Sheep: One producer’s answer to combatting one of South Dakota’s most noxious weed

KELOLAND.com Original

LOWRY, S.D. (KELO)– Leafy spurge is a noxious weed that can be hard for producers to get under control in a pasture and is also toxic to cattle.

However, at Rock Hills Ranch in rural Lowry, owners Lyle and Luke Perman have found a way to combat this issue: sheep.

Almost four years ago, the Permans realized they needed to do something different to manage their leafy spurge issue. They had been using chemical spot spray application fairly aggressively in certain areas and they were not making needed progress. They had already introduced flea beetles to create some biological controls. The beetles helped but didn’t eliminate the problem.

“We had two directions we could go. One would be broad-scale chemical use; you know just spray an entire pasture. Or else look at something that would eat it to try to keep it from making seed and spreading that way,” Luke said. “We decided to go with the grazing route.”

They contacted VanWells, sheep producers in eastern South Dakota, who were able to bring out a band of sheep to the ranch in Lowry.

“After three weeks, I realized how valuable these sheep are going to be with this problem,” Luke said.

From there, they have expanded their sheep grazing. It has been a great fit for their forage-based operation, not just for the leafy spurge control, but also with the native broadleaves and shrubby-like plants, Luke said.

“Especially in a dry year, we are actually able to maintain stocking rates with those sheep on those acres,” he said. “It’s been a really good fit for us.”

Help from Peru

The Permans had considered having grazing sheep for several years, but they were concerned their fences would not contain sheep or protect them from predators.

Guard dogs have solved the predator problem, he said, and the VanWells have provided a work force of shepherds from Peru, who build the fence and herd the sheep, which makes it a pretty “hands-free” operation for the Perman family.

The biggest difference that Luke sees in the paddocks that the sheep have grazed on is that you won’t really find any broadleaf plants on the land. Also, there is a surprising amount of grass left, depending on how they are managed.

“That’s where I give my credit to the herders,” Luke said. “They have done a really good job of controlling how much the sheep are removing.”

Cattle and sheep don’t share the pasture

Since getting the sheep three years ago, the sheep and the cattle at the operation haven’t been on the same pasture. This year, with it being dry, they won’t be able to do it that way, Luke said. Up until now, they have been on separate ends of the ranch, but during the second half of this summer, the sheep are going to go in after the cows. Luke is excited to see the effects of having them graze close together.

Running the sheep and cattle together does present a problem, Lyle said. The problem is water. They cannot graze at the exact same time on the same pastures because their water needs are different.

When they first started leasing the ground that the sheep are on, the leafy spurge was so thick that the cows wouldn’t really go down to the pasture because they couldn’t easily find the grass, Luke said.

Leafy spurge can be hard to kill because it has such a deep root system and it easily spreads seeds, Luke said.

Since cattle don’t eat it, there is nothing to keep it under control on pasture that is only grazed by cows.

“Even though it’s only been the third year that we have had [the sheep], I can really see a difference in the vigor of those plants,” Luke said.

The last two years, they have grazed the pastures twice during the summer: once just before seed was set and the other as the weed was trying to make seed the second time, Luke said. He thinks that the sheep along with the flea beetles have been a good combination at fighting the leafy spurge problem.

“But if we can take something that would have cost us money to go out and spray and turn it into a revenue stream by having sheep graze it, it sure makes a difference on the overall profit picture of the operation,” Luke said.

Sheep at home in the pasture

Every day, the sheep get moved to a new patch of pasture, Luke said. The sheep herd goes to get water at midday. Then in the middle of the afternoon, they take them from the water source to a new paddock and they will stay there until the next midday when they go back to water.

They have been taking roughly an acre of pasture a day per 1,000 head of sheep, Luke said. That size will vary depending on what exactly is growing on that area.

“The sheep can stay as long as there is something for them to eat,” Luke said. “I think that is going to be a long time.”

Sheep are a ruminate that is not out of place in the area at all in a historical context, Luke said. He doesn’t think they will ever get rid of all of their broadleaf plants, including leafy spurge.

“If we can just continue to have sheep here, I believe that we can keep it in check and it won’t become a problem in any real sense. We can continue to generate revenue off of plants that the cows won’t eat,” Luke said.

The sheep have been on the operation for about a month this summer, and so far, the drought does not seem to be affecting some of the deep rooted forbs as much as the grasses, so the sheep are proving to be a good animal to have during a drought, Luke said.

“If I could snap my fingers and flip-flop our cow and our sheep stocking rates, I would do it in a heartbeat,” Luke said.

This is because the feed that the sheep are eating is less affected by drought and they have a lower water requirement compared to the cattle.

If you go to Europe where things like leafy spurge and wormwood sage originated, Lyle said, you will find it in their botanical gardens that you pay to see and when they see it out in nature, it’s not an issue.

“I am hoping someday that we can get it to that point here also,” Lyle said.

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