A simple enough question yet there is no answer. I have researched the subject and found lots of theory, break downs for feed cost and the like, ways to maximize production. If this were any other business, one which needs a plan, cost analyst, return on investment, etc., then the question of what it costs need be answered before any other considerations. One reason this question goes unanswered is that unlike some other businesses, no two small farm operations are alike. When the vast majority of agriculture and animal husbandry became industrialized, it was much easier to take a known operation, one that was working well, and duplicate it. A small farm is unique and can not be duplicated; the available labor and resources, markets, capital investment, etc., are specific to the farm.
I see and hear stories all the time, usually from media outlets that have no idea about the subject, (they are just trying to sell a story), offering the latest twist to this or that scheme. One of the most recent is that there is a shortage of lamb production in the country and that prices are up for meat and fiber. Well, there is presently some truth to that but like every other story they only tell part of it, the part that will garner some attention thus helping to sell their story. They fail to say, for example, that while wool prices are up, they are still well below the cost of production! And that meat production not meeting demand is as a result of the failures of foreign markets that have been flooding this country with cheap imports. There is no real increase in demand for American lamb, but only a shortage of cheap lamb and when American farmers attempt to fill the gap, they discover that doing so just drives down further the price of their lamb. Sure you may get a few cents per pound more during a peak period, but the cost to replace the lamb, feed, housing, health care is ever increasing. What is really perverse is the fact that at the same time this is all going on there are farmers around the country who are unloading their flocks at fire sale prices because they can no longer care for them.
The harm of reporting that farmers are encouraged to increase their production and that there are business opportunities for new farmers is that too many people believe what is reported in the “news” and often act on it. It is very easy, at first, to jump into the romantic notion of having a small farm in the country, leaving behind the corporate grind and job insecurity for a new money making lifestyle. It is very easy to overlook the obvious fact that the grocery store shelves are not filled with lamb for a reason, or that there have been no commercial textile mills in this country for many years.
So then, what does it cost to raise a lamb? I’ll tell you the truth, it costs more than the lamb is worth. An exact figure is not possible for the small farmer because it is always changing. A factory farm can get pretty close though as they are better able to control their costs. A small farmer has very little control over their input costs and the most demoralizing and demeaning aspect is that their own labor is valued at zero by the government. Any farmer knows that the greatest factor attributing to the success of their farm is what they can do, how hard and smart they can work, how much time and energy they can give to their business.
One other important point concerning the cost to raise a lamb is the farm itself. There is practically no information on this area at all. The capital investment required to start a modest small family farm is naturally the principal consideration for the business. When the loans, mortgage payments, credit cards are factored into the equation, it becomes simple to comprehend for anyone, you can’t work hard enough or live long enough to come out ahead. Then why do it? Because if you are really lucky you can build something that has real value that can be left to children who will then be able at some point to come out ahead because they did not have to start with nothing. But more than that, some of us understand that a successful business is not necessarily one that makes a profit but one that we can prosper from.