Selecting the Right Sheep Breed For You

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASelecting the right sheep breed starts with what do you want the sheep to do? With the answer to that question it directs your answer while eliminating those who don’t do so well at what you want.

For example if you’re looking at showing in open market lamb competition you might get away with a Hampshire or polled Dorset but your primary choice will be Suffolk. That is what excels in the show ring. However there may be some arguable exceptions. A small sized youth may be more comfortable and learn more with a cheviot or Texel which aren’t as tall but still make the muscle weight to show. True it would take an exceptional animal to win, but for many the WINNER is learning to make the most of choices and livestock husbandry, which they’re more likely to do hands on.

If you’re looking to raise lambs outside on pasture what kind of range do you have? How big are your pastures and are you interested in meat or wool? If the latter do you have a market or are you willing to work hard to develop one? Do you want to mess with wool at all? If you aren’t willing or able to shear the sheep and there isn’t someone to hire then don’t think about anything but hair sheep or maybe hair cross.

The fiber market is exacting – no weeds, seeds or “trash” in the fiber which weakens the fiber as well as takes more work to clean. This necessitates *GOOD* pasture that is clean to insure the fleeces aren’t contaminated.

For those without a great deal of room interested in wool the Shetland may be an option – maturing about 90-125 pounds with ewes slightly smaller, the Shetland has a Bradford count in up upper 50s or higher, with 2-4 pounds per shearing not uncommon. Several colors are available and they are considered a rare breed both in the UK and the US.

If you’re dedicated to conservation the Leicester Longwool may be of interest. This is an old breed once kept by George Washington now critically endangered. They have a heavy curly fleece that is commonly 11-15 pounds with some up to 20 pounds. Those with more room and a real dedication to wool may consider the world’s largest breed – the Lincoln. Adult ewes are often 200-250 with rams 250-350 pounds, with distinctive long fleece that is well wooled to the knees and hocks. The Cotswold is slightly smaller.

Another interesting breed for fleece is the Romney big enough for a good eating and with a low “grease” – or lanolin – content to the wool. While the lanolin can be a good product many correlate the amount of lanolin affects the taste of the lamb, which if affecting the fat makes sense.

If you’re not interested in fleeces as much consider the Barbados blackbelly, Wiltshire horn or possibly the California Red.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThose without a great deal of room may find the 160-200 pound size of the Cheviot (ewes to 160 pounds) easier to handle than the larger breeds. If volume is your interest Polypays can be the solution, with the ability to lamb more than once a year and breed early. Another option is the Southdown but these do have wooled faces and legs, an objectionable quality for some. For something the same size but completely different consider the ‘redheads’ – Tunis sheep have red heads and a reddish cast to the wool. They’re born red.

For something completely different there’s the Karakul, originally brought to the US for pelt production. They are a “fat tailed” breed with ewes 100-150 pounds and rams 175-225 pounds not uncommon. They may be several colors and are distinctive in the sheep world.

The Cheviot isn’t to be confused with the slightly larger North country Cheviot – similar but the latter is not uncommon for ewes to be 180 and rams 300 pounds. The North Country Cheviot is also known for being aggressive on dogs.

In the larger range size of Suffolks ewes are 180-250 pounds with rams 250-350 pounds. Hampshires are also black faced and ewes are minimum 200 pounds with rams 275 and up. In appearance the Hampshire has wool on top the head where the Suffolk does not. Another similarly sized breed is the Oxford which has a black face but more wool on the face, down to the nose.

Slightly smaller at maturity is the Dorset, with ewes 150-200 pounds and rams 225-275 pounds. These may be horned or polled. They have a white “open” face (no wool on face).

Remember these mature sizes when you get “cute little lambs” – don’t tease them or play with them in any way that they butt at you. A 200-300 pound ram can do a lot of damage – don’t fear them but do treat them with respect. If you’re not large enough to ‘tip’ them for trimming and shearing plan and train when they’re small enough to handle. With one Dorset ram I knew throwing him wasn’t going to happen (I’m 5’2″!) so from the time he was a few months old I picked up his feet. He learned much as a horse and as an adult he was very easy to do his feet. Often I could do all 4 faster than others could tip him!

Also research the grazing and finishing abilities of your chosen breed. These are just a few of the sheep breeds available, and there’s many who are in other countries but not here.

  • Breeds vary from adult weights of about 100 pounds to over 300 pounds.
  • Some are wool specialists while others are for meat
  • Consider the amount of pasture you have – don’t overgraze.

Did you know?While in the US we think of sheep for fleece or fiber, the Friesian breed was developed for milk. Dairy sheep, including cheese, is in the US but less common than the other uses.

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.