Friday, June 24, 2016

Getting Paid Once a Year

Several weeks ago, I posted a link on my Flying Mule Farm Facebook page to a story I wrote for a blog called Stories from the Valley (One Year to the Next), where I referenced a "bigger lamb check." When one of the regular visitors to my Facebook page laughed at the term, I realized that the concept of getting paid once a year is probably foreign to most folks.

First, I should say (as some readers will know) that I work off the ranch, so we don't rely on the income from the sheep business to make our living.  Regardless, we do treat our small sheep operation as a stand-alone business - in other words, the business has to cover it's direct and overhead costs, pay the partners a salary, and generate a profit.  Since the bulk of our income arrives in the late spring and early summer (through the sale of live lambs and wool), we have to budget our cash flow carefully.  We still have expenses in the midst of winter - the lamb checks I get in June have to carry us through until this time next year!

Before we can get paid, there are a number of management and marketing activities that we have to undertake.  Once we're done lambing (and I know approximately how many lambs we'll retain as replacement ewes or as feeder lambs), I start contacting potential buyers.  We only keep as many lambs as we have grass for grazing, so that sets our upper limit for retaining lambs.  Most of our buyers in recent years are small-scale sheep producers and folks who want to raise meat for their own freezers.  We also market some lambs directly to Superior Farms, the main lamb processor in California.  Typically, our marketing window corresponds with the Muslim holiday of Ramadan (during which we find increased demand for lambs the size of ours).

We time the weaning of our lambs (weaning is the process of separating the ewes from the lambs) to correspond with the availability of higher quality (that is, green) forage.  During the drought, we weaned the lambs in late May; this year, with better irrigation and more grass, we were able to wait until June 20.  The longer the lambs can nurse, the more they'll grow.  On the other hand, lactation is a significant energy demand on the ewes - we want to make sure that we wean early enough to put weight back on the ewes before our breeding season begins in early October.

This year, our preparations for weaning began the weekend before - we set up our corrals and made sure we had all of our supplies on hand.  After I moved the irrigation water early Monday morning, Roger and I brought the sheep into the corrals.  My daughters Lara and Emma joined us, and we got the process underway.  The first step was to record weights for each lamb - this gives us a sale weight for the lambs we're selling, and allows us to calculate an adjusted 100-day weight for each lamb (which allows us to compare lamb and ewe performance regardless of when the lamb was born).  While the lambs were in the alley, we also put in their permanent ear tags - an identifier tag for all lambs, and a red tag denoting breeding group and year of birth for the ewe lambs).  Those that we intend to keep (replacement ewe lambs and feeder lambs) were marked with red paint; those that we intend to sell were left unmarked (I should note that we only use approved scourable paint - paint that will wash out of our wool).

Once we finished tagging and weighing the lambs, we ran them back through the alley - this time to sort the ewes from the lambs through a "cut" gate.  Once the sorting was completed, the border collies and I took the ewes to a small holding pen over the hill - out of sight of where the lambs would be going.  Then we took the lambs back to their pasture - the first time moving newly weaned lambs is always a challenge, but the short move went well.

One of our goals at weaning is to get the ewes to stop lactating as quickly as possible to avoid mastitis (an infection of their mammary systems).  To do this, we try to abruptly lower their nutritional intake by moving them off of irrigated pasture and onto dry forage.  We also want them out of sight and mind for the lambs - the lambs will break out of our electric fences if they can see and/or hear their mothers.  Consequently, after we put the lambs back on pasture, we gathered the ewes back into the corrals and hauled them to another ranch.  A long and busy day, to say the least!

Here are the statistics for this year's lambs:
Lambs weaned per ewe exposed
Average weaning age
107.2 days
Average actual weaning weight
62.9 lbs
Average 100-day adj weaning weight
59.1 lbs
Average actual weaning weight per ewe
108.0 lbs
Average 100-day adj weaning weight per ewe
100.1 lbs
Death loss (post-lambing to weaning)

This week, we've been marketing lambs.  This means bring the lambs into the corrals, sorting off the lambs that we're selling, and allowing our buyers to make their selections.  By this Sunday, we'll have all of the feeder lambs sold; we will keep the purebred Shropshire lambs for a bit longer (along with our Mule replacement ewe lambs and the feeder lambs we're keeping).  The revenue from this week's sales will carry us through until we sell next year's lambs!  And the size of our lamb checks depends on two key factors - the weight of the lambs and the price per pound we receive.  Typically, the price per pound declines as weight goes up, but the total value of a heavier lamb is greater than that of a lighter lamb.  Our lambs were heavier than normal this year!

In many ways, weaning and selling our lambs is the final report card on our management efforts over the prior 12 months.  The decisions we've made since last July (after weaning our 2015 lambs) have had a direct impact on our economic success this year.  Beyond the lamb checks, though, I take great satisfaction in looking at a pen-full of healthy, vigorous and muscular lambs.  I take a lot of satisfaction in the compliments we get from our buyers.  And I appreciate getting paid for our year's work!

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