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Cattleman Takes Ewe-Turn

Expanding Into The Sheep Business

By Thayne Mackey

Sheep are a wonderful little beast. They provide food, fiber and all manner of agitation. This keeps the blood flowing and the arteries from clogging. I know this because we have sheep.

We have regular old conventional white sheep; we have sheep with black faces; sheep with mottled faces-we have sheep with 8-inch wool clips on them. We have pure Hampshires, Navajo Churro, Shetland and Romanov sheep. We even have a sheep that sheds. I suspect it could be said (in poor pun) that we are plenty sheepish.

How We Got Started

A few years ago my wife started us with eight bum lambs. We were farming about 2,500 acres, running around 350 cows and had these tiny little adorable creatures. They were cute as little buttons, bouncy, friendly and just plain lovable. Well, that didn’t last long as lambs grow rapidly and turn into sheep. We came home on the 4th of July and found the lambs in the house grazing contently on the plants. In a storm, lambs can fit through a doggie door. This was when my better half decided we should have a lamb barn.

So we converted the old hog barn into a lamb barn: Eight jugs, a nice dry pen, clean and out of the wind. (I had hoped that would be it.)

Well, she kept three of the bums as replacement lambs and then bought a trailer load of sheep. That put us up to 43 sheep, the cows and the farming.

Doing The Math On Costs

At my wife’s encouragement (and threats) I sat down with pencil and calculator and started to figure the difference betwixt sheep and cows. This included cost of production, expenses, labor costs of sheep against cattle and profit margins.

To get any true working numbers you have to compare apples to apples. There is some discrepancy between government agencies, textbooks and sheepmen (sheeppersons?) about how many sheep equal an AU (animal unit; 1,000-pound cow with 500-pound calf at her side). For our purposes we use six sheep to the cow. This is an average for our place and seems to be fairly accurate. It flexes with grass/forb ratios, terrain and grazing management, but it is pretty close.

Currently cattle prices are very high, as are sheep prices, but with the border closure who knows what the market will do? My numbers are going to be somewhat lower than current sale prices, but I am a bit of a pessimist.

Now one cow should bring in one calf and one ewe should bring in 1.6 lambs. So six sheep should bring in 10 lambs and one cow brings in one calf. That’s an average, but about what we run.

That cow should average $500 a year income.

Those six sheep should bring in 10 lambs, which sell at $100 apiece.

That comes out to $1,000 per animal unit for sheep and $500 an AU for cattle. That is a pretty big difference right off the wagon.

Of course on the dark side, if I lose a cow, I am out $1,200. If I lose a sheep, it’s about a $100 loss. That makes a big difference as well.

There are trucking, check-off fees (pay that with a smile), yardage and shrink costs to figure out too, but those are pretty much the same per species.

Vet costs are a large difference as well. We figure about $15 a year in a cow, this covers worming, vaccines, ear tags, salt and that sort of thing. For a sheep this is down to $1.5 a year per head, multiplied by 6, and is a savings of $6 an animal unit. That’s $2,100 a year, not a bad little wage increase for going from a big critter to a little critter.

Extra Work?

Labor is a bit difficult to figure on our operation. We ranch full time and have no “off farm” incomes. If I weren’t ranching, I’d probably be a multi-billionaire, so I try not to run my numbers around opportunity costs and the like because it depresses me a little.

Lambing is very labor intensive, but it’s only a couple of months out of the year, so it is tolerable. The rest of the year the sheep are pretty self sufficient. I figure that lambing a flock of sheep is like calving a herd of heifers: It doesn’t matter how many you have, you have to put in the same amount of time. If you are going to calve 10 heifers you might as well calve out 200. It’s the same with sheep: If you’re going to watch any of them for problems and wrecks, you might as well watch them all.

There are some other advantages to switching from cattle to sheep as well. If I have to move an obstinate cow, I have to go back to the ranch and get a horse saddled (or a bike) go back to the cow and get my job done. With a sheep I can grab her and pretty much man-handle the ol’ hide in any way I need to. At 3:00 a.m., and she isn’t wanting to mother or watch her babies, being able to carry her into the barn and jug her is a true luxury. On top of that, a 1 x 4 board will control sheep. A light alley of chicken wire, duct tape and baler twine will corral sheep and allow you to work them. Not so with cows…


I don’t worry about my family getting squashed by sheep either, there is the occasional stomping and bumping, but on a whole, they are pretty safe to work with.

Now back to the comparison, cows eat grass, pretty much only grass, sheep eat most anything that will grow (even houseplants if given the opportunity). This opens up a lot of opportunities for grazing potentials and risks. Sheep can overgraze rangeland terribly as they are not the most selective of eaters. That is something a good monitoring plan will help with.

So in my little comparison of sheep and cattle, even with all the variabilities, sheep seem to be a bit more profitable. All things being equal 300 cows will bring in $150,000 a year. 1,800 sheep (same AUs) will bring in $300,000. (Don’t hold me to these, but they are close) So, it does make sense to start into sheep financially.

Other Factors

Having a flock of sheep also opens up a lot of opportunities that are closed to the cowman. Rising petroleum costs and the ‘Slow Food’ movement are beautiful things for the sheep producer. Sheep will eat weeds. Thistles, kochia and other problem weeds that cattle won’t graze. We are doing some intensive grazing on our wheat fields to control the weeds, and I am really impressed with that so far.

With the rising cost of diesel and fertilizer, we are expanding into the intensive grazing area. This means we put an ungodly amount of sheep on a small area of stubble and let them stomp and tromp and munch the weeds to oblivion.

Cows don’t do well working on forbs and weeds. But the sheep seem to excel in such an environment. This means less tractor time for me and as we are in the transition period for the last 1,500 acres of our farming into an organic system, this is great inexpensive organic nitrogen fertilizer.

The complex part is the fencing. We are currently fenced for cows, and a cow fence won’t hold a sheep. Actually, I am not sure they make an affordable fence that will hold a sheep, but we are going to do some experimenting. We are going to try the high-tensile electric fence in a six-wire configuration. This, according to the salesman, is a foolproof way to hold in a sheep, and he says I can do it for under 1,500 bucks a mile. So we’ll try it and see if he is blowing smoke or not.

On paper, all this sheep stuff sounds pretty good. They are a prolific livestock, producing two crops (meat and wool). Pretty self sufficient, easy to manage and profitable-or so we shall see.

Time will tell how we do with the sheep. So far they have been profitable and entertaining, and hey, on a ranch in the middle of nowhere, who can ask for more than that?

In addition to their cattle-ranching Thayne and Michelle Mackey run Brookside Sheep Farm in Dodson, Montana.

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