How to raise sheep

Sheep would have to rank among the most common grazing animals in the world. They are extremely versatile and adaptable and are raised for wool, meat, skin, and milk.

Raising your own sheep is an extremely enjoyable experience, as well as an excellent way to keep the grass down, turn your weeds into clothing, and provide some really tasty meals.

The sheep industry isn’t a new one. In fact, it dates back thousands of years to a time when a more primitive people relied on their personal flocks for food, clothing, and trading. Actually, history tells us that wool was one of the first textiles to be processed and spun for use as cloth.

Let’s look at the benefits of raising your own sheep and see how they will become invaluable when disaster strikes:

Lifestyle

For many people, the enjoyment of an agricultural lifestyle and a ‘small taste of country’ is the reason for keeping a few sheep. If their property has extra land, it’s an excellent way to keep the grass down and provide some of their own organic meat. Families sometimes use it as an opportunity to expose their young children to the idea of living off the land and teach them that meat and milk doesn’t grow on supermarket shelves already packaged.

For families with young children, sheep are an excellent choice because they are generally good tempered and easy to handle. We have found that lambs which have been bottle fed become extremely friendly and make excellent pets.

Relationships with animals such as these are really important, especially for children because when disaster strikes and your life is turned upside down, animals are one of the best sources of comfort and one of the quickest ways to restore a bit of normality back to your life.

They take up much less space than cattle and aren’t Houdini’s like goats. To give you a general idea, one cow and her calf needs about the same amount of grazing area as a flock of five ewes and lambs.

Sheep are happy to graze orchards, lawns, wooded areas, and nearly anything else between. They eat a lot of plants that other more fussy grazers won’t touch and better still, they eat basically to ground level.

They are reasonably cheap to buy, have a comparatively short gestation period of 145 days, and generally require little medical attention. So, without much upfront cost, you can have your own little flock in a short space of time.

Organic Food

For some people, it’s a way of ensuring that what they eat is completely natural free of additives and steroids. Knowing exactly how the animal has been kept, what it has eaten, and how it has been processed is really important to many people.

Tax advantages

There are several taxation advantages that go along with raising sheep, or other agricultural activities, which may be worth considering too. Laws vary by state, so you will need to familiarize yourself with your state’s definition of a farm for taxation purposes.

Wool, Meat or Milk: what breed is best for you?

Considering there are a lot of breeds of sheep, it’s important that you identify exactly what you want to get out of your flock. As with any livestock, different breeds have been developed for different purposes, so you need to decide what your number one priority is: wool, meat, or milk?

You also need to consider your climate and what kind of pasture you have to offer and make your choice accordingly.

Supposing your aim in raising sheep is purely for their wool, here are some things to consider:

Fine-wool breeds have been specifically developed for the genuine wool producer, for both commercial and hand spinning markets. These sheep have been selectively bred to produce quality fleeces and their comparatively fatty meat is not always considered prime eating quality.

Fine wool will bring better returns, but you may have difficulty breaking into an existing market in your area, especially if your quantity is small.

Fine-wool breeds include:

  • Merino
  • Rambouillet
  • Debouillet
  • Cormo
  • Jacob

Medium-wools cover most of the common breeds of sheep. Their fleece is generally sold into the commodity market and their carcasses are often large and make good eating.

The returns on this wool isn’t likely to be as good and if you can’t shear them yourself (i.e. you have to pay shearers to do the job), the cost of the shearing may be greater than the money the fleece brings.

The most popular medium-wool breeds include:

  • Dorset
  • Hampshire
  • Suffolk
  • Shropshire
  • Texel
  • Cheviot
  • Polypay

Meat sheep

If you are keeping sheep for their meat and can’t be bothered with the fuss of shearing, your obvious choice will be one of the hair sheep varieties.

As their name suggests, hair sheep are covered in rugged hair much more like that of their wild ancestors, which adapts to suit their environment, and sheds in much the same way as a dog’s coat.

Hair sheep have become very popular because they are hardy, low-maintenance, and resistant to many of the common parasites.

Carcasses are usually lean and make excellent eating.

Hair sheep breeds include:

  • Katahdin
  • California Red
  • Barbados Blackbelly
  • Croix
  • Wiltshire Horn
  • Royal White
  • American Blackbelly

Dairy sheep

Do you want to keep your flock for milk and cheese? These items will be invaluable for bartering after that catastrophe hits.

Sheep’s milk is extremely nutritious and has a very high solid content which means makes excellent cheese and butter. It is higher in several vitamins and minerals than cow’s milk and is easier on the digestive system.

They are easily milked by hand and depending on the variety, may produce between 400 and 1100 pounds of milk per season.

Lactating ewes of any sheep species are suitable for milking, however the renowned milking varieties include:

  • East Friesian
  • Lacaune
  • Hampshire
  • Suffolk

What facilities do I need to keep sheep?

Buildings/shelters

sheepAs with any livestock, the size and complexity of the facilities needed to keep sheep depend largely on the size of the flock, your local climate, and the climate in lambing season.

Some sort of storage shed or barn is useful for fodder storage and climate protection and will be essential if lambing is going to take place during the winter.

Sheep are incredibly adaptable and hardy and if the ewes are lambing in spring or summer, a small flock owner may well get away with a basic shelter for storing supplies and housing ill or lambing animals.

Shelter for BOL

A temporary shelter is easily constructed with bales of hay for walls and a piece of weighted iron for the roof. This type of shelter can be easily erected at your BOL and is cheap. The hay will provide fodder once the shelter is no longer needed.

Shade and water

If your summer is dry and hot, you will need to ensure that your animals have adequate access to shade and water. Sheep, like other grazing animals, are exposed to the elements all year round and inadequate shade and water will likely be fatal.

You will need to make sure that your BOL is close to a natural water source – your flock will make short work of your stocked water so your location needs to have a dam, waterhole, or river nearby.

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Pasture/feed

Sheep are grazing animals, so the constancy and quality of pasture or feed is very important. They will happily graze a wide range of grasses, legumes, and trees.

Most of a sheep’s nutritional needs can be satisfied with grasses, but if the pasture is poor or in short supply or the needs of your animals particularly high, you may need to supplement with a mix of whole grains.

Some people say that feeding sheep grain to fatten them up will make the meat greasy and fatty – this is of course, a matter of personal opinion. I have never tried it because we have more than enough pasture. Grain is, of course, a more expensive feed option and will be harder to find and more expensive post disaster.

Hay, which is high in vitamin A, is going to be necessary for feeding out if your area experiences harsh winters. Store your hay in a dark place (e.g. a barn) to preserve its nutritional value.

Mineral salt helps to prevent bloating and should be readily available to your sheep. Maybe you could use a licking block or provide it loose or granulated.

Health issues

Sheep are incredibly hardy, adaptable and resistant to many kinds of common livestock diseases.

Of course it’s your responsibility to provide a clean and safe environment for your animals because most illnesses are the result of poor sanitation and dirty housing.

A few of the illnesses that may affect your flock are:

  • Footrot
  • Polyarthritis
  • Pneumonia
  • Mastitis
  • Pregnancy disease
  • Coccidiosis & scours (lambs)

Sheep are also prone to parasites, but this can be prevented to some extent by rotating pastures regularly. It is really important that you maintain contact with a reliable veterinarian and vaccinate your flock appropriately.

Annual routine care should include vaccines, shearing, hoof trimming and deworming. Lambs require ear tagging and tail ringing. Ask your vet for more information on these topics.

Normal sheep manure is pelleted and solid. The sheep generally stick together in a flock. Watch for any animals that look sick or injured and isolate any animal that appears unwell.

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General care and handling facilities

Sheep are generally easy to handle and easily trained. If your flock is small and you are a smart prepper, you can make the most of their gentle character and use it to your own advantage. They will follow almost anywhere for grain, apples, or bread. Luring them with treats makes it easy to get them into pens for veterinary treatment or loading.

Handling facilities, no matter how small the flock, always make the job easier when it comes to loading, shearing, or sorting. Of course they can be constructed in many different ways and your own needs will determine what you build or buy.

A few things to remember when designing your pens:

  • Sheep move along better if their course is slightly curved and they can’t see what is ahead
  • They instinctively move towards and follow other sheep
  • They move better uphill than down

Predators

Predators are a serious concern as thousands of sheep are lost every year to hunters such as wolves, coyotes, foxes, eagles, and bears.

A few points that may help to prevent losses to predators:

  • Use guardian animals such as dogs, alpacas, llamas, or donkeys
  • Use neck bells on your sheep
  • Quickly remove any dead sheep from your fields
  • Install high, predator-tight fencing

Other points of interest

Here are several other points about raising sheep and lambs that might be of interest to you:

  • Lambs can be weaned as early as 60 days old
  • Orphaned lambs are often unwanted by commercial farmers and they are only too happy to give them away. This really does make your flock a very economical investment.
  • Bottle-fed lambs make excellent pets, though they tend to be very demanding and over friendly as they grow up.
  • Lambs do very well on cow’s milk powder, which can be easily purchased from your local supermarket and is much cheaper than the genuine lamb milk powder.
  • Sheep are generally quiet, unlike goats.
  • Sheep will happily graze steep or rocky pasture that is unsuitable for cows.

Well, it really isn’t difficult to keep a few sheep of your own. In fact, it’s enjoyable and helps to keep the grass under control. With the added bonus of delicious, home-grown meat and fresh milk if you want it..

You never know what circumstances might crop up, when there is no longer anywhere to buy meat, or you simply don’t have the cash. I think, when times get ugly, you’ll be glad to have your own animals. After all, isn’t this just going back to basics and learning how to care for ourselves without relying on modern conveniences?

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2 comments

  1. Avatar

    I have raised sheep for many years and articles like this make it sound like sheep are soooo easy. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In my experience which is extensive, sheep are just looking for a reason to die. Especially during lambing season. After loosing many lambs due to really dumb mothering I started looking for smarter sheep. That is the most important thing when looking for sheep to get started with. Make sure they come from a flock that has been culled for good mothering. They should be able to lamb outside without help from you. Most are not able to do this and ranchers bring ewes into barns and spend days and weeks during lambing season watching over their sheep to catch them in the birthing process so they don’t loose their lambs. A good mother should be able to give birth to two or more lambs and clean them off and nurse them herself and if she can’t she should be dinner. Smart mother sheep will often disappear when it is time to lamb and will hide her lambs so that no predators can find them. On the other hand these smart ewes are often a little wilder since they retain more of their wild instincts.
    In addition your advice to give cow’s milk replacement is also a huge mistake. Lambs are much more sensitive then other babies such as goats and calves and can die from this type of milk. Goats milk is a good replacement but not cow’s milk.
    Sheep can be a money maker but it is imperative that you start with good mothers to begin with as they don’t get smarter over time. : )

  2. Avatar

    More proof that border-collies are far smarter than a lot of humans. Sounds as though the author hasn’t lived in the Lake District of Cumbria. And, quite honestly, the thought of such innocent animals being slaughtered is at least one reason for being vegetarian. I haven’t eaten meat for more than sixty years, and don’t plan to start now. If anyone has ever heard the sound of a flock of ewes who have just had their lambs taken away, the sound is truly heart-breaking. The EU requires lambs to be under 30lbs weight, and it only takes a few short months for them to weigh that much, that’s if they survive the cold and wet in their little raincoats made from plastic garbage bags, that many farmers in England dress them in. Even the sheep are a lot smarter than many hikers who perish on the fells, due to lack of correct footware and clothing. Yet they are packed into trucks, ships and trains, like cans of sardines, destined for the brutal slaughter that awaits, no food, water or a space to rest or lie down. No thanks, I’ll eat my mint-sauce on new potatoes, without a serving of dead lamb. Lambs who bring so much innocence and joy as they herald springtime. Foot and Mouth disease is beyond sickening, having to keep all doors and windows closed in a fruitless attempt to prevent the gagging stench of burning carcasses from coming indoors, whilst looking outside watching the clouds of black smoke rising over the fells where countless pyers burn the bodies of thousands of unfortunate animals. There are no words to describe the sadness, one feels when that happens. So, no, raising sheep is not nearly as easy as the author would have you believe, even when one border-collie can easily do the work of two, if not three men. So, think again. Raising sheep requires far more than purchasing a flock, tossing it outside to fend for itself and then making big profits by slaughtering the ones that survive. Who will be there to protect them from the elements, and predators. Lambing time means ‘all hands on deck’ when nobody gets any sleep. What happens when there are blizzards and animals are buried under the snow? Even when the collies find them, they need to be dug out and rescued if they are still alive. Who pays the vet bills, cares for the pasture, shears their fleece, feeds the orphans and vaccinates them? What happens when a prize ram dies of pneumonia? What happens when walls or fences need to be repaired?

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