Raising sheep is a fun and rewarding way to add life to your homestead – as well as to expand your bottom line. Sheep don’t require a ton of pasture space, and are docile, good-natured animals for hobby farms. Sheep can serve multiple purposes, including providing wool, meat, or even milk. Consider this guide to raising sheep if you are thinking about including sheep on your homestead or small farm.
Why Should You Raise Sheep?
Sheep are one of the best livestock animals you can raise, especially compared to cows, pigs, or horses. They are relatively small and easy to handle, offering gentle temperaments and easygoing personalities. Easy to train and work with, sheep don’t require a lot of special equipment, training, or natural livestock handling ability. They don’t need perfect pasture, as cows or horses might, and will instead eat weeds, brush, and junk grasses that grow everywhere -including in poor soil.
Sheep manure is a great fertilizer, and doesn’t need to be composted for quite as long as other types of manure (like chicken manure). It works quickly in the soil, meaning you can rotate your sheep pasture with crop planting locations, providing a wonderfully fertile soil for your future fruits and vegetables. Best yet, sheep don’t require much space, with the space of less than an acre being enough to support a small flock.
Finally, sheep are multipurpose. While certain breeds are best adapted to certain purposes (like providing meat, milk, or wool) many can be raised as dual-purpose breeds, allowing you to get more bang for your buck and to raise an animal that will provide endless benefit for your homestead.
How to Select a Breed
When you are considering the best breed of sheep to raise on your homestead, the first question you need to ask yourself is what you plan to raise them for. Do you want sheep for their wool or other fiber? For meat? Perhaps you simply want them to keep your lawn free of brush so that you can raise other more pasture-sensitive herbivores there later.
Whatever your purposes, there are several breeds of sheep that are commonly raised and, as a result, can easily be found in your local area for purchase or breeding. Interestingly, there are more breeds of sheep than any other livestock in the world (except poultry, of course).
Sheep breeds are broken down into several general categories, including fine wool, long wool, medium wool, carpet wool, hair, fat-tailed, short-tailed, prolific, and primitive. If you are in the market for a meat-only sheep, consider a Hampshire, Katahdin, or Suffolk sheep. Hampshires produce large flocks, with a high ratio of meat per sheep. Katahdin sheep provide similar yields but are very low maintenance, while Suffolk sheep can be found just about anywhere in the continental United States.
You can see some Hampshire sheep below:
And here we have a cute Suffolk lamb:
If you want a sheep that produces high-quality meat as well as plenty of wool, consider varieties like Dorsets, Corriedale, and Tunis sheep. These all provide dense white wool and grow out quickly, meaning you can keep some for meat and raise the rest for wool in the meantime. Other common dual-purpose breeds include Polypay and Columbia sheep.
Other factors to consider in your sheep purchase is whether you expect to get any milk out of the deal. Sheep aren’t particularly well-known for their milk production, but some breeds, like Lacaune and East Friesian sheep, produce large amounts of milk and can be used for dairy and other dairy-related processes, like cheese making.
There are other types of sheep that are easy to raise simply because they have been bred to do so. Icelandic sheep, for example, are a rarer breed of sheep that were bred to live in the wilds of Iceland. As a result, these sheep are very low-maintenance, offering both a dense, hair-like fiber and tasty meat with low fat content. They are also able to weather cold temperatures much better than other breeds of sheep. Consider your location, space, ultimate goals, and preferences when deciding on the breed of sheep you will purchase.
No matter what breed of sheep you ultimately go with, it’s important to remember that the quality of your flock will only be as good as the individuals who started it. Purchase sheep directly form the person who raised them, and look carefully at the flock from which they are coming. Ask the farmer about the history of the animal, as well as that of its family, and look for key signs of good health.
Make sure your sheep have clear, bright eyes, as cloudy vision can be a sign of bacterial, viral, or parasitic infestation. Your sheep should have teeth that are intact and a jaw that is well-aligned, as well as a neck and head that is free from lumps or swelling. Any abnormal growths on the head or body are often a sign of an untreated parasitic infestation.
Your sheep’s hooves also should have been trimmed properly. A limping sheep indicates foot rot, which can infect an entire flock. If you are buying an adult ewe, you should also check her udder for lumps, which can indicate mastitis.
While you can conduct any of these quick visual diagnostic tests yourself, it is sometimes beneficial to have a vet inspect any sheep you are considering purchasing. This will help set your mind at ease about any potential medical problems.
The final factor – but arguably the most important one to consider – when you are purchasing sheep is how many you are willing and able to sustain. If you are planning on somehow making a profit from your sheep, you need to figure out the current market prices and what your return on investment will be.
Like cows, sheep are ruminant animals. They eat mostly plants, like grass, hay, and weeds, and don’t need much beside plenty of good grass and a vitamin and mineral supplement. This supplement must include salt as well.
In general, about one acre of pasture can support four sheep. In the winter, you will need to supplement your sheep with hay bales or other pasture alternatives, since they won’t be able to access the grass beneath the snow. If you are supplementing with hay, make sure you use a raised feeder instead of placing it directly on the ground, where it will spoil. For the most part, sheep will not touch soiled or wet hay.
You will also need to provide small quantities of grain, but only in very small quantities. Sheep that are overfed on grain will become fatty and your meat quality will deteriorate. However, if your ewes are about to lamb, or you are finishing your sheep for market, you will need to provide slightly more protein and calories via a mixture of corn, oats, wheat bran, and linseed meal (which can be found in most commercial grain mixes).
Your sheep also need a vitamin and mineral supplement that is formulated specifically for sheep. Don’t make the mistake of feeding your sheep goat supplement, as this contains high levels of copper. Copper is deadly to sheep. That being said, the sheep-specific supplement will help support and provide any vitamins that are missing from your sheep’s diet. It will also provide salt, which helps prevent bloating in ruminants. It is best to use a granulated or loose form salt for sheep, instead of a salt block.
Your sheep will also need consistent access to a supply of fresh, clean water. You can put out a long trough that many sheep can access at once, but check to make sure the water is filled and clean daily.
Housing and Fencing for Sheep
Sheep don’t need much in the way of housing or fencing, particularly if they are breeds that are hardier toward inclement weather. Electric net fencing can be used for temporary paddocks, but keep in mind that sheep can jump, and any low spots in the fence will quickly be compromised. You a also use smooth-wire electric or woven wire non-electric fencing.
If you are planning on rotating your sheep into separate paddocks, you may find electric fencing to be a pain. This is where a net fencing can be helpful, but make sure you are extra vigilant about low spots so that you don’t have a predator or escaped sheep problem on your hands.
Sheep require some shade in the hot months, so make sure there are either some trees in their paddock or that they have some kind of building within which they can get relief from the sun. In terms of general shelter, a simple, three-sided shed is plenty to protect them from wind, rain, snow, and extreme temperatures. You might consider erecting a portable shed that can be moved as they change paddocks. Sheep need about twenty square feet per animal.
When your sheep give birth to lambs, particularly if they are lambing in the winter, you will need some kind of a small, enclosed barn. The young animals are particularly susceptible to the cold, and need to be enclosed during the first few weeks of their lives.
Your sheep may need to be combed and washed regularly, particularly if you are raising them for show or for wool. Keep in mind that you will need an area in which you can do this if you plan on doing either of these tasks.
How to Handle Sheep
Sheep are relatively easy to handle, and to be realistic, you won’t need to handle them very often. If you need to administer medication or medical attention, the best way to do so is through the creation of a handling pen or chute. This will allow you to work with them without causing additional stress by chasing and forcing them down.
There are some other tips you should keep in mind when handling sheep, too. Sheep move with other sheep and will engage in flocking behaviors. They do not like to be by themselves, and will often move uphill and toward open areas instead of toward buildings or other confined areas. They are easier to herd if they cannot see, so moving them around gentle corners is an easy way to get them to do what you need them to.
Offering food or treats it the best way to train sheep and to reduce their natural fear of you. Grain, apples, or other healthy treats can be used to coax your sheep into coming to you, but avoid chasing them at all costs. You need to get your sheep to come to you voluntarily. Because of their natural flocking behavior, once you get one sheep to come to you, the rest will instinctually follow.
Diseases in Sheep
Sheep tend to be relatively hardy against most diseases, but they are susceptible to parasites. This is especially common when you have sheep living in close confinement. If you are raising large numbers of sheep in a limited space, rotate the pasture every two or three weeks. You should also apply a deworming treatment every few months to keep parasites at bay.
Some species of sheep may need to have their tails docked, depending on where you live, to protect against fly-blown disease. You could also need to protect them against foot-and-mouth disease, depending on where you live. Other precautionary behaviors including dipping and vaccinating, but always consult a veterinarian for the best practices in your area so that you are well apprised of how to keep your sheep nice and healthy.
Unfortunately, because sheep are so docile and gentle, it also makes them easy targets for hungry predators. Thousands of sheep are lost every year to coyotes and wolves, while even smaller predators like domestic dogs, birds of prey, and foxes can seriously injure a sheep.
The easiest way to prevent this from happening is to make sure your sheep are in a well-maintained, fenced-in area. Monitor your fences regularly for any damages or downed lines, and consider lining the tops with barbed wire for added protection against jumping predators. You might also consider maintaining some guard animals, like a trained dog, llama, or donkey that can live within the paddock and help protect your sheep.
Other tips to keep your sheep out of harm’s way include lighting the pens at night, and keeping the sheep in an open field within your range of vision. This will allow you to keep a better eye on your animals and to prevent problems if and when they should arise. Many people also put bells on their sheep, which can help alert you to a problem if you are nearby.
Selling the Meat From Sheep
When you prepare to sell the meat from your sheep to consumers, make sure you are accurately noting the difference between lamb and mutton. Lamb is meat from a sheep that is less than a year old, while mutton is from an older sheep. Lambs are usually butchered between two and fifteen months of age, while mutton is anything older than this.
About once or twice a year, you will need to harvest your sheep’s wool. Some longer-wooled breeds will need to be sheared even more often. Wool can comprise a large amount of your sheep-based income, depending on where and when you sell it. Wool can be sold to a wool pool, which then markets it directly to a warehouse or wool mill, or to a private warehouse. There are also fiber cooperatives and similar networks you can explore for selling wool.
Regardless of the option, you should try to shear your sheep as early in the spring as possible. Ideally, you should do this before lambing and always on a clean, dry surface. Remove any undesirable parts of fleece, like stains and sweat locks.
Shearing is difficult work, and requires skill so that the sheep are shorn short enough without injuries o the sheep. It can be stressful to the sheep if you do not shear it properly. Most people use electric shearers to shear their sheep.
Always pen your sheep prior to shearing time. Separate them out into lambs, yearlings, rams, and ewes, and always fast them before shearing to avoid contaminating the shearing floor. Your sheep should be clean and dry for best results. It usually takes a few minutes to shear a sheep, with professional sheep shearers doing so in under a minute. If you are nervous about shearing your own sheep, or want the best results, consider hiring a professional.
If you are planning on breeding your sheep, make sure you provide them to access to adequate shelter that is free of drafts. Lambs born in cold temperatures are more susceptible to hypothermia. Consider whether you want to risk early lambing in order to save on labor costs, requiring an early spring or late winter birth, or whether you are willing to wait to lamb until April or May, when the weather will be warmer.
Select your breeding stock carefully, particularly in regard to the ram. He is arguably the most important member of the flock, since his genetics will likely be spread more widely over your flock. Rams reach puberty between five and seven months of age. An ewe in heat will usually seek out the ram, courting him by sniffing and chasing after him. The ram will respond by curling his lip, at which point the female will stand for mating. Rams will usually select older ewes over younger ewes, and may breed the same ewe several times.
Ewes are generally able to deliver their own lambs without any need for intervention. When your ewe is ready to give birth, you should be prepared to keep a distance, but to lend a helping hand as needed. Keep an eye out for signs that your ewe is ready to give birth, like a dilated vulva and a lack of appetite. The entire process takes about twenty-four to thirty-six hours to complete.
It’s important that you keep a close eye on your mother ewes and lambs shortly after birth. About twenty percent of lambs die before they are weaned, with most of those losses occurring within the first ten days. Monitor your lambs, and make sure that they are nursing. This is particularly important within the first twenty-four hours after birth, since the lambs need to take in the colostrum, or “first milk,” from their mothers. This helps build their immune systems.
Lambs are typically weaned at about two months. Shortly after birth, the lamb will begin to nibble on food, and the ewe will dry up within about eight weeks.
Is Raising Sheep for You?
If you have enough space for the sheep you want to raise, and the right reasons for doing so, you should definitely consider raising sheep. Particularly if you have long wanted to add a herbivore species to your homestead, but are unwilling to take the major leap to cattle, sheep are a good transition species.
Sheep provide a number of benefits, allowing you to earn a living from their wool, hides, milk, meat, and even their ability to keep vegetation down. While there are some financial considerations to make when you are starting out with sheep (such as the cost of fencing, vaccinations, and of course, the sheep themselves), keep in mind that they are one of the lowest cost and most enjoyable animals you can raise.