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I believe that to be competitive in a global marketplace, sheep producers must adapt to the modern production practices found in the rest of US agriculture.  Just as you can't make money growing 80 bushel/acre corn with an old 2-cylinder tractor, you can't expect to make a profit from sheep or any other enterprise without embracing modern production and business practices.

Located in Iowa, I am a high-cost producer in that I use a lot of harvested feeds and house my sheep in the Winter/Spring.  That is, I lamb in winter months and finish my lambs on grain.  The advantages of this system are:

  • Larger lamb crops.  Ewes bred in September and October have the largest litter sizes.

  • More control.  Weather, predators and parasites have very little impact on my flock's production.  Also, I can just about eliminate feed waste by limit feeding.

  • Premium price.  Most years, there is a premium for finished lambs sold before mid-July and better prices in late summer than early Winter.

  • Minimal land requirements.  Pastures begin to "wear out" when lambs requirements are increasing.  The amount of energy available for growth during this time is very low and growth almost stops.  Ewes make better use of pasture than lambs after the Spring lush.

  • Comfort/convenience.  During lambing, tending a flock before heading to work is more manageable if they are confined.  Chasing after ewes and/or lambs at 5:30 in the morning in the middle of a rainstorm doesn't appeal to me.  Likewise, having to tend to a flock in the middle of a blizzard is a lot better indoors than outdoors!

The downside is that these higher costs have to be paid for.  That requires higher production than an average farm flock. According to the 2014 Sheep Producer Survey the average flock in my region (Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois) weans 1.30 lambs per ewe (1.49 lambs per ewe born with 13% death rate of lambs).  For the same year, the national average slaughter weight was 137 lbs.  So, a reasonable estimate for the midwest average lbs of finished lamb per ewe is 178 lbs.  Regular readers of my website will note that this is a substatial decrease from the 2009 survey.

My average over the last 4 years (2013-2016) has been 1.97 lambs weaned per ewe, with an average finish weight of 141 lbs. This works out to 277 lbs of finished lamb per ewe - over 56% higher than the 4-state average.  Note, I excluded 2012, as I had copper poisoning in my ewes during lambing that year.

While I feel good about the progress to-date, there is always room for improvement. I could add a few more pounds to the finishing weight and raise the weaning rate a little.  But most of the profitability gains now need to come from the other side of the balance sheet - reducing inputs.  Mostly I want to reduce labor and feed costs via more independent ewes and faster growing lambs.