Not everyone has a large spread to ranch on. Many families starting their ranching lifestyle are moving to 20 or less acres of land. How do we succeed?
When we have small acreage to work with, we cannot operate in the same fashion as a rancher with hundreds of acres available. Rather than running 300 commercial ewes or does for meat production, we have to get more creative and intentional. Cost-benefit analysis is key to a small acreage farm/ranch. For example: 1 commercial doe producing twins every year requires the same maintenance and feeding as a registered doe whose twins are worth double or triple the sale price of the meat kids. A single year’s kidding can potentially make up for the initial purchase price difference, and is a wiser choice in a small acreage setup
Being honest with ourselves regarding the scale of our operation, feed value of our pastures, funds for supplemental feed, and time capacity to manage livestock is key before taking on animals into our care. There is good reason that large operations with small stock (goats, sheep, etc) do not bother purchasing papered animals for the majority of their herd/flock (though it is common for large operations to run registered males). Their priority is more production and finish weight than breeding stock sale. This is more efficient for their advertising and time restraints. It is easier to load a semi truck to the local meat auction/butcher on pre-purchased kids or lambs, than to individually list the 300-500+ offspring, file all the registration papers, make sure everyone is picked up/delivered individually to buyers, etc. It is simply not worth the time to a large producer for goats and sheep. *Many large scale operations do run registered cattle and horses because the potential sale value is worthwhile to the producer, relative to the anticipated costs and time involved
But we are small land producers. So why are the rules different for us? Can’t we raise commercial stock and sell the offspring at auction too? Yes, and no.
By the Numbers
Assuming fencing, hay, grain, housing, and health maintenance are equal, let’s have a look at the scenarios regarding Commercial vs. Registered sheep flocks. The principle applies equally to all small livestock varieties.
Commercial Flock Scenario
You can certainly go buy a female per acre you have, let’s say you have 20 acres and you buy 20 commercial ewes at 200 dollars a head. Then you buy two rams at 400 dollars each.
Ewes 20 x $200 = $4000
Rams 2 x $400 = $800
Total investment = $4800
And let’s say we have 15 pairs of twins born next year, and 5 singletons. 35 lambs. 4 die and we retain 6 ewe lambs for replacements.
35 – 4 – 6 = 25 going to auction.
Average finish weight of 50 lb at weaning and $1.50/ lb live weight (this is HIGH, not average) at auction.
25 x 50 x $1.50 = $1875
First year gross income is $1875. On small acreage, that will cover your shearing and feed costs along with your vet and emergency bills so long as nothing disastrous occurred. You aren’t netting any money in this scenario, but you aren’t losing it either- sustainable, not profitable.
Registered Flock Scenario
Now let’s say you instead purchased the same number of registered ewes.
Ewes 20 x $400 = $8000
Rams 2 x $800 = $1600
Total investment = $9600
Assume the same numbers, 35 lambs, lose 4 and keep 6. 25 for sale in the Fall.
25 lambs, 15 rams and 10 ewes.
You band all but 2 rams and auction them for meat.
13 x 50 x $1.50 = $975
Ram lambs sold with papers are $600 each (25% less than you paid because of your lack of reputation).
2 x $600 = $1200
(Please notice that you have now surpassed the income of the commercial flock on your same 20 acres.)
10 ewe lambs sell for $300 each
10 x $300 = $3000
Assuming the commercial operation covered expenses, your registered operation just netted $3300 in its first year, 34% of our initial investment repaid to your farm.
This is the best way I can explain why registered stock makes more sense to the small producer. Even with lower price points when you are new to the breed and have little to no reputation, your upside is still much more favorable when you choose to invest in quality registered stock.
If initial investment is a deterrent, you can always start smaller and build your flock to your desired ewe numbers. Selecting for good mothering ability and retaining those daughters is the best way to protect your future. Things like color or markings should not be the selection priority, unless there is a direct link to the sale value of offspring.
The exception to the point of this post is of course if you are solely raising stock for self-sustenance for your own family, in which case you sell zero offspring and only retain or harvest them – then sale price is unimportant and you can likely ram/buck swap with a like-minded rancher every couple years or barter meat for new male lines.
In 9 years we have raised goats, sheep, pigs, yak, cattle, rabbits, and poultry. Given our region and demand flows, we have settled on registered dairy goats and pigs, papered poultry, and rare breed sheep. All are hardy, smaller than commercial breeds, and dual or triple purpose. The variety of utility and increased sale value helps the ranch maintain itself, covering its own costs.
What kinds of animals have you had success with on small acreage?