For the most part, the beef cattle industry that supplies meat to U.S. major supermarkets involves three distinctly different operations. These specific phases may not be typical of small hobby farms or homesteads. But we can steal a page from their methodology and adapt the tactics to a small lamb-production farm.
The first phase of most livestock enterprises starts with a brood herd. Cows, ewes or even sows are kept and bred for their offspring. The underlings can be used as replacements if the operator is trying to increase herd numbers.
Additionally, there is absolutely nothing wrong with keeping animals for pets or the tranquility they bring to a small country farm. However, if production is the aim, some type of program should be in place to have the farm run smoothly, improve the soil, and make the production profitable and efficient.
Please be aware, production livestock may not be for all readers. Don’t become too attached to lambs. This program is not about pets.
In fact, this article is about raising feeder lambs for the freezer. If you are uncomfortable with that type of operation, stick to other types of farming endeavors. We’re OK with that!
Before we go too far, and for clarity, let’s discuss the three major phases of any livestock production. These three phases correspond to the growth steps of the young.
As stated, the first phase is a brood herd. In the cattle business, it’s called the cow-calf phase. The mother and young are often called pairs.
The producer keeps a manageable number of mature cows for the calves they provide each year. The operator realizes his or her profit when weaned calves are sold.
Typically, the calves are sold at somewhere between 450 and 600 pounds. The operator keeps a few youngsters to replace any aging animals. But probably 80 to 85 percent of the weaned animals are sold privately or at auction to a second operator who should be set to raise animals through the second phase.
Phases Two & Three
The second phase means growers with a bit of available pasture will purchase and raise weaned young animals to a heavier weight and ready for finishing. Cattle people call phase No. 2 the stocker-yearling phase.
For sheep and goat people, we just think of it as the feeder phase.
Remember, these animals (regardless of species) are weaned and ready to leave their mothers. Feeder lambs should have a developed rumen and be fully capable of making the transition from mother’s milk to grass, hay or other coarse feeds. At the end of this second phase, large corporate farm operations often send cattle or heavier feeder sheep to a feedlot for finishing.
Finishing is the third and final stage of the meat industry and simply means fattening the animal and creating a desirable finished product for consumers. Hobby farmers and production growers now realize that many consumers are choosing meat that isn’t sent to a feedlot but simply finished out in the pasture with the meat sold as “grass-fed.”
Finishing on grass may take bit more time and may be slightly more expensive. But the results are a healthier, more natural and tastier product.
You may be reluctant to take on risks involved with keeping farm animals. Drawbacks for many livestock operations can seem tricky or overly complicated. For example, concerning sheep, you may not want to keep breeding rams, worry about shearing or run risks that accompany birthing ewes.
However, raising feeder lambs is good for soil, healthy for you and can provide extra spending money for farm improvements. And you don’t need to shear or keep rams. Since you only keep animals on pasture for five to six months, your pasture can go fallow and recover in your off-season.
In fact, manure and urine left behind by your small temporary flock will improve your pasture. As the fallow season progresses, you’ll also break the cycle of any parasites that might otherwise persist.
You can take time to introduce cool-season grass seed in the off-season or provide irrigation to encourage recovery in the field. Small spaces are fairly easy to manage. Each season may bring marked improvements in your soil quality.
Here is what you’ll need to become a part-time shepherd who only keeps and finishes grass-fed lambs.
First, you will need a minimum 1⁄4-acre space. That may not seem like much, but you can actually raise about three feeder sheep on a 100-by-100-foot field. The space must have secure fencing, water, shade, some kind of minimal protective shed and a feed trough. A quarter to 1⁄2 acre is truly all you need if it has some good quality grass or clover.
For many hobby farms, about five sheep per year on just over 1⁄4 acre is perfect.
Five feeder lambs in my area of the country will net nearly $1,000 and leave one lamb for personal consumption.
Key to Success
The best way to success is to not pay high prices for your newly weaned lambs. If you have local 4-H and/ or FFA organization close by, find out where they buy lambs for the county fairs and junior livestock shows.
You don’t want to find club lambs that will make weight during your local fair. Competition lambs sell at very high prices. However, you will want the names of several producers with flocks. It’s very smart to arrange a farm visit before you’re ready to purchase.
You may also want to attend livestock auctions or talk to your local farm advisor. You can even inquire at local feed-supply stores.
Just remember, lambs destined for competition at the county fairs are going to be too expensive to be profitable. You want to buy so-called spring weaned lambs at about 50 pounds. And you want to sell grass-fed finished lambs six months later, at about 130 pounds.
Your entire profit will come from the weight gain. Expensive, weaned, county-fair lambs simply won’t make you a profit. The farm advisor will know reputable sheep people that sell healthy and reliable animals.
Quality-weaned lambs are available all across the country. But you may have to do a little research to find them.
Stuff Ewe Need to Know
Once you transport your feeder lambs home, introduce them to their new pen. Keep the animals confined until they adjust to the move.
If you have lush green pasture, be cautious when releasing any ruminant animal to a new field. Cud-chewing critters break down cellulose with the aid of microbes that live in the rumen part of their gut. Lush moist greens cause a rapid bloom in the gut and animals may produce a frothy foam that can be difficult to expel.
This condition, known as bloat, can be prevented by slowly introducing the new lambs to their new pasture.
You may have to cut and feed small amounts to control their consumption. Better yet, you may be able to buy weaned lambs already exposed to green pasture. Another option would be to feed baled grass hay or alfalfa, so they are relatively full before you release them to greener pastures.
Just keep an eye on things for the first few days.
Your feeder lambs should adjust fairly quickly. They are probably already familiar with one another and should be about the same size.
At harvest, five or six months later, it’s fairly important that all the feeder lambs dress at about the same weight. They should all be dispatched on the same day.
Sadly, of all livestock species, lambs actually have the worst dressing percentage. A 130-pound lamb will yield about a 65-pound carcass, and even less cut and wrapped product. The poor yield is due to a fairly large G.I. tract, and a heavy head and hide, neither of which is included in the carcass weight.
Most lambs will carcass yield just slightly above 50 percent. Try to find buyers for your feeder lambs early on in the process. Once the carcass is cut and wrapped, the weight of packaged edible product may only be 45 pounds or so.
Sell First, Raise Later
It’s important to presell your feeder lambs. Most growers, including myself, prefer to sell to friends, family or other acquaintances. Of course, once you sell your first few lambs in the fall, you’ll have repeat customers wanting more the following year.
Make sure customers know the amount of meat they’ll likely receive and that the price may not be much lower than super- market lamb. However, the grass-fed quality is likely to be much better.
The USDA mandates that all meat sold in the U.S. be inspected. Nevertheless, producers can presell the lambs and then individual customers can have the meat cut and wrapped on their own. The idea here is that you have presold the lamb and are simply raising the lamb for your customer.
There are usually small companies in rural counties that specialize in ranch harvest. They will come to your location, do the work and then take the harvested lamb carcass to a meat locker of your choosing. There is, of course, a fee for this. But it’s simple and traditionally the fee is just added to the price of your lambs without markup.
Your customer pays you for their lamb and the harvest fee. Each will then pay their own wrapping fee when they pick up their meat. These methods work out especially well because the purchaser can let the butcher know exactly how they would like their lamb cut and wrapped.
Sidebar: Feed Facts
You can feed a tiny amount of so-called sweet feed to your miniature flock each morning. Cup your hands together—that is about all each lamb needs. I do so just to be sure I am meeting all their nutritional needs.
If you happen to have whether lambs, they may actually need ammonium chloride to prevent urinary tract disorders. It should be in the feed. Ask at the feed-supply store, and read the label.
I also provide mineralized salt. Feed the salt in an area that stays fairly dry, so lambs can just lick as they feel the need. Then store salt away when your field is fallow.
Salt can be given free-choice, but don’t overfeed sweet feed. Sweetened show feed is expensive and better as a treat. Additionally, you are going to want your lambs to utilize the pasture.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.