These are the opinions and comment of Jesse M. Duckett at Duckett Farms Hope, Arkansas

“Sheep are the DUMBEST ANIMALS on God’s green earth,” your neighbor will vow, vigorously shaking his head once he sees the newest additions to your farm.

However, sheep don’t deserve the bad rap they’ve received. They are willing to eat many kinds of weeds that livestock such as cattle won’t touch. This is a good thing for the farmer since it cuts down on the costs of spraying weeds.

In fact, if you already run cattle, you can actually improve your grazing land by pasturing four ewes for every cow. Forming livestock units such as this not only cuts down on pasture maintenance, but it increases the income from your grazing land.

Those four ewes will produce 150% - that is, each 4-ewe unit should produce six lambs. Those six lambs, grown out to 50 pounds apiece add up to 300 pounds. At $1.00 per pound, you’re making $300.00 per animal unit. If you’re lambing twice per year, from Thanksgiving until New Years, and again in March through April, that’s only half of your time, and each animal unit will be bringing in up to $600.00. One cow weaning a 600-pound calf, which sells at $1.50 per pound, equals $900.00, which brings your total animal unit income up to $1,500.00 per year.

With those numbers, the sheep business doesn’t look quite so bad after all!

If you’re interested in getting into the sheep business, you should consider hair sheep as your breed of choice. We’ll show you how to get started:

• The most adaptable and low-maintenance hair sheep breeds include Dorper, Katahdin and St. Croix. Sheep from these breeds are normally docile, easy to handle and they’ve all been documented as resistant to parasites.

• Sheep need shelter to get in out of the cold or have a warm, dry area to lamb in the winter months. Old barns or outdated chicken houses work perfectly. Each ewe needs approximately 10 to 15 square feet in your lambing facility. You’ll also need claiming pens for the ewe and her lambs – a minimum of 4 by 5 feet – for 24 hours or until the motherhood bond is established. Once the ewe has accepted her lambs, they can be moved into group growing pens and pasture. Each growing pen should be equipped with a creep feeder and plenty of water for the ewes and their lambs.

• For the 12 to 14 weeks that the lambs are with their mothers, the ewes and lambs can run on pasture and creep feed. Once the lambs are weaned, the ewes will need a week or two of reduced feed to dry up. During this time, worm the ewes and turn the ram in for rebreeding.

• The rams will run with the ewes on pasture for 60 days to rebreed so that the flock lambs as a group.

• The ewes have a good mothering ability and they lamb easily. In fact, for these reasons, the hair sheep breeds are considered ideal for extensive pasture lambing systems.

• They are highly fertile animals that have a long breeding season, which is ideal for a twice-per-year breeding program. The ewes will breed throughout the year, and they regularly produce twins. Producers like hair sheep because the ewes produce plenty of milk to raise twins or triplets.

• Although hair sheep breeds grow some wool in cold weather, they shed in warm weather, which means that these sheep don’t require shearing – a major advantage for the farmer.

• Most hair sheep producers in the South don’t dock tails or crutch the lambs.

• Hair sheep breeds produce medium sized ewes, averaging 110 to 150 pounds. They produce lambs that weigh between 40 and 60 pounds at the 12 to 14 week weaning age.

• Some lambs are sold around the 50 to 70-pound weight, while others can go into a feeding program to reach 100 to 110 pounds before going to market. By contrast, wool sheep are marketed around 125 to 160 pounds.

• Larger processing plants like lambs weighing between 110 and 150 pounds because the assumption is that heavier lambs have much better carcass weight percentages. However, a heavy 56 to 65-pound carcass will have between 9 and 13 pounds of leg and 19 to 23 pounds of shoulder, which sells for less money per pound. Slightly smaller 45 to 55-pound carcasses have 6 to 9 pounds of leg weight and 14 to 19 pounds of shoulder weight, which means that in most cases, the smaller carcasses will bring in a higher per-pound price.

• The larger USDA processing companies are starting to look at the ways they can become a part of the ethnic markets on the East Coast. If they start buying and processing hair lambs to supply that market, it will open up an all-new market for high quality 100-pound lambs from the Southern states.

If we want the largest processing companies to come to the South, we must be ready to supply the lambs they’ll need. Will we be ready to supply the demand for this new market? It’s up to us to show the USDA processing companies that we can supply all the lambs they need.

Jesse M. Duckett at Duckett Farms Hope, Arkansas