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Virginia Cooperative Extension -
 Knowledge for the CommonWealth

Diversify With Sheep for Increased Profitability

Livestock Update, April 1997

Steve Umberger, Animal and Poultry Sciences, Virginia Tech

Because sheep and cattle complement each other rather than compete for the same farm resources, one ewe can be added per existing cow unit without increasing the forage resources already committed to the cattle. Historically, most farms in Virginia with sheep have also had cattle. Because of their ability to consistently produce a profit from one year to the next, sheep were often referred to as the "mortgage lifters" during the 1940's and 50's. Over the last 30 years, the large increase in part-time farms and the problems the sheep industry has experienced with predators has caused a decline in sheep numbers. Despite this fact, the support infrastructure from affiliated industry and the markets for lamb and wool in Virginia still remain strong and viable. While alternative forms of agriculture are being promoted as replacements for more traditional agricultural enterprises in Virginia, history has demonstrated that commercial lamb and wool production can still make a significant financial contribution on most forage producing farms. Never has that been more true than today, with record levels of profitability occurring in the Virginia sheep industry. In 1995 and 1996, Virginia lamb prices averaged $0.81 and $0.92 per pound, respectively (Figure 1). Already, 1997 lamb prices have exceeded $1.10 per pound. Beef cattle producers looking for ways to increase profitability should seriously consider the advantages of diversification through sheep.

Sheep possess an exceptional ability to convert a wide variety of noncompetitive feedstuffs (forage and crop residues) into high quality meat and fiber products for human use. They enhance environmental quality and provide a sustainable means of production as an agricultural enterprise on most Virginia farms. Compared with beef cows, which may produce 60 to 70 percent of their live weight in offspring annually, ewes can produce 100 percent or more. The topography, climate, and forage resources of Virginia make it one of the best suited states in the east for sheep production. Moreover, Virginia is located in the largest lamb consumption region of the United States.

Sheep make a significant contribution to the quality of the pastures they graze. Many of the weeds commonly found in Virginia pastures are selectively grazed by sheep. Companion grazing of sheep with other species of livestock, such as cattle, results in greater pasture utilization and higher quality pastures than when a single species is grazed alone.

Because of sheeps' ability to utilize forage as their primary source of energy, less risk is involved than where significant amounts of grain are required for other types of livestock production. The profitability of sheep production is closely tied to their ability to have more than one offspring per lambing. Budget analyses have shown that other than market price, the percentage of lamb crop marketed has the greatest impact on profitability of production.

Available labor, barn space, weather, predators, lamb markets, and the amount and quality of harvested feed and pasture should all be considered in determining the most appropriate time of the year to lamb. Fall and winter lambing are best suited for farms with a good supply of winter feed and suitable facilities, and for parts of the State with high summer temperatures. Spring lambing is the preferred production system in the more mountainous parts of Virginia, and has been shown to be consistently more profitable than other systems of production.

Individuals having only limited or no experience with sheep should start with a flock no larger than 25 to 60 ewes. Virginia Cooperative Extension offices can provide up-to-date publications on the proper care and management of sheep. Two important factors to consider before buying the first sheep are predators and a health condition called foot rot. Foot rot is an infectious, contagious disease of sheep that causes severe lameness. Once in a flock, it is difficult to eliminate. The only way to introduce foot rot into a flock of sheep is to purchase sheep that are already infected. Therefore, care must be taken to only purchase breeding stock from sources that are known to be free of foot rot. Sheep are susceptible to predation by dogs and coyotes. To prevent losses, it is important to develop strategies for the control of predation through the use of properly constructed boundary fence, guard dogs, etc. With the advent of high-tensile smooth wire that can be electrified, inexpensive, but highly effective fences can be constructed for predator control. Also, existing fences can be modified by adding one to two strands of electrified high-tensile wire as a deterrent to predation.

Crossbred ewes are more available and are less expensive than purebred ewes. Crossbred ewes have higher lambing percentages, greater lamb survival, and wean more pounds of lamb than the average of the purebred ewes that make up the cross. There are more than 25 breeds of sheep commonly used for sheep production in the U.S. In Virginia, where the emphasis is on market lamb production, the most predominant breeds used for crossbreeding are Suffolk, Hampshire, Dorset, Rambouillet, and Finnsheep. Suffolk, Hampshire, and Dorset rams are used to sire a majority of the market lambs produced in the State.

Suffolk x Rambouillet crossbred ewes imported from southwest Texas, commonly referred to as "western ewes," have been used extensively for commercial sheep production in Virginia. Western ewes have performed well under Virginia conditions and tend to stay in production longer than many native commercial ewes. Bred ewe lambs can be purchased in late fall and winter from a number of farms in Virginia that specialize in replacement ewe production.

Budget analyses have shown that the production of slaughter lambs weighing 110 to 125 pounds generates more income than the production of lighter lambs. However, with the strong market for feeder lambs in Virginia, feeder lamb production will remain a viable option within the foreseeable future. Feeder lamb production is particularly attractive to new producers. After lambing the ewe flock in the spring, the only major inputs that remain until marketing the lambs in the fall are the control of internal parasites and predators.

For more information on sheep production in Virginia, contact your local Virginia Cooperative Extension Office.

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