Efficiency in sheep production measured in pennies

sheep
(Scott Bauer photo courtesy ARS/USDA)

Some livestock producers think about saving a buck when feeding their animals.

But for sheep producers, it comes down to cents.

“With sheep, you’ve always got to think about costs,” said Paul Luimes, a livestock nutrition researcher at the University of Guelph.

“You’ve got to look for pennies to save because there’s not a lot on them. Luckily, there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit.”

That starts by zeroing in on what efficiency means.

“The traditional measure of efficiency is the feed-to-gain ratio,” said Luimes, who uses about 4.5 kilograms of feed to get a kilogram of gain in his trials.

“Feed-to-gain ratios are very important when feed costs are high. We need to make sure we keep them as low as possible.”

Producers also need to look at their average daily gain, said Luimes, who gets about three-quarters of a pound per day in his trials.

“The faster an animal grows, the more efficient it is. Animals that are taking longer to grow are less efficient,” he told attendees at the Alberta Sheep Breeders’ Association symposium in late October.

“Every day a sheep spends on your farm, they’re thinking of new ways to die, so we need to get them growing fast and we need to get them out.”

His key number is dollars of feed per pound of gain, which is why he’ll spend more for quality.

“If you’re saying, ‘I can buy some screenings to feed really cheap,’ you’re buying a bullet to shoot your sheep with,” he said. “This diet that seems so cheap actually is a lot more expensive. It ends up costing us a lot more to get those lambs to market because we can’t do it quickly or efficiently.”

A lamb puts on protein very quickly as it grows but then puts on more fat, and that metabolic change means it needs more energy in its diet. But if energy is oversupplied in the early stages of growth, it can’t convert the energy into protein as easily, so it will instead start putting on more fat.

“Putting on fat early on is energetically expensive and it’s dollars-and-cents expensive because they’re not really programmed to put it on at that point,” said Luimes.

An ideal protein-to-energy ratio for sheep hasn’t been established, so he urged producers to “figure it out on their own” by examining costs on their operation, and then using body condition score to gauge if they’re on the right track.

“Get your hands on your animals and feel how much condition they have,” he said. “If they’re going to market too lean, that could be an issue with your customers. If they’re going too fat, that’s energetically expensive. You’re spending money you didn’t need to spend.”

Luimes has experimented with several different rations. One involved adding corn silage to a mixed grain ration, and a 50 per cent mix brought the cost down by nearly half. But that was actually the most costly route. Feeding no corn silage in the ration worked out to about 70 cents per pound of gain, while feeding 25 per cent corn silage cost 69 cents per pound of gain, and 50 per cent corn silage cost about 88 cents.

“In my mind, 50 per cent corn silage is way too much for lambs,” he said. “You could feed 25 per cent corn silage to your lambs. My question would be: Why? There’s no benefit to it.”

But dried distillers grains — a byproduct of ethanol production — is showing promise as a new protein source for lambs.

“It’s very cheap. It’s cheaper than corn is on a per-tonne basis,” said Luimes.

But unfortunately, dried distillers grains aren’t “super palatable,” so he is pelleting it. The lambs ate more of the DDGs when pelleted, but their average daily gain wasn’t any better than when the byproduct was just mixed in a ration. However, “bunk management becomes easier with a pelleted feed — so to me, pelleting is a winner,” he said.

“It can be a very, very profitable way to feed lambs. If you’re feeding anything but dried distillers grains, you’re probably wasting money.”

— Jennifer Blair is a reporter for Alberta Farmer Express in Red Deer. This article first appeared in the Dec. 18, 2017 edition of Alberta Farmer (page 15).

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