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Sheep: A Small-Scale Agriculture Alternative

Revised July 1993

United States Department of Agriculture
Cooperative State Research Service
Office for Small-Scale Agriculture

The relatively low investment and the natural, gradually increasing size of a flock may make sheep ideal for the beginning small and part-time farmer, according to Dr. Clair E. Terrill. An animal breeding specialist, Terrill has been watching the economics of sheep production for years. Terrill, who retired from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Agricultural Research Service, says "the future of sheep is bright."

There are several kinds of markets for small-scale sheep production in the United States: plain white wool, naturally colored wool, "freezer lambs," ordinary slaughter lambs, and sheep-milk products.

According to Paul Rodgers, director of producer services for the American Sheep Industry Association (ASI), the conventional approach of adding 20 to 100 ewes to a farm operation can be profitable. Other approaches require careful marketing and would be more difficult and risky. Still, they might also prove more profitable.

Experts say it takes about 2 hours of work per year to maintain one ewe and her offspring on farm pasture. Farmers caring for 20 to 100 ewes thus would add 40 to 200 more hours of work to their regular duties.

Advantages of Sheep

Where a farmer already has some beef cattle, there are economical and biological advantages to adding some sheep to the operation, Terrill says. Shared pastures can work well, he points out. Sheep tend to prefer finer plants and cattle the coarser ones.

Sheep can be fed out to market on forage alone if it is adequate, thus requiring little outlay for feed. There are many acres of idle pastureland that could be used for sheep-natural meadowland, waterways, woods, orchards, or abandoned cropland, for example-as long as the sheep are protected from predators such as coyotes or dogs.

For small-scale entrepreneurs who prefer the conventional production of slaughter lambs and wool, the ASI is a good source of information.

The Farm Flock Budget, one of the Updates that ASI sells, shows a typical budget for a flock of 104 animals -- 4 rams and 100 ewes. It shows annual costs and returns based on farm prices for slaughter lambs varying from $63 to $75 per hundredweight (cwt). At $75 per cwt, and assuming wool brings $10.10 per ewe, gross annual income per ewe can average $106.98-if 129 lambs can be marketed from 100 ewes. Variable costs, including feed and labor, range from $74.45 to $77.03 per ewe. Fixed costs, including interest, average $12.77 per ewe. This puts total costs at about $87 to $89 per head.

A list of educational materials may be obtained by writing or telephoning ASI at 6911 S. Yosemite St., Englewood, CO 80110-1414; 303-771-3500. ASI also sells subscriptions to its Research Journal and its Sheep Production Handbook. The journal is published three times a year and sells within the United States for $30 per year. The handbook sells within the United States at $35 each for one to nine copies. Additional pricing and foreign shipment information is available by contacting ASI.

Costs of raising fewer sheep than ASI's example are detailed in Raising A Small Flock of Sheep in Ohio, Bulletin No.654, from Ohio State University and the Cooperative Extension Service (CES). Startup cost of a 30-ewe flock Is estimated to range between $187.50 and $235.84 per ewe and the annual cash operating cost at about $51 each. The bulletin makes the point: "To make money with sheep, you must raise more than one lamb per ewe." Local county agricultural extension agents throughout the United States may obtain copies of the 12-page bulletin to answer public inquiries.

The bulletin costs 50 cents to the public.


Help in dealing with problems can be found in Recommendations for a Sheep Management Program, Publication No.240, of the North Central Regional Office of the CES. The booklet has details on feeding and marketing as well as on common diseases and parasites. A copy may be obtained at no charge from CES offices at the State universities of Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Kansas, Missouri, and North Dakota.

One money-saving suggestion: Boundaries are essential, but where predators or thieves are not a problem, inexpensive electric fencing may suffice.

Keeping Track of Prices

A weekly news summary on average lamb and wool prices may be obtained for $35 a year from ASI's Lamb & Wool Market News. A similar report may be obtained for $70 a year from USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). The AMS Livestock Market News Service (LMNS), P.O. Box 9646, Washington, DC 20090-6456, will also send a list, at no charge, of the numerous markets from which instant livestock market news may be obtained by phone in 36 States. Lamb prices are usually highest in the spring. ASI also publishes an annual Situation and Outlook Report that notes prices, production, and projects trends.

Freezer Lambs

Farmers-suppliers of freezer lambs may earn more profits than the average. They may produce and sell lambs at premium prices somewhat higher than 75 cents a pound for an unbutchered lamb weighing up to about 110 pounds. Sales sometimes can be made directly to individuals of certain ethnic backgrounds. Such buyers are likely to do the butchering themselves. Slaughter can be done on the farm or at a local freezer-locker plant. Many freezer plants or slaughterhouses will have a butcher available for processing after slaughter. An ASI publication, Marketing Out of the Mainstream, explains many aspects of direct and niche marketing of lamb and wool.

Improving Earnings

An entrepreneur can increase earnings by improving flock quality. Higher quality means production of faster growing lambs and more lambs per ewe, for example. The ASI has organized the National Sheep Improvement Program (NSIP) to help producers find superior animals through a computerized evaluation system. Entrepreneurs who want to buy ewes or rams on the basis of NSIP data may do so if the producer from whom they buy keeps NSIP records. Details may be obtained from NSIP by contacting ASI.

Several informational videotapes developed to assist sheep producers are available from Lincoln University. For information contact: University Extension, Lincoln University, Box 29, Jefferson City, MO 65101; telephone 314-681-5544.

Dairy Sheep

Livestock expert Dr. W.J. Boylan of the University of Minnesota says sheep product opportunities are not limited to meat and wool. He suggests cheese making, noting that U.S. consumers buy as much as 45 million pounds of imported sheep-milk cheese annually. Sheep cheeses include Roquefort from France, Feta from Greece, Ricotta and Pecorino from Italy, and Manchego from Spain.

Dr. R.M. Jordan, retired from the University of Minnesota, in his article "Angora Goats: New Home in the North," compared the economics of ewe/lamb operations with Angora goat operations. He found that either can make a profit. But higher lamb prices may give the edge to the ewe/lamb producer, he wrote.

One U.S. dairy sheep pioneer believes that making hard cheeses is not the best option for American producers. He is Ken KIempeter (Hollow Road Farms, Box 93, Hollow Road, Stuyvesant, NY 12173). Ken KIempeter and his partner, Joan Snyder, concentrate on producing yogurt and fresh cheeses from their sheep's milk, because unlike hard cheeses, these products are not imported from overseas. KIempeter notes that there are many imported hard sheep's milk cheeses on the market in the U.S., which sell for less than a domestic producer's cost of production. This is because dairy sheep in other parts of the world produce several times what U.S. breeds are capable of, and many European countries subsidize their cheese producers.

KIempeter is within 3 hours of two major gourmet markets, New York City and Boston, MA. Unless a small-scale entrepreneur has a secure market, he cautions, a gourmet item such as sheep's milk yogurt may be a hard sell. It would be difficult to support such an operation in areas not within 2 to 3 hours of a major metropolitan market, he said.

Dairy Sheep People

A few people in 1987 formed the North American Dairy Sheep Association (NADSA), Route 3, Box 10, Hinckley, MN 55037; telephone 612-384-6612. NADSA has grown to 150 members in the United States, England, Canada, Australia, and India. NADSA held annual conferences until 1992, when conferees decided to meet every other year. Depending on status and location, annual dues range from $10 to $25 and include 3 or 4 copies yearly of the NADSA newsletter, Dairy Shepard. NADSA has books on sheep topics and videotapes of conferences, available at various prices listed by NADSA. Roger and Lucy Steinkamp have served as NADSA president and treasurer, respectively.

Colored Wool

While everyone knows about black sheep, not so well known are those that produce blond, red, beige, brown, silver, and grey wool. Breeders of such relative rarities usually belong to the Natural Colored Wool Growers Association (NCWGA), at P.O. Box 487, Willits, CA 95490.

NCWGA spokesperson Carole Sanders says the best fleeces of natural colored wool command premium prices. New colors are being developed, fiber diameter is being refined, and the staple length is increasing.

Sanders also says undyed, unprocessed, natural colored fleece is popular with the fiber industry, weavers, and felt markets. There is a growing recognition of colored wool in boutique clothing manufacture. So far, however, no major woolen mills handle colored wool because of the wide variation in its grade quality and color. All countries are trying to commence colored woolprocesslng on a large scale commercial basis, but none have succeeded.

Sanders suggests seeking an outlet for colored wool with schools that have classes in fiber and textile arts.

Another approach: Attend the school and learn to produce yam, or find spinners who want exotic fleeces.

Besides promoting colored wool sheep classes at fairs, NCWGA publishes a directory and a national newsletter, The Marker. One of NCWGA's objectives is to increase flock quality through flock and breeding line registry.

Prepared by George B. Holcomb of the Office of Public Affairs, U.S. Department of Agriculture, for USDA's Office for Small-Scale Agriculture (OSSA); Howard W. "Bud" Kerr, Jr., Program Director. OSSA's address is:

Ag Box 2244
Washington, DC 20250-2244
Telephone: 202-401-1805

Mention of commercial enterprises or brand names does not constitute endorsement or imply preference by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Slightly Revised July 1993

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