Why Not Sheep?
by David A. Gehrke
After an absence of several years I am once again a subscriber to the SFJ. Not that I ever stopped believing in the viability of the small farm and the life style it has to offer: I guess I just got sidetracked. Anyway, the reason that I’m writing this is that I just spent some time going over the results of the reader’s survey published in the Spring Issue and I guess I’m a little dismayed.
What dismays me is the discovery that only 32% of SFJ readers raise sheep. So why does that bother me? Well, I would like to believe that all small farmers have the same goal in life as I do; to be full-time, self-sufficient farmers. But yet the same survey says that 67% of us earn the majority of our income somewhere other than the farm. I believe the two facts are related.
News has been made recently by angry farmers in my area of Minnesota. Their protests over high interest rates, low commodity prices and unsympathetic lenders have forced the postponement of several forced auctions and drawn the attention of state legislators. When you spend time talking with local farmers two characteristics of the farms in trouble become clear: they are usually specialized farms (cash crop, hog confinement, feedlot, etc.) and they are usually large, capital intensive operations.
Characteristics of those farms not in trouble, yet, are smaller acreages (160-300) and a diversified operation, some sort of livestock enterprise, often more than one, and some cash cropping.
In view of these observations it would seem to me that if we are to accomplish our goal of being full-time, self-sufficient farmers we should be looking at a small, diversified farm with limited capital requirements. The kicker is that the words, small, diversified, and limited capital requirements, just about rule out all conventional farming operation. Enter the sheep.
Sheep have several characteristics other livestock don’t:
1) They are in themselves diversified. Lamb and wool provide access to two different markets.
2) They require little or no grain. Sheep can be fattened on grass alone. Using modern intensive grazing systems, a larger number of sheep can be grazed on fewer acres of pasture.
3) A commercial ewe usually will pay for herself in the first year that you own her.
4) Sheep farming, an unconventional farm enterprise, fosters unconventional thinking. At a time when conventional farming is dominated by the government, financial lenders, agribusiness men, and, as a natural result, bankruptcies – being unconventional is a definite advantage.
Having made my points as to the advantage of sheep farming, let’s examine each one more closely. A closer inspection, I’m sure, will convince you even more that sheep are a viable alternative to conventional farming.
Having a diversified farm enterprise is the modern day equivalent of the old adage, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” The advantage of being diversified is obvious. If one market is depressed, another may not be. By being able to address two, or more, markets you are in effect reducing the risks in one of the most risky professions in the world.
While diversified enterprises are desirable, it is still advisable to have your enterprise somewhat related in order to minimize start-up costs and to maximize utilization of major assets. For example, if you were a modern cash crop farmer and had invested a considerable amount in a large combine you might find it advisable to custom combine in order to help pay for the machinery. Such a custom combining enterprise would require no more asset investment yet would allow you to recoup your original investment at a faster pace.
Sheep are the original diversified livestock. While that ewe is raising her pair of lambs destined for the slaughter house, she is also growing a fleece that will be sold to a totally unrelated market: the woolen mills.
Although on the average lamb will be 80% of your income and wool 20%, no one can afford to ignore 20% of their potential income. Then too, some sheep farmers have made wool their major source of income by specializing in those breeds of sheep that yield the higher demand fleeces.
I should point out that I’ve been at numerous sheep seminars where someone or the other says that wool is not that large (20%) of their income. Usually it turns out these people raise black face sheep and/or do not apply for their Wool Incentive payment with the ASCS.
Black face sheep usually produce top-grade market lambs but the ewes yield only 8-10 pounds of coarse wool. A white faced fine-wooled breed on the other hand will clip a 12-15 pound fleece that will grade higher and thus earn more per pound. Can you have both? Yes, the best commercial ewes I’ve ever owned are Rambouillet-Suffolk crosses. The Rambouillet are white-faced sheep that possess the finest wool to be grown in the United States. The Suffolk are black-faced sheep with excellent carcasses and a fast rate-of-gain. My Rambouillet-Suffolks average 12 lbs. of medium to fine wool that earn 5-10 cents more per pound than the straight Suffolks. Crossbred ewes also make better mothers and produce 16% more pounds of lamb than a purebred ewe.
The Wool Incentive Act, which incidentally is up for renewal in 1985, is one of the more intelligent things our legislators have ever done. It is unique in that it is one of the few government laws that not only pays for itself, it also puts money into the general treasury. Basically what the Act does is place an import tax on wool. To compensate American wool growers for weakening our market by allowing foreign wools to flood our markets, 70% of the import tax is distributed to those wool growers who report their wool sales to the ASCS. The last several years this payment has run in excess of 100% of what your wool brought on the open market. For example: if you sold 400 lbs. of wool for .56/lb. in 1984, in April of 1985 you would receive a check from ASCS for approximately $254.00, in effect doubling your wool income. Furthermore, the Act is so constructed as to reward those who sell their wool for more per pound to earn more in incentive payments. In other words, quality and better marketing techniques are rewarded. The key to remember is that YOU must report your wool sales to the local ASCS office, a fifteen minute procedure.
When one considers the cost per acre per year of putting in, maintaining, and harvesting a crop, and the machinery required for each type of crop, the cheapest, most efficient use of your soil and the one with the most desirable conservation characteristics is pasture. Think about it. Once a pasture is established you don’t have to plow it, disc it, cultivate it, spray it with insecticides and herbicides, combine it or haul it to market. With a little care your pasture could last forever. All you need is some way to harvest it. Sheep are excellent harvesters. Not only do they forage well but they also put back into the soil what they take out. Intensive grazing research in New Zealand as well as in the United States suggests that high stocking rates coupled with a three to four week rotation (or rest period for each pasture) could increase stocking rates from 5-7 ewes per acre to 10-20 ewes per acre. In addition the higher stocking rate results in pasture improvement because of the concentrated top dressing of fertilizer (sheep manure). In other words, it would be possible to graze a 200 ewe flock (which should net you $12,000-15,000) on as little as 20 acres of pasture.
Not only do sheep utilize pasture well, grass-fattened lambs taste sweeter than corn-fed lambs. I have the pleasure of knowing two ladies who hail from England. Both have sworn to me that American lamb, typically fattened on corn, has an acid taste compared to English lamb. Since neither lady knows the other, and one’s father was a butcher in England, I assume they know what they’re talking about. Coincidentally, I once sold several custom lambs fattened mainly on grass to two families that normally bought their lamb in a store. Both made the same comment: “It was the sweetest lamb they had ever tasted!”
Paradoxically, commission buyers like to buy lambs fattened on grain because they claim grain adds more “finish” (fat over the ribs) to the lambs. The packers who get their lambs from the commission buyers then complain about the amount of fat they have to trim off the carcass, thus, regrettably, reducing the price they can pay the farmer.
Return of Investment
An aged commercial ewe, preferably crossbred, 3-5 years old can be purchased for $50-70. If that ewe produces 200 lbs. of lamb and 10 lbs. of wool she will gross in 1985 figures approximately $152.50. Assuming you flush her on grain for breeding, dry-lot your lambs, and feed her hay for 6 months you will have approximate expenses totaling $70.00. If you paid $50 for that ewe you can return that $50 to your farm fund, have $32.50 left over for miscellaneous expenses and you still own the ewe!
Of course not all ewes will produce 200 lbs. of lamb because not all will twin. However some sheep farmers have already exceeded a 200% lamb crop (more than twins per ewe) and I know of some flocks that average 14-15 lbs. of wool per ewe. All it takes is management and good records.
Unconventional Enterprise – Unconventional Thinking
Agri-business, or the concept that bigger is better, was pushed on American farmers by large corporations who sell chemicals, fertilizers, prepared feeds, large machinery and even larger tractors. These same corporations glutted the market with information supporting their concepts. This information in turn affects the way your banker looks at ag loans, the way government regulates farming and the way our universities look at research. In short, large farms backed with large bank loans and doing business with large corporations is conventional thinking. The end result is that if you are not part of this large way of farming, you’re on your own.
If you think being a small-farmer is bad enough, in the eyes of the uninformed world, tell the same world that you raise sheep. Laughter and sheep jokes generally follow. Derision comes shortly thereafter, all at a time when cash croppers, hog farmers and cattle feeders are going under left and right. From narrow minds come narrow thoughts.
What this all boils down to is that there are few sources of information, equipment or supplies for the shepherd. End result: sheep farmers are very adept at improvising. Tour an established sheep farm some day and if you don’t find at least one dozen doo-dads and a half-dozen gizmos constructed from cast-off parts and scrounged lumber, you’re half blind.
This improvisation, or making-do, even carries over to the few university farm flocks there are. The people that run these flocks operate with the blinders off and aren’t afraid of looking at anything in a different light. The experimental flock run by the University of Wisconsin at Spooner, WI is a classic example. Instead of finding new ways for the farmer to spend his money, the folks at Spooner keep finding ways to tend a flock of sheep with less time and less money.
This search for economy contrasts sharply with other, agri-business farm enterprises. Their new products and methods always seem to cost more. They promise more profits if you spend more. New sheep products and methods promise more profits by cutting your costs, by spending less.
All this independent thinking lends itself to one of the main goals of small farmers; self-sufficiency. I guess what I’m trying to say is that raising sheep not only puts money in your pockets, it lends the practicality of putting that jingle in your britches with a minimum investment. In turn, this self-sufficient income leads to a self-sufficient way of life. Isn’t that what we are all about?