Wise Words for Sheep Start-Ups — Three Producers Weigh In
Welcome to an occasional series here on Real Agriculture — where we ask three farmers or ranchers four questions about their business, production and next steps.
This first column features three Ontario sheep producers (you’ll have to ask them if they want to be called shepherds): Colleen Acres, of Maple Meadow Farms at Osgoode; Chris Moore, of Shady Creek at Kinburn; and, Sandi Brock of Shepherd Creek Farms Ltd., at Staffa.
Q1: What was the best decision you made when decided to start producing sheep? Or, what is one of the most rewarding aspects of raising sheep?
A: Colleen — I grew up with sheep, and after graduating from university bought my first purebred, registered Dorset sheep. We had other breeds on the farm at home, but I decided this was a breed I admired and wanted to try a hand at raising. After getting married, we bought some commercial ewes and the flock kept growing. I was working off the farm at the time and with the birth of my 3rd son and my parents being ready to retire, we made an offer to purchase the home farm and the livestock. By combining the operations and the livestock, this gave me the security to decide to stay home and raise my children and also manage the farm operation.
To answer your question, seeing my children grow up and take on new challenges and interest in our diverse farming operation has been the most rewarding aspect. All three of our sons (16, 14 and nine) are involved with the livestock and with assisting during planting and harvesting season. They talk about the future and want to stay involved in agriculture. It is our job to make them see the positives (and the negatives) that this industry offers. Sheep are a small ruminant, so I am able to find jobs for the kids on the farm that doesn’t compromise their safety, but helps them to feel involved. Another point of satisfaction is standing back and watching a healthy group of young lambs race about, knowing that you have done a good job of ensuring that they are safe, healthy and well cared for.
A final point of satisfaction, as a producer who sells breeding stock to other sheep producers, is to get feedback on how well our animals have performed for other producers. We are fortunate to have many returning customers each year who rely on us to assist them in meeting their production goals and who have faith in our genetic selection and the performance and health qualities of our sheep.
A: Chris — Pasture would be the number one best decision. Some of my land is only suitable for sheep pasture, so I’m getting the most out of it. Investing in good livestock guard dogs is part of making that work — I have lots of coyote pressure here, so they are essential. Having sheep out on pasture gives me a break from doing chores in a barn all year long, I’d rather be outside working on fencing on nice days. With pasture, I can also graze crop “aftermath” on my arable ground, which saves stored feed and gets more out of the cash crop.
A: Sandi — The best decision starting out was finding a mentor. When I started in this industry, I knew nothing about sheep. A friend of mine had a large flock and he was able to talk me through many challenges I seemed to encounter over the first year. Sometimes it wasn’t necessarily the instruction of what to do, but support and encouragement when I was feeling pretty inadequate in my new profession. Another thing I did was attend OMAFRA’s Sheep Infrastructure course. This helped us design a layout as we renovated our old hog facility for the original purchase of 150 ewes.
Q2: What recent modification, practice or purchase has saved you the most time, energy or money on the farm?
A: Colleen — I have two and they are related — a new barn and feeding corn silage. We have seen the benefits and labour savings associated with a facility built with raising sheep in mind. Previously, our barns have all been re-purposed and “made to work” for sheep. They are labour intensive. Our new sheep barn is a fabric covered building that offers labour savings and is a good, healthy environment for the flock. The barn enables us to feed forages in bulk delivery in a raised table manger format. We have moved away from relying solely on dry, baled hay to offering the sheep corn silage and haylage and these feeds can be produced much more cost effectively. As an example, with rising land costs, we can grow enough corn silage to feed the flock on seven acres of land, compared to 30-35 acres of hay. We still need hay, but not as much, and the sheep do so well on corn silage. We want good milk production on lactating ewes and to be able to keep them in good body condition so they can be rebred. Our milk doesn’t go into a bulk tank, but it goes into meat production. This also leads to quick-growing lambs, meaning better turnaround times and less cost.
A: Chris —For me my Shearwell Psion has made a big difference. I was terrible at keeping records before, but at a cost of approximately $5,000, I’m motivated to do a better job at recording. If I can make a ewe $10 more profitable with better record keeping it doesn’t take long to pay it back.
A: Sandi — In the fall of 2013, we expanded the flock and built a Britespan fabric structure. We designed it with the intention of switching to a TMR (Total Mixed Ration) feeding system. When the flock was smaller, feeding options were a bit limited. We were too small to really justify blocking out some acres for hay and purchase the equipment needed to harvest. A big factor in deciding to expand was being a size that growing our own feed made economic sense (opportunity cost of $8 corn at the time, and low lamb prices). We now feed 500 ewes with 60 acres of hay, some corn silage and dry corn, and have also taken advantage of rye and mixed grain as a green feed. Growing our own feed has been a noticeable cost saving. Our delivery system of a stationary TMR mixer and a motorized feed cart has reduced feeding time by at least half.
On a side-note, we invested heavily with specific equipment so the job can be done by one person, typically me. The feeding system and handling system were set up so I can be efficient and more organized when focusing on flock management. I find that if chores take too long, the important management jobs get put off. Especially when balancing cropping seasons in the mix. These jobs sneak up and can end up being costly.
Q3: What one piece of advice would you give someone looking to start into sheep production?
A: Colleen — Start with healthy, productive genetics that will work for you. We have many new producers getting into the industry who try to do things on the cheap, starting out with unhealthy and unprofitable genetics, and that is one of the main reasons for the high producer turnover rate.
A: Chris — Apprenticeship! If you’re serious about being in sheep, act like it. Learn by doing. Experience with other livestock is an asset, but sheep are different. For example, you don’t have to shear cows, and feeding sheep cow mineral will literally kill them — that’s how different they are. Spend time with other producers to learn tagging, handling, docking, castrating, drenching, doctoring, hoof trimming (if you’re so inclined to trim hoofs, I ship problem feet), and learn good record keeping. Visit different locations and see what you like and don’t, see what works or what works better. A couple weeks spent helping out on another farm learning is a better investment then buying a bunch of ewes and finding out you don’t like it or aren’t able to manage a flock.
A: Sandi — I would definitely say do your research. Take some courses. I’m currently enrolled in the Master Shepherd’s Course and I wish I had taken it BEFORE I got into sheep. This industry, although perhaps depicted as easy, is far from it. It is physically taxing, and mentally challenging. Each lambing season introduces new challenges and frustrations. I think the biggest take-home message from the MSC is focus on health, nutrition, record keeping and breed characteristics, and setting some reasonable goals. Know your cost of production. Be conservative with projected results, and aggressive with projected expenses. Sometimes an operation can look promising on a business plan, but can be completely different when you sit down to do your year-end.
Q4: What’s your next big goal for your sheep business?
A: Colleen — Building strong business relationships that allow us to make steady revenue from our sheep operation. Price fluctuations and no economic stability have made it very difficult for our operation to expand or commit to any long term investments (whether it is more land, more livestock or new equipment or facilities). The price we receive for market lambs needs to be more reliable for any new business goals to be successful.
A: Sandi —The sheep industry is an exciting one. It is an industry full of potential with a product that is gaining demand. I wish I could have an equally exciting goal! The expansion was a big step for us as we have only been in the sheep business since 2012. My short term goal is to improve my flock numbers. I’m very production driven, and I’ve got a long way to go before I’d be content with my results. The first big step this year has been in replacement ewe lamb decisions. We decided to only purchase high-health-status animals that carry strong maternal traits. The rams I own are terminal, so currently all offspring are sold as market lambs. We will likely continue to buy in replacement ewe lambs over the next few years as my original flock is now fairly mature. We would also like to do some more work on our lamb finishing barn. The plan (hopefully) is to install a flex auger system with drop tubes into our lamb feeders. This will eliminate the manual filling that we currently do. We are also investigating lamb feed rations with different feed ingredients to further lower feed costs.
A: Chris — My next goal is to start utilizing cover crops to extend my grazing season as well as reduce erosion, and garner other benefits on my arable land. It’s more about sheep health and environment than business, but should be positive for the bottom line. I’m also always working on clearing scrub bush around the farm, which makes for better pasture and fewer places for coyotes to hide