Raising Sheep: The Basics

article image
A proud Jacob ewe with her lamb. Successfully raising sheep of this breed will yield you wool with a medium-fine texture and high luster, making it ideal for handspinning.

Sheep provide wool and delicious meat, milk, and cheese, and they eat weeds other livestock species won’t touch. Plus, sheep are relatively inexpensive and reproduce quickly, so with minimal upfront cost, you can have a respectable flock in short order.

Raising sheep is an especially good choice for small-property owners who don’t have the space to raise cattle but still want to produce their own high-quality meat. Typically, five to seven ewes (female sheep) and their offspring can comfortably occupy the same amount of land as just one cow and calf, and sheep can graze lawns, ditches, woodlots, and mature orchards.

Admittedly, there are some difficulties to raising sheep: They’re not as easily fenced as cattle (but they’re a lot easier than goats), and although they tend to be less susceptible to diseases than other types of livestock are, they’re more susceptible to parasites. Sheep are also more vulnerable to predators. In some areas of the country, you won’t be able to find a veterinarian who handles sheep, or a professional shearer, so you’ll have to find someone to show you how to shear.

Sheep Breeds: Which Is Right for You?

There are nearly a hundred breeds of sheep in North America. Different breeds prosper in different climates and on different types of pasture, and each breed has certain strengths. Do you want to produce meat? Do you intend to spin your own wool, or market that wool to handspinners? Would you prefer to stay out of the wool business — and the shearing business — altogether?

Though their name suggests otherwise, hair sheep are raised for meat only, or for meat and milk. Sheep dairies and especially sheep’s-milk cheeses are increasing in popularity. Recent drops in wool prices have led to a boost in hair sheep popularity. They have coarse hair and an underlayer of wool, and they shed their hair each spring, eliminating the need for shearing. Some say these sheep produce tastier meat than wool breeds do. The hair sheep breeds include Barbados Blackbelly, Dorper, Katahdin, Painted Desert, Royal White, St. Croix and Wiltshire Horn.

Fine-wool breeds appeal to the serious wool producer, either for the handspinning market or to sell commercially. The word “fine” refers to the diameter of the wool fiber. Fine-wools are generally more expensive, but the market may be more difficult to develop if you live in an area with an existing market for conventional-grade fleeces. If you’re interested in producing fine wool, breeds to look for include Debouillet, Merino, and Rambouillet. These breeds produce comparatively fatty carcasses, which may not appeal to meat consumers.

Medium-wools include the most common breeds of sheep, and they produce wool that’s mainly sold into the commodity market. Depending on your location, the cost of shearing may not be covered by what the wool sells for. Most medium-wool sheep produce large and consistent carcasses with good flavor. Common breeds include Suffolk and Hampshire. Some less common breeds worth researching include Cheviot, Dorset, and Texel.

Long-wool breeds are best for handspinners. They produce abundant and lustrous fiber. The Bluefaced Leicester is the queen of the group, producing fine fleeces with fiber clusters 3 to 6 inches in length. Some other long-wool breeds to consider are Border Leicester, Leicester Longwool, Lincoln Longwool and Romney.

Carpet-wool breeds produce coarser fleeces and generally provide meat with a more delicate flavor than the fine-wool or long-wool breeds. Their wool, which is often colored, is of interest to handspinners but has virtually no value in the commodity wool market. Generally speaking, these are hardy and self-sufficient breeds that require no pampering. Some breeds to consider are Jacob, Scottish Blackface, and Karakul.

Sheep’s-milk cheeses have been produced for centuries, and dairy sheep are now a niche market in the United States, with East Friesian and Lacaune being the most common breeds. Find out more about the dairy sheep business and whether it’s right for you by visiting the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service’s dairy sheep page.

Many venerable breeds of sheep are in danger of disappearing, because heritage breeds have fallen out of favor with high-input, industrialized agriculture. Though not the most productive in an industrialized system, heritage breeds have traits that make them well suited to small farms. Some are able to produce meat, milk, and wool pretty efficiently. Others are acclimated to harsh regional environments or are especially resistant to parasites. Many perform well on pasture with little or no supplemental feeding.

One particular virtue of some heritage breeds is their strong mothering instinct. Breeds that produce good mothers minimize the amount of work the farmer does during lambing season and the number of “bottle lambs” that need surrogate parents. Lambs raised by good mothers tend to be better mothers themselves and to have better social skills within the flock.

In the South, check out Gulf Coast Native or Hog Island sheep, which are rare breeds that can withstand the parasites and heat of the South. For excellent wools, investigate CVM/Romeldale, American Tunis, Navajo-Churro or Shetland breeds, just to name a handful. Meat producers could help save several of the hair breeds and coarse-wool breeds, including Karakul, Navajo-Churro, and Wiltshire Horn. To learn more about heritage breeds, visit the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, or see The Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds by Janet Vorwald Dohner.

Sheep hate to be alone. If you’re just starting out, buy two or three female lambs instead of one. Sheep do well grazing with other species, such as cattle, goats, horses, and even pastured poultry.

If you just need some lawn mowers, meat for your family, or both, it’s probably best to buy animals from a nearby farmer who can provide you with advice and support. If you’re buying purebred stock, a breed association can help identify shepherds in your region who raise the breed that interests you.

Sheep Fencing

For any kind of livestock farmer, fencing is the most important asset on the farm, and this is especially true for shepherds than for those trying to raise cattle or horses.

A well-constructed perimeter fence serves two crucial purposes: It keeps your sheep on your property and helps reduce the impacts of predators. Interior fences don’t need to be nearly as substantial as the perimeter fence, because interior fences are used for your convenience and to enhance your management. If the sheep get out of an interior fence, they’ll just graze another paddock a little sooner than you planned.

Feeding Sheep

Raising sheep is an efficient way to convert grass into food and clothing for humans. Most shepherds supplement natural pastures with hay for at least part of the year, along with minerals and sometimes grain.

Seek the advice of other shepherds in your area about how and when they feed, and then experiment with your own flock to find the ideal balance for productivity, vitality and economic efficiency.

Sheep evolved surviving entirely on natural pasture, but some breeds have lost that adaptation. Nearly every pasture requires a mineral block or mineral lick to provide salt and trace minerals to the animals’ diet. Feeding grain produces meat with more intrinsic fat and a milder flavor, but can also complicate a hardy animal’s  health and make the business of raising sheep a lot more expensive than a pastured operation.

Breeding Sheep

Your ewes will need a ram to breed with, but you should keep rams in a separate pasture so you can control when they breed. If you put your ram in with the ewes in November, you will have lambs in late March — just in time for lush spring pastures. When lambing is imminent, it’s a good idea to separate your rams from the ewes. They tend to harass the mothers and babies at a vulnerable time in their lives.

A ram’s ability to breed a flock varies dramatically between individuals and breeds. Ask the person who sells you your ewes how many females they breed with a single ram. Never buy a ram from a breeder whose animals seem dangerously aggressive. Such a trait isn’t beneficial in any way, and aggressive rams can cause serious injury.

Sheep Predators

Sheep are vulnerable to every predator of any significant size, including dogs, bears, bobcats, mountain lions, coyotes, and wolves. As a shepherd, you can learn how to manage your flock so that a predator will decide that eating at your pasture is a lot harder than chasing mice and rabbits. Also keep in mind that your flock will suffer from less predation if it’s strong and healthy, so good feed and adequate health care pay in more ways than one. Try these six strategies to keep your sheep safe:

  1. Keep guardian animals, such as dogs, donkeys, or llamas.
  2. Keep your sheep within sight of your house.
  3. Schedule lambing later in the season if you lamb outdoors on pasture. In early spring, most predators are hungry after a long winter. Plus, they need to feed their own demanding offspring, but food options may still be scarce. By late spring and early summer, other prey (rabbits, rodents, and so on) are more abundant, so predators aren’t as frantic in their efforts to feed.
  4. Keep your sheep in well-lit night corrals with good fences.
  5. Put bells on some of your sheep so you can hear them ringing if the sheep are being chased. High-frequency bells can also be successful, especially for warding off dog attacks.
  6. Use “live traps” (cages) for trapping unwelcome dogs, which allow harmless animals to be set free. These traps are of little value with coyotes, which are too wily to be caught. State wildlife officers may supply live traps for bears or wildcats that are repeat offenders.

This article was adapted from Storey’s Guide to Raising Sheep by Paula Simmons and Carol Ekarius (Storey Publishing, 2009). The book covers breed selection, lambing, feeding, housing, pasture maintenance, disease prevention and treatment, and more.