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Dakota Lamb Finishers Describe Operation and Move Indoors

20 February 2015

A North Dakota lamb-feeding operation reacted to saturated fields by constructing sheds, in so doing boosting feed conversion and reducing death loss.

In an interview with North Dakota State University extension, the Buskohl's answer questions on their current operation, the industry in general and challenges they have faced. 

Rather than seeing the industry expand, sheep keepers are seeing smaller productions of scale as sheep numbers have fallen. 

Family Background

David Buskohl's Lamb Feedlot has developed from a commercial ewe flock of 350 under his parents.

Needing something to supplement family income to raise his children, he began feeding 200 lambs a month At this time, the only equipment was old turkey feeders and a handful of 5-gallon buckets.

This was after going to college and meeting Donna before having children Cody, Dani and Casey. 

Why the Move Inside?

Gradually growing and getting into the later ‘90s when it was so wet, we ended up encountering many problems due to foot rot and mud, says David. We saw a need for a change in our operation due to the North Dakota weather; this is when we began building barns for confinement.

North Dakota family the Buskohls live 3 and a half miles from Wyndmere operating a 17 acre lamb-feeding operation. Photo courtesy of North Dakota State University 

As years progressed, we kept adding space under roofs, and as of now, all animals are under shelter. This has helped with feed conversion, death loss and animal stockmanship.

Normally, we have lambs on our place September through May. We typically begin buying once feeder lambs are coming in off of pasture in late September. We will continue to keep buying lambs September through March.

Our lambs are sourced from all different locations, with the majority coming out of North Dakota and Montana. When the lambs first arrive, we vaccinate and deworm them.

Lambs are started on a ration of 10 percent corn and 90 percent soy hulls. Alfalfa pellets were our primary starter, but due to cost, we have switched to soy hulls. Over the first 30 days, we increase the ration until we reach 90 percent corn and 10 percent commercial supplement containing vitamins and minerals.

Move inside: A run of wet weather in Dakota led to foot rot problems in the 1990's. Photo courtesy of North Dakota State University

Most of our death loss we see occurs within the first 21 days; many issues are due to respiratory causes. We hire the shearing to be done after lambs have been on feed and have reached healthy body condition scoring.

They need a minimum of eight weeks of growth to get a No. 1 pelt for market. Why do we shear? With shorn lambs, we find better conversion rates, cleaner animals and more marketing avenues. In terms of marketing, we sell to all major packers in the U.S.; typically half of our lambs are shipped to Detroit, Mich., for ethnic markets. Lambs are all purchased and picked up on our farm by the packers.

What do you see as the strengths of your lamb feeding operation?

We find that ensuring a good relationship with producers, such as offering them flexible delivery times or arranging transportation for their lambs, is one of our strengths.

We also believe that offering consistent truckload lots of quality lambs to the packers allows us to receive premium prices. In the past two years, we have also been purchasing feeding ewes and finishing them to smooth ewes.

Diversification is beneficial to any operation, and this is a chance for us to better utilize our facilities and create a stronger cull ewe market in North Dakota.

What changes have you seen during your time in the lamb-feeding business?

The biggest change is the volume of production in the U.S. Our slaughter has gone down from 90,000 a week to 40,000 a week. We have lost half of our U.S. production, making it more expensive to efficiently transport lambs to their destinations.

We have sold fat lambs for as low as $.40 and as high as $2.10. We also have purchased feeder lambs for as low as $.40 and as high as $2.40. Being flexible by selling backgrounded feeder lambs vs. finished lambs has helped us through these challenges.

Alfalfa pellets have proved too costly, making way for soy hulls and corn. Photo courtesy of North Dakota State University

What changes would you like to see in the future for the U.S. and North Dakota sheep industry?

We would like to see a more stable market for everyone involved to keep people motivated in the sheep industry. This would potentially spur an increase in production.

An increase in North Dakota producers would create a stronger network for everyone involved. This would create more efficient freight lanes and better marketing strategies for producers.

An increase in overall volume provides a better industry for everyone. We are not sure if we would want to see a limit on imports or instead see an increase in marketing good-quality American lamb.