I am interested in the sheep industry; what do I need to know?

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.

When is the best time of the year to sell lambs? Are prices always high at Easter?

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.

How much land and what type of barn do I need to raise sheep?

How much land you will need per ewe will depend on many factors, such as whether you wish to grow or buy winter feed, the productivity of the land and how intensively you manage the flock. In most areas of Ontario, an open front pole barn is adequate for ewes lambing in the spring. With winter lambing, it is important to have at least part of the barn divided off and insulated (or warmed) during the lambing period. Hypothermia is the main cause of death in newborn lambs in Ontario. Lambing facilities should ensure that the temperature remains above freezing. For all types of housing, there must be adequate floor and feeder space for the number of animals.

How many sheep do I need to make a living?

The answer to this depends on the standard of living you want to maintain. Net return per lamb and the number of lambs marketed is more critical than the number of ewes kept. It will also depend on whether you expect the sheep to carry the mortgage for the farm. As general guidelines, you will need to keep a minimum of 300 ewes under an accelerated lambing program, and 600 to 1000 ewes under once a year lambing programs to expect to make a full time living from sheep farming. The majority of sheep producers also have an off-farm income. It is advisable to start with less than these numbers if you have no previous experience raising sheep. Fifty to 100 ewes will provide a good impression as to what is involved, justify any renovations that need to be done to facilities (particularly handling facilities), and provide a good number of lambs to market in your first year. Once you have an idea of the requirements, you will be better able to gauge how large your flock should grow.

How much time will I have to invest in the flock?

This again will depend largely on the type of management system that you choose. Generally speaking, the more intensive the system the greater the daily input of time. However, with any system the more time you spend monitoring the health and productivity of your flock, the greater your chances of success. This should involve maintaining a high level of flock health and maintaining records relating to flock production (animal health, lambing percentages, lamb growth rates, etc).

What breed of sheep should I get? How should I select breeding stock?

With over 40 breeds in Ontario this may seem to be a daunting decision. It is placed at the end of our list of questions as the decisions that you make regarding marketing and production systems should be considered before choosing the breed. You will also have to decide whether to raise pure-bred or commercial sheep. Once the production system and breeding system are chosen, then selecting a breed will be much easier. Identify the breeds that should do well under your chosen production system and that will help produce lambs for the type of market you wish to supply. Identify as many of the traits that may be critical for success with the system you have chosen. For example, if you want ewes to lamb in the winter or in an accelerated program, choose a breed known for its ability to breed out of season. Across and within breeds, individual sheep will differ in economically important traits, e.g. milking ability in ewes, lambing percentage, adaptability to specific management conditions, rapid growth in lambs, etc.