As some readers might know, Flying Mule Farm is a part-time sheep operation. I work full time off the ranch; my partner Roger Ingram is retired from the University of California Cooperative Extension. Nonetheless, we treat the farm as a stand-alone business; that is, the ranch has to cover its direct and overhead costs, pay both of us a salary, and show a profit at the end of the year. Like many agricultural businesses, the bulk of our income arrives in a very short timeframe; our expenses seem to occur throughout the year. In other words, the lamb and wool checks we receive during the summer months have to carry us through until next June!
Our annual income from the sheep business depends on our management throughout the year. The time, effort and money we put into preparing our ewes for breeding last September hopefully pays dividends in the form of more – and healthier – lambs this spring. We also don’t leave our marketing strategy to chance. As soon as we have a good idea about how many lambs we’ll have to sell (usually by early April), I start contacting potential buyers. This year, all of the ewe lambs we’re not keeping were purchased by another rancher who values the maternal traits that are emphasized in our breeding program. Many of our feeder lambs will go to small-scale producers who are direct marketing grassfed lamb or to folks who want to put meat in their own freezers. We’ll be offering a handful of purebred Shropshire lambs through the California Wool Growers Association online all breeds sheep sale. And the balance of our lamb crop, along with a few cull ewes, will sell at the Escalon Livestock Market at the end of June.
The actual selling of our lamb crop begins once we’ve weaned the lambs. This year, we separated the lambs from the ewes on the first Saturday of June. We’re adopting a new electronic identification system for the sheep, so weaning day also involved ear tagging all of the ewes and replacement ewe lambs, and learning how to use our new tag reader. We weighed the lambs and inoculated the replacements against several common diseases. And our customers began arriving to pick out their lambs. Over the next several weeks, we’ll finish selling these small groups of lambs and plan for the trip to Escalon. Once the purebred lambs sell in early August, we’ll have collected all of our income for the year (with the exception of our last wool payment, which usually arrives in early winter).
We celebrate the influx of cash, obviously; we also know that we need to be prudent about covering our expenses for the rest of the year. We’ll need to buy feed to prepare the ewes for breeding. We’ll have to purchase dog food for the border collies and livestock guardian dogs every several weeks. We have to pay our pasture rent. We’ll need to plan for vaccine purchases and lambing supplies next winter. And we’ll have to budget for shearing costs next spring. While we enjoy seeing the bank balance rise in June and July, we’re always cautious about planning for unexpected expenses, too.
In many ways, weaning and selling our lambs (along with shearing the ewes) is the final report card on our management efforts over the prior 12 months. Beyond cashing the lamb and wool checks, however, I take great satisfaction in looking at a pen full of healthy, vigorous and well-fed lambs. I take great pride in the compliments we get from our buyers. And I appreciate getting paid for a year’s worth of work!