Quick year end notes

We’ve decided to pursue fiber sales, but not meat ones.  Pursuing meat sales is something we’ll worry about once we’ve made it through enough breeding seasons to have extra lambs at all.  And the economics of a fiber flock work out better for the current life circumstances we have going on.  With a fiber flock, you can always skip a breeding season and focus on only breeding the ewes that will give great fiber and good-enough lambs for slaughter.  Then they eat way less, but still pay their hay bills.

Selling fiber is ok, it just tends to be more of a slow trickle than a burst.  And we have to be open to the entire country to get reliable sales.  I don’t mind shipping though, and we’ll certainly explore sending fleeces to the mill once we get into 20 or more fleeces regularly. Fiber milling is an interesting field, given that as infrastructure goes, nobody is really taking it up, so there will be lots of machinery available as the mill owners, who are generally like 70+, retire or pass on.  Something to think about in a few years, maybe.

Preparing fleece is a lot of work.  There are ways to cut down the workload, but sheep grow that stuff pretty long because they need it, so it’s always going to be a bit of work, even if we ultimately send everything to a local mill and focus exclusively on high-value yarns, roving and felting batts.

And next year, since I won’t be growing any babies myself, we’ll go ahead and put in a real garden, finally go back to having poultry (going to go all-in and get ducks, chickens and geese) because the eggs really are Just Better and hopefully have a successful second lambing season.

I hope to post more to this blog and get more pictures up in the new year.  It does help to take little snapshots of how things go.


Fiber Fusion Fiasco

This was a pretty crazy weekend.  I took Shaft’s fleece to Fiber Fusion for sale, and we took a peek around.  Compared to last year, Fiber Fusion had more vendors and appeared to be busier.  A lot of the people appeared pretty interested in buying and there was a shift in vendor makeup towards vendors that supplied equipment and finished/processed goods rather than “raw” fiber.

Having said that, there was also a massive increase in people offering raw fleeces for sale.  The increase was so great they set aside another building just for raw fleeces.

But then they didn’t really let anyone know how to get to it, or where it was, or how to submit a fleece for sale or judging (two separate desks).  So I and a bunch of other people put our raw fleeces out excitedly and hoped for a sale, but nobody knew our beautiful fleeces were there, so almost nothing sold.  The same fleeces I saw when I put mine out were still there at the end of the day on Sunday when I went to claim my unsold fleece. Alas.  Here’s hoping they’ll get the hang of things next year, this is still a new festival and working all the kinks out takes time.

As for the rest of the fleece, we broke down and got a dehumidifier so air drying would not take days on end.  It’s been quite effective and we are delighted with the results.  We set up in the garage, it is easiest to dry fleece there.

The sheep hacked the barn and ran amok when I lay all the fall fleeces out to air dry in the barn after shearing day.  So my project for the next few months is to shake all the hay out of the fleeces.  It looks pretty bad, as these pictures suggest, but it’s not really.  However, I’m not eager to do it again, so next  year all the fleeces go straight into mesh bags on shearing day.


Fleeces waiting to be air dried.




Air drying. This is a drying rack meant for “herb”, but we find it works great for wool instead.


The VM situation looks terrible, but most of that stuff comes out quickly when the locks are totally dry rather than slightly damp.


This drying rack holds a full mesh bag of fleece, which is about 2 fleeces’ worth of wool.


Bucky’s fleece survived the onslaught and is drying on a metal rack that is good for individual fleeces, but not as awesome as the “herbal” drying rack.


It hangs from a rafter. Very easy to set up and take down, just a wonderful find.


One last look at Bucky’s fall clip. It is soft and looks pretty good. Should wash up nicely for sale.

As you can see, we’re finally starting to formalize our processing so I can develop a routine and just always be preparing wool for sale or home use.  Also, I’m taking up knitting.  It’s a great way to use up the bulky, lumpy yarn I am likely to produce with my current newbie level of wool combing experience.

The actual sheep are doing ok and already have plenty of wool grown in for the winter.

“I used the crook!”

My husband said that the other day after separating the ram lambs out.  There’s a trick to it that I can’t recall right now because I’m still enjoying postpartum sleep deprivation, but he figured out how to hook the legs so that the sheep stands still and lets itself be led to a new paddock.  This was fabulous news, as it means more flexibility in managing the flock.

We are going to Fiber Fusion this weekend.  I’d hoped to put up at least three fleeces for sale, but will probably just see if I get a bite for Shaft’s fall clip.  I don’t think I can have his and Bucky’s spring fleeces (which, being lamb fleeces, are still plenty spinnable and worth putting up for sale as whole raw fleeces) ready in time, but we’ll see.  There were some challenges with the drying, as the spring fleece was sheared and a bit dense with winter growth, so it was thicker than the tuftlike rooed wool I collected from them in winter.  Plus they have a bunch of straw stuck in them, large pieces and easy to remove, but more than I remembered being there when I shoved them in a mesh bag for long-term storage.

The fiber sales plan is to put out what I can at the festival, see if it sells, and for the rest process them for sale as raw locks/fleeces and possibly roving.  I am getting steadily better at combing into top (considered a form of roving, which is aligned wool fibers ready for spinning), but I have yet to comb out enough to make more than a few feet of yarn.  And roving is generally sold by the ounce, which is at least a yard of yarn for one piece of roving.  My efforts at combing top yield fractions of an ounce per bundle.

That’s all right now, I am too tired to type more today.

Sheep math, running costs edition

Our running costs for sheep look like they will end up about $150 per sheep per year.  This is hay, minerals, vaccines/vet, water and other consumables (including the shearer).  This isn’t counting infrastructure like the fencing or the hay feeder they eat out of.  All the sheep can provide one fleece per year, and the ewes are supposed to additionally provide 2 lambs average per year.

I am not sure how to assign the rams a cash value for fathering the lambs, so I’ll just note that the ram fleeces would have to bring in $150 apiece to cover their running costs.  To keep things really simple, the ram fleeces are likely to yield 5lbs of raw fleece after shearing and skirting of rough ends.  This means carding the fleece into roving (moderate level of processing, maybe three hours a fleece).  Roving sells for about $35-40/lb.  So we would have to do some processing with the ram fleeces to get enough per pound to cover their running costs.

Things are much easier with the ewes, who provide lambs and fleece and lamb fleeces!

The ewe fleeces will yield less, they were sheared late summer last year and the rams were never sheared at all (being lambs when we bought them).  The ewes should give about 4lbs of usable raw fleece after skirting.  For each lamb, 1.5lbs of raw fleece is a good estimate.  So each ewe ideally would give us 7lbs total to sell to cover running costs. Lamb fleece routinely sells for $25/lb raw, so that is $75.  Ewe fleece is more like $20/lb raw, which is $80 and covers running costs.  There’s just the skirting time, which is not much time at all.  So if the ewe twins, the fleeces can just about be tossed in a sack and sold to cover the running costs.

If the ewe has only one lamb, turning that fleece into lamb’s roving would get the same $75 (lamb roving is softer and gets closer to $50/lb), but would take an hour or so of carding labor.  And you could still sell the ewe’s fleece raw with no extra labor. So a young ewe that doesn’t twin in her first breeding could still produce enough fleece to cover her running costs with a relatively modest increase in labor.

We only have six sheep and we expect at least one ewe to single, so we are expecting to do some processing of wool this year along with our journey into the world of wool selling.  We have to make 12-14 fleece sales and plan for about a day’s labor carding and then we have from April to December to make those sales happen.

I was going to get into meat sales with the lambs, but I don’t think we’re going to sell more than a couple for meat this year.  With so few animals, we are likely to keep the lambs back to grow the flock.  We’re nervous about lambing, it’s already next month and the next few weeks will be vaccinating and putting down more straw in the barn.

The ewes seem to be doing well on the daily mineral and are less pale.  So here’s hoping they bear some nice healthy lambs to shear at all.



Sustainable Economics: A High Return Model

Over at Thoughtful Food’s farm blog, there’s been an interesting discussion about types of farms and various paths to earning a profit with farm income.

I made a couple of comments offering an example of a high return model that would yield enough farm income to pay off even a 400k house and barn on 5-7 acres in under a decade.  The model was specialty wool and meat production from sheep.  There are several breeds of sheep whose wool is highly valued in the specialty wool (handspinning, felting, crafts, etc) market.  The meat can often be sold at a modest premium compared to regular lamb, and there’s also the breeding stock/pet fiber animal possibilities for further income.

With specialty wool, the top end is currently right around 90/lb for finished yarn in skeins and the bottom end is around 10/lb for raw fleece, usually skirted (trimmed of the worst poop bits and leaves/etc).  An adult ewe yields 8-12lbs of wool annually after washing and skirting, depending on the various specialty breeds out there.  Twinning is usual, so those two lambs yield 2-4lbs combined of lamb’s fleece, added to the ewe’s total.

Lowballing, that’s 10lbs of wool per ewe per year.  That’s 100-900 dollars per ewe per year.  Not all ewes will have fleece that can go to the highest-value yarn.  So the midpoint there is 500 dollars per ewe in fleece sales to account for wool sales having such a wide range per pound.

At  500 in wool per ewe, the two lambs will yield 300 each at a modest premium as meat and 400 each as breeding stock.  So that is 600-800 in lamb sales per year per ewe.  Now we’re up to 1100 per ewe per year in wool plus lamb sales.

Five acres can stock  25-35 ewes, six 30-40 and seven acres can stock 35-50 ewes.  This gives 55k/yr at 50 ewes and 33k/yr at 30 ewes.  I am handwaving the ram issue for now, but there is room to grow into an aggressive program of getting 70-90/lb for wool sales and selling meat animals at breed stock prices.  And with hitting those aggressive targets, on five acres stocking 30 ewes, getting 1600/ewe is pretty close to 50k/yr off less than 3 dozen animals.

This is a labor intensive model, no sugar coating on that one.  Carding, picking and cleaning wool is challenging, as are the husbandry techniques to minimize skirting and dirt accumulation and the practices to get excellent quality wool production.  But the customer base exists and the sales are good enough that shepherds can come close to the higher-end numbers for pure fiber flocks, no meat sales.  That is nearly 1k/ewe just for wool alone annually.  And ewes live 15-20 years.

This is just one example of a high-labor, high-return model.

Duck Tales: Depressing Duck Math

Though the ducks are laying cheerfully, I did find most of the receipts for the ducks and well, even if we achieved peak production for this month and December (daily laying from the Khakis and the Cayuga finally laying a couple eggs a week this month and next), we’d be in the hole on the ducks by quite a bit.

The waterers endlessly leaking and being super expensive was the problem.  We dropped a lot on waterers designed for indoor poultry, though we didn’t really think that part through when we got them.  So, sucky!  We’ll have to do some kind of hanging thing sometime in the next few weeks and see how that goes.

We spent about $120 on various feeding and watering contraptions, mostly waterers.  The ducks themselves cost $47 and one had to be killed for severe congenital problems.  The first 75lbs of feed was just starter ration to get them to laying age.  We’re now at 120lbs of layer ration used so far.

The starter was about 20 a sack, the layer 14 or so a sack.

Without projecting the additional costs of more feed (we buy layer 80lbs at a time, and in a week or two we’ll be through 160lbs of feed), we can only “earn” about $170 in market value for the eggs this year.  But we’ve spent about $240 all told and have to buy more feed to get them to year-end.  Figuring 80lbs/month, we’ll close the year out having spent about 300 dollars on all costs for the ducks, with a maximum of about 170 dollars in egg value from 4 layers.

And peak laying is 8-9 dozen eggs per month with that many.  Current  market value of a dozen duck eggs is about $7, so each month the ducks would be producing (if all four lay) 56-63 dollars worth of eggs.

If we have to kill the second Cayuga for being a dud, we won’t get to 170 bucks this year and our laying max is 7.5 dozen, or $52.50/month in egg value.

So, even at peak laying, we don’t see a breakeven on the ducks until sometime in March.  Now, doing it this way loads all the expense at once, amortizing the ducks’ purchase price and the equipment over 3 years (reasonable laying lifetime at good high numbers per month) makes that 170 for the year look a lot nicer.

To summarize:

  • All expenses at once– $170-$300= $130 loss at peak laying numbers.
  • Amortizing equipment and animal purchase price over 3 years– $170-$100= $70 profit at peak laying numbers.

We may not get peak laying, I’ll revisit this in January and obviously if I have to kill the Cayuga, I’ll note that as well.

Our labor is negligible, the ducks take a couple minutes a day, even moving the run takes seconds.  I was pretty surprised, it seems longer some days, but 5 minutes is a long duck-tending day.  Water costs are a few dollars annually.  And of course, feed is the biggie.  They eat a variable amount daily, sometimes a quart, sometimes three, they clearly get a lot out of the fresh grass and bugs they have access to.  But right now a safe guess is 80lbs/month, or about $340/yr, rounding a bit.

So right now, next year the ducks would bring in $625-750 in eggs at peak laying, which compares ok with the feed estimate above.

I am less depressed now, yay!

Sustainable Economics– Starting with Chickens Isn’t Sustainable

If you’ve spent any time in the world of sustainable farming folks, you’ll hear tons of stories about raising chickens and/or their eggs.  A lot of people into this type of farming love them some chicken-raising.  However, it’s just not sustainable at the medium level of several hundred birds/dozens of eggs a week.  This is a pretty interesting postmortem for a chicken-centric operation, Soul Food Farm, that is now at hobby/homestead levels of production.

A huge problem with Soul Food Farm was starting with chickens.  From there numerous other problems flowed.  Starting with chickens is absolutely fatal to a small-scale operator. I am distinguishing backyard chickens from small-scale farming efforts here.  Having a few backyard chickens is fine and generally pencils out ok for most people.  The problem comes in scaling up.  Like vegetable farming, people get excited about the high per-unit profits (wow, 20/25/30 dollars a chicken!!!) and fail to understand the economics coherently.

Chickens are tiny, all current models of production for wider sale are industrial to some degree, and the labor to profit ratio is pretty poor until you are producing thousands of birds per week or so.  At that hundreds of birds per week where most sustainable types get to and crash hard, you’re generating a decent cash flow, but you’re suffering the worst ratio of labor to effort and also have most of the same high fixed expenses as the people with 10k+ chickens for sale each week.  But because those small farmers start with a few chickens, they get into buying more and more birds and doing a lot of the care inefficiently and not really catching up to the problems until they are overworked, exhausted and unable to afford to stop when disaster hits.  

Whether it’s free ranging pastured eggs or broiler production, chickens are the kind of livestock where you really have to go big or go homestead/hobby level if you want to still be in business at the ten year mark.  Fifty chickens to clean up after your family cow is manageable.  Five hundred, not so much.  And it really seems to be an artifact of starting with chickens, not so much having chickens around.

In the specific case of Soul Food Farm, the high labor requirements of focusing so much on chickens left them unable to deal with issues like arson and non-animal predation.  In one of the articles mentioned in the postmortem up above, another chicken-specializer mentions losing 25k of cash value in chickens to theft– given the arson that destroyed much of Soul Food’s production animals, it is very likely theft was a potential obstacle they had to cope with as well.  That is of course another reason chickens are bad to start with at this level.  Petty theft of a dozen here, fifty there and suddenly you have mysterious 25% or 30% losses, destroying your margins.  And again, chickens are tiny, and the pasturing model makes it just difficult enough to keep track of hundreds of birds that it would be quite possible to miss small occasional thefts that added up over time, separate from animal predation issues that are also potentially margin-wrecking at that scale.

Where we live there is, for example, occasional theft of firewood where people live off busy main roads, to pick something that is also easy to run off with small amounts of, but which adds up to a problem for the families losing it over time.  With thousands and thousands of birds, those losses aren’t either as damaging or as likely due to how one has to manage that volume of birds.

My husband and I were discussing the postmortem for Soul Food Farm, because there was a lot going on there and it really did seem to us that it kept coming back to starting with a high-labor, low-margin animal that is hard to protect.  And we were thinking of examples of people who started with chickens and everyone we could think of scaled back or went big.  Chickens are a great add-on animal, but they don’t seem like they work out so well as a primary farm product unless you go into some high-volume model.