Best Sheep Breeds for Homesteaders

Looking for an efficient, versatile type of backyard livestock for your small acreage? Here’s a crash course on how to raise the best sheep breeds for your needs — including everything from meat sheep breeds and hair sheep breeds to livestock health care and predator control.

| February/March 2016

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.

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