Sheep Or Cattle: Which One Is More Profitable?

ewe with lambs and Hereford cow

If you have grazing available on your farm, you are probably thinking about getting into sheep or cattle. Both grow well on grass, are popular choices for both small and large farms and have the potential to produce an income.

Which one should you pick, will sheep or cattle will bring you more money for your farm?

Generally, sheep are significantly more profitable per acre than cattle. This depends upon the prices of both sheep and cattle in your area, if your area is appropriate or too harsh for sheep and if you are willing to put in more management time for the sheep, as compared with cattle.

In my area, north central Ohio, sheep are easily more profitable than cattle. Here are some numbers to show you why:

Market Animal Sold
(one year’s worth of production)
(per head)
Price per animal unit
(1,000 pounds mom equivalent)
500 pound steer @ $1.25 per pound$625$625 (one calf)
79 pound lamb @ $2.97 per pound$234.63$1,642.41 (7 lambs)
income difference$1,017.41 more for sheep per animal unit
Animal units are a way to compare different animals to each other based on intake of forage. Each animal unit is 1,000 pounds, which is one smaller sized cow or 5 medium sized sheep. One cow will have one calf, the 5 sheep will have 7 lambs. 12/15/21 Market Report for prices

These prices are from this week’s (as of writing) market report from Mt. Hope Auction.

The lamb prices are what we got for the larger group of lambs that we sent. The price for the steer is from the market report linked in the table. Both prices are middle of the price range for that weight group.

Raising Sheep For Profit is an article I wrote to show you the budget for raising sheep, with current prices (for my area), including how to find prices for your area, so you can see what sheep can do for you.

Sheep are more profitable than cattle, per animal unit (1,000 pounds)

Sheep are more profitable than cattle, if you are comparing by animal unit.

If you are just comparing money from sheep per acre to money from cattle per acre then the answer is: raise sheep. You get more income from the pounds of lamb raised on the same acreage as the pounds of calf raised.

This is what the chart is showing. One animal unit is 1,000 pounds of grazing animal, which in this case is one cow or 5 sheep.

Animal units are a way to make things even (or close to even) so you can compare likely results between species (sheep vs cattle) or age groups (feeders vs brood cows), based off of forage per acre.

The cow has one calf per year, this is where the 500 pound steer comes in. The 5 sheep have an average of 7.5 lambs, 150% of number of ewes, but since you can’t have .5 of a lamb, I went with 7 lambs per animal unit for the sheep.

If all things are equal, you get $1,017.41 more per animal unit from sheep than you do from cattle.

But…all things are never equal, so let’s get into a few of the things you should consider before making a decision on sheep vs cattle for your farm.

Is Keeping Sheep Easy? and 7 Disadvantages Of Raising Sheep are two of my articles that will help you with raising sheep, specifically.

Here are some ram lambs we sold earlier this fall.

Management is more demanding for sheep than cattle

Sheep take more management than cattle, by that I mean observation time by the shepherd. Observation is far more important with sheep, since sheep seem to have less ability to rally back to health than cattle.

The key with sheep is timeliness, you must be “on top of it” with sheep, lagging behind in care, like deworming, seems to lead to problems in sheep faster than in cattle.

I don’t mean to say sheep are overly needy, they are not, but they do tend to require more attention from you than the cattle herd that would be on the same amount of land.

The other aspect of management that is often overlooked is that sheep are just less well known than cattle, which means you have less vet and medicinal support with sheep (or goats) than the vet knowledge and meds for cattle.

This is simply a matter of numbers, since there are 93.6 million cattle in the U.S. and 5.17 million sheep in the U.S. in 2021. That’s 18x more cattle than sheep!

On the plus side, interest in sheep (and goats) is growing rapidly, since folks with smaller acreages are realizing that they can raise livestock, too.

Sheep knowledge and support businesses are growing, but as of today, it is still easier to get help with cattle than sheep, since both neighbors and vets are more likely to have experience with cattle rather than sheep.

Selling price for lambs or calves is based on your area

This is one that may come as a surprise to you, especially if you are new to livestock. Not all areas will have the same demand for what you raise. This applies to cattle or sheep.

How Much Will My Lambs Sell For? will show you how to figure up the likely prices for lambs in your area based on auction prices. Even if you are selling privately, you should know the current market prices for your area.

In our area, I would say there is actually a higher demand for sheep rather than cattle, despite this being a predominantly dairy cattle raising area up until the past decade or so.

Our area has lots of smaller Amish farmers who are looking for something to eat the grass then sell for a bit of extra income, this is where the sheep come in and why sheep are doing well at our local auction.

Sheep are just more small acreage friendly than cattle.

What is the trend in your area? If most folks selling at the auction are commercial beef farmers with tons of cattle and acreage, chances are your local market for sheep isn’t so great.

Why? Not many sheep are showing up, so the sheep buyers don’t show up either. If this is the case in your area, you’ll need to either figure out how to privately sell lamb to customers or ship your stock to a more sheep friendly auction.

If transport to an auction is an unreasonable distance, you need to have a plan for those sheep before you get them or be willing to sell custom raised lambs or ship packaged lamb directly to customers.

Please take some time to figure this out! Raising sheep without a reliable sales outlet is a recipe for disaster, not to mention a huge drain on your wallet!

How To Read A Cattle Market Report shows you how to figure up cattle prices for your area.

Facilities are less demanding for sheep than cattle

After the biggies of management and selling your sheep or cattle, working facilities will be a minor point, but it’s worth mentioning.

If you just have a few sheep, they can be corralled and worked in the corner of the barn with a hog panel or a couple of small wooden gates. Sure sheep can be hard on facilities, at times, but they are nothing compared to cattle.

If you are going to raise cattle, you need a sturdy working area with a few pens, at the very least.

Even if you do near no vet type work with the cattle, you still need a cattle tough place to sort off a steer or two, or pen up a cow for the vet.

Of course, a working area is simple to set up, but will need to be tough, so it will be more costly than a working area that will be fine for sheep.

Sheep and cattle can be raised together

Sheep and cattle can be raised together, if you want to have both, and have the grass to do it.

This will not change the profit per acre of sheep or cattle, but you can quite often “double up” by multi species grazing with little increase in costs, which will get you more total animals raised per acre for your farm.

5 Animals That Can Be Raised With Cattle goes over some good combinations, including sheep, and what you need to take into consideration for all (you, the cattle and the sheep) to be happy.

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