Sheep farmers are responsible for the daily care of sheep that are raised for their meat, milk, wool, or skin. Sheep farms can vary widely in size and specialty.
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 breeding sheep, 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 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 nights, evenings, and weekends. The work is largely conducted outdoors, so extreme temperatures and varying weather conditions are possible.
Sheep farmers may be involved in meat, milk, 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
- 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. Although dairy sheep farms do exist in the U.S., the industry is still in its infancy.
Flocks may range from just a few animals to many thousands of animals. According to data collected by the United States Department of Agriculture (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
Sheep farmers usually 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 hands-on experience through their family farms.
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.
Income for sheep farmers can vary widely based fluctuating feed costs, varying weather conditions, and the price of meat or wool at the market.
A recent Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) salary survey found that farm and ranch managers earned a median wage of $67,950 annually ($32.67 hourly) in 2018. The lowest 10% earned less than $35,440 and the highest 10% earned more than $136,940.
The BLS predicts that there will be little to no change in the number of job opportunities for farm and ranch managers through 2028. There is a move toward consolidation in the industry, as small producers are commonly being bought up by large commercial operations.