Raising Sheep on a Homestead or Small Farm

  • Sheep are hardy and easy to care for.
  • Learn to do many things yourself – veterinarians often won’t.
  • Select a breed that works for what you want to do.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASheep are a relatively easy animal to keep but need some basic care. The first thing you should do before getting sheep is read and get out a pen and paper for notes. Answer some questions and honestly look at your situation.

How big of an area do you have? How well is it fenced? How much food do you want to buy? Do you want to raise sheep for meat, for fleece or just to keep a few to keep an area mowed down? Do you know how to shear a sheep or are you willing to learn? Are you interested in preserving rare and unusual breeds? Do you have children (and what ages if so)?

These things are all a factor. The area you have well fenced determines what sized sheep and how many you can comfortably stock. If you want them to rely primarily on grass or hay you’ll need to choose a breed developed for that. If you don’t want to use a sheep for meat you don’t need to look at meat qualities. If you don’t want to learn to shear (and keep in mind the shears will run you between $250-300) the chances of finding someone who will are low – and that affects what breeds you need to look at. If there is small children who are apt to tease them the children need to be taught and you need to choose on temperament as a higher factor.

Most see the common black faced Suffolk at fairs and that is what they picture as a sheep. The truth is there’s many breeds. The Hampshire (also a black faced breed) is a large breed. Rambouillet and Romneys are larger still – not the breeds for small areas! Dorsets and polled (no horns) Dorsets have white faces and clean (no wool) legs. On the smaller end is the Cheviots and Shetlands, both developed in Scotland where they had to earn their keep. If you are willing to put the time into fleeces and have a plan to use it you might consider the Shetland, Merino or other “fleece” breeds. The Tunis is different in that they have red heads with a red tinge to the fleece. The Karakul has another unusual but very beautiful look. If you’re really against having wooled sheep you can get a few Barbados or half Barbados sheep. The California Red traces to them and Tunis. I’ve crossed the Barbados blackbelly on Hampshires and Dorsets and get black/brown and white fleeced sheep respectively but the fleece is much shorter, very soft and the useful part is *fleece* while the part normally discarded is hair. This makes it very easy to separate out.

Sheep like the Barbados are smaller, with ewes around 70-75 pounds. The crosses I found the ewes matured about 140-150 pounds – smaller than the wooled breed but not as light as the Barbados side. These would be good sheep for less fleece, hardiness and ability to graze and raise lambs on pasture.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere are special mineral tubs or blocks available for sheep. Use caution in buying them – sheep are sensitive to copper and often things for cattle or goats has higher levels of copper. They’ll need wormed on occasion – how often depends on your area and management. Fences need to be tight – if one sheep gets out more often than not the whole flock will be out. A bigger hazard is dogs and predators getting *in* and many people use a guardian animal for that reason. There are breeds, such as the North Country Cheviot, that will stand up to a dog but it’s really not fair to your animals to put them in a situation they will be mauled sometimes to death. Good fences are needed. With good fences, plenty of water and proper selection sheep are very easy to care for. They are developed to be raised mostly on pasture. If you are breeding and plan to keep a ram respect him from early on – don’t rough the top of his head or tease him. This means he won’t learn to toss his head and in my experience is much less likely to charge people.

With sheep temperament and performance should count, whether you have 5 head or 500. A breeding flock should produce live lambs every year and raise them. There’s bound to be the occasional loss but those that aren’t sound have a home in the freezer.

Sheep can be wonderful animals to keep. They’re normally very hardy. They do need shade in the summer and shelter in the winter. If you have wooled breeds you will need to make SURE they are sheared in the spring – this is not negotiable. Sheep with a heavy fleece in summer heat can suffer heat stress and die. They’re more prone to fly strike and other problems.

While sheep are generally hardy have on hand and be familiar with a good sheep book – something like “Raising Sheep The Modern Way” from Storey/Garden Way. Many veterinarians don’t know and won’t treat sheep. This means when needed tasks fall to you – from docking tails and castration to delivering lambs. Sheep selected for lambing ease will help. My Barbados would have lambs unassisted in the field (less contamination than the barnyard) and the lambs be up and nursing in a half hour. Others spoke of staying up with Suffolks and other heavy breeds lambing and, thankfully, I never had that issue.

Depending on your personal schedule there is another way to insure you don’t lose sleep during lambing. Feed sheep at 10-11 a.m. and p.m. – it doesn’t need to be a lot of food. This triggers a natural cycle – when I did this I had only one lamb born before 7 a.m. and that was just barely.

Sheep are an easy animal to keep and they are not as stupid as some people say. They *do* have their own way of looking at the world. But for someone who wants to raise meat for the freezer without a lot of grain expense, and keep an otherwise unused area grazed down consider sheep.

Did you know…

There are dozens of breeds of sheep from those at around 50-60 pounds to some weighing over 300 pounds. A typical lamb is ready for market at about 100-120 pounds.
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