People have been keeping domesticated sheep for about 11,000 years. Sheep appear as both livestock and metaphor in the writings of every major human religion. Sheep farms abound on every continent that accommodates agriculture. Human history and domesticated sheep are inextricably linked, and these animals remain one of the most efficient types of livestock available to 21st-century homesteaders.
My wife and I have raised livestock on our Kansas ranch for more than a decade. Aside from herds of cattle and goats, we manage a flock of sheep descended from Katahdin ewes and Mouflon-cross rams. In our experience, lamb is the most delicious meat we produce. In fact, it’s the most flavorful meat we’ve ever eaten. Even friends who aren’t accustomed to eating lamb (meat from a sheep that is less than 1 year old) quickly realize that a grass-finished lamb provides a culinary treat. One probably has to try a perfectly roasted, rosemary-encrusted leg of pastured lamb to fully appreciate its lovely, robust flavor and tender texture.
The practical advantages of raising sheep are especially evident on a small property with limited capital. In most locales, you can acquire a decent breeding flock of four or five animals for less than $2,000, compared with about $10,000 for a similarly sized herd of beef cattle. You won’t need expensive handling pens or squeeze chutes, and you’ll be able to haul several animals in covered stock racks on the back of a pickup or in a small stock trailer.
Many sheep breeds can also help turn rocky, dry hillsides into productive pasture. They’re famously resourceful grazers, capable of finding good nutrition where no cow could survive. And they like shelter for the night, so you can easily harvest their manure by overnighting them in corrals near garden beds, where composted manure will increase soil fertility.
In many temperate climates, sheep offer the distinct advantage of reaching slaughter weight before the grass goes dormant in winter, which means you can harvest or sell the year’s lamb crop without having to buy hay for feed. A 100-pound lamb will yield about 35 pounds of meat for your freezer — much easier to store than a side of beef.
Sheep have a reputation for being more labor-intensive than cattle. Some farmers will tell you that even the best sheep breeds need to be wormed frequently, that you must trim their hooves, that they need help lambing, and that their tails must be docked. However, many successful sheep farmers know that none of those processes are necessary if you choose your breed and breeder prudently, and if you manage your flock to be self-sufficient in your specific conditions.
And if you raise a “hair sheep” breed, such as our Katahdin-Mouflon crosses, you won’t even need to shear them.
Select the Best Sheep Breeds to Meet Your Needs
Choosing the best sheep breed for your homestead can be challenging. The United Nations has documented more than 1,000 sheep breeds worldwide, with several hundred of them in North America. Multipurpose breeds are a good bet, depending on what you’re looking for. The following types of sheep are reliable meat producers, and some can provide you with additional products.
Sans wool. If you have a taste for lamb but don’t want wool, then a “hair sheep” — a breed that sheds its coat naturally in spring — is a practical choice. Katahdins and Dorpers are popular hair-sheep breeds. For hardier sheep that take well to domestication, try Mouflon or Barbados Blackbelly.
Watching a Mouflon ram patrolling your pasture will provide a window back in time: Historians believe the Mouflon is descended from the first domesticated sheep, tamed in Europe and the Middle East thousands of years ago. Breeders have crossed Mouflon with domestic sheep to create several varieties known for their impressive horns. Although horns serve as protective equipment on wild sheep, they can actually make your domestic flock easier to handle. The safest and easiest way to move a recalcitrant ram is to grab him by the horns.
Most horned sheep will not produce the large, meaty carcasses of the best meat-sheep breeds. However, if you plan to sell your animals on the hoof or harvest them for your own use, you might just as soon raise two 100-pound rams as one 200-pound ram.
With wool. If you want to harvest wool as well as meat, you should check out traditional wool breeds that have been bred to produce large volumes of fine, relatively short fibers. Merino and Rambouillet are characteristic fine-wool producers. Traditional wool breeds that produce less hair with longer fibers that are suitable for hand-spinning include Shetlands, Leicesters and Romneys.
Plus milk. Dairy sheep have been gaining popularity recently with the growth in consumer markets for artisanal cheeses. Friesian and Lacaune sheep are popular dairy breeds, but many other breeds can be trained to serve as dairy sheep while continuing to produce meat and wool.
Breeders. If you intend to raise your animals exclusively on grass, they’ll have a big advantage if they’ve been grazing locally and are conditioned to your area. So, try to find a competent breeder near your home or in a climate similar to yours. If you discover a sheep breed that’s been raised nearby, you’ll have ready access to new breeding stock when you need it, plus a potential market for breeding stock from your own herd.
Grazing Sheep: Best Practices
If you intend to grass-feed and grass-finish your sheep on natural pasture, experienced ranchers will recommend that you bring a small flock to your property in the early part of the growing season to give them time to acclimate before they have to scrounge for sustenance in winter or drought conditions. As they become accustomed to their environment, sheep can be resourceful grazers, able to acquire nutrition from a varied menu. Case in point: On our property, a drought created an outbreak of ragweed in a relatively high, dry pasture, and our flock devoured the ragweed before they went to work on the grass.
In many parts of the world, sheep and goats are flocked together — an ideal arrangement because their dietary needs are so distinct. Goats are browsers that need pastures with plenty of trees, shrubs or other woody plants. Sheep, although versatile, are primarily grazers that prefer grass. A balanced flock of sheep and goats can efficiently maintain a diverse pasture of grass, forbs and shrubs, and they can graze on steep, rocky ground not suited to crops.
Livestock Health Care for Sheep
Authoritative books prescribe an exhaustive regimen of veterinary rituals to achieve perfect livestock health care. We’ve found that we can breed sheep to be hardy and independent, and we can manage our pastures to avoid almost every serious veterinary problem. Our local geographic conditions select individuals, generation by generation, to thrive on our prairie in eastern Kansas. And we choose the members of each generation that fit best with our lifestyle and agricultural techniques. (For more on how we developed our herd, see Sheep Breeding: Localize Your Livestock.)
We recommend taking a hands-off approach, and figure that if we breed carefully and maintain clean, healthy pastures, we’ll generally have healthy animals. We rotate our sheep and goats with a small herd of cows and don’t overgraze, and we’ve never needed to worm any of our animals. Never. Most parasites that afflict sheep and goats are harmless to cattle — and vice versa. We’ve always chosen breeding stock from flocks that were seldom wormed, if ever. If you regularly worm your flock, you’ll breed animals with decreasing natural resistance to parasites. The practice itself contributes to the problem. With hardy breeds like ours, if you systematically trim hooves and don’t cull animals whose hooves need to be trimmed, then you’ll breed animals that require trimming. And so on.
Our young rams are ready to be weaned — or, rather, their mothers are happy to wean them — at about 4 months of age, before they’re mature enough to breed. Years ago, we began separating the young rams at that age, which eliminates the need to castrate them. They graze for another two months, and we harvest them at about 6 months old. They eat only fresh grass — no grain and no dried forage. Their meat is much richer in omega-3 fatty acids than ground beef is (see “How Healthy Is Grass-Fed Lamb?” below).
We’ve read that it’s necessary to dock sheep tails of certain breeds in some regions, but we’ve never docked a tail and have never had a tail-related health issue.
The most difficult time to remain hands-off is during lambing. When we started in the sheep business 12 years ago, we committed ourselves to nonintervention. We have day jobs, so spending four weeks a year watching the flock while the lambs are being delivered would be difficult for us. Plus, it just didn’t seem like good management. We’ve never helped a ewe deliver a lamb, and we’ve never bottle-fed a lamb.
In our original flock of Katahdin ewes, our lamb mortality rates were 10 to 20 percent for the first few years, which seemed OK until I looked at studies of commercial flocks that had mortality rates of more than 30 percent. Then, our rates seemed excellent.
A few years later, we began crossbreeding with bighorn Mouflon-cross rams, and the resulting lambs were suddenly much more active and mobile. The Mouflon-cross lambs are usually able to run by the time they’re 3 or 4 hours old, while our Katahdin lambs can take several days to get their legs. Our mortality rates went down.
Aside from predator issues, our lamb mortality rates are now usually less than 10 percent. We have friends in the sheep business who assist in more than half their flocks’ births and experience higher lamb mortality rates. Yet, we’ve never helped a ewe, period. The only way we’ve found to explain this is to speculate that, as prey animals, the last thing our ewes want during the birthing process is a large predator (us) hovering over them and touching them. We’ve come to believe that the majority of lambing problems result from the intervention of people who believe they’re helping.
Because we don’t vaccinate our animals, we’re careful to introduce new stock only from well-managed flocks. We’ve never had a major health problem, but we remain vigilant.
How to Guard Grazing Sheep
Grazing sheep are essentially defenseless against predators. Coyotes, bobcats, foxes, domestic dogs and even the occasional mountain lion live in our region. We first protected our flocks with donkeys and mules, which was effective for many years. But a couple of years ago, our local coyotes apparently adopted a new technique, and our predation losses soared from two or three animals per season to 40 percent of the lamb crop in just one year. Enter the livestock guardian dog.
We’d been reluctant to use dogs to guard the flock, believing that the care and feeding of more dogs would be a hassle. Desperate after our losses and willing to try anything, we bought Sam, an experienced Great Pyrenees guardian dog.
From the first day we walked the fence lines with Sam, he knew his territory and guarded it vigilantly. For two weeks, he and the coyote pack argued over the territory. We could hear them exchanging insults through the night. In his first lambing season, Sam allowed not a single loss to a predator.
If a livestock guardian dog isn’t a practical option for you, and you live anywhere dogs and coyotes live — which is, of course, almost everywhere — then you’ll most likely have predator issues. We know people whose donkeys, alpacas and llamas seem to do the job. Others discourage predators with electric fencing. In our experience, the big dogs that have been bred for centuries to protect sheep have been a godsend, and the easiest animal-husbandry implementation we’ve ever undertaken. (See Livestock Guardian Dogs Protect a Kansas Flock.)
Market Your Product
When you buy your first sheep, you’ll need to make fundamental decisions about which products you wish to harvest from them. What are you going to do with any extra meat, milk and wool your animals produce? A survey of local advertising for lambs, meat and breeding stock can give you a good idea of the size of your local market and prices. Also, consider marketing your products online through such national networks as Local Harvest, Eatwild and Agrilicious.
Most small-scale producers find it simplest to sell live animals, and to offer delivery to a local slaughterhouse of the buyer’s choice. In many locales, customers may ask whether the farmer can provide them with a place to perform the slaughter, which is traditional in some cultures. If local laws allow, and if the customer is a competent butcher, the arrangement can be a practical and efficient way of selling lambs. However, some jurisdictions outlaw the outdoor slaughter of animals, and an inexperienced butcher could hurt animals unnecessarily and may leave a mess, so weigh this option carefully.
The key to enjoying all of your animals is, of course, to create a management system that doesn’t require you to worry about them constantly. Our system has just a few components: livestock bred to be hardy and self-reliant, competent guardian animals, and fences in good repair.
And we do, indeed, enjoy our animals.
Lamb Meat Nutritional Facts: Grass-Fed Is Great
If you produce 100 percent grass-fed lamb, you’ll deliver some of the healthiest and most sustainable red meat in the world to your family and customers.
In New Zealand, most lambs are 100 percent grass-fed, and it shows in their meat’s fatty acid profile, which has 35 percent more beneficial omega-3s and 43 percent fewer inflammatory omega-6s than domestic feedlot-raised lamb. (See Omega-3s and More: The Importance of Fat in a Healthy Diet for more on omega fatty acids’ role in our diets.) In the United States, Minnesota farmer Janet McNally finished her flock on an experimental pasture that included kale, turnips, radishes, ryegrass, hairy vetch and red clover. McNally’s lamb had almost four times more anti-inflammatory omega-3s than domestic industrial lamb, and 27 times more than industrial ground beef! Read her full report, Land salmon? Grassfed lamb's Omega-3s shine.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture claims that the levels of undesirable omega-6 fatty acids in domestic lamb are two times higher than in industrial ground beef. These numbers seemed odd, until we discovered that many U.S. lambs are fed an unnatural diet of grain in feedlots, just like most other domestic livestock. We also learned that feedlot lambs are susceptible to a serious common condition known as “Overeating Disease,” often triggered by the feedlots’ high grain diet. It seems like “Wrong Feeding Practices” would be a more appropriate name for what producers are doing to these animals, and how their decisions are affecting lamb meat’s nutritional qualities. According to numerous extension fact sheets, the first sign of this disease is that the lambs die. As with so many other problems in the industrial food system, work-arounds, such as vaccines and antibiotics, mask the problem without addressing its root cause.
Lesson learned: Raise your own pastured animals or buy only meat labeled “100 percent grass-fed.”
Bryan Welch and his wife, Carolyn, have supervised a dozen lambing seasons on their Kansas ranch with lots of help from their Great Pyrenees security force. Welch is CEO of B The Change Media and the author of Beautiful and Abundant: Building the World We Want.