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Sun + grass + sheep = $.

A gross margin of $1,000 per acre? It sounds too good to be true. Is it even possible? It's not uncommon with seasonal grass dairying, but sheep...?

The answer is yes, it is possible. It can be done by changing to a grass based operation along with some marketing ingenuity. We made the switch and here's how we did it.

Five years ago we decided that we needed our sheep operation to work for us rather than us working for it. It was evident that our flock was too small and that our expenses were too great for it to become a lucrative business.

With over 20 years of ovine experience from each side of our partnership, we were far from green in the sheep business. After one of our trips to New Zealand seven years ago, we were introduced to the kiwi style of sheep farming. It was then that we first began to think out of the traditional paradigm which had previously patterned our own operation. The New Zealand grazing methods, their pasture lambing, and their reasons for culling made sense to us for the simple reasons that lower inputs can generate higher profits. We soon came to realize that greatest productivity is not necessarily greatest profitability.

For us to start making some real money with sheep, we needed to approach it as we would any other business. It became obvious that not only were we in the sheep business, but, perhaps moreso, we were in the grass business and the sheep were simply the mechanisms we chose to harvest the grass crop we were growing. But since we are in a business, profit and quality is our bottom line.

As we see it, in order to increase our profits two things could be done: 1) lower the inputs, or 2) get a higher price for the product produced. Rather than opting for one of these, we resolved to do both. We achieved the goals by use of management intensive grazing practices and by direct marketing our pasture finished lambs.

Lowering feed costs

The best way to lower inputs is through lowering feed costs since it accounts for the sheep's number one expense. What better way to reduce those costs than by harnessing nature's free solar energy in the form of grass? We found we could eliminate nearly all machinery costs. We custom hire our hay baling and soon we will purchase the hay needed for the winter, which will prove more economical for our situation. The only machinery we use is an old tractor, a mower, and a borrowed manure spreader - definitely low inputs. But it's really all we need for now.

All producers should ask themselves why they are doing what they are doing and they should know their break-even price for their operation. This may prevent unwarranted purchases.

Our grazing system

Today we management intensive graze 100 purebred accelerated lambing Dorset ewes and their lambs on a 12 acre pasture which is divided into 16 three-quarter-acre paddocks. With our accelerated lambing program our ewes lamb at seven to eight month intervals and our annual lambing percentage is consistently over 200 percent.

We begin grazing in early April and rotate stock quickly during the earliest part of the Minnesota grazing season. In early spring we are careful not to overgraze and we allow them only to top graze, even if it means moving them several times a day. Once the growth starts to take off, we put the weaned lambs and lactating ewes and their lambs in a paddock ahead of the other group so that they can select the best feed. By that time, lambs have learned from their older pasture mates what rotational grazing is all about. If needed, we may also provide an old ewe who needs extra attention to act as their trainer.

Then our non-lactating ewes graze behind and work as a clean-up crew.

For late fall and winter grazing we use our 16 acre alfalfa field which is in the process of being converted to strictly pasture to accommodate another 100 ewes. Our grazing season is 8 1/2 months of the year. We plan to double our current flock size to 200 while still maintaining a closed flock. Our 28 acres will easily carry 200 ewes and their lambs. Because of the profit potential we see, our future plans are to purchase more land and increase our flock size even more.


The marketing of our sheep products is just as important to us as the way we raise the animals. We feel this aspect of the business cannot be overlooked. Reality in the sheep business is that we simply cannot rely on anyone else to promote lamb so we, as sheep producers, must do it ourselves.

We have chosen to direct market all of our sheep - breeding stock, to grocery stores, to individual customers or to metropolitan restaurants. By far, our biggest outlet is the restaurant trade. The potential here is enormous although it does require additional time and public relations skills. Our restaurant sales are such that we are unable to supply all the lambs demanded so we do accept lambs from other producers when needed.

Because of our market, a quality year-around supply is a must. This is why Dorsets work so well for our purposes. Our customers can count on a steady source of top quality carcasses. When direct marketing, quality and predictability are the keys. With these two factors in mind, a premium price comes automatically. As we expand our flock numbers, we are confident that our markets will expand as well.

Dollars and cents

With the sheep business as it is today, the efficient sheep farmer will both survive and thrive in the '90s. Gross margin is a good indicator of how efficiently the flock is performing. Cost reduction will yield more net return than production increases.

We have compiled data showing the comparisons of direct or variable costs which have been determined as part of a three-year research project with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's Sustainable Agriculture Division. In order to compare apples to apples, or the two systems equally, both are based on accelerated lambing programs of seven to eight month lambing intervals. The grass based one pastures 8 1/2 months and the traditional one pastures four to five months of the year.

Since we have changed our management approach, greater cash flow is just one of the many gains reaped from grazing. First, labor per animal unit is substantially reduced and that is why it is easier to handle more and more ewes. Although actual hours of hand feeding animals decreases, a higher degree of management skill is practiced.

We have found that the less we interfere with the ewe at lambing time, the better. Mother Nature has given her the necessary instincts to function all by herself. In nature, the problem ones die off. At our farm, we cull most ewes who are unable to raise their am s unassisted, whether it be due udders, poor mothering traits, or repeat dystocia (difficult births).

Ewes are also culled if they show no regard for fences, electric or otherwise, as they may influence their pasture mates with their poor manners. Our culls are privately sold as value-added meat products.

Since our switch to grass, health problems are becoming a thing of the past, as have middle-of-the-night lambing checks. The lambing times are no longer a dreaded task of sleepless nights, but instead a pleasant experience. There certainly is no lambing time "burn-out" for us even with our accelerated program. We believe the reduced stress level of the pasture situation is one factor in eliminating ill-health.

Another major factor which prevents problems is that the sun and fresh air naturally help kill harmful bacteria which are often the root of the ailment.

When we do lamb off forage in the winter, we do very little jugging anymore. Only triplets and inexperienced first time lambers with twins are jugged.

Over the years, we have developed a self sufficient, easy keeping, productive flock with a high yielding carcass which we believe offers elite genetics to commercial and purebred breeders alike. Detailed record keeping has been the basis for selection. Among other things, our weaning weights are a true measure of milking ability since our lamb creep pen offers only top quality hay and whole corn.

The pasture lambs have an ADG (average daily gain) of .61 pounds and through perfecting our grazing skills we are certain to hit .75 pounds soon.

Yet another benefit for the grazing is the improved wool quality. The fleeces are cleaner, brighter, and higher yielding and thus are worth more. We are starting to have requests for our quality handspinning fleeces.

We are well aware that most graziers choose one-time spring lambing as opposed to the accelerated system. However, for now, since we have the market demand and we are in the purebred Dorset business, we feel obliged to insure the integrity of the breed through breeding for short lambing intervals. Perhaps as our family grows older, we may opt for the once a year lambing that coincides with the lush spring growth.

These methods of grazing, without a doubt, have been the best thing we have done for our sheep operation. It has brought a renewed enthusiasm to sheep farming. We marvel at the joy we find as we work with the plants, animals, and nature. It truly has become a labor of love.


Doug Rathke and Connie Karstens and their 3-1/2 years old daughter, Kata, operate R & K Shepherds near Hutchinson, Minnesota. Doug is a professional sheep shearer and a National Shearing Program instructor. Connie works part-time as a technical college instructor and for a large animal vet clinic. they also do grazing consultations and speaking.
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Title Annotation:management of sheep
Author:Rathke, Doug; Karstens, Connie
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Nov 1, 1993
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