Raising Livestock: Keeping Sheep

Are you a homesteader thinking about raising livestock? You'll find there are a number of advantages to keeping sheep.

| September/October 1984

If you're thinking about raising livestock, keeping sheep would be an ideal choice. They are hardy and healthy. They give both superlative meat and a fiber that has no peer. Most of the time they're docile and manageable, which makes them perfect for the homestead, small farm, cottage in the country, suburban backyard, or any other place where man makes his home and grass will grow.

Selecting a Breed

When I first thought about writing this, I told myself that one thing I would leave out was advice on buying sheep, since each buyer's needs are unique. I've since changed my mind because I thought back to when my wife and I bought our first sheep, and decided that we could have used some suggestions; even if we didn't follow them, suggestions do get one thinking.

Before buying sheep, consider why you want them at all. Do you want to raise fast-growing lambs for a fat lamb market, produce specialty wool for handspinners, have a few sheep to trim the lawns and keep brush under control, for pets, for 4-H or FFA projects, or for show stock? If you are sufficiently organized to know what you want, then you are probably familiar with sheep to some extent. Otherwise, start looking at sheep in your area and talk to sheep raisers at fairs and on their farms. Write to the secretaries of the various breed associations for literature that describes the various breeds. Read about different breeds and crossbreeds in magazines and books. You will feel overwhelmed with information at first, but after a bit you'll begin to form your own ideas.

A few suggestions might help you decide on a breed. If you are going to show sheep, or if youngsters in the family want to do so, then you should visit shows and see what classes of sheep are shown in your area. For example, you wouldn't want to raise Lincolns or Cotswolds if there were no long-wooled class at local and state fairs. You wouldn't want black or colored sheep if a whites-only rule prevented them from competing. Talk to the winners and the judges to get their views. You'll find the winners only too eager to sell you some high-priced stock, but keep your wallet in your pocket until you have accumulated some knowledge.

If you want to raise specialty-wool sheep, talk with spinners, weavers, and other fiber artists, and learn how to spin so that you can understand the needs of a handspinner. Also, ask yourself if you are willing to do the marketing of such wools: There are no established channels for selling handspinning fleeces unless you can contract with a shop to take your entire production. Are you prepared to maintain a standard of wool cleanliness that is virtually impossible for the average wool producer but essential to the handspinners' market? Marshall Ham, co-owner and operator of' the St. Peter Woolen Mill in southern Minnesota, described our wool to a producers' association audience as "looking like the sheep lived in the house." They don't, of course, but that's how clean the wool has to be to satisfy a demanding buyer.

Perhaps you just want a few sheep around as pets and decorative lawn mowers. The Cheviot breed was supposedly developed to look attractive on the lawns of the queen's summer castle, Balmoral, in Scotland. You may agree with this royal taste. We have had people buy black sheep from us for pets just because they wanted something a bit unusual. If you don't want to bother with breeding and lambing, you might even consider getting a few attractive wethers to keep around. They usually have good dispositions and make fine pets.

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