We’re in our third year of custom grazing sheep at Rock Hills Ranch. Our pastures have a diverse mix of grass, forbs, and shrubs, some of which cattle won’t consume. Western snowberry has been problematic ever since Lyle and I arrived here 45 years ago. Leafy spurge moved in more recently as has Canada thistle and wormwood sage. Chemical treatment is labor-intensive, expensive, and not all that effective. Trying to teach the cows to eat western snowberry and using flea beetles on the leafy spurge helped, but not enough. Lyle and Luke knew sheep or goats were a solution as they prefer eating broad-leaf plants, but keeping them on the property and safe from coyotes were issues.
Custom grazing sheep owned by the Van Well family from Watertown solved those problems. They provide a shepherd from Peru, herding and guard dogs and a 4-wheeler for every 1000 head (called a band) of sheep. A band of mix wool breeds and hair sheep grazed in 2019. Last year and this year we have two bands. The shepherds spend most of the day with the sheep and return to eat and sleep in living quarters we provide. A remodeled fish shack on wheels gives them a place to get out of the elements and store gear near the sheep. They are on the ranch from May until November.
Herding a loose band of sheep in our hills proved problematic as small groups would end up out of sight of the bigger herd and drift off to the neighbor’s property. High intensity, short duration grazing provided by 2-3 acre paddocks fenced with two strands of electric polywire keep the animals together and effectively impact snowberry and spurge. A new pen is built for each band for each day. They are herded to the same water tank around noon each day and remain there until late afternoon when they are moved into fresh grazing pens. The water pen is fenced with more durable electric netting. Sick animals are moved to an isolation pen near ranch headquarters.
When feasible, the sheep follow the cattle. It has not worked for our operation to comingle because of water and guard dog issues. The sheep target areas with high populations of leafy spurge twice, once early in the year and later in the summer to prevent seed formation. The sheep readily eat snowberry and spurge and some wormwood. Canada thistle appears to be their least favorite. Once the paddocks are rested and rained on the regrowth is lush and green. Thick stands of snowberry and spurge are thinning out, allowing the grass to compete.
According to Luke, this year, the sheep are harvesting between 35-40 animal days per acre in the areas with a lot of leafy spurge and/or snowberry. The cows are taking 23-26 animal days per acre on the same type of pasture, primarily because they aren’t utilizing the snowberry and spurge. If we value the grazing at $32 per animal unit month, that means the sheep generate about $14/acre more than just the cows. Last year, with twice over grazing on the spurge areas, we harvested 56 animal days per acre, while the cow/calf pairs were doing 30-32 on average once through and up to 40-42 if grazed twice.
Sheep will be part of the Rock Hills Ranch grazing plan for as long as Van Wells want to bring them as it’s turned a liability into a profitable enterprise that better utilizes all available forage and helps control invasive plants.
Garnet Perman is a freelance writer and ranches with her husband, Lyle, near Lowry, SD.