Figuring out how many sheep per acre your homestead can support can be quite a puzzle
. There are lots of variables to account for: the breed of your sheep, their dietary requirements, the nutritional content of the pasturage, seasonal changes and a whole lot more.
It’s enough to make anyone go a little bit crazy, even seasoned shepherds. It would make things a lot easier if there was a dependable rule of thumb for how many sheep per acre a given parcel of land could support.
So, how many sheep per acre should you plan on?
10 to 15 adult sheep per acre is a good number for a rotational grazing program on good pasture. 5-10 adult sheep per acre will be sustainable non-rotationally on rich pasture, and no more than 5 adult sheep per acre non-rotationally on poorer pasture. Note that different climates and individual parcels of land can greatly change this estimate, however.
This is one of those questions that, as simple as it seems, is anything but simple…
Frankly, you’re going to have to do your own investigation, analyses, and even rely on your own instincts to help you determine the actual stocking rate for your land.
But, once you understand the fundamentals it isn’t that hard.
Keep reading, and I’ll tell you everything you need to know in order to figure out how many sheep per acre you can put out on your homestead.
There’s no One, True Rule for Sheep Stocking Rate
Here’s the bottom line: There are just too many variables when it comes to keeping sheep on any pasture, anywhere, to make a genuinely reliable rule of thumb.
Instead, you’ll have to assess all of the relevant factors:
- the breed of sheep,
- your land’s carrying capacity,
- and the local climate
…in order to determine the ideal stocking rate for your unique situation.
Only by taking all these variables into account can you create a plan that ensures both the health of the sheep and the sustainability of your pasture.
What is Stocking Rate, Exactly?
Stocking rate is a term used by ranchers, or in our case shepherds, to refer to the given number of animals (sheep or otherwise) that can be grazed on a given parcel or paddock of pasture land.
It’s a critically important concept to understand, as it’s really the most important figure in the whole process.
What Does Carrying Capacity Refer To?
So, we need to know what our stocking rate is… How do we figure that out? To do that, we need to determine our land’s carrying capacity. Once we have that, we can figure out the other.
According to the USDA, it refers to the maximum number of animals that a specific area of land can support (under a set of conditions) without causing any long-term damage to the ecosystem.
Carrying capacity is expressed in our figuring as AUMs, a technical term for “animal unit-months”.
AUMs are shorthand units that specify how much forage that one sheep (or other animal) can derive from pasture in the course of one month.
This USDA handout will tell you a whole lot more, but you can also use this quick formula to come up with a solid number:
Stocking Rate = (Total Acres of Pasture X Average Yield Per Acre) / (4% of Average Sheep Weight X 365)
Climate and Biome Make a Big Difference
The terrain and weather where you keep your sheep will also make a huge difference in how many sheep you can safely graze on your land.
Factors such as temperature, weather, and also soil quality all play a role in determining the carrying capacity of a given area.
The fact is that some places are just not well suited to grazing sheep, and that’s all there is to it.
Also bear in mind the interaction of these factors: your pasture might still have nutritious, high-value growth on it in the winter months, but if it is covered in deep snow, your sheep won’t be able to get it, or at least get it as often as they need or want.
Don’t assess any one factor in a vacuum; use common sense and you’ll come up with the right figure.
And if you have poor pasture, with enough care, toil and investment it might be possible to produce quality pasturage for sheep in these places, but only you can decide if the costs and struggle are worth it.
Bigger Sheep Eat More and Make More Waste
Bigger sheep, sheep with higher nutritional requirements, and ewes with lambs all need more food, which means the stocking rate of a parcel goes down.
You cannot forget to take into account the size and needs of your sheep when determining how many sheep per acre you can manage.
Another stinky wrench in the works: more sheep means more waste- poop!- which can and will degrade your pasture if not managed properly. Degraded pasture equals, yep, reduced stocking rate.
The Stocking Rate of Your Pasture Will Change Over Time!
If you learn nothing else from this article, remember this: the stocking rate of your land is never set in stone!
It can and will change as your pasture improves or declines, and as the seasons change bringing with them, or taking with them, grass.
Seasonal availability of grasses will greatly impact the nutrition of your sheep, so it’s important to adjust the stocking rate accordingly or take other action to offset it.
To this end, you have to check and re-check your pasture’s condition throughout the year, and adjust the number of sheep per acre if you want a healthy environment for your flock.
Good Pasture Management Can Maintain Stocking Rates
No matter how good your pasture is, you must maintain it over time. You can only “defer” maintenance and management practices for so long until your sheep totally ruin the pasture – even eating the grasses’ roots, killing it off entirely!
To prevent this, practice good pasture management techniques and procedures, such as rotating grazing areas, controlling weeds which outcompete grasses, and fertilizing or re-seeding when necessary.
Rotational Grazing Will Save You a Ton of Grief
Rotational grazing is the one thing that will help your pasture stay sustainable more than any other.
Rotational grazing is a livestock management technique whereby sheep are moved between different paddocks (enclosed sub-areas within your pasture) on a routine schedule.
This method allows the grass in each paddock to recover and regrow before the sheep return to graze again later on.
Rotational grazing offers many benefits for your sheep, too, such as more consistent access to high-quality forage, reduced parasite exposure, and improved pasture health overall.
To implement this technique, start by dividing your pasture into multiple, hopefully equal-sized paddocks using fencing or other livestock barriers.
Then simply move your sheep between these paddocks according to a predetermined schedule, typically based on the growth rate of the grass.
Done right, your grass has time to recover and grow back, and your sheep enjoy only the choicest bites of the same. A win-win!
Have Your Pasturage Tested for Nutrient Content
Just because there is grass on the ground, that doesn’t mean your sheep have what they need. Hardly!
If you want to know for sure what nutrition your sheep are getting, you have to test your pasturage.
By taking representative samples from strategic points across your entire parcel, you can start to understand the nutritional value you can expect from it.
Trust me on this one: Making assumptions about the content of your land can lead to major problems down the line for your flock.
Don’t Assume that All of Your Pasture Has the Same Stocking Rate
Remember: not all areas of your pasture will have the same or uniform capacity. This is especially true if you have a very large parcel of land.
Terrain factors such as soil type, drainage conditions, slope and more can impact the carrying capacity and subsequently stocking rate of different sections within the pasture or pastures.
To properly manage your sheep and maintain a healthy pasture, assess each area individually and adjust your stocking rates accordingly.
This is a great time to install paddocks for better control over what your sheep have access to.
Supplementary Feed Can Help Sheep Thrive Even with Poor Pasture
If your pasture isn’t providing enough nutrition for them, or if you need to reduce the stocking rate for any reason, don’t hesitate to provide supplementary feed for your sheep to help them thrive.
Offering additional food, such as hay, grain, or pelleted feed, can maintain the health, happiness and productivity of your sheep during periods of fluctuation.
But don’t get ahead of yourself, here: Always follow best practices when changing the diet of your sheep, as sudden changes can cause digestive issues like bloat or other major health problems.
Gradually introduce new feeds and monitor your sheep closely for any signs of distress or illness.
Tom has lived and worked on farms and homesteads from the Carolinas to Kentucky and beyond. He is passionate about helping people prepare for tough times by embracing lifestyles of self-sufficiency.