GREENE -- High corn prices are like a wolf in sheep's clothing.
Grain farmers rejoice every time they check out the Chicago Board of Trade or what the local elevator is offering these days. Livestock producers purchasing corn and soybeans to feed animals feel sick.
With cash corn and soybeans approaching a very profitable $4.50 and $11.80 per bushel, respectively, that makes getting into the livestock business a risky venture. But for those who still want to take the plunge, livestock experts and farmers say raising market lambs may be the best bet.
Iowa State University Extension will sponsor a sheep production program Monday at the Kelvin and DaMaris Menken farm near Greene. Speakers will present information at 7 p.m. on sheep markets, cost of production, new insurance products and facilities.
Experts say farmers gamble any time they raise animals or put seed in the ground, but risk can be tempered with proper management and planning.
"We're trying to point out this is a low-cost investment for an ag enterprise for people on acreages and beginning farmers," said Dale Thoreson, ISU Extension livestock specialist in Butler County, which ranks fifth in the state in sheep production with nearly 7,000 head.
It costs far less to start, feed and house a sheep flock compared to other livestock, he said.
For example, quality Holsteins cost several thousand dollars to buy and eat more than 80 pounds of feed a day. While a good ewe that's already bred costs about $125, Thoreson said, and it takes about 347 pounds of feed (corn, 280; protein supplements, 32 and hay, 35) to get a feeder lamb to market.
As far as housing, Extension personnel say sheep don't need modern buildings to thrive. Iowa acreages are filled with old livestock buildings, requiring little to no work, that are more than adequate to keep sheep dry and out of the wind in the winter, the two requirements for productivity.
However, if a young person wanted to raise hogs like the vast majority of other Iowa farmers -- in a climate-controlled hog confinement building -- investing hundreds of thousands of dollars to build a confinement or two would be needed.
That's why raising sheep may be the route to go for enterprising livestock farmers, officials said.
Less overhead costs potentially means more profit potential. On the flip side, entrepreneurs have less to lose.
"There's nothing that's risk free, but the investment (in sheep) just isn't there," said Pat Derdzinski, Butler County Extension director.
Extension says opportunities exist lately for beginning Northeast Iowa farmers, unlike other parts of the state, to get into the sheep business or for existing producers to expand their operations. Even though the state doesn't have any large commercial slaughter plants, the area has two strong markets -- The Waverly Sale Barn and sheep buyer Stacey Scherburne of Kesley. Both serve as conduits to end users around the country.
A diverse ethnic population locally that favors lamb also props up on-farm sales, officials said.
Fat lambs, weighing between 115 to 125 pounds brought between $97 to $105.50 per hundred weight at The Waverly Sale Barn's latest sheep sale on Jan. 7. Lambs 25 pounds heavier topped out at $96.75.
All are excellent prices, sheep experts said, considering the highest average price in Iowa between 2003 and 2006 was $45 per hundred weight.
"In this part of the state, we're quite fortunate to have two active markets. The fat market is holding up quite well," Thoreson said. "The way we look at it, if the enterprise is run properly, it has the potential to make money."
However, good prices don't necessarily translate into high returns. Profitability, like in any business, depends on cost of production and management.
Dennis DeWitt, and Extension livestock specialist based in Dickinson County, said $4-plus corn instead of $2 corn makes it difficult but not impossible. If a producer buys all their feed, spent money on facilities and has labor costs, the break-even rate is $100 per hundred weight or slightly more.
For producers like the Menkens, who raise most of their feed, have little to nothing investing in facilities and do most of their own veterinary work, the farmers said they need in the low $60s to earn a profit. The Menkens use old hog buildings and a dairy barn built in the early 1900s to house their flock of 103 ewes and three rams.
Since multiple births for sheep are common, the Menkens usually sell 150 to 170 head a year and keep 15 or more females back as replacements. The typical breeding cycle is once a year for four to six years, though the couple have has productive ewes provide nine years worth of babies.
"It's a profitable hobby," Kelvin Menken said. Though he and his wife, DaMaris, farm 300 acres and raise sheep, both have off-the-farm jobs.
Kelvin was already raising sheep when the couple got married 16 years ago. They bumped the flock up from 50 to 75 in 1996 to make the machinery payment when they bought their current farm from DaMaris' parents.
In 2004, the Menkens added more Suffolk and Suffolk cross ewes to the current level to afford a $10,000 investment in an ethanol plant.
To make sheep farming pay, the couple says good management is key. DeMaris keeps thorough feed and birthing records. They also buy quality breeding stock, that have a history of healthy lambs and multiple births.
Sheep experts say if the flock average isn't at least 1.5 lambs per ewe, profitability is questionable.
"Records are very important. If (a ewe) is not at 1.25 to 1.5 she's going down the road after three years," DeMaris said. "You have to get a return on them."
The Menkens said they wanted to participate in the sheep program and open up their farm to help the industry that's been good to them, and possibly help it grow.
"It's easier to see it than read about it," DaMaris said, referring to what sheep farming is like. "We're proud of our operation."
As of Jan. 1, government statistics show Iowa is ninth in the nation in sheep production with 235,000 head. Texas is No. 1 with a little more than 1 million.
Though a little more than 100 ewes may not seem like a lot compared to farms with thousands of hogs, the Menkens actually operate a larger-than-average operation in Iowa. Most flocks range between 25 to 50 head, officials said. The lack of vast pasture lands, unlike in the West or South, due to crop farming is the reason, officials said.
The Menkens, who've been involved in other types of livestock production, prefer sheep. For small or part-time farmers, they said sheep are easier to raise.
When babies are born in the late winter or early spring, the Menkens said the sheep farming becomes quite time consuming. Making sure ewes and lambs are healthy and nursing is an around-the-clock job. That's only a few weeks a year though. Otherwise, daily chores take less than an hour.
"During lambing it's very intensive, a lot of worry. After weaning and the sheep go to pasture, it's a breeze," DaMaris said.
The program is free to the public courtesy of the Iowa Sheep and Wool Promotion Board and the Waverly Sale Barn.