Culling Strategies for the Sheep Flock

Table of Contents

  1. Traditional Culling
  2. Marketing Cull Ewes
  3. Extraordinary Culling
  4. Cost and Return for Your Ewe...Is She Worth Keeping?

Culling unproductive ewes every year reduces carrying costs for the flock. Regardless of market conditions, unproductive ewes should be removed from the flock to save valuable feed for higher producing ewes. You can generally afford to carry a ewe that produces. When lamb prices are depressed, the need to keep only the productive ewes is even more apparent.

Traditional Culling

Make sure that you use a management system that identifies unproductive ewes: those that did not lamb, had difficulty lambing, raised weak or small lambs, or have health issues. As well, use your Sheep Flock Improvement Program (SFIP) records to help you rank ewes and lambs for genetic potential. You may identify some ewes as unproductive through this process.

Keeping unproductive ewes will cost you time and money. Each ewe on a maintenance ration consumes about $20 of feed during the winter, assuming 1.4 kg (3 lb.) of hay per day at $60 per tonne ($55 per ton). To feed a ewe (forage only) takes about 10 seconds per day. Based on a labour rate of $15 per hour, this would be another $8.25 per ewe for the winter feeding period. So, it makes economic sense to cull unproductive ewes.

Marketing Cull Ewes

Currently there is a relatively strong market for sheep culled for production issues. If the price of cull ewes decreases significantly, then you should compare the cost of marketing a ewe against the cost of euthanizing and burying or composting it. Marketing costs (trucking, checkoff, and commission) vary depending on where you live in the province. The cost to market generally ranges from $10 to $11. Current cull ewe prices average $45 to $50 per ewe1. As long as sheep prices remain above marketing costs, it makes sense to sell these ewes. If the price drops below marketing costs, then burying or composting may be a preferred option. Check the OMAF factsheets "On-farm Composting of Livestock and Poultry Mortalities" and "Proper Burial Techniques for Small Animals and Poultry Mortalities under 25 kg" for details about on-farm disposal options.

1Ontario Sheep Marketing Agency posted average for the week of September 10, 2003.

Extraordinary Culling

What about the productive females in the flock? Should you cull any of them as well? At present, cull ewe prices are strong relative to ewe lamb prices, so this may be a good time to cull a little harder and keep more replacement ewe lambs. Chart 1 can help you decide whether or not to cull productive ewes and keep ewe lambs.

Chart 1: Relative Market Value of Ewes vs. Replacement Lambs

Relative Market Value of Ewes vs. Replacement Lambs

Chart by Anita O'Brien, OMAFRA

Text equivalent of graphic

If a ewe has a higher market value than the replacement ewe lamb, then keeping the lamb may make more economical sense, provided genetic parameters are considered. If the ewe lambs are from a maternal line, the lambs could be kept as replacements. However, if the lambs are from a terminal line, keeping the ewe lambs would probably result in lower reproductive efficiency.

There is no proven way to predict future markets to know whether selling cull ewes now would make more financial sense than selling later. If you think the market for cull ewes will decline, you may want to explore alternative marketing options for productive ewes. For example, small producers may be looking for good quality breeding stock.

Cost and Return for Your Ewe…Is She Worth Keeping?

The 2002 Ontario Farm Management Analysis Project (OFMAP) average annual costs for keeping a ewe equals $212.95. This includes all fixed costs proportioned to the ewe flock, including the cost assigned to the lambs. In order to determine whether to keep a productive ewe this year or not, you should know the cost of keeping that ewe on your farm, and her expected productivity.

Case 1: If productivity is 1.5 lambs per year, then in order to produce $212.95 in revenue to cover costs, you would have to get $141 per lamb. If you have accelerated lambing, producing on average 2.5 lambs per year, then gross revenue returned would only have to be $85 per lamb.

Case 2: Costs in a once-a-year lambing situation should be much less than in an accelerated program. For example, winter feed costs of $20 per ewe, with pasture costs of around another $20 would put annual feed costs at $40 per ewe. Therefore, gross revenue if one lamb per ewe is raised on average could be as low as $40 to cover costs. If 1.5 lambs are raised, then costs could dip to $26. Case 2 would be a short-term situation with little overhead costs covered, and no consideration for the percent of cull ewes sold annually.

Chart 2 shows the relationship between the cost per year for the ewe flock and the lambing rate. As lambing rate increases, the required return per lamb decreases. As cost per ewe increases, the required return increases.

Chart 2: Cost per Returns for Your Ewe Flock

Ewe and Lamb Costs to Sale Date/Year Lambing Rate and Breakeven Sale Price
1.3 1.6 1.9 2.2 2.5
60 46.00 37.50 31.60 27.27 24.00
80 61.53 50.00 42.10 36.36 32.00
100 76.92 62.50 52.63 45.45 40.00
120 92.30 75.00 63.15 54.55 48.00
140 107.70 87.50 73.68 63.63 56.00
160 123.07 100.00 84.21 72.72 64.00
180 138.46 112.50 94.70 81.80 72.00
200 153.85 125.00 105.26 90.90 36.00
220 169.23 137.50 115.79 100.00 88.00

Based on this chart, if it costs you $100 per year to maintain a ewe in your flock (including costs for raising its lambs to selling date), and if your lambing rate is 1.6, then you would need a return of $62.50 per lamb to cover your costs. This is assuming average lamb prices for all weights. If you expect the lamb prices to be above $62.50 and if your cost is $100 or less, then it would pay to keep your ewe. Where your operation would fit on the price grid depends on your costs and the weight of lambs you might sell. Prudent managers would review all ewes in their flocks in light of the current market conditions, and make decisions accordingly.

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