Are sheep profitable? Are sheep more profitable than cows? Why did you choose sheep over cows? If I start a sheep farm, how long will it take to become profitable?
I receive these kinds of questions regularly. Unfortunately, the answers will be different for everyone and you have to find the answers for yourself, based on your own research. In farming there are so many variables: geographic location, natural resource, human resource, and most importantly, what your local market will support (aka, who is going to buy your farm goods). And even after all of this research, there is a fair amount of risk involved.
In my context, Lord-allowing, sheep present a projected gross revenue that is approximately 400% greater than beef.
I am going to walk you through the evaluation process that lead me to choose sheep instead of cows for my farm business. I am going to share some of the pros and cons of sheep vs. cows. I am going to highlight the profit-killers that sheep farmers wrestle against. Finally, I am going to walk you through a real-time example of how sheep offer a 400% greater revenue potential on my small acreage farm than cows do.
Sheep vs. Cows:
|❌Need daily monitoring.
|✅Can be left alone for weeks on end.
|❌Easily killed by predators (defenseless).
|✅Can largely defend themselves.
|❌Frequently die of parasites.
|✅Rarely die of parasites.
|❌Require more expensive fencing.
|✅Require less expensive fencing.
|❌Lambing must be monitored closely to avoid significant mortality.
|✅Calving typically requires minimal monitoring (heifers being the exception).
|❌Need regular hoof care (unless terrain is rocky).
|✅Do not need regular hoof care.
|✅Wean their body weight equivalent in offspring every year.
|❌Wean 1/2 their body weight equivalent in offspring every year.
|✅Begin reproduction as early as 9 mos.
|❌Begin reproduction at 14 months.
|✅Raise twins and triplets.
|❌Raise singles (twins generally do not thrive).
|✅My Dorper sheep cost $10 per head to overwinter.
|❌My beef steer cost $150-250 per head to overwinter (cost hinges on availability of stockpile forage).
|✅Easy to grass-finish on low-moderate pasture quality.
|❌Require high quality pasture for a high quality grass finish.
|✅ $3/lb 2021 USDA Market Average.
|❌$1.8/lb 2021 USDA Market Average.
|✅Market prices not as easily manipulated.
|❌Market prices easily manipulated by systemic and political factors.
|✅Thrive in drought (*at least my Dorpers do).
|❌Must be destocked in drought.
In short, sheep require significantly more time and human resource than cows. You have to be a shepherd in order to be successful with sheep. If you are willing and able to undertake the role of shepherd, sheep reproduce twice as fast as cows and bring almost twice as much at U.S. cattle auctions than cows. Sheep thrive on pastures that would starve a cow and are a drought-resistant cattle option.
How do I determine profitability? I make sure all costs are counted and revenues exceed costs. But here is where I have to be honest: I am not counting the cost of my time at this point. I am giving my sheep business my time for free… and I have farm hands who donate 4-8 hours per week to help me with heavy lifting. If I were to put a price tag the amount of time I am giving this farm, I would probably not be profitable for 72 years. Just being honest here. But I’m in good company… this seems to be the story of every good rancher’s life.
Two major profit-killers for sheep farmers are PREDATORS and DISEASE.
Predators can wipe out an entire small flock in one night. Disease (internal parasites, vitamin deficiencies, hoof infections, etc.) is part of a fallen world and will always be present on some scale or another. Regenerative Agriculture will never completely eradicate death and disease. The health and protection of my sheep are actually things that I include in my regular prayers. They are profit-killers that only the Lord can protect me from.
Why did I choose sheep over cows for my farm business?
The Lord opened doors to several different market streams:
About one week before I bought the flock I had a local grass-fed meat market contact me. They had seen my work with the flock on Instagram and called to discuss a recurring order for 40 lambs per year. This was the ultimate push for me: a serious meat buyer.
I had also begun to research the Dorper breed and found it was (and is) growing in popularity. I realized that this flock of 25 purebred Dorper sheep was a diamond in the rough. It held far more potential than lamb chops; live animals were (and are) in high demand. Thus, a second market emerged: breeding stock.
To top it all off, I had begun making videos about my farm work. I initially began this as a video journal for myself, but people started watching and enjoying my videos as well. This presented a third marketing and income opportunity: sheep-based education and entertainment.
In my area, there is significant competition for grass-fed beef:
Selling grass-fed beef was my initial plan for profit. I did some market research (google and farmer’s markets) and found there were already some well-established grass-fed beef producers in my area. I also live in a rural area where everyone grows their own beef. I knew it would not be impossible to carve out my own space in the market, but I realized it would take a lot more time to do so. What’s more is that pasture raised lamb was retailing at about 30% above grass fed beef. After this market research, sheep appeared a faster track to profitability.
Sheep presented higher revenue potential for my small acreage:
The best way for me to explain this is to build out my real-time example with the 23 acres of pasture I have. I estimate that with my intensive rotational grazing my 23 acres can support 10 animal units, or 10,000 lb worth of animal (**please know that I am approaching this number incrementally to monitor how my land responds to the animal load). I am going to build this out based on current USDA market prices for conditioned beef steer of 550lb and feeder lambs of 65lb.
|10,000lb = 80 Dorper Ewes
|10,000 lb = 9 Cows
|80 ewes = 10,400 lbs worth of saleable offspring in every year.
|9 cows = 4,950 lb worth of saleable offspring in every year.
|Current USDA Market price is $3/lb
|Current USDA Market Price is $1.80/lb
|10,400 x $3 = $31,200
|4,950 x $1.80 = $8,910
|✅Estimated Gross Revenue Potential: $31,200
|⭕Estimated Gross Revenue Potential: $8,910
My gross revenue potential is higher than what is listed above for a few reasons: I am running purebred and registered full-blood breeding stock, I am marketing my flock through value-adding consumer education (videos), I am running grass-based breed selection (cutting input costs and improving the value of my breeding stock), and I am selling any meat products direct to consumer.
USDA Market Price Evaluation:
I advocate for private sales, but pricing for private sales are often dictated by USDA market (auction) values. As I reviewed USDA market prices for beef and sheep, I realized that sheep were bringing almost double the price of beef cattle.
My lifestyle allows me to be a shepherdess:
I work from home, and have been doing so for 10+ years. I love being right here, at home on my farm. I have the ability to give my sheep the time they need. While I never would have imagined myself to be in this position, I love the farm work and farm life. I now understand why the aged farmers say “you have to love this life”. Some of the challenges you encounter will make you feel like you are cracking in half. No amount of money can make the stress worth it… but if you love something, you are willing to give it more than you’ll ever get back. And that is exactly the place I have come to as a farmer and shepherdess.
Sheep Offer Me a 200% Faster Return on Investment:
I will walk you through both a beef-to-market timeline and a sheep-to-market timeline. In order to generate sizeable revenue with a small beef herd, I believe that direct to consumer meat sales is the only way to go. That is what this evalutaion will reflect.
Journey to cash-flow with beef
(with a herd and not a stocker-steer operation)
- 9 months gestation.
- 22-24 months to harvest on a steer.
ROI (return on investment) for Beef = 33 months.
Journey to cash-flow with sheep
- 5 months gestation.
- 4 months to weaning and sale of breeding stock or 6 months to harvest of lamb.
ROI (return on investment) for Sheep = 9-11 months.
Two key elements that make sheep a better fit for my context are: I have time to be a shepherdess, and I am working on small acreage.
The bottom line of my journey is that I am farming sheep because the Lord has lead me to farm sheep. The Bible says that whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might. That why I am giving this effort all I’ve got... it’s not about money (TBH: I could make more money waiting tables right now). While I am doing my best to be wise and make decisions that may lend to profitability, I realize that the Lord is in control of profitability.
Farming is a humbling thing because it makes you realize how little you know. Despite these plans and evaluations, at the end of the day I am praying the Lord blesses my efforts. And that is my primary hope for profitability.
So that’s it! This is an explanation of why I chose sheep over cows for my small farm business. I hope I presented my evaluation in such a way that will help you to make the right decision for your farm.