This is a big question, the answer to which encompasses learning about marketing
opportunities, expected economic returns, and various aspects of sheep husbandry. The vast majority of the sheep operations in Ontario raise lambs for meat production or for replacement breeding stock. Although all sheep produce wool, prices have been low in the recent past, and wool production is not generally a primary source of revenue. There are, however, opportunities for value added wool products. There are a growing number of dairy sheep operations in Ontario, which produce milk primarily for cheese and other dairy products.
Learning as much as you can about different farm types, breeding systems, and
reproductive management systems will help give you an overall idea of the structure of the sheep industry in Ontario. In doing this you will be able to determine the type of operation that will be best suited to your goals, labour expectations, and resources.
The type of farm you choose will depend on your current resources, and ultimately, your plans for the future. The farm type dictates how intensively the flock will be managed. In Ontario, most sheep farms are ‘farm flocks’, using a combination of indoor and pasture housing. Total confinement and pasture-based operations are also relatively common and there are increasing opportunities for feedlot and dairy operations.
The breeding system you choose will depend on whether replacement breeding stock or commercial meat lamb production will be your primary goal. Although replacement stock breeders will still market some lambs for meat, a portion of the lamb crop of purebred or first generation crossbred animals will be sold as breeding stock to commercial breeders.
Therefore, with commercial lamb production the strengths of various breeds are used to maximize the lamb crop while optimizing lamb quality. Some producers use breeding systems designed to supply their own breeding stock from within their own flock for commercial production.
It is particularly important for commercial operations to have lambs ready to sell when
demand is high. We are fortunate to have many different market opportunities throughout the year for our sheep and their products in this province. With a relatively short gestation period, ewes can be bred more than once per year, therefore, producers have several types of reproductive management systems to choose from. The most common ones are: once a year winter lambing (usually targeting the Easter market for new crop lambs); once a year spring lambing (main goal is to maximize use of pasture for lower feed costs and marketing lambs in September through December); accelerated lambing (either three times in two years or five lambings in 3 years). The focus of accelerated lambing systems is to market lambs on a year round basis, hopefully taking advantage of the lower cost of pasture based systems and hitting the high priced markets during the year.
Lamb sales in Ontario are based on a free market, and prices can fluctuate widely from season to season and week-to-week based on supply and demand. It is important to stay on top of what is happening with the market and spread sales to minimize price fluctuations.
Learn about the yearly and seasonal trends and use this information to your advantage when marketing. When considering what time of the year you want to market your lambs, make sure that you have a good understanding of the advantages of each production system, and which one will best suit your particular situation. For example, with winter lambing, feeding costs are relatively higher and you must market extra lambs to have returns similar to other production systems. Excellent prices are often seen for top quality new crop lambs at Easter, but particularly when supply is heavy, prices can plummet from one week to the next. As well, although price per pound is generally higher for light lambs, the average price per head is typically higher for lambs over 80 lbs live weight. Therefore, the cost involved in raising lambs to a heavier weight must be balanced against potentially greater returns.