Sheep splurge on spurge on southern Alberta ranch

LUNDBRECK, Alta. — The 65,000-acre Waldron Grazing Co-operative has 600 weed pickers.

Leafy spurge, an invasive weed unpalatable to cattle, was taking over parts of the ranch so intervention was required.

The weed pickers are sheep owned by the nearby Livingstone Hutterite Colony. Instead of spending thousands of dollars on weed control, which failed to control it even after 25 years of effort, the Waldron now makes money through sheep grazing fees.

Ranch manager Mike Roberts is pleased with the plan. The leafy spurge appears to be under control and the sheep also eat other invasive plants generally ignored by cattle.

“About the only thing they avoid is death camas. At least all the live ones did,” said Roberts.

Buttercup, thistle and brush are all in the sheep diet and they are guided in their foraging by two herders and a dog.

“(Sheep) have small rumens and they have to eat high protein, high quality feed, and for them it’s the forbs,” said Roberts.

“Leafy spurge is an obnoxious plant. It has 20- and 30-foot root systems on it. It has kind of a latex sap in it that cattle don’t find very appetizing.”

But tests show the weed has 18 to 20 percent protein and 80 percent total digestible nutrients.

“It’s excellent feed. It’s like alfalfa. But the sheep need to be able to regulate themselves. You can’t force them to eat it exclusively.”

Roberts said the Hutterite colony has been happy with the arrangement, reporting a 180 percent lamb crop and clean wool that brings a higher price.

He thinks the ranch would benefit from grazing up to 3,000 ewes in areas where more extensive grazing could benefit the pasture and it wouldn’t necessarily lower cattle stocking rates. However, that might be a hard sell with the co-op shareholders, just as it was a hard sell when sheep were first used at the Waldron.

“They’re all die-hard cow men and they hated sheep. They didn’t know why they hated sheep, but they hated them, because Grandpa hated them or somebody hated them.”

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