Can I buy a breeding animal for the same price as a slaughter animal?

No, and here’s why. Butcher lamb sales are the lowest overhead and least risk. Interaction with the buyer is usually only 5-10 minutes, and the buyer accepts whatever lamb I give them at the specified weight. I spend another few minutes transacting with the slaughter truck crew on their monthly rounds, and hand a list of phone numbers to the butcher. And that’s it, the transaction is done, the butcher shop takes it from there.

Buyers of breeding stock require a lot more of my time, both before and after the sale. These buyers have a lot more questions to answer up-front as we determine what their breeding goals are, and which animals are a good fit for them. These buyers often want to come out and inspect the sheep or choose from a larger group. Which isn’t unreasonable when committing to spending money quality breeding stock; but this usually takes an hour or more for me and my border collies to sort and hold sheep for the “shopper”. Then, there is a secondary appointment to pick up the sheep, and my prep time to generate registration and transfer paperwork, health records, record the sale data and tax exempt forms, etc.

There is some risk involved in selling breeding stock also: if the animal perishes some weeks after the sale, the buyer may call wanting a refund or to split the cost of the loss. This is a rare occurrence, but could happen for any number of reasons. The animal may have had sub-clinical illness while here, or it may have gotten injured or sick during the stress of transport (aka “shipping fever”). Or, the new buyer may fail to quarantine and adequately monitor the animal’s health, or maintain a sufficient de-worming and vaccination schedule that’s appropriate for their environment. Or, he may poorly transition the animal’s feed, triggering acidosis and rapid death. Though I don’t offer a specific guarantee on purchased sheep, if a loss were to occur shortly after the sale, I would work with the buyer to determine cause and come to agreement on a settlement or replacement. This is different from a butcher animal transaction, where the animal is slaughtered upon purchase, so there is no concern about longevity and liability for loss.

Breeding animal buyers usually call, email and text me with a lot of questions about sheep husbandry over the following year, or several years. I don’t mind this, as I love talking about sheep, sharing knowledge, and also learning from customer experiences. But, it is time overhead that doesn’t exist with butcher lamb buyers. Over the life of that animal, I may have a dozen or more hours invested in that buyer transaction. Even paid at minimum wage, that time is worth over $130. And of course, industry knowledge and experience is worth much more than fast food restaurant wages!

Lastly, when a buyer purchases breeding stock, they are investing in something of value. These are animals that are a product of my careful breeding program and years of genetic selection; that I have selected as superior to those earmarked for slaughter. They bring to the buyer the potential for years of production and income.  That value is much higher than the value of a single slaughter animal, you are not just buying an animal, you are purchasing genetics.

You can probably find a seller on craigslist who is selling breeding stock for below market value, often even selling an animal at a loss (whether they realize it or not). But, you have to evaluate, why? Is that animal sick, a poor producer, or has that breeder earned a bad reputation where they cannot command market prices? Does the breeder have an insidious disease in his herd, such as OPP? Or, does that breeder just lack enough industry knowledge to even price his animals correctly? Purchasing cheap breeding stock may be tempting to save money in the short term. But it almost always costs more in the long run, if the animals bring in chronic disease, or turn out to be poor producers that wind up on the cull list a year or two later, leaving no quality replacement stock in their stead.

I do understand that small homesteaders just starting out may be on a budget, and may not want to risk purchasing top-end breeding stock when they are entering a steep learning curve, where some losses are expected.  Or, some people are coming from a different region where prices are depressed compared to Seattle, so the value of breeding stock is not the same for them. I can work with these buyers, often choosing some middle-aged, experienced ewes that are aging-out of my program, but still have useful years left to produce some replacement ewes. We can also find breeding rams that are just slightly better than the cut list for butcher animals. These  make suitable terminal sires, but are priced such that it’s reasonable to breed them then butcher them, avoiding the overhead cost of feeding a ram all year just to breed a half-dozen ewes. Just contact me and we can discuss and figure out a package that will work to meet your goals.

Can I come to the farm to pick out my breeding stock in person?

You are certainly welcome to come to the farm and visually and physically inspect sheep you intend to purchase, before making your final buying commitment. That said, most of the  year, there are 200-300 sheep here on pasture. So, I’m not really set up for “tire kickers” who just want to come peruse the flock and maybe buy something. It’s not feasible to wander the pasture and point out sheep that catch your eye, and say “is that one for sale and for how much?” I can’t keep track of all those sheep in my head, so any sheep that  you point out, I’d have to go look it up on my computer to ascertain whether it’s for sale, and to be able to tell you any information about the animal. Only a small percentage of the sheep here are for sale as breeding stock, the rest are my “keepers” or are already sold to someone else, or already reserved on the butcher lamb waiting list.

Thus, it’s imperative that you come with a “short list” of sheep you are interested in buying and narrow down your final choices from there. For example, if you plan to buy six ewes, I recommend making a list of ten from the website that you like, then coming to view those ten animals and narrow down your choices. It’s most efficient to start with the list of available sheep for sale, or to tell me what you’re looking for and I’ll help you derive a list of sheep that are most likely to meet your needs. It’s also really important that you know your priorities, or you will be overwhelmed by the choices here. Sometimes I have people start out saying “fast growing lambs and crop yield are the most important thing to me”, but when they get here, they get distracted by a pretty pinto ram that has lower growth scores, and then can’t decide on priorities. Or, someone specifies they are working on a tight budget, so I give them a list of lower-cost choices, but then when they arrive, they suddenly become interested in the most expensive animal here and are torn with indecision. This can make the selection process take a long time. 🙁

Often the sheep are out in large pastures and are a 5-10 minute walk from the house, so you need to be physically able to navigate rough pasture on foot. If you are just looking for one or two sheep and are ok with seeing them at a small distance, we can stroll the pasture and I’ll help find and point them out to you, and you can see them walk naturally. If you need to physically handle the sheep or see them up close, I will use a border collie to gather the herd and fence them in a temporary enclosure and help you find and catch the animals you are interested in inspecting. Some times of the year, the ewes are in a different pasture from the rams and/or the lambs, so if you are looking for animals out of more than one group, this will take 2-3 hours.

This is why I try to give as much information as possible about each animal on the website, to facilitate most/all of the “shopping” being virtual. For serious producers, the EBVs should tell you most of what you need to know about an animal’s production potential. And for hobby farmers, the photographs should give you a good idea of what the sheep looks like. Most of my buyers are able to make their selections solely from the information provided on the website.

Once you have confirmed your final choices via inspection, on that day or another day, I’ll load the sheep into my ATV trailer and haul them up to the barn. Then, de-worm them, trim their hooves, and get them settled and ready for transport; as well as prepare your paperwork. It’s ideal if you can choose your stock 2-3 weeks before your pickup date, to allow me time to fit this into my schedule. Alternatively, you can take them home the day you select them, if you can hang out for an hour or more while I do the prep work.

I ask that if you need to spend more than an hour here learning about sheep, or making purchase selections, that you offer to pay an hourly rate for my time in answering questions, or sorting sheep and presenting them for your inspection. If you cannot walk the pasture to view sheep and ask me to bring some up to the barn for viewing, I would charge for that as well (as it’s a couple hours of work to bring them up, then later haul them back out.) We are so busy on the farm and there is so much work to do, time is very precious. It’s really tough when a potential buyer takes up several hours of time, and then sometimes decides not to even make a purchase. But, it is certainly reasonable to ask to inspect animals before buying, as long as thit is is done in a time-efficient manner. Thank you for your understanding!

Can I come visit to learn about sheep ownership?

Sure.  But I ask that you do some research first and limit your information-gathering visit to under an hour.  We are very busy on the farm, and there is so much to learn about sheep, it can’t all be imparted in a visit. I recommend reading at least one book on sheep husbandry before embarking on a sheep ownership journey.  Storey’s Guide to Raising Sheep by Paula Simmons and Carol Ekarius is a good one to start with.  On one hand, sheep are easy livestock to raise and work with. On the other hand, beginners can have a lot go terribly wrong if they don’t do enough research up-front. An  hour visit will not prepare you for all you need to know.  Buying sheep first, and planning on learning about them later tends to backfire on a lot of people.  Before buying your first sheep, be prepared with a plan for protecting them from coyotes and loose dogs, for knowing how much they need to eat and how you will purchase, haul and store feed; how you will catch and handle your sheep for routine chores,  what your vaccination and de-worming protocols will be, how you will manage your pastures, and how you will handle veterinary emergencies. Also research a budget for not only purchasing the sheep, but their year-round care and feeding, and what income you expect to make off the sheep, if any.

What is the minimum flock size I should start with?

Many folks want to just get started with one or two sheep. Keep in mind that sheep for herd animals, however. They feel safe and comforted when in a group. One or two sheep by themselves will be constantly anxious and feeling exposed, putting them in a state of continual stress. A ewe with lambs at side will not be comforted by the company of her lambs, but rather, the need to protect them will make her feel even more anxious.

Thus, it’s ideal to start with a flock of at least three to five adult sheep together. Fewer sheep can do OK if they are joining a group of other herd animals- goats, horses, llamas, cows etc. It works best if the new hybrid herd can be kept in closer quarters at first, where the sheep are able to “join up” with the existing herd. In a large pasture, the resident herd may shun the new sheep, leaving them feeling vulnerable.

How Can I Haul Sheep Home?

The great thing about sheep is they are pretty easy to transport. Towing a whole horse trailer here for one or two sheep usually isn’t necessary! (Though you can certainly rent a horse trailer for 4 hours from most local rental agencies for a  modest fee.) The easiest option is to haul them in the back of a pickup truck that has a canopy. If you don’t have a canopy, constructing a wood and/or wire pen in the back of your truck will work as well. People also haul sheep in the back of SUV’s, minivans  or station wagons; often laying down a tarp and shavings to protect the carpet. It even works to have them stand in on the floor in the front or back seat in a sedan, if it’s not a long drive.

Hauling them in dog crates can be practical, as long as you have the right sized crate. Lambs 90 lbs and under will fit in a Labrador Retriever-sized crate (a “400” Vari Kennel size). Mature ewes need a “500” crate, which is sized for giant dog breeds like Great Danes or St. Bernards. Lambs can be lifted by one person, but mature ewes take two people to lift into a pickup.

Mature rams usually need a bigger box, as they are over 200 lbs.  They are also harder to lift into a high pickup bed. What has worked here is to load them onto my sheep stand, which has a hand-crank winch to raise it up. We can get it close to the height of a pickup bed, then lift the ram, front end first, then hind end, into the bed.

Please note that sheep loaded for hauling off our farm must be transported in such a way as they are able to both stand and lie down, for their welfare during transport. We do not allow sheep to leave here “hog-tied”.

If hauling in a pickup bed, make sure you have a very secure structure with tie-downs, so that you don’t risk losing your sheep on the highway. Better safe than sorry, as you’d never catch them if you lost your load in the road. Fearful sheep can jump pretty high, so don’t neglect making sure the top/lid of your pen is solid. It’s best if the sides of the enclosure are somewhat solid, so that the sheep are protected from wind and too much visual stimuli, to reduce stress. If transporting bred ewes, be especially careful, as stress can induce fetal loss, especially in the first few months of pregnancy.

Herd animals feel comforted when they are “snug”, so best to err on the side of squeezing them in rather than having them try to maintain balance while riding in a big open space. Some people halter-tie them to help stabilize them. It’s great if you can see them in your rear-view mirror, to monitor their welfare during a long drive if they are tied.

When you get home, help the sheep down if they are jumping from a high truck bed, to reduce the stress on their front legs when landing. Try to unload them straight into a secure pen, so that you don’t risk them escaping upon arrival. They are usually fairly stressed and flighty when they arrive at their destination, so it’s not a great time to have one get loose! If they are in a small pen together for a few days, they will acclimate and learn who feeds them and where, then they can be exposed to a larger living area.

Is it wise to buy breeding rams when they are very young?

You may have heard or read, especially on Facebook discussion lists, how it’s unwise to buy a young ram lamb for breeding, before his individual growth performance can be observed. For most flocks, this is very true: you won’t know much about that ram when he is eight weeks old. All you can judge by is how heavy he is compared to his peers at that age, and maybe something about his parents based on looking at them. It may be hard to compare him if he’s a single out of a mature ewe, and his peers are twins out of younger ewes, the perception of his size will be biased. If he’s in a small flock, there is little to compare him to. The best ram of a dozen may not be a great ram, there is just no way of knowing whether he is a “big fish in a small pond.” It’s surely a gamble to buy a breeding ram from this kind of situation.  Buying a ram with lower growth or prolificacy scores could set your operation back years in progress.

But, when buying from a larger NSIP flock, the situation is a little different. Now, we have data not just on that ram’s weight at sixty days. Rather, aggregated into his EBV scores are the scores of his entire extended family- parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles. And, in a large flock, that ram is now being compared against the performance of a hundred or more peers for growth to weaning or post-weaning. So, we can tell a lot about that ram at sixty days, and his genetic potential for producing great future generations. We can tell even more once his 120 day weight is taken and accounted for- now we have two data points on the growth curve, again ranked against dozens of peers, and combined with family data from several generations back and hundreds animals lateral to the pedigree.

EBVs give a much more accurate and valuable predictor of a potential breeding ram’s offering to your operation than visual appraisal of the animal and his parents ever will.

I just want to buy a Katahdin for a pet or “lawnmower”- do you have any for sale?

Sure! Katahdins make great pasture maintenance animals, they tame easily and love to come running for a grain bucket! I find that most people who want sheep for pets find that shearing wool sheep is burdensome. It’s expensive to pay a shearer to come out to do a small number of animals, it’s hard to get the sheep dry enough in our climate; and for most pet owners, doesn’t result in salvageable or saleable wool. Hair sheep are much easier to keep as pets since they shed naturally, like wild sheep do.

You can certainly choose to buy registered breeding stock for pets. Sometimes we have adult “cull ewes” for sale which have had a problem with lambing and should not be bred again, but can make fine and gentle pets. Or, you can buy a castrated “wether” lamb that’s destined for the slaughter channel. We usually have lots of fun colors to choose from. Wethers are usually the regular $200 butcher lamb price ,regardless of size. However, sometimes we have a few slow-to-start lambs which, for various reasons, are going to take a long time to hit butcher weight. Since we know we have to put a lot of feed into them to get them to gain, we may sell them at a discount while they are still small.

We do have a minimum “floor” price for pets; and this is to ensure that the buyer can comfortably afford to take on one or more sheep as companions. On a small acreage, it can cost a few hundred dollars a year in feed and supplies to maintain an adult sheep. So, buyers who are uncomfortable with a purchase price in that range may find they are also uncomfortable with the costs to maintain the sheep later on. Thus, we don’t normally give away sheep for free, or entertain bargaining. This is a working farm, and all sheep have a value in the slaughter channel, so their value as pets is determined accordingly.

Do I have to pay WA state sales tax on breeding stock?

Yes, you do, unless you can provide a filled-out exemption form from the state. You can find the form here. If you are a qualified farm, simply print out the form, fill it out, and give us a signed copy for our records; then we can remove WA state sales tax from your invoice. The state is very strict in enforcement of this policy, and sellers can incur large fines if the do not have the exemption paperwork on file. So regrettably, we must charge you tax unless you can provide the form before or at the time of purchase.

If you are an out-of-state buyer and can prove residency outside of WA (e.g. with a driver’s license), you also do not need to pay sales tax.

How are breeding stock fed from birth onward?

We do not use feed creep feed, alfalfa or any other high-protein concentrate to our ewes or lambs. Breeding ewes are fed modest grass hay during winter, and are given 1-1.5 pounds each of dry corn-barley (8% crude protein) during the last 30-60 days of pregnancy, tailing off by the second week of nursing. Lambs are born on pasture and the ewes are grazing from lambing time onward. Lambs wean onto pasture grass alone and are given minimal de-worming treatment. Thus, we don’t get the average pound-per-day gains on lambs that people in intensive, indoor lambing operations achieve. But for our climate and region where feed and labor is very expensive, we feel this system breeds a better sheep: one that can perform outdoors with low inputs and labor. This is the sheep of the future. 

If you want to buy breeding stock that will fit in a grass-fed operation, it’s a good idea to buy them from a similar operation. You may find that purchasing sheep from a “hot house” rearing environment is hit-or-miss: some animals may do OK in a pasture-based system, but many will not thrive and you’ll be culling them in a year or two.