Rearing Sheep: A Few Sheep for the Small Farm

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Photo by Flickr/Mshades
Sheep thrive when given ample access to pasture.

City people who take up country living are generally amazed at the bounty of the land and are always giving something to friends. I guess that’s why Carolyn’s aunt, who’d recently bought a farm in Alabama, sent us one of her home-grown lambs. And that’s how we learned a little about rearing sheep as a practical addition to our small farm. The invaluable experience has been matched with an exponential gain in knowledge on proper sheep housing and the necessary sheep equipment to raise healthy, productive animals.

A single lamb, like a single goat, is a lonesome creature. We tried using him as a “lawn-mower” on the front lawn but he bleated half the time. Finally, although we knew it wasn’t the best sheep farming practice, we turned him out to pasture with our goats.    

The goats had never before seen a lamb — and I guess the lamb had never seen goats. Goats and lamb eyed each other suspiciously. The ridges of the goats’ backs bristled. Then the lonesome lamb, in a friendly fashion, ran toward the goats. Frightened, the goats scampered away and it was a couple of hours before they would let the lamb get near them. Finally, they sniffed him over and philosophically accepted this “ugly duckling.” Our lamb was no longer lonesome.    

This lamb proved so little trouble that the following year we bought two, fattened them and had them butchered just as with our first. In many parts of the country, I’m told the sheep’s skin pays the cost of the butchering, but our butcher didn’t seem to want the skin. We had it made into a rug — an economical choice considering the high price of such handcrafted products. Buying one or two lambs, fattening them for 30 to 60 days, and then having them slaughtered is not the most economical way to produce your own lamb, however.    

Often times, a weaned lamb, when moved, will lose weight for awhile and consequently require more grass and grain before they reach 90 to 100 pounds, the customary weight at which they are slaughtered. Then again, a feeder lamb is apt to cost 60-90 dollars, depending on weight and current market values. Check with local farmers who raise sheep in the spring, during lambing season, to see if you can get a recently-weaned lamb at a lower price. The one point in favor of buying and fattening a lamb is that this is an easy way to gain experience.    

Before we discuss a better way to get started, lets take a look at what is necessary in the way of pasture, grain, equipment, time and money to economically produce your own lamb.      

Good Pasture is Essential      

The first thing you should be able to supply is good grass. You don’t need much grass pasture — it takes about a quarter-acre of grass, 750 pounds of hay and 100 pounds of grain yearly to support one sheep. Remember, though, you should have at least two sheep.    

As for the hay, alfalfa is best. In fact, you can raise and fatten your lambs solely on good grass and good alfalfa. Clover and soybean are good hays also. Many different grain combinations are suitable for feeding sheep. In Starting Right With Sheep, a mixture of two parts oats to one part bran is recommended as the best all-around sheep feed. For fattening, use five parts wheat, two parts corn, two parts oats and one part linseed-oil meal. Sheep must also have plenty of water, and salt is a year-round necessity for good health.    

The most economical way of getting started with sheep is to buy a couple of bred ewes in the winter. Ewes should be vigorous and in good flesh, but never fat. Also, make sure they are free of external and internal parasites (check the droppings), otherwise the new born lambs will become infested. Bred ewes start at around 50 dollars, but the price depends on whether they are scrubs, grades or registered purebreds, the reputation of the seller, age and merit of the animals. Fleece, conformation, age and udders should receive close inspection.   

Sheep Housing and Feeding

Housing for sheep can be simple: a three-sided shed with roof and a dry dirt floor is satisfactory. Two sheep need an 8-by-10 foot pen or building. A wood or wire rack is necessary for feeding hay and a trough or manger for grain. Be sure to keep water available at all times as well.      

Sheep Equipment and Fencing

While it is true that sheep may be tethered by a chain and swivel, this is not practical. Sheep are not always good lawnmowers — sometimes they’ll eat the grass too close. Tethered sheep cannot be left out all night, and they are easy prey for dogs. Dogs are actually sheep’s worst enemy! In fact, the primary purpose of fencing for sheep is to keep a stray sheep-killing dog out rather than the sheep in.       

Choosing a Breed

In general there are two types of sheep — the wool and the meat variety. The homesteader should choose a meat variety. The breeds differ a great deal according to various sections and systems of management, but the part-time farmer should choose from the meat or so-called medium wool class — Southdowns, Shropshires, Hampshires, Oxfords, Dorsets, Cheviots. Unless you’re going to keep a ram, it’s a good idea to find out which breed of ram is available in your neighborhood. When your first lambing time comes —about 145 days after breeding — you might have to have a veterinary present. The simplicity of the whole thing will give you confidence to handle subsequent lambings yourself.      

All in all, sheep are easier to handle than cows, goats, horses or poultry.