Sunday, May 26, 2013

High and low maintenance sheep

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.


Rich said...

Jeez, did you even bother to read what she wrote?

She was talking about someone with 5 acres getting 5 ewes and a llama and then selling their entire lamb crop each year.

And it turns out that someone on a tiny scale like that would end up making $2.75/hr.

So, it's pretty obvious that that's why you would have to scale up to make any money, and that's what she was explaining.

50 ewes would take about as many work hours as 5 ewes, so you would make 10 times as much per hour.

I don't know what the cost of her barn has to do with anything, or why it seems to bug you so much.

Bruce King said...

Hi Rich. So your point is that in order to make a decent income you'd have to raise a much larger number of sheep to make a profit? I actually agree with you there and said as much in this post; here's what I said: " With livestock, the more animals you can handle per person, generally speaking, the more profitable the operation can become. "

The cost of the barn, as with the cost of any other equipment, is included in the link about industry costs in this post. I figure it's fair to consider the cost of stuff that's built for the sheep. You're right though; maybe only part of the barn is used for sheep, so only part of the cost should be included; but the impression I've gotten is that between lambing space and hay and grain storage a big part of the barn is used for the sheep.

I don't think that 50 ewes are the same amount of work as 5; you need more tons of feed or forage or both, more land, more water and more barn space. Each animal also takes a certain amount of attention, which in my case is pretty minimal, but in Michelles is pretty large; she spends a lot of time on her sheep compared to me.

It's the difference between a production environment and a research environment. Research is often run at a loss for the gain in knowledge.

Rich said...

I don't know squat about sheep, but I do know about cattle and I know that if I only had 5 cow/calf pairs it would take the same amount of time to take care of them as my 50 pairs.

If you are doing it right you are taking care of a herd, not a bunch of individual animals. I can look at a herd of 50 pairs in the same amount of time as 5, and I can move 50 pairs as quick as 5.

And, with a smaller herd some of my expenses per head would be higher, like bulls, working facilities, and hauling (costs as much to haul 1 steer as 10 steers).

Feed and land input costs per head would be exactly the same per head if I had 5 or 500. It doesn't matter if I had to buy more hay or more land, my input costs would still end up costing the same per head (land cost/head would probably go down since it is easier to fully stock a pasture with a larger herd).

I can't comment on barn cost per head, since my cattle on on pastures where they belong.

And, finally most of the university studies about the profitability of different agricultural crops that I've read always claim that you can't make a profit doing ANYTHING.

"Want to grow wheat? Well our study says that you'll lose money."

"Want to raise pigs? Well our study says that you'll lose money."

"Want to direct market beef? Well our study says that you'll lose money."

I don't see the point of quoting silly studies that always have the same gloomy conclusion.

George said...

LOL @ the 50 pairs comment... You may get lucky enough to move 50 cow/calf pairs sometimes..but speaking from experience here it's going to take more time than 5 pairs. While you're right that the input costs are the same PER HEAD, the reality is that putting up dry hay and haylage/silage for 50+ is more time consuming, labor, storage, equipment etc, than 5 pair.

Rich said...

If it's taking you much more time to move 50 compared to 5, then you are doing something wrong or need to work on your stockmanship skills. And, if it is taking you 10 times as long to move 50 as 5, then you are in the wrong business and need to go find a cubicle to earn your living from. Would it take you 100 times as much time to move 200 compared to 2?

The time spent baling hay is "charged" towards the input cost of the hay NOT the cattle, the same as if you bought it and had it delivered. Since I'm figuring input costs, a bale of hay costs $XX/bale and takes XX hrs, regardless of if I'm buying 1 or 100.

So, it doesn't matter if I bought it or baled it myself, the input cost per head is the same whether I have 500 or 5.

Besides all that, I know that I would lose money with 5 pairs, make money with 50 pairs, and it's ridiculous to think that she is only making $2.75/hr simply because she said tried to explain that someone with only 5 ewes would theoretically make that much per hour.

becky3086 said...

Well, I am not a big time farmer and I don't have sheep but what you wrote makes perfect sense to me. The animals I do raise, I raise using the least amount of work and money as possible. I know others who raise them who do a lot more but the end product is usually the same.

Bruce King said...

Rich, I think you make a good point about managing a herd or flock, but 50 cows is logistically harder than 5 pairs. With 5 pairs a couple of small squares off the back of a pickup will do. With 50 you're talking about a semi truck of big bales and a big tractor. Yes, the activity is the same, but the amount of time does increase with the number of animals.
And I don't know about you, but I feel like the risk increases with the number of animals, too. If I'm feeding 5 pairs I can do that for a few hundred a month, and pay that pretty easily -- things go south, and I'm ok with even a very small income. With 50, or 500... you're adding a zero or a pair of zeros to your feed bill and other costs - your chance of going bust if things go south increases dramatically at some point.

I won't argue that you can't make $10 a month raising sheep; but for the hours spent, in terms of money, you're better off that small with a minimum wage job. Now if you want to call it a hobby then the money isn't the point of the excercise; just don't wave the profit flag.

Bruce King said...

George: completely agree with what you said. Big tractor, big truck, big bales... everything gets larger.

Chris said...

I'm interested in purchasing some mowers...... could you let me know when you've got some available again?


Jeff said...

In my limited experience so far, it's a stepwise dance between maximizing efficiency through economies of scale and minimizing unnecessary capital costs (and their associated maintenance and time costs). For instance, on my five acres, I can manage my 20 pigs with a few pieces of equipment: electric fence, truck, hay fork, barn, homemade pasture shelters, waterers, and hoses. If I want to grow much bigger, I'll need to start investing in more equipment, such as a tractor with a loader, hay elevator, excavator, additional barn/winter housing space. In addition, it's going to start getting much harder to make sure my pigs are living up the the high standard that I set (and market to).

So, I think the point that labor time and costs go down with larger herds of animals is undoubtedly correct, but is the cost to realize those labor savings worth it? I think there's a sweet spot there that's going to be different for every farmer.

George said...


Please do not put words in my mouth, so to speak. I never said it takes 10x as long to move 50 pairs. I do it almost daily, so please don't fling insults. Not to mention the steers and first year heifers...

The input costs to the hay, I would charge off to the cattle, if I am feeding it to them. If the hay is being sold, then the inputs are hay cost in my opinion. There are a number of ways that we all account our costs and profits.

Rich said...


I don't see how I put words into your mouth, or insulted you at all, I wasn't even directly addressing you, I was addressing the original blog post.

If it is being said that Michele is only making $2.75/hr with her sheep herd based on something she wrote about someone with 5 sheep only making $2.75/hr, and she has more than 5 sheep, then how can her hourly wage be the same if the amount of time she spends per ewe isn't linear?

If she had 50 ewes, the only way Michele could be making a $2.75/hr wage is if it took 10 times as much time to take care of her 50 ewes as it took for 5.