8 ways to enhance your profit margins as a sheep farmer

8 ways to enhance your profit margins as a sheep farmer

Lamb production costs can add up fast, eating into your profit margins. Here are some simple ideas for increasing your margins, without cutting corners.

Your efforts deserve a good return  

Sheep farming is incredibly labour intensive. When you are going to such efforts, you shouldn’t have to worry about the financial viability of your business. Keeping your production costs in check is a necessity if you want to work towards healthy financial returns. Here are eight ideas for keeping your costs in check, without cutting corners or compromising the health of your flock.

It goes without saying that each one of these ideas could produce a full article’s worth of advice in its own right. Such is the science and economics of modern sheep farming. However, in this article we will try to give you brief, actionable tips that cover the core areas of lamb production. Think of it as a primer to get you mulling over steps that you could implement on your own farm.

Let’s get started.  

1. Don’t cut corners on nutrition

Increasing your profit margins doesn’t always mean cutting costs. That’s especially true when it comes to nutrition, which is the most important piece of the production puzzle. It’s crucial to keep ewe body condition within healthy limits (the ideal ewe BCS fluctuates slightly according to the stage of production. Here is some guidance). While lamb nutrition should be optimised to get them ready for market efficiently. Both of those targets will be compromised by low cost, poor quality feeds. An unhealthy BCS enhances the risk of disease and lamb loss, while poor lamb nutrition will reduce DLWG and increase the number of days it takes for your lambs to finish. 

A high-quality milk replacer therefore is an investment that will encourage your lambs to grow efficiently and healthily. As with most things, it’s important to do your research, when choosing a milk replacer for your lambs make sure you scrutinise your options carefully and be aware of false economies. Here are some tips on mixing and administering milk replacer.

As for silage production, it’s worth remembering that homegrown silage is the most cost-effective feed on your farm. Adopting a multi-cut system – cutting grass younger and taking more cuts per season – helps to maximise the nutritional value of your silage and provides your flock with a consistently good quality source of highly digestible energy.  That’s especially true when your silage is treated with a reliable additive like Ecosyl. You can find out more about the benefits of a multi-cut system here.

* The ideal ewe BCS fluctuates slightly according to the stage of production. Here is some guidance.

Supplements can be especially helpful during the last few weeks of gestation to maintain condition and support the growing foetus. To benefit from increased energy density and energy per bite, it’s advised to feed Megalac in late pregnancy and early lactation, when energy demands are highest.

2. Lean ewes? Wean lambs.

It’s really important that ewes don’t lose too much condition during rearing. It can take up to eight weeks on good grazing for ewes to regain their condition. Therefore, if ewes are struggling to maintain condition, wean their lambs early and allocate them to the best grazing you have available. This article has some good advice.

3. Maximise the growth of surplus lambs

Maximising the number of lambs sold per ewe put to the ram is one of the key benchmarks for a successful sheep farming enterprise. But there are risks associated with triplets. For starters it enhances the risk of a ewe failing to recognise one of her lambs as her own). Rearing triplets also dramatically enhances the strain on a ewe’s body condition. Triplets left on the ewe are likely to grow less productively than the lambs who don’t have to compete for their mother’s milk.

Therefore when triplets are born, many farmers will choose to rear one of away from the ewe. That’s where correct nutrition is crucial. Lamb growth is at its most efficient during the first ten weeks of life and when you feed LAMLAC ewe milk replacer to your surplus lambs you will make the most of this in-built potential. You can find some tips for success in the article below.

>> 4 steps for success with artificial rearing

4. Consider selling earlier

One of the key components of running a successful sheep farming business is getting to market as quickly and efficiently as possible. Every day you keep a lamb incurs costs, therefore the balance is delicate between getting the best price for your lamb and the cost of keeping your lambs until they have reached their full growth potential. For instance, it may be more profitable to sell earlier at 38kg than keeping a lamb on to 45kg. Besides which the sooner you get lambs to market, the faster you free up grazing for ewes to regain body condition. Identify your market and weigh lambs at weekly or fortnightly intervals as you approach marketing.

5. Consider alternative bedding options

It’s essential for the health of your flock that bedding is kept clean and dry. Dirty bedding means poor hygiene. Poor hygiene is a risk factor for disease and infection, which is not only incredibly bad for your flock but also costly to treat. But with straw prices subject to volatile changes, , cleaning out bedding areas has become financially – not just physically – arduous. That’s why it’s worth considering alternatives such as sawdust, woodchip, paper and rape straw.

We lay out the pros and cons of each alternative bedding option in this article.

6. Outwinter your flock

The concept of outwintering is gaining more and more column inches across farming media. Mostly because it’s helping sheep farmers to rear healthier lambs while reducing operational overheads. (Less use of straw, less use of silage, less use of antibiotics.) Obviously outwintering is only viable with hardy breeds such as Cheviots or Llyns. But one farmer noted that it cost him £4.00-4.50 per ewe to keep Lleyns outdoors over winter versus £25 per head to keep Texel-crosses indoors over the same period. Other farmers have noted reduced incidence of disease and mortality after switching to outwintering.

7. Keep good records

Keeping data on your costs, income and key production metrics will help you to optimise your production cycle. You will be able to see where your business is doing well, and where improvements could be made. But without data you are just guessing.

For instance, noting the main cause of losses (which should be below 14% but ideally as low as possible, between scanning and sale) will help you to identify recurrent problems that you may not have been aware of. Meanwhile eight-week lamb weight can help you to identify ewes who are not mothering efficiently.

Perhaps one of the most important findings you can uncover with good record keeping is cost per lamb. Into this you should factor all variable costs such as feed, forage, fertiliser, bedding and veterinary costs as well as fixed costs such as labour as well as property and utility charges.

When you know exactly where your costs are, you can begin making decisions on how you might be able to reduce them without harming the health or productivity of your flock. You can also make use of tools such as AHDB Farmbench to see how your sheep farming numbers compare with those of others in the industry.   

8. Invest in flock health and use your vet wisely

Your vet isn’t only there to react to health problems on your farm. As they say, prevention is better than cure. It also tends to be far cheaper to prevent an illness than treat it. Talk to your vet to prepare a health management plan that includes vaccination programmes and strategies for the arrival of new stock, which should be quarantined and wormed before being introduced to your flock.

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