Ten Commandments for Raising Healthy Sheep

The magazine's go-to veterinarian offers up some plain, sensible advice about raising sheep.
By Randy Kidd
November/December 1979
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Sheep are just about the ideal homestead livestock. After all, the wool-covered meat-bearers are easy to handle, adapt to almost all climates, require only minimal shelter, need much less caretaking than do such attention-demanding species as goats, chickens, and dairy cows, and are extremely "space efficient" grazers that can thrive on a simple diet of fresh grass and hay!

A Sick Sheep...

Although sheep are fairly hardy critters, the muttonmakers can become ill. Unfortunately, sick "woollies" often don't respond well to treatment. In fact, old-time shepherds claimed that "a sick sheep is a dead sheep." That gloomy saying is no longer completely true, but it still serves to point out that anyone who is thinking about raising sheep should most certainly invest the time and effort necessary to keep his or her animals bursting with vitality. And this article (which is modeled after my earlier piece, "Ten Commandments for Healthy Livestock") will give you the specific information you'll need to raise the healthiest collection of lambs, ewes, and rams in the whole dang county!

I. Recognize Your Market

Whether you're planning to raise meat and wool for your own use or hope to eventually go into the commercial sheep business, you'd be smart to begin your enterprise with a small flock of two or three ewes.

And, whichever sheep-raising goal you have in mind, you first need to know a few ovine (a word which refers to sheep, as "bovine" relates to cows) facts:

[1] It takes about 1/4 to 1/2 acre of good grass, 500-900 pounds of hay, and 100 pounds of grain to support one sheep for a year. (A ewe's annual wool yield—around eight or nine pounds—will probably bring in enough cash to pay her grain "bills.")

[2] Each breeding mother should yield 1 1/2 lambs a year (that is, half of your ewes will produce one offspring, while the other half will bear two youngsters each).

[3] If it's fed a daily ration of two and a half to three pounds of grain along with two to three pounds of hay or pasture, a lamb should take approximately 120 days to reach its selling weight of 100 pounds (a lamb raised on pasture alone will take five or six months to reach the same size). About 65 pounds of the carcass will be made up of tasty meat.

Now, I don't want to fill this article with a complete cost analysis of the economics of sheep raising, so let me just tell you right out what my own "profit with sheep" conclusions are: First, I don't think most homesteader shepherds can compete with the "Big Business" sheep-raising operations. Face it, all the fellow with 30,000 to 50,000 head of sheep has to do is clear $1.00 per head to make a very nice annual profit. If "Shepherd Sam" gets the same income rate on his own farmstead-sized herd, he may only make 50 bucks!

On the other hand, if our "small-time operator" keeps that homegrown meat for his own use, he'll find that—all upkeep expenses included—each 65-80 pounds of young lamb meat he harvests will probably cost him less than $100! The moral? Consider yourself to be your market, and both your belly and your bankroll will be better off (and fatter) for it.

II. Know What a Healthy Animal Looks—and Feels—Like

Once you've decided how many starter sheep to purchase, you'll want to be absolutely sure that you buy healthy woolbearers to get your flock off to a good start. There are some obvious signs of ovine soundness that you should look for in any animal you intend to buy: Healthy sheep walk with an alert presence and their heads held high; have clear, clean eyes; don't have lumps or enlargements on their legs or udders; shouldn't continually cough or have runny noses; and will produce firm, moist, pellet-shaped droppings.

After you've checked these traits, look also to see that your potential purchases have well-trimmed, uncracked hooves and no tails. If the seller neglected to dock his or her animals' tails or "trim their nails," the slack shepherd probably failed to take care of the critters' other health needs as well.

You should also examine the teeth of any to-be-purchased sheep to discover the beast's age. A lamb has a set of small uniform "milk teeth" which gradually get replaced—at the rate of a pair a year over a four-year period—by larger, permanent chewers. It's best to purchase ewes with one or two pairs of permanent teeth. Such young adults are mature enough to be over their childhood diseases, but still young enough to have a number of productive breeding seasons left.

III. Buy the Best Animals

Any shepherd worth his or her crook knows that the greatest rewards come from buying—and keeping—the best possible animals, so once you're certain that a prospective sheep is healthy, you should then examine the beast closely to determine whether or not it's a superior specimen. And the way to find out if you're really sizing up a "deluxe" flesh-packed breeder is to dig under that mammal's wool with your fingertips and feel just how much meat you'll be getting for your money.

First run your fingers along the sheep's backbone. The animal's spinal area should feel firm and muscular, so—if that ridge seems as soft as the palm of your hand—the critter you're sampling has too much fat to be considered really healthy.

Next encircle each of the sheep's hind legs with both hands, right up next to the animal's flank (it's best to compare several critters' back limbs in order to pick the "meatiest" ones). After that, press your fingertips into the backbone region, near the last ribs, to find out if the "loin eye" area is wide and meaty. And finally—after you've given all your potential purchases the once-over—choose only the very best sheep for your own breeding stock.

IV. Cull the Worst Animals

If you hope to develop and maintain a really crackerjack flock, you'll have to keep only the best of your lambs and cull—by the simple process of adding some tasty meat to your dinner table—the least impressive critters. Be sure, of course, to keep the ewe lambs (most young rams will be marketed as meat animals) from mothers that are good nursers... that look and feel the healthiest, that produce two offspring almost every year, and that bear the lambs which come closest to reaching 100 pounds in 100 days. Cull the poor producers and eliminate the older females, too; a ewe can only be expected to breed well for about five to seven years.

V. Be Aware of Your Animals' Cycles

Good flocktenders know the seasonal and lifetime cycles of all their ovine critters: mothers, offspring, and fathers.

EWES: Most female sheep begin their heat cycles during the period of declining daylight that stretches from August to December (although some breeds, like Dorset and Ramboulett, can mate all year round). Many of your ewes won't have an estrus period until they're yearlings. Some "precocious" females, on the other hand, will be early maturers. You can successfully breed such ewes in their first fall season.

During mating season, the females will be "receptive" for about 36 hours out of every 14 to 19 days, but the lamb-bearers show almost no external signs of being in heat (only the ram knows for sure). You can improve the overall fertility of your ewes if you start "flushing" all the future mothers two weeks before breeding season by giving them extra feed. To do so, put the critters on lush bluegrass pasture or provide a daily "bonus" ration of one or two pounds of grain.

LAMBS: Babies are generally born from 145 to 150 days after the date of conception, and weaned when they reach about five months of age. (Youngsters who are eating hay and grain, however, can be separated from their mothers when they're no more than two or three months old.) The youthful gambolers will reach maturity at five to seven months of age.

RAMS: Some lusty young males will be capable of breeding by the time they're two or three months old, and such fast developers can be mated with about 20 ewes during their first "season." Yearling studs—or older rams—can service as many as 25 to 35 ewes annually and should continue to be vigorous breeders for at least six to eight years.

Like ewes, rams ought to be "flushed" with extra victuals from about two weeks before breeding season until mating activity is over for the year. A two- or three-pound daily grain supplement should suffice for the "woolly womanizers." However, don't let any rams become overly fat: Obese stud critters may become infertile and refuse to breed. Also, as an additional impotence preventive, shear the wool from your rams' scrotums 30 to 45 days before the onset of the warm-weather breeding season (temperatures in excess of 80°F can cause short-term sterility in rams, and such a clipping will help to keep the animals' reproductive organs cool).

VI. Keep Meaningful Records

It's impossible to maintain a high-quality, productive flock of sheep unless you keep accurate and meaningful records. You need to know the first day your ram was put in with the ewes, for instance, so you can be ready for the birth of the flock's first lambs. It's best, also, to keep a separate chart for each ewe: Include her yearly wool and lamb yields, her offspring's weaning weight, and how long each youngster took to reach selling weight. In addition, you should keep track of all veterinary care given your flock in order to know when to give follow-up wormings and vaccinations.

VII. Provide Adequate Shelter

Sheep are born with a thick, free-of-charge wool coat that insulates against both direct heat and cold. A simple, three-sided, roofed shelter will be adequate to protect your flock during most any weather conditions. The sheep "house" should be big enough to include four to six square feet of living space per beast, plus room for some separate lambing pens as well.

If you're faced with the very serious problem of local stray dogs or other predatory animals (our Kansas State University flock lost six lambs to a coyote in one night!), your sheep will need a strong protective enclosure to stay in at night and during lambing season. And even if your only problem is keeping your woolly critters away from Aunt Hildie's petunias next door, you'll need sturdy fencing around your sheep pasture.

You might choose to build a double-stranded electric fence (run the bottom line 12 to 15 inches above the ground and the second wire a foot higher than the first) or, instead, to construct a wooden fence (make such a barrier at least 39 inches high, because sheep can leap!). On the other hand, you might find it easiest to simply hang a standard 12-inch-grid wire mesh fence. If so, be sure to run a strand of barbed wire—about as tight as the thumb string on a five-string banjo—right along the ground (to discourage prying noses)... and add one or two more lengths of the prickly wire above the grid fencing.

VIII. Feed the Critters Correctly

Sheep require protein, vitamins, carbohydrates, and minerals—just as humans do—but the ruminating animals can utilize raw cellulose materials that you or I could never digest. Therefore they are able to get all the nutrients they need from nothing more than fresh hay, grasses, and browse! This incredible ovine digestive ability means that—except during times like breeding season and winter when the animals need extra protein—your flock can convert some of the lowest-cost food sources available into useful meat and wool.

And when you do need to add extra "vitality" to a sheep's diet, you can simply feed the critter some good grain (or a protein supplement such as soybean meal). However, the amount of extra victuals needed will depend on the quality of hay or pasture the animal is already ingesting. That quality can vary widely.

As a general rule, though, you only need to feed "pastureless" mature sheep about 3 1/2 pounds of legume—or 4 pounds of grass—hay per day. If you have plenty of corn or other grain, you can replace half of each day's hay ration with one pound of grain. Even windfall apples—or root crops like turnips—can provide good supplemental feed for sheep.

IX. Coddle the Babies

It's important that you, the shepherd, begin preparations for your "crop" of newborn lambs at least two weeks before they're scheduled to arrive. Then, a few days before birthing should occur, pen the expectant ewe up in a corner of the shed or barn (a 4' X 4' enclosure is ideal) and provide her with plenty of clean bedding. Also, clip the wool from around the mother's vulva and cut off any matted "tags" of wool that are close to the udder (a lamb might mistake the furry clumps for teats).

If at all possible, plan to be with each lambing ewe so you can quietly observe the birth, douse the newborn youngsters' navels with iodine, and—if necessary—help dry them off with clean rags. Most lambs will come into the world with nary a hitch, but if your ewe's still in labor after two hours, get help from your vet or an experienced shepherd.

Lambs are often born in the early—and sometimes frigid—spring of the year, and such newborns will need some help to stay alive and healthy. You can aid the young'uns by shearing the thickly wooled mothers shortly after they give birth. (The "haircut" will force the ewe to stay in her warm shed and let the lambs cuddle up instead of heading to the nearest snowbank—with her shivering youngsters in tow—to cool off.)

You may also need to use a heat lamp to provide the lambs with additional warmth. Just hang the light three or four feet off the ground in a corner of the lambing pen and let the little woollies pick their own comfortable distance from the heat source.

Be certain that each lamb gels its fair share of the mother's antibody-laden first milk (the colostrum). Remember, too, to increase the milking ewe's daily ration to five or six pounds of hay and one or two pounds of grain so she'll be able to provide plenty of ongoing nourishment to her lambs. (You can—if need be—bottle-feed any abandoned lambs with undiluted cow or goat milk.) You should also construct a creep feeder—with an opening 8" wide by 18" high—and stock that lamb-sized box with rich, solid foods. Such a feeder will encourage the youngsters to start using—and developing—their rumens.

X. Help Your Animals Prevent Their Own Disease

If you follow commandments I through IX, you'll almost certainly have one of the healthiest flocks in the territory. There are, however, a few extra precautionary measures that good shepherds take to keep their sheep vigorous and productive.

First of all, be downright tenacious in your efforts to avoid the number-one health problem of sheep: internal parasites. Please—for your flock's sake—follow Dr. Kidd's Famous Five Point Parasite Control Program "How to Deal With Internal Parasites in Livestock," Part One and Part Two) to keep your woollies worm-free.

External parasites are also a serious sheep problem. (Just think how much harm lice, ticks, mange mites, fleas, and screw-worms can do while they're safely nestled under all that wool.) The bloodsuckers can make your beast seriously anemic and even cause death. So you should be sure to dip (have the sheep swim single file through an insecticide-filled vat) or spray (with a high-pressure sprayer that can shoot the pesticide in under the wool) your ovine critters on a regular basis. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Some organic "dips" can be found in the Herbal Handbook for Farm and Stable by Juliette de Bairacli Levy.] 

There are also a few sheep-specific diseases that require routine vaccinations. Young lambs, for example, should be treated for exterotoxemia (also known as "overeating disease"). All sheep should be given a tetanus vaccine yearly, and an antitoxin shot when they're undergoing either open-wound tail docking or castration. Plus, you should check with your veterinarian to see what other local ailments—such as vibriosis, bluetongue, or contagious ecthyma—may need to be "nipped" before they can "bud."

In Sum

Well, that about wraps up what you have to know to raise vigorous wool- and meat-makers for your own household or for profit. Heed these commandments, and your flock will reward you many times over. As I always say, healthy sheep make for happy shepherds.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Two good books on sheep raising are Margaret Bradbury's The Shepherd's Guidebook (Rodale Press, $7.95) and Paula Simmons' Raising Sheep the Modern Way (Garden Way Publishing, $5.95).  


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