Making Sense of Sheep

By Garth Ruff, OSU Extension Educator Henry County
For OSU Sheep Team

Last summer when my younger brother moved out of our parents’ house and on to a 25-acre farm just six miles down the road, we decided to get into the sheep business together. Growing up we had experience with beef cattle and hogs and quite honestly sheep were an afterthought until the purchase of this small farm. The previous owners had had a couple of horses and had row cropped the majority of the farm. After some research and number crunching, here are 6 things that we considered as first time shepherds.

Establish a Grazing System
First things first. Land and forages are the most valuable asset in ruminant production. With 22 acres of pasture and most of it needing new fence we looked at the best way to manage forages in order to minimize the need of hauling hay from one farm to the other. Using Google Earth® and maps from the local soil and water district we are working to divide the property into 5 main paddocks with woven wire perimeter fences. By using temporary fence and a solar charger we can then divide the paddocks for more of a management intensive grazing approach. With a pond on the farm we can pump water anywhere as needed. For predator control we decided that a pair of donkeys would offer the best protection while the sheep are out to pasture.

Construct Workable Facilities
When I say workable, I don’t mean that we have the Taj Mahal of barns and some chores are harder work than others, but we get by. We converted the main barn, which was built for horses, using primarily fence line feeders and some old hog gates that we had. For a lambing and creep area, we took advantage of the existing horse stalls. Is it the perfect set up? No, but we have the flexibility to adapt as we continue to grow the flock and learn what works. This summer we are going to renovate another small building to house rams when we are not using them for breeding.

Choose a Breed and Flock Size
We were looking for relatively low input, small to medium size breed that was hardy, offered some parasite tolerance, and provided carcass merit. When considering inputs and our facilities, it just didn’t make sense to have a commercial flock of sheep that had to be shorn. Therefore, we decided on a mix of two hair sheep breeds, Katahdin and Dorper. Most of our current flock are either pure Katahdin or Katahdin influenced. To add some muscle and carcass quality we have chosen to use White Dorper rams. Currently we run 32 ewes that we have purchased since last August. Based on the amount of available forage and our grazing scheme we would like to grow and maintain a flock of about 70-75 head.

Develop a Market
As we speak, this part has been pretty easy. My brother is an auctioneer at the local livestock market and he schedules delivery of live lambs with one of the buyers, based on the weight and the time of the year. Thus far we have had tremendous success when we can capitalize on the market around the ethnic holidays. At some point I think there is room to move into more of a direct marketing scheme. However, currently there are not enough hours in the day to fully pursue the direct marketing of lamb meat to the consumer.

Plan Ahead
Determining when to breed for the next lamb crop has been a hot discussion as of lately. All of the ewes we purchased were bred and lambed between Christmas and the end of February, a lambing season we hope to shorten to just two heat cycles. In evaluating the potential of fall lambs versus spring lambs we have decided to shoot for lambs born around Christmas time. Once we get built up to where we what to be numbers wise, lambing two different times a year will be up for discussion as barn and feed bunk space may become a limiting factor.

Measure Efficiency
Many livestock producers look at returns on a per pound or per head basis. This method of efficiency does not take into account the most important asset in a pasture based production system; the land. When we look at the value and profit of our sheep enterprise at the end of the year, we do so on a per acre basis. Then we can compare our sheep profits to those of agronomic crops, hay production, or beef cattle. Our strategy to minimize inputs while maintaining flock health and lamb quality, is what allows sheep production to make sense on this small farm.

One thought on “Making Sense of Sheep

  1. Garth, I really enjoyed the sheep article. Your considerations are the same as I go through, regularly, hoping that sheep still make sense here on my farm. I don’t expect them to make a huge profit but hope that at least they are a hobby that pays for themselves, raising them on small, irregular, poor soils pastures, not successful as row crop ground.

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