Ewe With Twin Lambs

How Much Does A Sheep Cost

Many of us who are homesteading minded quickly turn our thoughts to all of the animals we can keep once we have some land to raise them on.  From chickens and ducks to goats or even rabbits, there are a lot of worthwhile animals to keep on your homestead which can help feed your family or bring a profit from your land.  But what about sheep? How much will it cost to buy a sheep and then to maintain it?  And is it profitable to keep sheep, or is it more of a passion project?  Let’s take a look.


How Much Does It Cost To Buy A Sheep

The initial expense of buying sheep is actually surprisingly inexpensive, and without the need for substantial structures to see them well taken care of, it doesn’t take too much to get into sheep tending once you have the land (with a general rule of 2, to a maximum of 4 sheep per acre).  

Firstly, however, you need to make sure you know the specific reason you’re buying a sheep. Knowing if you want to raise sheep for a profit, vs reclaiming some money while having them more as pets and as living lawnmowers, or having them for show competitions are all very different purposes, and a corresponding more ideal breed. Purebreds for shows will be much more expensive than breeds most popular for profit.  Purebreds will also be less resilient against health problems than their profit oriented counterparts.  

We won’t go into a full discussion on breeds here today, but we’ll list the most commonly preferred breeds for each main purpose shortly.  For now, just know that breed selection is very important to fit your intentions and situation, and will affect the price.  We will also be angling our discussion towards the intentions of generating a profit from keeping sheep, even if it’s just to at least reclaim some cost from owning sheep you intend to keep as pets.


Purchasing Your First Sheep

Depending on the breed, and varying on your region, ewes (adult female sheep) will cost you about $200-250, to 3-400 each.  Their price will drop as they are older and have less productive time left in their lives. If you purchase a bred ewe (pregnant) it will cost you a bit more, but you won’t have to deal with the expense of a ram for that lambing season, if lambing is your goal. Just make sure you’re ready to care for a pregnant ewe, knowing what you need to to see the pregnancy go off smoothly.  

Buying a lamb will cost you about $100-200. If you’re looking to buy a ram, a good quality ram may cost up to $500.  If you’re concerned about that price, ‘rent’ one, but don’t go for a cheap ram with bad genetics.

These are all generalized price ranges, but they give you a good idea of what kind of cost you’re going to be looking at.  You’ll need to check into resources for your local market to make sure your expectations are accurate at the time and place you are looking to buy to get the most for your money (and know to be suspicious if the market value is $200 for a lamb and someone is charging $120).


Some Tips On Buying Sheep

While the prices above will change from season to season, there’s a lot more you can do to make sure you’re not over paying or getting a sheep in bad health. 


Where To Buy Sheep

There are a few common places to shop for sheep.  Sale barns and sheep auctions are popular sources in many areas.  Another option is going straight to breeders.  Breeders raise sheep specifically to sell and oftentimes you can go straight to their farm to check out what’s for sale, and see how they’re raised.

We personally avoid sale barns and auctions, which may be cheaper than other sources, but their selections are often pulled from breeders rejects.  Sometimes that may not be the case, or it may work out anyway, especially if you find a trustworthy source and know how to inspect your sheep before a purchase, but you may just be buying an expensive problem for the future.  

Shopping at any form of auction house will also make it impossible to properly inspect the herd the sheep up for sale have come from, which hides important signs of things you may want to avoid.  Our preferred suggestion is finding a local breeder with a good reputation so that you know what you’re getting, and can fully vet the health and quality of your future sheep.

Once you do get to a breeders facility, take a look around.  I want to see how well it’s taken care of.  Does it look to be in disrepair, or is well maintained?  The whole place should look like the people who run it care about what they’re doing, and aren’t going to cut corners to try to get away with doing less.  If the facility looks good, there is a very real chance the sheep will be better taken care of. 

Another important thing to do before setting out for your purchase, is to make sure you’re familiar with the livestock/breeding regulations in your state or area, and check that the breeder is following them.  Most important of these is checking for individual ear tags and certificates supporting healthy sheep.  You definitely don’t want to work with a breeder who is resistant to showing these documents or acts evasive about them, like you’re being unreasonable.  

Sheep Ear Tags
A sheep with their identifying ear tags. Most places legally require these ID tags to be present for a sheep to leave a property, even just temproarily.

The breeder should readily supply good lambing records for any ewes, which look accurate and not altered for the purpose of sales.  By this we mean we want to see a ewe that very regularly births two lambs, or potentially 3, but feels realistic.  If an ewe is birthing triplets twice a year, every year, I’m less likely to believe it, or at least believe that a breeder would be willing to sell them.

I also always ask how long it’s taken their lambs to get to whatever weight(s) I’m considering aiming for for sales (more on this ahead), when selling for meat is my plan.  Are the lambs thickly muscled for a meaty carcass, and do they typically hit the goal weight you’re planning on in a time span that works for you?  If they do, you have a very good chance that these sheep are going to work well for your purposes.

Outside of the sheep being able to fulfill the goals you have for your sheep business, we like to buy sheep which have the same feed types and, as possible, similar living situations to what we can offer.  This lowers the stress involved in switching feed types and gives better peace of mind that these sheep will thrive once you take them home.

Lastly, as with buying anything from anyone, you should feel like your breeder isn’t giving you shady vibes or like they’re hiding something, or are being too pushy.  Be cautious, but stay polite as well!


Inspecting The Sheep

Other than just avoiding buying at a higher than appropriate price, most of what we’re trying to be mindful of when finding where and who to buy a sheep from is to make sure we have a healthy sheep which won’t surprise us with any extra costs from medical expenses.  Having a new sheep die young, or even spread a disease to your flock, is not going to turn you a profit!

First I will say that if you are fairly new to raising sheep it is worth the cost to bring a vet with you to inspect any sheep you may buy, or at least someone with a lot of experience raising sheep.  Beyond that, start with looking at the herd the sheep is coming from.  Are there sheep who have a cough?  Watery or unclear eyes? Are some of them limping?  Do they seem alert to your presence, or do they seem a bit more absent instead (this being the bad sign)? If you see any of these signs, or anything even more worrying, you should find somewhere else to shop.

Next we need to check out the specific sheep you’re looking at buying.  The breeder is not going to sell their best stock, that’s what they’re breeding from, but you should always be aiming for vibrant and healthy sheep.  Ideally, if buying ewes, you’d try to search out ewes which had lambed twins early on in the lambing season.  They should have a soft and warm udder, though they may be a bit thinner on the whole if they are or have recently been nursing lambs.  But that aside, they should not look overly thin or fat, either of which can be a bad health sign. Their front teeth should match up evenly with their upper gums.  Their hooves and coat should look visibly healthy, with nothing that makes you raise an eyebrow. Knowing the specific breed you’re considering can give you other signs to look for to show they are a good specimen.

If you are looking at purchasing a lamb(s), try to choose the older of any of a ewes lambs, which have a better bet of having nursed well.  When checking out the lamb, also always check out it’s mother to ensure it’s healthy and has good attributes for our purposes(muscle and bone structure, and so on).  

When buying lambs, it’s important to note that regardless of their health, they do require regular worming and are more susceptible to parasites than older sheep, so need more regular pasture rotation (the lower the grass gets to the soil, the more likely a sheep will be to get parasites from the soil).  Some of their prophylactics should be given before you even take them home.

One last thought on lambs before we move on is that if you are looking to purchase lambs for the sake of raising those into lambing ewes, if you are not experienced you may want to wait a couple of years before you try to lamb them.  Yearlings (named because they are 1-2 years old) have more birthing complications and are often described as ‘nervous mothers,’ so are harder to be successful with as a first time sheep farmer.  Caring for a pregnant ewe can offer enough difficulties for first time sheep hands as it is, unless you have help from someone with experience.


Being Prepared For Sheep

Sheep on the whole don’t require a lot of infrastructure compared to some other livestock, but there are still some necessary steps and worthy investments you can make to be ready for your flock.  


Prepping Your Land

We always intensely inspect any area we’ll be keeping our sheep before bringing them home for anything sharp, any nails or other things left about the yard, or places where they may get their head stuck.  Sheep, especially lambs, are very inquisitive and will need to be checked repeatedly the first few days in their new home for injuries in case they’ve run into some trouble. Making sure gates are secure and latched and that your feed is well contained (from predators, rodents, and your new flock) is well worth having on your check list as well.

If you’re in an area that has much in the way of predators, your sheep, especially lambs, can make for a very easy meal.  A simple fence may not be enough for some predators, so a basic electrified fence or a sheep dog can be a very cost effective way to protect your investment.  

If you have purchased a ram, outside of breeding time (keeping the ram in with your ewes for about 6-8 weeks) you’ll need to set up a separate area for him to live in.  This is part of why it’s often far simpler and less expensive to either purchase a bred ewe, rent out a ram, or even bring your ewes to a ram which is being ‘hired out’ for the purpose. However, choosing your ram will give you better sway over passing on qualities that you want to breed into your lambs, such as being more muscular or having better bone development, outstanding wool production, etc.

You don’t generally need a covered structure to keep sheep, as long as you aren’t in more severe weather climates, but you will want to separate your land into three or four different areas so that you can rotate the flock to minimize over-grazing and resulting parasites.  If you do plan on winter lambing and have more significant weather, a covered/indoor area should supply 15 square feet per ewe.

A crucial step before bringing your new sheep home is having their hooves trimmed carefully and have footrot disinfectant applied, and worm them while you’re at it.  You want to remove any chance they bring something nasty to your home soil.  If you suspect any footrot after you’ve brought them home (or for any of your existing sheep) dry hooves are your priority.  Only take them to pasture after the morning dew has dissipated, especially during the wet season, and get that handled as quickly as possible.  

If you could not find the sheep you wanted which were being fed in the same way you plan to, make sure to get a good supply of the food they have been fed so far to help them transition safely.  Any changes in feed should be made gradually over 2-4 weeks.

Sheep Dog Protecting The Herd
A sheep dog, protecting their herd from potential predators. Image created by Andy Fitzsimon, cropped and resized here for fit.


Equipment And Services

The larger the operation you’re looking to set up, your start up costs will start to include equipment for cleaning and taking care of any indoor facilities, shearing equipment if you’ll be going for wool production, and equipment or rental/service options if you plan on having any of your own pasture preserved as hay for the winter.

When it comes to all the work needing to be done, will you be hiring help, and will it be seasonally or year round, or are you running it all yourself?  If you’re new to raising sheep, know that ear tagging, foot trimming, shearing and tail docking, among other necessities of sheep management are all skilled tasks you don’t want to try yourself without experience or training.  Lambing ewes need close supervision, and even just feeding your sheep hay in the winter will need daily labor or equipment.  Raising sheep is a daily job, no matter what.  You’ll want to know what you may be hiring out for, even if only temporarily/seasonally, as part of your costs.

At the end of this article we have a list of resources, which includes a more comprehensive list of potential expenses including both equipment, and labor/services.


How Much Does It Cost To Keep Sheep

So you have an idea of how much it will cost to initially buy your sheep, how to avoid some buying pitfalls, and some steps in getting ready to bring your sheep home. The cost of maintaining your sheep, however, is a big part of the equation to see how viable an investment they are.


The Cost Of Feeding Sheep

Ideally you keep your sheep on a nice big pasture which lets them spend most of the year grazing for most of their food.  But at a minimum, winter does happen and even in milder climates the growth rate of grass will slow.  A bit of supplemental nutrition is also, almost always required.  The climate you’re in and the breeds you raise will always have an effect on this, but most of the time it’s going to be pretty similar.


Grass And Hays

Generally, having 15 bales of hay will feed one ewe and her lambs by itself during winter.  Hay bales generally have about 20 100lb hay bales per ton.  While I’m writing this, it’s winter and in the Pacific Northwest grass hay is priced at about $250/ton (so about $12.50/bail), and alfalfa hay (the most common legume hay) at $70/ton (so about $3.50/bale), both depending on the specific quality grade.  It should be no surprise that hay is going to be priced higher during winter.  

On the whole, priced to grass hay, each ewe and her lambs will cost you about $150-200 each winter if you do not have any grass to pasture them on. This will vary depending on the region you’re in, but pretty much all regions will have regular pricing reports from a hay/farmers industry organization.  If you have enough of your own pasture, you can cut down a lot of this cost by having someone bale your own grasses in preparation for winter.

Also worth keeping in mind, though not strictly a price concern; you’ll want to use your best quality hay for when ewes are nursing their young when pasture isn’t available, and then going for the lower quality hay once her lambs are hitting 60-90 days old and it’s time to let her milk dry up.  

Talking about their food in more general situations, when pasture is readily available, most of their nutritional needs are generally met pretty easily, a few micro-nutrients aside which can easily be supplemented. However, there are differences between grass hays and legume hays besides the pricing, with the most important one being that legume hays can be a bit harder to digest, and less palatable so your sheep may be more resistant to eating it.  That said, it’s great to supplement in some legume hay during later stages of gestation and into nursing to help with their higher needs for calcium and other minerals which legume hay can offer.

Another benefit to having hay on hand in general, including legume hay, is that in the beginning of spring when the grasses are growing at their fastest, this ‘wet forage’ has a much higher moisture content and can make it difficult for your sheep to get enough nutrients, leading to loose stool (which can easily start coating their hind quarters) and inadequate nutrition.  So supplementing in the early spring with dry feed may be necessary, especially if you have any younger lambs.  If you have a good selection of weeds or herbs, sheep will actually often prefer these, with chicory and plantain being common favorites, which will help them fill out their nutritional needs.

Sheep Hay Bale


Grains and Supplements

As an alternative to hay feeding during winter, or for dry seasons, including droughts where you need an emergency feed source where grasses and hays are suddenly not an option, there are a range of grains which work well for sheep feed.  Grain is easier to store than hay and much easier to handle as an added bonus, and is readily available in most regions.  Barley, corn (often labeled as maize, and is the only grain which can be ground fed, as opposed to troughs), oats, sheep nuts and sorghum are all common grains for sheep.  

You can often find pelleted forms of grain feed at local farm stores or grain elevators.  If you have local farmers who sell dried shelled corn, you’ll almost always find that much cheaper, and besides lambs under 6 weeks old (who won’t have a fully functioning rumin yet), having unprocessed grains tends to be the healthiest option.  

While it will depend on the exact size, composition, breed, and age of your sheep, the below figures are general pounds of feed-per-week needs if you are feeding with grain.  When it comes to pricing, it varies too much across type, region, and season to give useful numbers here but know that some grains are much cheaper than hays (corn silage), to notably more expensive than hays (soy meal).


For corn, barley, sorghum, and wheat.

Lambs: 4 pounds/week

Adults: 5.25 pounds/week

Ewes within 6 weeks of lambing: 6.5 pounds/week

Lactating Ewes: 9 pounds/week


For Oats and sheep nuts.

Lambs: 5 pounds/week

Adults: 6.5 pounds/week

Ewes within 6 weeks of lambing: 8.3 pounds/week

Lactating Ewes: 11.25 pounds/week


If fully hand feeding through grain, calcium will be in deficit.  Mixing in 1-1.5% finely ground limestone into the ration will take care of this.  If green feed is not available for more than a year (or 2-6 months for rams), supplementing vitamin A will also become needed.

There are many other forms of feed which can be looked into, for different purposes, but these cover the most common needs.  Just make sure that even in emergency drought feeding situations, you find a way to transition feed types.  This is especially important when switching to grain as ‘grain poisoning’ (lactic acidosis) can occur through engorgement.  

This is also a good place to point out that while keeping fresh clean water available year round is pretty obvious, you’ll also need to keep loose minerals available for your sheep.  Most pastures will be naturally low in cobalt, iodine and selenium in particular, so some supplementing is important. The price isn’t substantial, but it is something you’ll have to have ready.  Make sure to stick with sheep specific mineral options, as other mineral mixes often have too much copper, which quickly becomes toxic to sheep.


Medical Costs

This is a category of costs that I can’t reasonably put numbers to, as it will depend on the quality and life stage of the sheep you purchase, the breed, your region, and your own experience handling livestock, among other things.  There are common practices which go somewhat in tandem with this, like docking, de-worming and other prophylactic practices, and for these the costs are generally low. What we really need to look out for are the unexpected costs, which quickly soar.  Vet bills can get expensive quick when things really go wrong, but there are luckily good resources online (as well as often local industry organizations which offer resources, local community colleges which often have animal husbandry programs, and so on, which are there to help local farmers) to help you learn how to do a lot of the more run of the mill medical tasks that pop up in sheep farming animal husbandry.  Beyond that, the big focus is on picking healthy sheep at purchase and taking good care of them so that these costs don’t pop up.  


Earning Profit From Your Sheep

The main two ways you’re going to get an ongoing income from your sheep is through meat and wool sales.  With good experience and an opening in your local market, you could certainly look into breeding, renting out good rams, collecting dairy (requires certain breeds, and usually loses money if done by itself for profit), etc. but we’ll just stick with the fundamentals here. 


Raising Sheep For Meat

The Basics

Picking a breed for meat cultivation means sticking with breeds that have a thicker build resulting in a significantly meaty carcass and fast growing lambs.  They will often also be less self sufficient and have lower lambing percentages.  These all mean, as is nearly always the case, choice of ram in your lambing is important!  

You want a healthy (obviously), stout and muscular ram responsible for your lamb, whether it’s one you own or the one the breeder is using.  Common breeds for raising meat sheep include Cheviot, Dorset, Hampshire, Suffolk, and Texel, or cross breeds between them.

Each ewe will yield 1-3 young at a time when lambing (giving birth), with twins being the most common for most breeds.  A well taken care of ewe will produce about 6 lambs every 2 years on average.  

I usually expect a good ‘live weight’ (weighed before butchering) price to be $130 per 100 pounds, with that depending on season, location, where you’re selling it, and so on.  If you sell at carcass weight, or cut weight, that number will be much higher per pound, but obviously with fewer pounds. This means if your ewe has 6 lamb every 2 years, and they all average 140 pounds, you’ll be bringing in about $550/year per ewe, before subtracting expenses.

If you’ve been wondering, we’re only discussing lambs here lamb meat is more desirable compared to ‘mutton.’ Mutton is the meat that comes from sheep which are more than a year old and will have a stronger flavor, and simply doesn’t hold much popularity in most places.  This means if you’re looking to raise meat for sale, you’ll often be looking to raise lambs to weight and then send them to slaughter, which is one reason why rams are mostly only kept for breeding purposes when profit is the goal.  If you’re selling to local individuals, or some ethnic communities, you may have more of a market for mutton.


Meat Sheep Growing Management System

There are a few common ways of timing and organizing growing lambs for meat which in most areas are the most efficient options.  There are always more specialized methods depending on location, timing, breeds, and so on, but these are good standards.  

Your final products are going to come down to different goal weight classes: 30-40 for a hot house lamb, 40-70 pounds for a feeder lamb, 100 for ‘market weight,’ or 140-150lbs for a full market weight (which takes about 6-8 months).  

Easter and Summer Lambing: you lamb first for the year in January to February to yield hot-house lambs for the easter market, then follow this aiming for 100+ pound market lambs come early summer.

Later Season Lambing: here you will lamb in April to May which lets you maximize your summer through fall pasture, and then sell feeder or market lambs at the start of Autumn.  It will be easier to raise them, with lower costs, but the prices you get at market will also be lower.

Multiple Lambing/Accelerated Lambing: here you would be trying to lamb several times a year, which may not always land in the same seasons year to year as you just try to lamb as frequently as possible.  Breed choice will be more important here with better demands on care of your sheep to keep all of your sheep in adequate nutrition.  In particular, Dorset, Rambouillet and Polypay sheep breeds are viable choices for Autumn lambing season.


Where To Sell Lamb Meat

Most people raising sheep for meat will have a local sale barn take care of the process for a small fee, which can then either sell to individuals in auction, coops, larger processing centers, and so on.  You’ll get the most money for your meat in winter through spring, with a significant drop off in summer to earlier autumn.  

Depending on how close you are to urban centers, it can work pretty well to have a local processing plant prepare ‘freezer lambs’ to order for you to sell to individuals directly, most commonly as half or whole carcasses for them to freeze.  Restaurants and farmers markets are also always worth checking out in these regards.

When it comes to selling to individuals, USDA regulations do allow individual customers to buy live sheep (money must change hands while they are alive), and then slaughter them themselves on your property (you are not allowed to assist in any way for it to be legal), but it will vary by state.  


Raising Sheep For Wool

Wool production is probably what comes to mind first for most people thinking about trying to make a profit off of wool.  Really that’s probably what comes to mind just thinking about a sheep; a big fluffy white marshmallow of wool.  

Wool producing breeds are slower growing than meat focused breeds, though will typically have a higher lambing percentage and are known for good mothering ability.  They will unsurprisingly have a less meaty carcass, but also less need for supplemental feed.  Most common breeds used to focus on wool production include: Corriedale, Polypay and Rambouillet.  

For the topic of raising wool for profit, it’s pretty simple.  Most sheep will be sheared once or twice a year, depending on their breed.  Each ewe will typically yield 8-12 pounds of wool when sheared.  Wool sales will yield ~$1.50-6.50/pound depending on it’s quality grade.  If you pay a shearer to take care of the collection, that will cost you an extra $3-5/head.  

This means each ewe, at absolute best, with you shearing her yourself, will yield $160/year if she’s superbly productive, not including any other expenses.  That doesn’t amount to a whole lot, so unless someone has a special market or a large specialized operation, it tends to be an add-on to meat sales or it will lose you money. 

Worth noting here, is that wool does come in more colors than white or black, and if you have a local market which is looking for naturally colored fibers which don’t need to be dyed, it may prove a lot more worthwhile.  You’ll have to do your own research on this for your local area.  It’s still unlikely to make it worth being wool focused in your sheep raising endeavor, but it may push you towards a meat heavy wool breed, instead of a hairy breed.

Shearing Sheep


Conclusion: Are Sheep Profitable?

After going through these ballpark numbers, the profitability of sheep raising is pretty straight forward, with the base assumption that you have the land.  Even if you just have one acre on your property and want to pull a bit of money from it, raising lambs for meat can yield you a profit. The more you do yourself, and the better you choose (right breed and how healthy) then tend to your sheep, the more profitable it will be. If you’re looking to create a big operation and want to buy a lot of land specifically to farm sheep, then a lot more questions open up about cost of buying the land, and hiring staff if you aren’t doing it all yourself, but it can still be profitable, it’s just a bit beyond the scope of what we can talk about here.  

Wool, on the other hand, is not likely to make you a profit by itself.  With the increase of artificial fiber availability and demand, it has become much tougher to sell any kind of natural fiber at a sustainable price.  Wool sales would be the best option if you simply want some sheep to raise and love, and want to recoup some of the costs of having them without sending them off to slaughter.  

You can also raise sheep for slaughter, but harvest their wool as well to get an extra income source.  Some sheep breeds don’t grow wool, so they’re obviously out for this purpose (though remove the need for shearing, if you want to avoid that), but some breeds are quite decent for both meat and wool production (Hybrid breeds).  That said, if profitability is your goal we would bias your breed choices heavily towards meat production.

To give you a more specific final idea, which must be noted is mostly from data on medium to larger operations: The University of California Davis, using industry data averages, puts an average of about $20/head of ewe profit per year with larger flocks (100 head), where labor costs and interest are worked in.  The university of Ohio places the startup cost of a medium flock (30 head) at an income of $187.50 to $235.84 per head, and an annual upkeep cost of about $51 each.  It’s reinforced that you will need to yield more than one lamb per birthing on average to turn a profit, though ideal breeds and good practices should yield twins in the majority of births.

Both these studies highlight the cost of labor involved in larger operations, where their profit margins are much lower than home operations but their size gives them larger overall profit.  The more work you do yourself, the more profitably there can be, but I always like to express the fact that raising sheep is WORK, and not to be taken lightly.  By reading this article you’ve gotten an idea of the costs and profit, but do please make sure you know what’s involved in the day to day before you take some sheep home.


Additional Resources and Sources

The topic of considering becoming a sheep farmer, even if it’s just in your large back yard, is a considerable one.  Here are some resources we found helpful.

This is a brief but useful information heavy page by the University of California, Davis.

This is an outdated cost list, but gives you a good detailed list of many of the expenses you’ll need to keep in mind for sheep tending, with some being things you do yourself or aren’t applicable, and some being complete necessities.

The National Sheep Improvement Program offers a wide range of information and resources for any level of sheep owner to maximize their health and productivity.

While it is sourced in Australia, this site offers some good resources on supplementary feeding. 

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