Raising sheep can be fun and rewarding. I have found sheep to be very gentle and docile, and great livestock to have around small children. In fact, sheep that are being raised for wool, rather than the freezer, often become beloved family pets. Sheep are multipurpose, too. They can provide not only meat and wool but some breeds can even provide milk, as well. Here are some basic things to consider before adding sheep to your farm or homestead.
The Advantages of Raising Sheep
Sheep have been raised for wool, meat, and milk for centuries, all over the world. They have some clear advantages over some other types of livestock. First, they are fairly small, and they are easier to handle than cows, pigs, and horses. They happily graze on brush and weeds, and they don’t require perfect pasture land. They don’t require a lot of space either; one acre is enough for a small flock of 3 ewes with their lambs. Even better, former sheep pastures are incredibly fertile, so you can incorporate your sheep pasture into your crop rotation plan.
Breeds of Sheep
To select the best breed of sheep for your farm, first, decide what you want to use them for. Will they be strictly for meat and wool, or will you be stepping outside the box and raising them for milk, as well? Sheep don’t generally yield as much milk as goats, but their milk is excellent for making yogurt and cheese. You should also ask around your area to see what breeds of sheep do well in your climate. Here are some of the most common breeds that are raised on small farms.
Dual-Purpose Breeds for Wool and Meat
• Columbia: Large sheep with off-white wool
• Dorset: Medium sized sheep with dense white wool
• Corriedale: Large sheep that produce a lot of meat and wool
• Polypay: Good reproducers of fast-growing lambs
Meat Only Breeds
• Katahdin: A very low maintenance breed
• Hampshire: One of the largest sheep breeds
• Suffolk: The most popular breed in the United States
• Awassi: Gentle sheep with shaggy wool
• East Friesian: Good milk producer
• Lacaune: An excellent breed if you plan to make a lot of cheese
Buying Your Sheep
Sheep are social animals, much the same as goats. Don’t ever try to keep just one sheep by itself or it will be miserable. Three ewes make an ideal small flock.
Once you have decided on the breed you want, you’ll want to consider each individual sheep carefully before purchasing. Look over the entire flock and farm and question the farmer carefully about the history of the animal you are looking at.
When inspecting the animal, look for clear, bright eyes and healthy teeth. Feel for any swelling or lumps on the neck and head; this could be an indication of worm infestation. Check the hooves to see if they’re trimmed properly. Don’t ever buy a sheep that’s limping or has flock mates that are limping because they may have foot rot, which can be contagious.
The sheep shouldn’t be too thin or too fat, and it should have a wide back. A potbelly is another indicator of possible worm infestation. If you are looking at an adult ewe, examine the udder to make sure there are no lumps that could indicate mastitis. If you are new to sheep, consider having your vet look the animal over before making your final purchase.
Feeding Your Sheep
Just like goats, sheep are ruminants. That means they should be eating mostly grass and hay. All they require is decent pasture, a vitamin and mineral supplement made specifically for sheep, and a plain salt block. In the winter when there’s not much grass, give them free access to as much hay as they want and supplement with grain meant for sheep, if it’s needed to keep them at a healthy weight. Never give your sheep a grain or supplement formulated with copper (such as those made for goats). Copper is toxic to your sheep!
Fencing and Shelter for Your Sheep
I like to use portable electric net fencing for sheep so that they can be rotated to fresh pasture as needed. Make sure they have plenty of shade in the summer and somewhere to get out of the rain, wind, and snow. They can be put in a barn or shelter at night and during the winter if you think they need the protection, otherwise they’re okay with a 3-sided portable shed that you can move around with them. The only exception is if you have a ewe that is going to give birth during the winter. A sturdy, warm shelter is necessary to protect the lambs.
Handling Your Sheep
Sheep can easily be trained and treats like peanuts, apples, and grain are great motivators. Their main defense against predators is to bunch up together and run away, so be careful never to make them think you’re chasing them. It’s better to teach them to come to you voluntarily, and if you can get one to go where you want her, the rest will happily follow.
Protecting Your Sheep
Rotating pastures is important for preventing parasites, so it’s good if you can move them every 2-3 weeks. If you do notice signs of worms, talk to your vet about the best treatment.
Sheep are susceptible to predators like coyotes, bobcats, panthers, and wild dogs. Even foxes and large birds of prey have been known to harm sheep. Having guardian animals around your sheep is a good idea, and if predators are a problem in your area, put them somewhere secure at night. Electric fencing is best for protecting them during the day.
Grooming Your Sheep
If you decide on a breed of sheep that has long wool, you will need to shear them at least once a year. As you can imagine, it’s difficult to stay clean with all that wool, so their bottoms should be shaved regularly to help them stay healthy and clean. Their hooves will also need to be trimmed regularly, as well.
There’s nothing cuter than baby lambs playing in a spring pasture! If you have a small farm or homestead, sheep could be an ideal livestock choice for you.