A Beginner’s Guide to Sheep

sheep

Are you considering getting sheep or do you already have a few? In addition to providing an introduction to raising sheep, this post also includes some of Thrifty Homesteader’s most useful posts about sheep…

Getting Your Sheep

When it comes to choosing a breed of sheep, I’m partial to the breeds on the Conservation Priority List of The Livestock Conservancy, and it’s not just because the breeds are rare. Yes, I do love the idea of helping to preserve a breed of sheep that’s on the verge of extinction, and that’s one reason we raised Shetlands for 12 years.

However, I also loved Shetlands because they are considered “unimproved,” which means no one has tried to make them grow fatter, faster, cheaper. Like many heritage breeds, they do great on pasture all summer and hay all winter. Many heritage breeds also have excellent parasite resistance and are outstanding mothers. In the 12 years I raised them, I never had a ewe reject a lamb, and the only sheep that ever needed a dewormer were the older ewes after lambing. Although I sold my breeding flock, we still have four fiber pets here on the farm.

If you are not interested in producing your own wool, you should choose one of the hair sheep breeds, which will simply shed its coat annually so you don’t have to worry about shearing. St. Croix, Barbados Blackbelly, and Wiltshire Horn are three breeds on the CPL. Katahdins used to be on the list but they have graduated from it because they are numerous enough now that they are no longer in danger of extinction.

Sheep Care Basics

Sheep tend to be very easy keepers. Most do well with a three-sided pasture shelter. Although some people will confine ewes to a barn during lambing season, we’ve never done this with our Shetlands or Katahdins, but we usually start lambing in April. The need to have lambing in a barn will depend upon how cold it is in your area during lambing season.

Sheep Health and Feeding

Many breeds of sheep do well on pasture in the summer and grass hay in the winter. If you are raising sheep for wool, you should not have hay feeders with alfalfa because you will wind up with fleeces full of alfalfa crumbs, which makes it undesirable or even unusable by fiber artists, depending upon the degree of vegetable matter in the fleece.

Although most sources say something along the lines that copper is toxic to sheep, that’s not entirely correct. Sheep need less copper than cows and goats, and they are more susceptible to copper toxicity than other livestock. However, sheep still need copper and can become copper deficient if you have copper antagonists on your farm, such as high sulfur and iron in your well water. Some of our older Shetland ewes became copper deficient, so we wound up giving them goat minerals every couple of months (because goat minerals have a high level of copper in them). After I started doing that, I discovered some other Shetland breeders who were doing the same thing. So, perhaps copper needs among sheep vary between breeds. It is definitely an area that needs more research because it’s not as simple as people used to think it was.

Sheep tend to be much more parasite resistant than goats and just healthier in general. In 16 years of raising sheep, I have never had one that needed a vet, and we’ve had as many as 20 adult sheep in our flock through the years.

Breeding

Breeding sheep is usually much less involved than breeding dairy goats. Although some meat goat breeders pen breed, most dairy goat breeders wait until each doe comes into heat and then they put her with the buck for a few hours. I’ve never heard of anyone who hand breeds sheep. In the fall, shepherds simply create breeding pens. Each pen has a ram and all of the ewes they want him to breed for the season. They leave them together for a couple of heat cycles, which is about six weeks, or longer.

All of our sheep have always lambed on pasture with the rams present. Of all the rams we’ve had, we only had one that had to be removed because he was causing a problem with the lambs. He wasn’t actually bothering the lambs, but he was trying to breed a ewe that had just given birth, which was scaring off the lambs. Of course, that’s just as bad as if he were being mean to the lambs because they have to nurse. So, depending upon the personality of your rams, you may need to be prepared to remove them from the ewes’ pasture during lambing season.

Our sheep have had far fewer birthing problems than our goats. We have only needed to pull one lamb in all our years, and it was a large single lamb presenting head only in a yearling ewe, but once my daughter found a foreleg and pulled, the lamb was born, so it was not even challenging. However, lambing ease definitely varies based upon breed, so do your homework before choosing your sheep.

We’ve also discovered a huge difference between Shetlands and Katahdins in terms of mothering. In 12 years of raising Shetlands we never had a ewe reject a lamb, but in only three years of raising Katahdins, we’ve had three bottle lambs. I’ve also heard other shepherds talk about having bottle lambs every year, so if you prefer to have outstanding mothers, definitely research the breed and also the flock where you buy your sheep.

Additional Resources

 

 

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Sometimes, even after reading everything you can find, you still have questions. That’s when it’s helpful to have another person to ask! Thrifty Homesteading is our Facebook group where we talk about all things related to homesteading, including sheep and other livestock. Join us!

Do you have experiences to share or questions about raising sheep? Post in the comment section below!

14 thoughts on “A Beginner’s Guide to Sheep”

  1. I have goats and I am wanting to get a few sheep. Can I keep the rams with my male goat and the females with my females goats?

    Reply
  2. Hello. Does anyone know who manufactures Burdizzo. I did a search by name and I am getting Burdizzo style tools and manufacturesrs that make the Burdizzo style but I just want to know where I canget a pair if iriginals. I tried Caprine supply and did not find them. Please help. I just want a tool that works well fir the sake of my little dudes.

    Reply
  3. I’m getting 4 ewe lambs in a week, and I was wondering if it would be ok to give them copper boluses? Any specificity on age and size of the boluses? (I have 2 gram and 4 gram sizes) Thanks!

    Reply
    • I wouldn’t do that. Sheep are much more sensitive to copper than goats are. They rarely become copper deficient, although it’s not impossible. You can use copper oxide as a dewormer for them, but if you are concerned about worms, I’d probably just use conventional dewormers on them since they are brand new to you. The dosage for copper when used as a dewormer for barber pole worm is 1/2 to 1 gram for lambs. Some breeders will automatically give their goats or sheep a dewormer before they leave their farm, so be sure to ask if the breeder has already done that. And ask what they used, and write that down for your records.

      Reply

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