Pasture Management: The Key to a Healthy Lamb Flock

Many sheep ranchers rely solely on pasture to feed their animals. By managing pastures properly, sheep can receive a well-balanced diet and remain healthy. Our New Zealand-based partners at Atkins Ranch are fortunate to have a temperate climate year-round where sheep are raised continuously on pasture. However, even in the most favorable pasture-growing environment, there are still a number of management factors to consider. Let’s see how Atkins Ranch does it:

A well-balanced diet

GAP’s comprehensive sheep standards require that all sheep have access to fibrous feedstuffs and that their diet meets their nutritional needs. We all know how important a well-balanced diet is – making sure we get enough protein and energy is critical to our health. But a diet high in fiber is also important, especially for ruminant farm animal species, like sheep. Access to fibrous feed helps ruminants maintain their digestive function and health, especially for their rumen, which is the largest part of their stomach. Providing sheep access to pasture meets our fibrous feed requirement, but making sure to provide the right types of plants, such as a mix of legumes (e.g., alfalfa, clover) that are high in protein and energy, and grasses that are high in fiber, is the key to balancing the flock’s overall diet. The main forages found on Atkins Ranch farms are perennial rye grass and clover. Sheep thrive on this type of pasture year-round.

Pasture rotation and resting

If sheep are kept on the same plot of land for too long, the land can become overgrazed, which can be the very detrimental to the pasture and the environment. When vegetation is grazed too close to the soil, there is a risk that some plant species will die out or take a long time to recover, which in turn, can negatively affect the soil quality. GAP does not allow pastures to be denuded (reduced to bare earth) by more than 20% – that means that ranchers need to consider how many sheep are on a pasture area and how long they are grazing there. Atkins Ranch ranchers know how to manage their flocks and pasture and will move their flocks before the pasture forages are no longer giving the sheep the nutrition they require to maintain their health and growth. Often, the pasture is measured for growth by taking soil samples. This helps the ranchers determine when to move the flocks and allows the pastures a good amount of time to regrow before the next grazing cycle begins. In addition, pasture grazing cycles vary throughout the year based on the weather. The ranchers will work with the weather cycles and forecasts to adjust pasture rotations based on how much feed the sheep need at certain times of the year or stage of production.

Parasite control

Another factor to consider when creating a pasture rotation schedule is the number and types of parasites present in the area, which live on the surface of the soil. If the grass gets too short and sheep graze too close to the soil, they can ingest parasite larvae. The larvae then grow and lay their eggs in the sheep’s digestive tract, and when the sheep defecates, the parasite eggs are deposited back onto the soil and the cycle starts all over again. In an effort to circumvent this process, it’s important that sheep are moved off of a pasture area before it’s grazed too close to the soil so the sheep don’t ingest the parasites in the first place. Likewise, it’s important to allow pastures with a high parasite load to rest for as long as the lifecycle of the parasite – if the sheep are not present to ingest the larvae and help perpetuate their growth cycle, the parasites will die out.

As you can guess, pasture management can be tricky – each ranch will face different challenges and utilize different strategies to provide the best grazing environment for their animals. That’s why GAP works with farm animal scientists and our farm partners to develop our animal welfare standards, taking into account the environment and production system for each animal species. At GAP, we focus on the animal first and foremost as we set the standards.

We truly value our loyal farm and ranch partners who work diligently to care for the animals and their environments every day. Interested in learning more about our standards? Click here. We welcome your questions and interest. Interested in learning more about raising sheep to GAP’s standards? Check out this blog on Pozzi Ranch and their lambing (birth) season. Like this post? Let us know! To keep up-to-date with more posts like this, follow #GAPFarmLife on social media (including Instagram and Facebook)!

Gabbi Simon

Author Gabbi Simon

Gabbi grew up as a ranch hand on her family’s farm in Michigan, where she developed her love for many species of farm animals, especially cattle and pigs, at an early age. She was tempted to go to vet school like others in her family, but ultimately decided studying animal behavior and management suited her better than medicine, as she wanted to pursue ways to work in farm animal welfare. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in Animal Sciences from Michigan State University and Master’s degree in Animal Biology from UC Davis, where she developed, tested, and applied a comprehensive welfare assessment for conventional cow-calf operations.

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