small ruminant specialist.
“In New York this accelerated system is quite common, but it’s not used a lot in the Midwest,” says Ehrhardt, who brought with him his knowledge and research on accelerated lambing, as well as his personal farm of 150 ewes.
“I am confident I can help people with this system,” he says. “There is an upside, but it is not a perfect fit for every farm,” adds Ehrhardt.
To make the system work, you have to utilize sheep that genetically can lamb anytime of the year.
“The Polypay breed was developed for accelerated lambing,” Ehrhardt says. “Crosses between breeds that lamb any time of year may actually work even better. On my farm I have a three-way cross of Finn x Dorset x Ile de France.”
One of the biggest challenges in switching to this system is getting consistent results in out-of-season breeding. “Some get discouraged; it’s probably not for beginners,” he says. “But the risk is minimal for not working, and the consequences for poor out-of-season breeding aren’t terrible.”
Accelerated lambing also requires a barn for shelter, as one of the lambing periods will be in the winter.
One group of ewes is bred to lamb in early February and then in October to early November, while another group will lamb in May and then again in February. “The typical lambing period is roughly a month, but 80% may lamb in a five- to seven-day window. It all depends on how you introduce rams,” Ehrhardt says.
A major difference from annual lambing is accelerated lambing requires closer attention to nutrition.
“Sheep on these programs cannot be fed maintenance or sub-maintenance diets for extended periods as they are seldom in a production state that is compatible with a low plain of nutrition.
Sheep on 12-month lambing programs are entirely different in that they spend a much greater proportion of time nonpregnant,” Ehrhardt says. “However, this is not like a CAFO [concentrated animal feeding operation]. This system will work well with grazing operations because they are only indoors if they lamb in February.”
The transition to accelerated lambing didn’t require a huge investment for Henne and his wife, Becky. “We remodeled the barn some to accommodate the February lambing, but it was something I wanted to do anyway,” he says. “You do have to be mindful of the temperature in the barn, but mostly it’s a management change.”
Henne, who is starting accelerated lambing this year with his 130 Polypay ewes, says he believes the increased cost in feed will be offset by increased production and product price.
“We will be able to supply lamb year-round,” he says. “It opens up marketing opportunities and provides buyers with consistency, which can command a premium.”
Currently, the bulk of Henne’s product is sold through United Producers sale barn in Manchester and some for freezer lamb, but that may change.
Certain restaurants are taking note. “I’ve talked with the chef at the Kellogg Center in Lansing and he says that if he had a continuous supply, he is willing to discuss having lamb in the State Room [restaurant],” says Henne.
“Other restaurants have also voiced interest in sourcing lamb locally. We will go from having a season product to a continuous product,” he adds.
Ehrhardt believes that Michigan is prime for additional lamb production, and accelerated lambing is one way to increase output. “By increasing production, we can encourage processing capabilities and improve formal marketing channels,” he says.
And with these high prices, producers have an opportunity to be profitable.