Everything You Need to Know About Being a Sheep Farmer
Get Career Info on Duties, Salary, and More
Sheep farmers are responsible for the daily care and maintenance of sheep that are used for meat or wool production.
The duties of a sheep farmer may include feeding, shearing wool, giving medication orally or via injection, maintaining farm buildings and fences, monitoring the flock for any signs of illness or disease, assisting with difficult births, and managing waste. They also may be responsible for marketing their animals to meat or wool distributors, transporting animals to the sales or show ring, harvesting hay or other forages, and maintaining farm equipment.
Sheep farmers work in with large animal veterinarians to maintain the health of their flock through a health management program. They may also rely on advice from animal nutritionists or livestock feed sales representatives to develop nutritionally balanced rations for the flock.
As is the case with many farming occupations, sheep farmers may have to work long hours including time on nights, evenings, and weekends. The work is largely conducted outdoors, so extreme temperatures and varying weather conditions are possible. It is also important that sheep farmers take safety precautions when working with their livestock to reduce the chance of injury.
Sheep farmers may be involved in meat or wool production. There are two primary sheep farming options for meat production: stock sheep operations (which raise flocks on pasture land and sell their lambs to feeder lots) or feeder lamb operations (which purchase lambs and raise them to appropriate weight for slaughter). Sheep leather has also grown in popularity and is proving to be a solid source of income. Wool receipts are accounted for only a quarter of total revenue.
Flocks may range from just a few animals to many thousands of animals, but the trend in the industry is towards consolidation of smaller operations into larger entities. According to data collected by the USDA, the largest sheep producing states are Texas and California, with the majority of U.S. sheep farms concentrated in the Pacific, Southern Plains, and Mountain regions.
Many sheep farmers oversee their flock part-time and have a full-time position in another industry, but it is possible for larger farms to be self-sustaining.
Education & Training
Most sheep farmers have a high school diploma at minimum, though an increasing number have earned college degrees in animal science, agriculture, or a related field. Coursework for these degrees often includes studies in animal science, sheep production, meat science, reproduction, genetics, anatomy, physiology, nutrition and ration formulation, farm management, agricultural marketing, technology, and business management.
Many future sheep farmers get their start by participating in youth programs such as Future Farmers of America (FFA) or 4-H clubs. These organizations allow children to handle a variety of farm animals and to participate in livestock shows. Other aspiring sheep farmers gain hand on experience through their family farm.
Sheep farmers may find additional educational and networking opportunities through membership in professional organizations such as the American Sheep Industry Association (ASIA), various breed-specific organizations, and the many sheep associations affiliated with states or countries throughout the world.
A recent Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) salary survey indicated that farm and ranch managers earned a median wage of $60,750 annually ($29.21 hourly) in May of 2010. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $29,280 and the highest 10 percent earned more than $106,980. Income for farmers can vary widely based fluctuating feed costs, varying weather conditions, and the price of meat or wool at the market.
A recent survey by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (USDA/ERS) estimated that there would be a marginal (3.8 percent) decline in sheep and lamb sales for 2012, which could have some impact on sheep farmer income.
The BLS predicts that there will be a slight decline in the number of job opportunities for farm and ranch managers (approximately 8 percent). This trend is in line with the move towards consolidation in the industry, as small producers are commonly being bought up by large commercial operations.
The sheep production industry has remained stable despite current economic conditions, as consumption levels for its meat products have held steady. Other red meat products have shown a decline in recent years. Lamb prices reached a record high in late 2010.
Wool products also reached a record high in 2011, with the price per pound coming in at a healthy $1.67, accounting for $48.9 million in revenue for 2011 as opposed to the $35 million in revenue for the prior year.