GETTING STARTED IN A SHEEP OPERATION
Dr. Helen A. Swartz, Ph.d.
State Sheep, Goat & Small Livestock Specialist
Sheep Raising -A Family Experience
Raising sheep is often a family affair that can result in a good experience
for everyone. Many families divide the responsibilities involved among its
members. Even youngsters can learn to care for animals and keep records.
These are several characteristics necessary to successful in the sheep business:
1. You must like sheep.
2. Invest wisely and select sheep that have the genetic potential to make
a profit. Learn how to judge the quality of different breeds, and develop
contacts to learn about trustworthy sheep raisers in your area.
3. Take time to look at possible markets for lamb and wool in a commercial
operation or potential buyers for your purebred breeding stock. You need
to know the market and demand for stock before investing in a specific breed.
Some have unique characteristics but there is little demand for them.
4. Take time to learn preventive measures to control sheep health problems
such as internal parasites (worms), enterotoxemia (overeating disease),
tetanus, soremouth, overeating, lambing paralysis, footrot, and kidney stones.
By managing these health problems, you will save money in the long run.
5. The kind of pasture management you plan to employ also makes a difference
in profit. Do your pastures need improving? Do you have adequate fencing?
6. Your present buildings should be adequate to house the number of sheep
you plan to lamb out at delivery time.
7. There may be a predator problem in your area which needs to be controlled
by guard dogs, electric fence, traps or other means.
Who Will Help a New Producer Get Started in the Sheep Business?
Contact your area livestock specialist, through the county extension
center, or a reputable sheep producer to help you get started. Discuss where
and what kind of sheep to buy. Look at your resources in pasture, buildings,
fences and water; it takes very simple equipment and facilities in the beginning.
The local extension center can also provide advice on markets for lambs
and wool in your area.
How Much Land is Needed to Raise Sheep?
The number of ewes that can be fed throughout the grazing season on
an acre of land depends on pasture quality and management, and the amount
of rainfall. A rule of thumb is to graze five sheep for each cow. Sheep
and cattle can be pastured together. Cattle tend to graze taller grasses
and legumes. Check with an agronomist for proper pasture management procedures.
How to Get Started Raising Sheep
Begin with small numbers of 2-5 for a 4-H or FFA member and 25-30 ewes
for an adult. The first year, buy a small number of ewes from a reputable
breeder. These names can be obtained from your State Sheep Industry Directory.
Commercial ewes can be purchased from $30 -$125 per head. A good idea is
to buy highly productive ewes from a reliable producer. Questions to ask
when buying sheep include, "Are the sheep productive? Ask to see records.
Are there signs of footrot? Will the seller guarantee the sheep?
Avoid buying rams and ewes at sale barns. Often, these animals may have
been culled because of low productivity or for health reasons. Look for
the following features in rams for purchase:
1. Healthy sheep free of physical defects such as being "off in the
mouth", "down on their pasterns", or having a turned-in eyelid
2. A history of fertility with good breeding performance.
3. Growth records of lambs, such as time of weaning, weight and height of
lambs at 60, 90 or 120 days of age.
It is wise to have another ram on hand for backup at breeding time.
Don't be fooled by show or sale records. Performance records and quality
breeding stock are the keys to good investments. A veteran sheep producer
or the area extension livestock specialist can help you evaluate breeding
Labor Requirements for Sheep
Sheep are labor intensive at lambing time. Someone should be available to
check on the ewes from three to five times a day. Some sheep producers check
ewes in the middle of the night, especially in January and February when
the weather is extremely cold. Ewes that are due to lamb should be checked
in the early morning, noon, evening and at bedtime. Feeding ewes hay at
bedtime will allow the producer to spot those in labor. Often they won't
eat. Healthy sheep eat regularly. Sheep that refuse to eat are in labor,
sick or off feed.
All other times of the year, sheep can be observed twice a day during feeding
or grazing, and require little extra care. After weaning, lambs can be put
on self-feeders or hand-fed twice daily and the ewes put on pasture and
checked daily to see that they have an adequate water supply. Family members
working off the farm may find caring for sheep at lambing time difficult
unless they can check on them during the noon hour.
Youth with ewe and lamb projects will need assistance from a family member
at lambing time. Other times of the year, the sheep can be managed and fed
with a minimum of assistance from the family. Help with deworming, trimming
and at breeding time may be necessary.
Shearing is usually done in the spring. It requires securing a competent
shearer several months in advance to schedule shearing dates. Good shearers
have full schedules and must be contacted early.
Housing for Sheep
Sheep require a building that provides shade in hot summer months and protection
from harsh winter weather. Fall lambing can occur quite successfully on
pasture. Lambs produced in the fall and January and February can be marketed
at a profit. Market lamb prices tend to drop in July and rise again in January.
Lambs born in January and February need to be housed in a building that
provides protection from extremely cold weather. Heat lamps or other heat
sources are necessary to dry the newborns in sub-zero weather. Most existing
farm buildings can be modified to provide needed protection from hot and
cold weather for sheep.
Records help identify lambs and ewes to be kept as replacements and to cull
unproductive ewes to build a productive flock. Each sheep needs an ear tag
with an ID number to chart their growth and productivity. Purebred sheep
will have ear tags when purchased. A sheet such as the one attached, hung
on a clipboard in the lambing barn, will make records convenient to keep.
It has space for ID, sex, date and type of birth (single, twin or triplet),
birth weight, dam and sire. Growth records, taken when lambs are 60, 90,
or 120 days of age, complete the record page. Top gaining ewe lambs should
be kept as replacements. Dam productivity information is also kept and ewes
producing poor gaining lambs or no lambs should be culled.
For more assistance sheep producers can contact their local extension center
and enroll in the National Sheep Improvement Program. The area livestock
specialist will help weigh the lambs, and also give advice on health, nutrition
and sheep management. Lamb records can be analyzed on the computer to help
select the genetically superior lambs for replacement and for culling of
poor producing ewes. Enrolling your flock in a sheep improvement program
will result in increased profits for both commercial and purebred breeders.
The most important profit factor in the commercial sheep operation is the
number of lambs weaned per ewe. The break even point is 100% (or one lamb
per ewe) when the market price is $60/cwt. Lambs are usually marketed when
they weigh between 100-125 pounds. If you had 50 lambs marketed from 50
ewes at $60/cwt, you would recover your costs. Any increase over 100% lambing
rate or $60/cwt would result in a profit.
A purebred operation will require more time and money to make a profit than
a commercial operation. It may take 5 years primarily because the producer
will need to keep the better ewe lambs to build flock quality and quantity.
The sheep raising business can be profitable if care is taken to choose
good stock. A sample budget is attached with a place for you to put estimates
of costs and prices. Note that the budget does not include labor costs.
Depending on who does the work and what other chores they have which might
be combined with feeding and checking the flock, this cost is quite varied.
To see if sheep raising is a profitable business in terms of labor use,
you will want to keep track of time spent on this farm enterprise.
It you are interested in the sheep business and would like more information
on breeds, breeding management, etc., contact your local area livestock
specialist and purchase further reading material listed in the access before
making the decision.
FOR 1988 ESTIMATE
ITEMS PER PER PER
FLOCK EWE EWE
1. Details of gross receipts:
Lambs 125% lamb crop x 115 x .70 $100.62
Cull ewes 150# x 20% = 30# x .20 6.00
Wool 12 x 1.60 19.20
2. GROSS RECEIPTS PER EWE 125.20
Corn, $3.59 bu. 7.5 bu @ $2.00 15.00
Hay, $85/T .4 T @ $85.00 34.00
Pasture, $7/AUM 1 .4 AUM @ $7.00 9.80
Protein, salt, minerals 35 Ibs x .14/lb. 4.90
4. TOTAL FEED COSTS 63.70
5. Machinery costs 2.00
6. Marketing costs 2.50
7. Breeding charge (ram depreciation) 2.00
8. Veterinary, supplies, shearing, & bedding 5.00
9. Miscellaneous 2.00
10. Operating interest 15.60
11. TOTAL OTHER VARIABLE COSTS 29.10
(add lines 5 through 10)
12. TOTAL VARIABLE COSTS 92.80
(line 4 + line 11)
13. INCOME OVER VARIABLE COSTS 32.40
(line 2 - line 11)
"Recommendations for a Sheep Management Program"
1987. University of Illinois, Cir NCR240.
Urbana/Champaign, Illinois. Price $2.50.
Beginning Shepherd's Manual,1983. Iowa State
University Press, Ames, lowa, 50010. Price S15.95.
Sheepman's Production Handbook, 1988 Sheep Industry Development Program,
200 Clayton Street, Denver,Colorado 80206. Price $35.00.
Lincoln University at Jefferson City. University of Missouri. and the U.S.
Department of Agriculture cooperating. George Enlow. Acting Director. Distributed
in furtherance of Food and Agricultural Act, 1977 PL 95-113 Section 1444
and 1445, as amended by PL 97-98 December 22. 1981.
Publications are distributed without regard to
race, color. national origin. sex. age. or religion.