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Could You Make Money by Adding a Ewe For Every Cow in Your Herd?

By   /  September 4, 2017  /  12 Comments

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Photo by Perry Rech

Recent Dickinson Research Extension Center sales caused me to ponder the concept of adding a sheep for every cow. The center sold market cows on March 9 for $68.24 per hundredweight (cwt), or $995.58 per head, and a market ewe on March 13 for $71 per cwt, or $113.60 per head. When adjusted for body weight, an equivalent weight in sheep was worth $1,035, or $40 more than the market cows.

A review of 2016 cow budgets with Tim Petry, North Dakota State University Extension Service livestock economist, shows net return after total costs in the cow-calf enterprise is around $100 per cow. For a 300-cow operation, the $30,000 would be split among unpaid family labor, management and equity, and then a return on investment could be calculated.

Previous work at the Dickinson Research Extension Center revealed that for every cow on the operation, one ewe could be added with no reduction in stocking rates. Sheep do not compete directly with cattle when grazing a mixed-grass and forb forage base. So adding sheep offers production advantages. Those advantages help diversify grazing and grassland management.

But what about the dollars? A quick look at 2015 records from FINBIN at the University of Minnesota is interesting. Gross margins for the beef cow-calf operation averaged $871.34 per cow, with an average net return of $181.29 per cow; the sheep market-lamb production operation averaged $254.97 per ewe, with an average net return of $65.68 per ewe.

Based on cow market weight, nine ewes make up one cow, which means an equivalent sheep gross margin would be $2,294.73, with a net return of $591.12.

Ponder this: If the $30,000 projected for a 300-cow operation is a bit shy on cash to distribute, why not add sheep? What would happen if the 300-cow operation added 300 ewes with a net of $65.68 per ewe? It would mean a year-end bonus of $19,704. I doubt most operations would have any reason to turn down the money.

Is this real or simple frivolous pondering? In 1983 and 1984 studies at the Dickinson Research Extension Center, Mike Humann and Don Kirby evaluated incorporating sheep with cattle. They noted, “While cattle are the predominant grazers of range and pasture in the northern Great Plains, sheep offer a significant untapped potential use of this diverse grazing resource. … Since the mixed-grass prairie provides an abundant variety of classes and species of vegetation, we questioned whether one class of livestock could make efficient use of this varietal abundance.”

They found sheep diets complemented the grazing of cattle extremely well.

“The sheep production cycle, breeding, gestation and lactation of ewes compares favorably with the quality of forage selected seasonally by ewes,” they wrote.

The biological needs of sheep fit very well with cattle. In 1990, James Nelson and others grazed ewes and cattle at the center, one ewe to every cow. They noted, “Grazing sheep and cow-calf pairs on native range … allowed both species to make normal growth without sacrificing either pasture quantity or quality.”

So the complementary grazing of cattle and sheep is real, not simple something to ponder. If I can take a 300-head cow herd that has a projected net return of $30,000 and add 300 ewes and increase net return to $49,704, maybe I should ask some questions. I significantly increase net return per production unit by more than 65 percent. Interesting!

May you find all your ear tags!

What do you think? What are some of the logistical issues to address before you add sheep to your operation?

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About the author

Dr. Ringwall is the director of North Dakota State University's Dickinson Research Extension Center. The Center was established to research crop production and improvements to native and introduced forage crops for ranchers on the Missouri Plateau region. The Center's runs a herd of May calving cattle.

12 Comments

  1. Alaina says:

    Any idea if these figures consider sheep breeding once a year or 3 times in 2 years?

  2. Sheep are indeed more ‘hands on’ than cattle no doubt about it. Parasites, predators, and fencing all need to be considered. They will clean up a pasture of most weeds making it more productive.
    Just as you can select and manage cattle to calve without lots of assistance you can select ewes to do that same. Good mothers and good milking ewes goes a long way but managing a sheep flock will be a new skill for cattle folks. Sheep demand you are observant and take care of small problems right away. If you wait an see the outcome is not usually a good one.

  3. Lin Karcher says:

    If sheep eat weeds which our cows don’t eat (ironweed, ragweed, cocklebur, smartweed), mowing costs could be greatly reduced. The added fence expense could be worth it.

  4. Brian Nichols says:

    I’d love to hear more information on this subject. Particularly hearing from some people that have bonded sheep to cattle. I understand the need to have a more sheep proof perimeter fence, but do the bonded sheep wander very far away from cattle when you’re only using 1 polywire to rotate the cattle?

    • Myra says:

      I don’t think they would need to be bonded to the cattle to share a pasture. They don’t have to be grazing side by side or anything.

  5. Josh Vaillancourt says:

    Would sheep respect a single strand of polywire? That’d be the million dollar question for us – we strip graze our pasture, moving the line 3-4 times a day, and with just a small herd, needing to add extra lines, the time/labor would add up.

    • Julie Smith says:

      We just put 70 head of ewes with lambs on pasture fenced with 7 wires of barbed wire, 4 inches apart towards the bottom, electrified with a charger and they are still getting out. Maybe electric woven wire would stop the sneaky ones. Worse than keeping in bulls during breeding season.

  6. Lealand says:

    When considering another business partner (the next generation – son or daughter), add sheep seems like a good business decision. In South Central South Dakota, in a good grazing management system, the sheep selected forbs and little bluestem, before the mother cows. The mother cows selected the Western Whtgrass, which the sheep dislike. It works and with Dr. Ringwall’s information; it pays. Long-term generationally, fencing for sheep makes sense.

  7. Bill Gibson says:

    As a longtime grazer of sheep with cattle mixed in there are advantages when done carefully.
    My major concern is for the welfare of the sheep.They aren’t just little cows that generate cash flow.

  8. Julie Smith says:

    Two limiting factors I can see with this model of production would be the cost of fencing for 300 ewes on pasture plus 600 lambs till weaning if shooting for a projected 200% lamb crop. Along with the extra time and labor involved with lambing 300 ewes. Otherwise, I really love that someone did a study on this and there is some concrete data to present to my husband! I have been trying to convince him to increase our sheep herd up to at least 200 ewes to run along with our cows. He’ll have none of that. LOL!

  9. Betsy Hodge says:

    There are other benefits to the sheep – the cows help control the sheep parasites. Our cow calf pairs also did a pretty good job keeping the coyotes at bay.

    One word of caution. You need a bigger, better fence for sheep than most people have for their cows and that is an added expense that many farmers forget about.

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