SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – South Dakota ranks sixth in the U.S. in sheep production. And since Dakota Territory days, sheep have played a large role in South Dakota’s livestock industry.
Because of their size and diet, they have always been an affordable alternative to cattle. More than 160 years later, sheep remain a good option for young people looking to get a start in South Dakota’s livestock industry
It’s lambing season. So, Mission Hill farmer Brandon Van Osdel is busy making sure ewes are paired up with their newborn twins in maternity pens inside the 60-by-100-foot lambing barn.
“We get those ewes with their new babies locked into a jug, that’s what we call it or a maternity pen so they can bond and establish a good start for those lambs,” Van Osdel said.
To ensure they establish a bond strong enough to identify their own lambs from others, Van Osdel typically keeps his ewes in jugs with their new lambs two days before turning them into a community pen. By the time lambing is over, there will be over 450 lambs frolicking around the Van Osdel family farm.
In addition to caring for his flock, Van Osdel also raises cow/calf pairs and works full-time as an agronomist off the farm. He says the days can get quite long, but the 90-plus hour work weeks are worth it because he is doing what he loves.
“We are fifth generation. My great, great, grandfather homesteaded in 1872, so we just turned 150 years old,” Van Osdel said. “I can’t remember ever not wanting to do anything but farm. I mean, that’s just all I’ve ever wanted to do.”
And because adding additional production acres is a challenge with high land prices and interest rates, sheep allow the 26-year-old to remain actively involved in the family farm because he is able to raise them in the farm’s existing drylots that empty when the cow/calf pairs head to summer pasture.
“The risk is a lot lower, just as far as financially. We can always talk in terms of one sheep is about one-fifth of a cow. So, for every five sheep is about the amount of work and resources as a cow,” Van Osdel said.
Like Van Osdel, 35-year-old Cody Chambliss also works full-time off the Highmore ranch where he raises sheep and his fiancé raises cattle. Comparing his flock to his fiance’s herd, Chambliss says he is able to raise seven sheep with the same resources and feed costs it takes to raise one beef cow.
“The simple way to put it is you can raise seven ewes on the same feed cost as one cow. One cow yields one calf, generally. Seven ewes will yield you anywhere from 10 to 12 lambs. Ten to 12 lambs are worth $130 to $150 dollars a head. So generally, if you said per ewe $150, that would be $1,500 for that animal unit, where as a cow, you’re average yielding $1,000 per calf. So, sheep have the potential upside of $500 more revenue,” Chambliss said.
In addition to the potential cost benefits, Chambliss said his 250-head sheep flock requires much less labor than the same number of cattle.
“One person, generally, can work a whole flock of sheep by themselves. Now, if you have 100 cows, you have to have a whole crew to do branding or anything else,” Chambliss said.
Chambliss started raising sheep as an 8-year-old 4-H member. At one point after college, his flock was 700. Passionate about sheep and the future of the industry, today, Chambliss serves as co-chair of the American Sheep Industry Association Young Entrepreneurs – representing sheep producers 40 and younger.