By Marvin R. Gray – So you’ve moved to the country and have been thinking about raising sheep on your five or 10 acres. Perhaps you have only limited livestock experience, but raising sheep is appealing because they represent a relatively cheap investment, are fairly docile, and don’t require elaborate facilities. This article covers only basic tips on buying and managing a small flock; however, there are a number of more informative sources such as Storey’s Guide to Raising Sheep available through the Countryside Book Store, and sheep! Magazine is also useful. Your local library will likely be of assistance and there are a number of websites such as www.pipevet.com and www.midstateswoolgrowers.com that offer product and management information. Now, what should you be keeping in mind as you ponder raising sheep?
Are sheep as dumb and prone to die as I have heard?
The answers are no and no. Any ewe who can find her lambs among hundreds is not dumb. On the “looking for a place to die” notion, the flock instinct among sheep is so strong, they don’t readily exhibit symptoms of common sheep illnesses; therefore, it may be too late by the time the inexperienced observer realizes something is amiss. With experience, you can soon identify an animal that acts differently and needs attention. One final comment: if you are buying sheep just to “clean up the woods” and don’t want to be bothered too much, rethink this idea. Part of raising sheep for profit, or any animal for that matter, will require the need to learn how to provide regular care to keep the livestock healthy and productive.
What sheep breeds should I purchase?
Are you interested in raising sheep for meat, for wool, 4-H projects, or just to have around? Answering that will help you choose from among the various sheep breeds. Visiting a fair where several sheep breeds are exhibited may be useful in narrowing your choices. Those animals may be expensive registered purebreds, but looking them over will help you sort out the breeds you find appealing. Crossbreds (not likely on exhibition at the fair) can be excellent “starter” sheep due to their generic hybrid vigor.
Where should I buy sheep?
Definitely not at a sale barn. While the price may be attractive, most of the animals there are culls (rejects) and you’ll likely be buying another breeder’s problems. And, perhaps not at a sheep auction since you can’t see the flock from which the consigned animals came. Moreover, most of those animals sell as registered purebreds, and can be fairly expensive. I recommend locating a trusted local breeder. Check with your county extension educator for names or ask others who have sheep where they bought their ewes. A dispersal sale from a well-cared-for flock is a choice place to buy.
What do I look for?
First of all, check out the seller’s farm. If the place is fairly neat, chances are the sheep are well cared for. Do the animals have a generally healthy appearance? If you see some with chronic coughing, watery eyes, running noses or limping, you may want to look elsewhere. Does the breeder have lambing records that seem to be accurate? Are you able to see the entire flock, including the rams? In what kind of condition are they? If you are unfamiliar with the breeder, consider taking with you an experienced sheep person or veterinarian to evaluate the flock. The veterinarian’s fee may well be worth the money. Are you comfortable with the seller? Should you purchase some animals as you’re learning how to raise sheep, does that person seem likely to be understanding if a problem should arise later? Don’t be pressured into buying if you don’t “feel right” about the situation. Finally, the seller may be responsible for providing health certificates and/or scrapie (a sheep disease) ear tag identification for each animal. It would be wise to inquire about the regulations in your state.
Which animals should I buy?
Don’t expect a breeder to sell the best stock, but most will have some sound animals from which to select. If possible, buy ewes that lambed twins early in the lambing season. Their front teeth should match evenly with the upper gum and they should be otherwise sound and healthy, including having a warm, soft udder. If they are still nursing lambs or have recently had their lambs weaned, they may normally be a bit thin. But, don’t buy ewes that are overly thin or too fat. Look for those animals in good flesh that have been only on pasture and received little or no grain. If you buy lambs, try to select from the older twins that were born and nursed on their own. Pay particular attention to those lambs whose mothers have the desirable traits you are seeking.
How much should I expect to pay?
While this will vary, a younger (two-to-four year old) productive commercial (non-registered) ewe can usually be purchased for $200 to $250. Depending on their age, lambs can be bought for $75 to $150. Older ewes (five years and up) are usually less, but they will have fewer productive years left. It would be a good idea to spend more now for sound, healthy animals. Buying bred ewes is another option, and while you can expect to pay more, you won’t have to buy and feed a ram for a year. If the ewes are not bred, the seller may agree to have to return the ewes to the ram during the fall breeding season. Ewes normally lamb around 150 days after they are bred.
Should I buy lambs instead of ewes?
Lambs are less than a year old; yearlings are one to two years old; and after two years, they are considered ewes. While the initial price is lower, I don’t recommend the novice having ewe lambs bred to give birth as yearlings. Yearling ewes can be nervous mothers who may have more birthing difficulties and can be light milkers. If the ewe lambs are bred as yearlings, it will be at least two years before you will have any of their offspring. Furthermore, lambs require regular worming and pasture rotation since they are more susceptible to internal parasites due to their smaller blood capacity. However, buying ewe lambs does allow you to gain experience and find out if you want to have a flock.
How many should I buy?
Your budget and pasture/facility availability will dictate that answer. About four to five ewes per acre is recommended here in the Midwest with a minimum of 25 square feet of indoor space for each animal. Buy at least two animals since one will not do well due to their flocking instinct. Start with a small number of sound ewes as you begin learning the basics of raising sheep, and increase slowly as you gain experience. In the future, it is a good idea to select replacement ewes from the lambs born on your farm. Not only will those lambs tend to have built-in resistance to any diseases on your property, but it is the cheapest way to expand your flock. Select your replacements from among the earlier born twin lambs who lambed and nursed on their own.
What should be done at home to prepare for the animals?
Do you have good fencing which will stop roaming dogs and coyotes? Electric fence is an excellent predator deterrent and there are a number of plans available. A sheep guard dog can also be added security. You should divide your pastures so that the animals can be rotated every three or four weeks to help control internal parasites. Ewes should be wormed about three or four times annually and lambs at least every other rotation. Administering worming medication as prescribed is indispensable in good sheep management. Alternate the brand of worming medication to avoid a parasitic resistance build-up.
Raising sheep doesn’t require investing in indoor facilities. Most farm buildings can be converted quite easily to house sheep and there are a number of plans available. Before you bring your animals home, check your facility carefully for situations that could cause an illness or injury. Is the feed secured? Are there loops of twine or protruding sharp objects such as nails that could cause an injury? Are there places where a ewe might get her head stuck? Are all gates securely latched? Sheep, particularly lambs, are naturally curious and should be checked frequently during the first few days after you bring them home.
What about after I get them home?
Try to continue feeding a similar ration. Any feed changes should be made very gradually over at least a two-week period. If needed, now is a good time to worm your animals and trim their hooves. Before they set foot on your place, trim the hooves carefully and, as a precaution, apply a footrot disinfectant.
Sheep footrot is a common health problem and can be very frustrating to eliminate, particularly during wet weather. If the sheep have not been on grass, fence off a small area and allow them to graze for an hour or so after the morning dew has dried off. Gradually increase both the grazing time and area for a week or two. During this time, make sure the ewes fill up daily on dry hay before they are turned into the pasture. One of the best ways to cut costs is to use any pasture you have to its fullest extent.
Depending upon the amount of grass you have and the severity of your winters, you will need to have adequate hay and grain available when the bad weather comes. In the Midwest, about 15 bales of hay will feed one ewe and her lambs from around December 1st until April 15th. Incidentally, one of the most pleasant sounds to the shepherd is listening to your flock munch contentedly on hay as the cold winter winds swirl outside the barn. Depending on the quality and availability, hay in our area purchased out of the field will run about $7 a bale. Expect to pay more if you buy during the winter.
Feed your best hay when the ewes are nursing lambs and save the poorer to help “dry them up” after their lambs are about 60-90 days old. If you have more than enough pasture, you can reduce your feed costs considerably by having some of it baled.
Not sure what to feed sheep during the winter? You’ll need to feed some form of grain, particularly to your pregnant ewes. The 50-lb. bags of pelleted feed are likely available at your local grain elevator or farm store; however, it’s quite expensive when compared with dried shelled corn purchased from a nearby grain farmer or your local feed mill. After considering all aspects of your flock management program, select a winter feeding plan that best suits your needs.
Your animals should always have unlimited access to both clean, fresh water and loose minerals. Try to use a specifically formulated sheep mineral which contains no copper. Too much copper can be toxic to sheep. Sheep are also vulnerable to tetanus (lock-jaw) which is likely if horses have ever been on your farm. It would be good management to administer a tetanus vaccine.
What about purchasing a ram?
Buying bred ewes or arranging for them to be bred will delay this decision until the following year. If you’re just at the beginning of your adventures in raising sheep, purchasing a ram complicates your flock management system. He will be with the ewes around six to eight weeks, but the rest of the time, he should be penned and cared for separately. You might want to consider some other options. Another breeder might allow you to take your ewes to his ram for breeding, or perhaps you can lease or borrow a neighbor’s ram just for the breeding season. You might purchase a ram lamb and sell him at the local sale barn when the breeding season is over. Sometimes you can buy a modest-priced older ram that the seller can no longer use. When buying a ram, select a sound, healthy one who is an early born twin and unrelated to your ewes. You should be able to find an acceptable ram for $100 to $150. Look for traits in the ram that you need to improve your flock. For example, if your animals are small boned, select a ram with outstanding bone development. At the same time, try to avoid a ram that might introduce an undesirable trait into your flock.
What kind of income can I expect from raising sheep for profit?
If you’re raising sheep for meat, lambs weighing at least 100 pounds from any of the meat sheep breeds are considered market weight and can be consigned for a small fee to a local sale barn. Typically, prices are better in the winter and spring (140-180 cents/lb.) and decline during the summer and early fall. If you live near an urban or university location, selling “freezer” lambs to individual customers may be an option, particularly where there is an ethnic population. Local processing plants can prepare the lambs according to the customer’s wishes. If you find the thought of slaughtering your lambs unpleasant, remember you can’t keep them all, and eventually you will need to find ways to move them.
Sadly, with the development of the various synthetic fibers along with other market factors, wool is now worth very little. Shearers charge $3 or more a head and with wool at $1.50 /pound and one ewe yielding eight to 12 pounds, well, you do the math. If you are interested in raising sheep for wool, check the possibility of selling your fleeces to wool spinners where they can bring more. If you have just three or four animals, a shearer may charge a minimum fee such as $25 to come to your farm. They sometimes prefer to have several owners bring their animals to one location where they will charge less, but this is a hassle and increases the likelihood of picking up (or giving) diseases. In order to cut expenses, consider learning how to shear a sheep. Check around for shearing workshops in your state. It doesn’t require brute strength to get the job done. Used electric shears can be purchased for around $125 and they can soon pay for themselves. Animals can be tied with a rope halter and shorn in a standing position. The author has shorn his flock for years on a trimming stand (you’ve probably seen them in use at fairs) while the animals are held in place with a neck yoke. This is also a good time to trim hooves, administer wormer, give shots, put in ear tags, etc. As you gain experience, learn how to do some of your own vet work.
All in all, owning a farm flock and raising sheep can be an enjoyable experience. They are a remarkable animal that can convert grass and undesirable plants into meat, wool and milk. Moreover, they provide a pleasant pastoral scene enhancing the beauty of the countryside. The key to having a good experience with raising sheep is to purchase healthy animals and make maximum use of your pastures protected by predator-proof fencing. Sheep do require regular attention, but at the same time, you can learn how to raise sheep by keeping a low-maintenance flock that doesn’t deplete your pocketbook by making it a practice to select your replacement ewe lambs from problem-free mothers.
There will be setbacks. Sometimes they will get sick and some of them will die. But this will happen regardless of the kind of animals you have on your farm. While you should care for your flock, there are times when you must be realistic. Cull any problem animals. Your goal is raising sheep that work for you and not the other way around.
Ed note: Prices from 2002.
Originally published in sheep! in 2002 and regularly vetted for accuracy.