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, lamb prices are highest from June through Sept.
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!
These higher costs have to be paid for
with higher production.
My average over the last 5 years (2016-2020) has been 1.81 lambs weaned per
ewe, with an average finish weight of 142 lbs. This works out to 257 lbs of
finished lamb per ewe. During this time period, we grew from 60 ewes
to 115. Maintaining performance figures while growing the
flock can be a challenge.
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.