It’s a good time of year for area sheep producers; they can enjoy the cooler weather… and the prices.
“I would say the producers ought to be smiling from ear-to-ear right now,” said Dr. Jerry Fitch, Extension sheep specialist with the Department of Animal Science at Oklahoma State University. “Lamb prices are at an all-time high, and all the forecasters that I have talked to in the last year or so don’t see that changing.”
Fitch told Ozarks Farm & Neighbor sheep producers typically have fewer problems with diseases and pests during the winter months, even more so with the rapid growth of the region’s hair sheep industry. These are sheep with coats that are mostly hair rather than fleece, making them better suited to the heat and humidity of the Ozarks Highlands. In addition, Fitch said hair sheep carry some resistance to parasites and foot rot, and are very good foragers in the bargain.
But all of the region’s sheep benefit from the lack of parasite-bearing flies in the wintertime, although a wet, muddy winter would be cause for concern; it can lead to increased problems with coccidiosis. This disease can be controlled, though; Fitch said, “We use a supplement in the feed, such as a product like Deccox or Bovatec, that allows us to keep those coccidia down to manageable levels.” The colder temperatures should also knock down internal parasites; if it doesn’t get cold enough, the parasite load can build in pastures.
Preventive antibiotic programs vary with the producer. Some will vaccinate against abortion diseases like vibrio and leptospirosis prior to breeding. But most, said Fitch, confine vaccinations to clostridium perfringens type C&D – to prevent enterotoxemia, the “overeating disease” – for baby lambs when they’re hitting the ground.
He said, “Some of those producers will give those vaccinations to those ewes 2-6 weeks prior to lambing, which then will carry forward through the colostrum and have antibodies for those baby lambs. It protects them for that 30-45 days, until they can build up immunity from their own injections.” Fitch said vaccinating for the other diseases is not advantageous unless there’s a history of problems in the flock, or a new animal or contact with a neighbor’s flock introduces the diseases.
Winter can be a busy time for delivering new lambs; Fitch said some producers lamb in January and February, while others lamb in the fall so the lambs will be ready to market at Easter. Some of the hair sheep producers lamb in March and April to take advantage of summer forages.
There have been fewer lambs, period, in recent years; U.S. sheep numbers were down 2 percent last year, part of a 4-5 year declining trend. But Fitch said hair sheep numbers are increasing – wool prices have been marginal, but are improving slightly – and he predicted the overall U.S. flock would increase over the next 12-24 months. “We’re at a time frame that the sheep business is a very profitable venture right now,” he said, adding it’s not necessarily because beef and pork prices are strong. “We really are a specialty commodity,” Fitch said, “and we have those individuals out there that will eat lamb, no matter what the price is.”


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