Can I Make Money With Shetland Sheep?
Breeding stock is the primary source of our gross cash income. We sell about 1/3 of our lamb crop as breeding stock. We keep about 1/6 of our lambs as replacements. The rest are culls. We sell only the very best animals. We could sell them all and make a lot more money but by selling substandard quality, customers would soon find out that quality is not important to us and we would loose them forever. Instead, we have many repeat customers and referrals to friends. However, ALL the sheep need to eat, haylage in the winter and pasture in the summer. The pasture needs to be fenced, they all need water, minerals, booster shots, drench, housing and TLC.
Fleece sold to handspinners is our second best source of gross cash income. We get $10-15 per pound. That sounds outrageous to some folks considering that wool pool prices are generally 5-10% of that. There is a huge amount of care involved to keep fleeces clean enough to command those prices. One morning of help from a couple of children while doing chores where they fling flakes of hay over the sheep to scatter them around, will reduce the value of your clip to 1/3. No matter how hard we try, some fleeces are still not up to snuff and we get very little for them. These sheep still eat, etc. and the shearer still gets paid.
Value added products work well for some. A nice hand spun, hand knit Fair Isle sweater may bring you several hundred dollars, under the right circumstances. Having your wool processed into yarn or further into blankets or sweaters may or may not increase your return on investment. Some use the pelts to make vests, car seat covers and slippers. Some even make buttons from the horns.
Meat is our third best source of gross cash income. In order to sell meat to individuals, we must have a retail meat license. In order to sell meat to restaurants and retail shops, we must have a wholesale meat license. We must meet a number of licensing requirements plus all animals must be processed in a Federally inspected facility. All requirements carry expenses of some type. Shetlands have superior quality meat and a very good yield, however they can take three years to reach full size and aren’t very big when the do. We pay the same to have a 70 pound Shetland processed as others pay to have a 240 pound Romney processed. In some years, our gross meat income is roughly half of our cost to process the animals. In a good year, we may break even. We would be better off, cost wise, to take the culls and shoot them but we feel that the meat is too great a resource to waste. Shetlands are too small and too lean to grade out as USDA “Prime” or “Choice” so you will have to develop your own market. Some areas of the US have better ethnic market access than we have, which may improve the picture. Many livestock traders are not totally honorable -- you may not get paid full value. Whatever your choice, it takes time, effort and is a gamble.
Marketing is a major expense. If folks don’t know what you have for sale, obviously they won’t buy anything. How do you promote your products in the most efficient manner? Local weekly newspapers are cheap to advertise in, but how many local readers will really be interested in your products. National trade magazine advertising is very expensive but you get your message to the right people. It frequently takes 1-2 years of seeing your advertisements for consumers to recognize your name. Local farmer's markets, fairs, shows, etc. are all possibilities but they take a lot of time and they expose your animals to risks.
I don’t mean this to seem harsh and I don’t mean to paint a bleak picture -- just a realistic one. Certainly, you are not thinking of getting rich from Shetland sheep (although several have unsuccessfully tried). It would be very unfair to embellish the truth in hopes of selling you something and have your experience turnout to be less than you anticipated. The chances of actually getting paid something for the time you put in is very unlikely and the hours are long. We have the oldest and probably the largest Shetland sheep flock in the United States. We have yet to be paid for any of the time we spend with them. They pay their way, but don’t make enough to pay us wages.
We put extraordinary effort into assuring their well-being because they are such wonderful animals!! How can you put a price tag on the squeals of excitement when a nursery school child, nose-to-nose with an adult Shetland ram, gives him a kiss and the ram wags his tail? The many, many phone calls, pictures, letters, birth announcements, Christmas cards, etc. from customers who bought Shetland sheep from us and the sheep changed their lives confirm how special these sheep really are. The joy, excitement and fulfillment that they provide for us are far more valuable than any financial reward could be.