- Author: Dan Macon
I don’t claim to be an expert shepherd – I’m often humbled by the realization of how much I don’t know about raising sheep. However, I estimate that since I started raising sheep on a commercial scale in 2006, I’ve spent in the neighborhood of 14,000 hours doing everything from moving portable electric fence to trimming hooves to analyzing the economics of my business. And while I still have more questions than answers about how to make my living by raising sheep, there are parts of this business that are far easier now that I’ve invested so much time!
Some of the benefit is akin to muscle memory. If you repeat a physical motion enough times – like playing the piano – eventually your muscles remember where to place your limbs and digits. These movements become second nature. Last week, we completed our annual task of trimming feet, a process that involves tipping every ewe onto her backside and trimming all four of her hooves. With 250 +/- sheep, this meant trimming approximately 1,000 feet! Just 5 years ago, such a task would have left my back sore for several days – and it would have taken three people just to treat our flock of 100 ewes in a single day. Last week, with help from a few friends, we treated 250 animals in about 8 hours.
Building electro-net fencing is another example of increasing efficiency. I estimate that I put up and take down my 164-foot rolls of electro-net between 700 and 800 times in a year. When I started learning how to use the fencing 7 years ago, a 6-net paddock (which encloses about 1.25 acres) took me several hours. Two weeks ago, I built a 16-net paddock (enclosing 9.25 acres) in less than three hours. Once again, I’ve now built enough fence that I learned how to be as efficient as possible.
Finally, spending time working on the business is as important as spending time working in the business. When I’m working “in” the business, I’m doing many of the things I’ve discussed above. When I’m working “on” the business, I’m thinking about bigger questions – how should I market my lambs next year, for example. I’ll admit I’d much rather spend the day working with my sheep than in front of my computer, but I find that the quality of my “on-the-business” work improves the more I do it as well. For instance, we’ve decided this year to keep our sheep year-round on properties much closer to home, which will reduce our overhead costs substantially. We’ve adjusted the scale of our operation to fit the land we can access without putting the sheep on a trailer.
I suppose that this idea is at least indirectly related to scale. The more sheep you raise – or the more carrots you grow – the more quickly you cross the 10,000-hour threshold. Regardless of size, however, the investment of time in farming eventually pays dividends in skill level (and hopefully in profitability).