Young producer focuses on creating a sustainable sheep business
Caleb Pirc has learned a lot about sheep production during the last seven years. The 19-year-old producer from Meridian, Idaho, started his own flock at just 12 years old, using money from his savings account. He continued to build up the flock using money from odd jobs and as a legislative page.
“I wanted to raise cattle, but because our place was so small, I started with sheep,” he said to other sheep producers during a recent Sheep and Goat Production meeting in North Platte, Neb., that was funded by the USDA Risk Management Agency. “I liked the sheep so much, I continued to grow my flock. I raise Katahdin hair sheep for all natural grass fed lamb and also as registered production stock,” he said.
Coming from an urban area, Pirc admits he had a lot to learn about starting a sheep operation from scratch, but has had a lot of good teachers and isn’t afraid to do research. He built his operation around two basic criteria. “I am concerned about tackling the challenges that face the sheep industry today and what I can do to help solve those,” he said. Making a profit and overcoming parasite resistance are two of the more prominent concerns.
In his own operation, Pirc focuses on an intensive grazing and restorative management program. “Originally, I was just focused on harvesting as much forage as I could and moving on. Then I started learning a little more about residual management and weeding a certain portion of the pasture. The question for me then became not how much I should take out of the pasture, but how much can I afford to leave in the pasture in the form of organic matter. I also recognized that residual management is an important part of an intensive grazing system,” he said.
Pirc has found that allowing the animals to trample some of the forage into the ground has helped build up organic matter in his grazing areas, allowing the soil to hold a lot more moisture. He particularly sees a benefit when there is a drought. The increase in organic matter has also helped create a more sustainable pasture with more types of desirable grasses.
“Frequent rotation has really helped me increase our pasture productivity,” he said. He estimated it could be as much as a 130 to 180 percent increase. “I have found that if you can add that much productivity to the pasture, it will really increase your stocking rate, allowing you to spread your fixed costs across a larger portion of animals,” he said.
In southwestern Idaho, Pirc said the sheep can be rotated every 20 days when there is moisture in April and May. June and July are typically hotter changing the length of rotation. Pirc uses a lot of electric netting to rotationally graze. It has worked out well to keep the sheep in, and neighboring dogs out.
The young producer finds that rotating the animals more frequently can allow him to better manage the amount of foliage stripped from the plants, which impacts how much solar energy reaches the soil. “If you get too much square footage, it can reduce lower leaf growth. Managing the amount of leaf removal allows the soil to absorb more moisture,” he said.
By managing the stocking density, Pirc has also found that less fertilizer is needed. Using research from Missouri, scientists indicated that 25,000 to 40,000 pounds per acre of stocking density resulted in about 45 percent of the pasture receiving manure on an annual basis. Comparing that to a continuous grazing system, Pirc said that only 1 to 2 percent received manure on an annual basis because most of the manure ends up in shaded areas or around the water tank.
As Pirc grows the operation, he has leased land from nearby residents to graze the sheep. “When we started leasing land, we talked to the landowners about their goals, and if we could lease their land for multiple years. It impacted what type of pasture restoration we could do on their land to make it more productive. We formed different strategies based on the resources available. But I would recommend considering what species you have, stocking density, what other resources you have access to, the number of animals you plan to graze, fertilizer, seeding and equipment. Consider those things because if you want to renovate a pasture, it might change how you go about doing it,” he said.
“By analyzing your goals and evaluating your resources, you can create a plan,” he continues. Pirc also recommends planting annuals before planting perennials, if pasture rehabilitation is the goal. “By planting annuals, that root system will still be there after grazing. It decomposes and adds more organics to your soil. It gives you a higher forage base and typically higher forage production, which is going to allow you to put more fertilizer down if you are harvesting it with animals,” he said.
Whether it’s marketing the animal, meat or its wool, Pirc recommends finding your market and asking yourself who you are producing your product for. By defining a target market, a producer can determine how much they want to expand their operation in the future. Pirc’s operation, Good Shepherd Farms, focuses on selling grass finished lamb and breeding animals. “If someone approached me about producing a 130 pound grain finished lamb, I would have to realize that I don’t have the right animal to suit their needs. If I tried to produce that animal, I would lose some of the efficiencies I have in my market. I have to find ways to utilize the resources I have,” he said.
It is also important to consider if a niche market is big enough and has enough consumers to utilize the supply of what is produced, and if a producer is successful, is there room for competitors. “I also like to look at the margin for profit, and see how it compares to the standard market. Is my market sustainable?” he asked. ❖
— Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.