There have been many changes in livestock production over the last 20 –30 years. The most notable change has been the movement to raise livestock in buildings. It started with poultry, moved on to swine, then cattle, and now sheep and goats. It’s a change driven by sky rocketing land prices or where land is a limited resource. Confinement agriculture can be utilized by both large and small operators.
Confinement production has its pros and cons. This style of production allows the producer to have more control over their variables of production, like weather and predators. Animal nutrition can be more easily monitored, leading to better weight gain and feed conversion. It also allows for more of a year-round production model.
There are some drawbacks to confinement production. Overhead costs are usually higher. Feed costs tend to be higher because you will be using harvested feedstuffs, be it hay or grain. There is also the additional investment in buildings and equipment. While animal health is usually better in confinement, diseases can also spread more rapidly because of the close proximity. Proper management of ventilation and sanitation is also critical.
Most of the time producers make a conscious decision to use this type of livestock production to start with, but sometimes they just evolve in to, just like one of our producers did. For Kory and Adrianna James, what started out a few years ago as a little project of 10 ewes for their daughter and as a “way to mow the grass” has now grown to 450 ewes that don’t “mow any grass”.
The James’ operation already included cattle and chickens, so when they sold that first set of lambs and made a little money, it got them thinking this could be an added way to diversify their livestock operation. While growing sheep was something new to Kory, it wasn’t new to his wife, Adrianna. Adrianna’s family is from Australia and her grandfather maintained a flock of 4,500 ewes. This gave them access to knowledge that was invaluable.
For the first couple of years, the sheep grazed with cattle which worked, but it raised concerns that their operation’s grazing capacity would eventually suffer. Since they were growing their sheep flock, Kory and Adrianna had two options. One, obtain more land through purchase or rent, or two, put their sheep under roof in a more controlled environment. They opted for the latter as they were worried about predators, especially coyotes and eagles, preying on the ewes and lambs.
The plan was to buy a hoop building to house the sheep. They purchased it and waited for it to be delivered. It was delayed by months and Kory couldn’t wait any longer. His solution was to find an old poultry barn and with very little modification use it to house his sheep. The hoop building? It finally came and now he uses it to wean calves in.
Kory and Adrianna’s sheep operation can be likened to a cow-calf operation. The ewes will lamb, those lambs will be weaned off, brought to sale weight of about 60 pounds, and sold. Sheep will naturally cycle once a year, which is usually between mid-August through mid-January, and have one or two lambs. The current under roof set up allows them to have the ewes cycle 3 times over a 2-year span. Sheep have a 150-day gestation period and birth the lambs weighing 7-12 pounds. It will take an additional 30 days after weaning for the lambs to get to their target selling weight of 60 pounds. By utilizing ewes that are predisposed to have multiple (2 or 3) lambs each time, they have upped their lamb to ewe ratio from 1.8 to 2.1 in the last year. At this pace they are looking to wean off around 900 lambs every cycle.
The James’ have their barn set up with pens, made of cattle panels, that are 14 feet by 85 feet that run along both sides of the barn. Each pen will hold about 40 –50 families (mom and lambs) giving them 25 square feet per family. Each pen serves multiple purposes: pregnant ewes, ewes being bred, ewes to rest after weaning, and to hold the weaned lambs. Each pen has a dry-erase board on it where Adrianna keeps track of all the pertinent information of the animals in that specific pen. There is an alleyway down the middle that provides easy access for feeding and movement of the sheep. At the end of the barn is a working alleyway. Kory said that sheep are creatures of habit and once they have been moved down to the working area a couple of times all he has to do is open the pen gate and they will move there on their own. On the alleyway side of each pen are feed bunks made of 10-inch drainpipe cut in half attached to the pen. Initially, the feed bunks were on the outside of the pen, but there were issues of sheep getting their head stuck in the wire panels, so they are now on the inside. They also have homemade mineral feeders and creep feeders in each pen that are made of the same drainpipe.
Bedding in the pens consist of a little bit of hay. After about 8 months they will clean the bedding out of the pen and pile it up. It then composts for bit allowing the hay to break down into a product that can be spread evenly. In the past Kory has done testing on the bedding material and said it comes out around 30-40-40. When we visited the barn a couple of weeks ago, the bedding in all the pens was dry and there was no smell. The natural air flow in the barn helps keep the moisture from building up so there hasn’t been a need for fans to help keep bedding dry. The side walls of the barn still have curtains, so when the weather gets colder or if rain comes inside, they’ll just roll up the curtains. There is no heating source in the barn, but the waters, which are in each pen, rarely freeze up.
Kory and Adrianna figure it costs them 63 cents per ewe per day in feed. This includes about 2 pounds of triticale silage and 2 pounds of corn silage per day for each ewe. They also have free choice mineral and hay available. Nutrition is probably the most important thing for the sheep, especially in the last month of gestation and the first 30-45 days of lactation.
While they work with a local vet as health questions arise, their overall vet costs are usually minimal. When receiving a new animal, they are blood sampled for any diseases and quarantined for about a month before they are integrated into the flock. Kory does trim the hooves regularly because they don’t wear down enough being in a barn. When it comes to castrating the rams at weaning, it is not something they practice. They have found that the majority of lamb buyers seek out uncastrated males to purchase for meat.
When it comes to buying breeding rams the going rate is between $900-$1000. Much like in cattle, they are best kept around 4 to 5 years. Kory and Adrianna synchronize their ewes to prepare them for breeding and then turns 3 rams with 40 ewes to catch that breeding cycle. In the most recent breeding cycle, 29 of 57 ewes were bred within the first 24 hours.
Currently, the weaned lambs are sold at local auction markets. Lambs a year ago were going for as much as $240 per head, but the market has since dropped down to about $150. They hope that in the future there will be better ways to market his lambs.
Kory advice for anyone interested in sheep production is to work on a sheep farm for at least 6 months to see if they like it before just jumping in or marry a very dedicated and hardworking wife. They recommend educating yourself someway on sheep production to help with the learning curve of starting something new. Minnesota West Community & Technical College offers a program on sheep production that can be taken completely online. Adrianna is currently taking this class to help further their knowledge in sheep production.
Kory and Adrianna have ideas for the future to help expand their operation. They would like to maintain a flock of 600 ewes, which would bring their barn to max capacity. They are also considering keeping their lambs up to slaughter weight of 150 pounds. While this adds time and risk, they feel it could pay off and really benefit the expansion of his operation. If RMA were to reinstate the LRP program for lambs, Kory knows the price protection offered would provide extra defensive against the risk of keeping the lambs to slaughter weight and make him feel more comfortable with added time and expenses.
Like all businesses, production agriculture is always evolving. Producers continue to find new, innovative ways to raise livestock and become more efficient in doing so. Kory and Adrianna James’ operation is just one example of this. So, what started out as just a “way to mow the grass” has now become a successful business opportunity.