I made the decision to get out of the sheep market earlier this year; and while I do still maintain a flock of sheep (and they do work great as lawnmowers) I didn't have the time to devote to selling them.
Low maintenance lambs
What I do with the sheep is basically let them manage themselves; for years I penned my rams to limit their access to the flock and time the births, but I've finally started running my rams with my flock, and the sheep have gradually adjusted their lambing over the years to sometime in late February. This happened because the rams would get out from time to time and breed the ewes, and finally I stopped fighting it and let the sheep manage their breeding themselves. I trim their hooves twice a year, worm once a year, and offer them a little grain in late pregnancy, based on experience with this particular breed.
The sheep are housed in the winter in the cheapest buildings we can use. For the last two or three years, they've been housed in the greenhouse during the winter; we till the bedding and manure into the ground and plant there for spring and summer growing. We do that partly because of the fertilizer value, and partly because it's the easiest thing to do. No mucking out the barn; run a tiller over it, and you're done. I purchased the greenhouses off of craigslist for $1500 and I've been using them winter and summer for the last 4 years; sheep, pigs and chickens. I think a big greenhouse is a clear winner for a a small farm.
So my results with the sheep this year were good; I sold about half of my flock, ending up with 22 ewes, and they had 42 lambs between them (couple of singles, couple of triples, most twins). By all accounts a good result.
Virtually every decision I made with respect to the sheep was made with an eye to lowering the cost of maintaining them; I do the maintenance to keep them in good shape (worming, hoof trimming) but every other aspect, housing, feed, and general care is made to make them as easy to keep as possible, both in dollars and labor.
When you look at sheep industry numbers my results are better than quoted (I get more lambs than their "high producing" farms per ewe), but that's partly because even though I've taken pains to reduce the amount of work that I do with the sheep, I am still paying a lot more attention to my little flock than a shepherd who is caring for hundreds or thousands of sheep. With livestock, the more animals you can handle per person, generally speaking, the more profitable the operation can become.
If you're curious what industry profits are, take a look at the bottom of this post for the numbers. For high producing flocks (flocks that produce a larger number of lambs than average) they lose 6.2% of their investment each year.
Even with good numbers, the $500 or $1,000 yearly I made with the flock just wasn't worth the nuisance value of the retail sales; it takes just as much work to sell an 80lb lamb as a 280lb pig; more work, actually, and that's why I took lamb off the product list. I will continue to keep my lawnmowers and to eat them occasionally, but for the most part they're not a commercial venture for me.
High maintenance lambs
Michelle Canfield over at the colliefarm blog manages her flock differently. Diligently keeping track of each ewe, she tracks what they weigh, what they produced, the weight of their lambs and various other characteristics. She logs this into a program she purchased to do so. She built a barn that primarily functions to support the lamb operation -- a very nice barn, actually -- but as I pointed out one day, her flock will never, ever pay the cost of that barn off. She's also built feeders, pens, fencing and other stuff to support the sheep, spending thousands of dollars and many hours of labor on these improvements over the years.
She manages their breeding, attaching harnesses to the rams to figure out exactly who bred which ewe, carefully feeds them during pregnancy, buys mineral supplements and spends a lot of time thinking about the sheep. She used to go to trials with with her border collies, but as she says "...But now that I have a farm, I find there is little time to train for trials and travel..."
She's a member of a group that promotes her (and my) breed of sheep, registers her flock, vaccinates them and regularly goes to livestock shows to both buy and sell sheep with other breeders. She also extensively tests her sheep for various illnesses that are common in this area as a preventative measure.
Michelle also goes to what I consider pretty great lengths to salvage animals that I, frankly, would probably have put a bullet into, from my low-maintenance view.
And at the end of all of this her results are about the same as mine, in terms of lambs produced.
There's no right or wrong with either approach; with Michelle, she's hoping that she can get a bump in price for producing "seed stock" -- that is, with her diligent work, people will pay more for her lambs/sheep than they would for a standard lamb destined for the table, like my lambs are.
But here's the big difference: Even though my lambs would nominally sell for a lower price, my cost-of-production is much lower than hers, both in dollars spent and in terms of hours. Yes, you may get a high price per animal, but your overall cost per animal produced is much higher, too.
If Michelle were to do a breakdown of the costs of production as done in that industry link I provided above, my opinion is that she's losing money on her sheep. She did write a blog entry about this; and in it she came up with $2.75/hour being what she got paid for her sheep time...
What does Michelle say about this?
"...I think small-scale farming can be a great retirement-era income, especially suited for people who have paid off their mortgage- no commute to work and flexible hours, and a scale-able enterprise. I do sometimes reflect that some of the harder work, like lifting heavy things, may not be as do-able in my golden years. But there are probably enough ways to mechanize that kind of thing, to reduce the physical burden; and to hire some outside help for occasional chores which require more effort..."
I just don't agree. A small flock is not a money making venture when you consider all of the costs and labor required. In terms of profit, you'd be better off with a minimum wage job, at least 3x better off by Michelles own figures.
Not everything is done for profit, however. Which is why, if you a do buy a sheep from Michelle, you're getting a bargain. A professionally trained and diligent woman who spends hundreds of hours of her free time at a rate that she'd reject out of hand if offered. A huge benefit for the person who buys the sheep.
19 hours ago