The concept of diversification on the farm has been around almost as long as the profession itself. Given the cyclical nature of many commodity prices, land and resource maximization are crucial parts of a good agricultural business. Often when the price of one commodity is down, another is up. For livestock operations, lamb can be a simple and inexpensive addition to the farm.
Irene Rutledge’s family are long-time cattle ranchers east of Consort, Alta. Together with her husband she runs a commercial cattle operation as part of the Prairie Heritage group, direct marketing their products to stores.
In 1991 one of her children decided to raise a lamb for 4-H, and they really enjoyed learning more about the family-friendly animal. So she decided to give the sheep business a try. She started off with 20 sheep and eventually built her flock to a peak number of 125 ewes.
The sheep graze on a quarter section of their cattle ranch. To keep management low, they lamb in the pasture and lock everything up in a pen at night to protect the sheep from predators. She says that the cost of starting up the business was minimal.
“Our initial cost was putting in the fencing,” she says. “While the lambs obviously cannot use the same fencing as the cattle, in many cases we just had to add another rail closer to the ground. The rest of the cost was in our time — reading about sheep nutrition and lambing.”
She times the lambing season around calving to minimize conflicts between time and resources. She says the vaccines and nutrition protocols are similar to cattle with some modifications. She says because they have pastureland, extra feed costs are minimised. They use the same alley system as they do with their cattle with some extra welding down low.
She says the biggest issue for cattle or hog producers looking to diversify into sheep is finding a good flock to purchase. She says that while the learning curve with sheep is relatively low for experienced livestock producers, she recommends starting small.
“Generally ewes will give you their first lambs by a year of age,” she says. These lambs will be ready for market between 4 and 12 months of age depending on the breed and your management style.
WHAT’S GOOD FOR THE COWS…
It is also proving possible to run cows and sheep together in the same field. Tony Stolz is a management consultant who looks at economic development in agriculture and has been working with the sheep industry on financial benchmarking as part of the traceability pilot project. He is also a former cattle and sheep producer. He says the two animals co-exist well together in a pasture.
“One cow can be grazed at the same rate as six or seven sheep in the field,” he says. “While it would be too aggressive to double-up grazing, there are definitely efficiencies to be gained by cograzing. Each animal grazes and eats differently and can rotate on pastureland. Weeds that are not palatable for cows are what the sheep often go straight for.”
He says depending on management choices, producers can choose more or less prolific breeds, based on the size of their existing operation and the time they have to devote to sheep production. Sheep can be very prolific and can produce two or three lambs every year.
Many cattle producers graze a small herd and aren’t necessarily using their land to its full capabilities. Often cattle producers tend to start with their herd on pasture and send it to a feedlot to finish, whereas the tendency with lamb is to finish on the farm, although lamb feedlots can be a great option especially for the smaller producer.
Stolz adds that his best advice for cattle or hog producers looking to diversify into sheep production is to do their research. He says they need to talk to the end buyer so they are producing the lambs that the market requires, market value is the bottom line.
One of the primary concerns for sheep producers — predators –are also a concern for cattle ranchers. Odds are it’s a problem cattle ranchers will already have under control. “Cattle guys have to deal with predators within their existing operation, so they won’t necessarily have to introduce predator control if they diversify,” he says. “You can’t eliminate the problem, but you can control it with things such as dogs and fencing. Cattle producers understand that.”
He says that cattle ranchers will have to adapt their fencing as barbed wire doesn’t work for sheep, but usually the shift to a three-wire electric fence is not a significant cost investment.
He says that the land needed for sheep production depends on the management style. Stolz maintains that some producers don’t graze their flock which means there is then a need for a barn. This management style often appeals to former hog producers. And one producer he knows has a 20-acre footprint for 5,000 lambs — the largest flock in the province.
“There is so much room for growth in this industry,” Stolz says. “The ethnic and gourmet markets are really pushing demand forward and there is plenty of market opportunity into the future for those looking to diversify.”