We have been raising animals on our farm for over 10 years—sheep, dogs, cats, chickens, turkeys, guinea pigs, ponies, donkeys, and a pig.
How We Started Out
Before we brought our first sheep home, I spent many long nights doing detailed calculations to see if raising sheep was financially viable. At first glance, the equation seems very simple and profitable:
(How much you can sell a lamb for - hay and butchering) x (the number of lambs)
Naturally, there were things I overlooked in the early days that ended up costing in the long run. Whether you are trying to calculate to start a large operation or just keep a few sheep as pets, this information will hopefully help you avoid surprise expenses along the way.
The Costs: What a Sheep Needs
The ewes are the backbone of any flock, and keeping them healthy is the main focus. Here is what we generally set aside for one ewe each year:
- Hay (1 bale per winter) - $40-$120 ($80 on average)
- Straw - $5
- Salt and mineral - $10
- Shearing (to hire it out) - $7
- Miscellaneous - $10
The miscellaneous generally covers costs such as small treatments that arise, and the small amount of grain we use for training/treats. We don't vaccinate our sheep but if you plan on doing this it is another cost to consider.
We also have to consider the cost of each lamb:
- Butchering - $100
- Ear tag - $4
- Transportation - $8
Price Per Pound
We raise our sheep on pasture and butcher the lambs for making premium dog food. But if you plan on butchering for direct sale or even just to keep for yourself, it is important to figure out the price per pound of meat for each lamb:
Price per pound = (Cost of ewe / lambing percentage) + cost of lamb / Average carcass weight
Price per pound = ($112 / 1.8) + $112 / 38lbs
Price per pound = $62 + $112 / 38lbs
Price per pound = $4.58/lb
Guard animals are also an important aspect of a flock and should not be forgotten when considering your costs. If you want to have a guardian donkey like we do you need an extra bale of hay and hoof trimming each year. Llamas and alpacas also need hay, hoof trimming and shearing (and many sheep shearers don't do llamas). A guardian dog requires food, generally higher vet bills, and a really good guardian dog rarely comes cheap.
Your capital expenses greatly depend on your own set-up. Fencing is a must (we use page wire and high tensile electric) but that will depend on your pasture plan. Shelters are extremely important, but our sheep are very content with our light weight portable shelters in the pasture. Yes, it sometimes sucks when we have to work with the sheep outside in the rain, but I could never bring myself to go in debt building a barn. I am glad we spent a bit and put up a small corral, but we got by very well without one when we only had a few sheep.
We have successfully avoided purchasing any machinery. We hire our neighbours for any tractor work including haying and moving bales, and we feel the cost of renting a trailer offsets the maintenance we would pay if we bought one.
There are a few other items we purchased right away such as an ear tagger, castrator, crooks, chest freezers (and the unfortunate accompanying energy bill), but these can all be found inexpensively.
Increasing Profits - or - Trimming Expenses
The current philosophy of profitable sheep enterprises is to increase profits: make heavier lambs by feeding them grain, lamb three times in two years, and breed the ewes to have more twins and triplets. Not only are these ideas extremely unnatural, they also require more expenses.
We prefer the more simple and natural idea of trimming expenses. You won't have more money coming in, but you don't have any going out either. We lamb once a year on pasture, the lambs gain weight naturally with no costly supplementation, and a healthy number of twins with good dams means less bottle lambs. Another small but significant way to trim expenses is to shear your own sheep. There is the initial cost of a good shearer (I think ours was $600 plus blades but there are cheaper ones one the market), but instead of costing $7 a ewe each year it cost around $2.
We feel the most significant way to reduce the cost of your sheep is to save on hay. The hay market is unjustifiably fickle, and it is common to see hay double (or triple) in price from one year to the next. We have started share cropping with a neighbour making our hay basically free. Again, we lose the "profit" on hay that we could potentially sell, but it doesn't cost us anything and we don't have to battle a global market just to get hay off our own fields.
I realized very quickly that being financially viable is a separate issue from how many sheep I should raise. The question of "how many sheep?" not only includes dollars and cents, but needs to take into account how you want to keep your flock. We have written about this on our blog to consider some of the bigger questions about shepherding.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2020 Bellwether Farming
Bellwether Farming (author) from Alberta, Canada on August 16, 2020:
Good point, thanks! Here is Alberta we generally plan on five months of hay feeding each year, or one 1200lb hay bale per sheep.
Dr Mark from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on August 14, 2020:
You might want to point out that those hay costs depend on where you live. In the tropics, with year round grass, no hay is needed. In Manitoba you are going to need more.