When you’re looking into getting some sheep, you’ll notice there are a ton of breeds to choose from! Sheep come in all manner of shapes, sizes and colors and all of the breed associations feel their specific sheep will be great for you.
Which sheep breeds are easy to raise and people friendly, which sheep are known for being great for beginners?
Here’s my practical advice based on raising sheep for a living and having experience with multiple breeds, based on what we have found over the years.
Raising Sheep For Profit is an article I wrote showing you how to walk through a budget for raising sheep as a small business.
Commercial crossbred sheep are beginner friendly
The best choice of sheep for a beginner is a commercial crossbred sheep. Commercial crossbred sheep are specifically mixed breeds or genetic lines of sheep being bred and raised as a business.
Some commercial flocks use ewes of one breed and rams of another, creating a specifically hybrid lamb to sell for market or as replacement ewe lambs, like the “mules” (speckled faced ewes) so popular in the U.K.
We keep the best of our lambs each year, both ewes and rams, and occasionally buy in a ram, essentially creating our own cross or mix of breeds/genetics.
How Much Space Do You Need To Raise Sheep? will help you figure out the number of sheep that will work for you.
Commercial sheep will be reliable, easy keepers
These are sheep that are kept because they perform. Commercial sheep will be easy keepers, have babies every year and be hardier than a purebred sheep.
I know that a crossbred may not be what you are expecting to read, but they are the best choice for a beginner. Crossbred sheep will be a better choice for you since they have been selected to work and make the shepherd money.
So often, as a new livestock raiser, it’s easy to get excited about a special breed then not realize the limitations of that breed (all breeds have pros and cons) and end up not getting the flock you need.
Starting with commercial ewes will give you the best shot at getting great sheep, that have been selected by other shepherds to perform in your area.
The second important point about a crossbred flock as your starter flock is they are likely to be less expensive to start with. High quality crossbred sheep will be your best shot at getting hardy, reliable sheep that will produce nice lambs.
Get ewes from a successful shepherd in your area
Get commercial sheep that are from a successful shepherd in your area. You want to buy from a person who feels that sheep are great animals to raise and that his/her flock has good, reliable ewes.
This shepherd will have thoughtfully selected replacement ewe lambs and have carefully chosen the rams used each year. Genetics are important. To get good results, have have to start with high quality sheep.
Getting high quality breeding stock takes selection and management. It’s worth seeking out a successful shepherd and paying a bit more for sheep that you’ll be glad to have.
Avoid poorly bred “whatever I could get” sheep
Avoid the person selling sheep because he wants out of sheep or is disappointed in how the sheep perform.
Also avoid buying a flock that the breeding was “whatever I could find” or a ram lamb I didn’t get castrated on time. You are looking for high quality, not any old thing. Be choosy here, quality pays you back repeatedly.
Great sheep don’t just happen, they are the result of years of selection and management. Start with high quality sheep or plan on the first few years being very challenging.
Dorset sheep are great for beginners
On to my first bred recommendation, Dorset. Dorset sheep are a solid sheep for nearly anyone to get started with. They are easy to work with and reliable producers of nice lambs.
Dorset sheep are known as a maternal breed, meaning they are great moms. With a Dorset or Dorset based flock you should get easy lambers that are good with their lambs.
Our flock is mainly Dorset and Polypay based. Both these breeds are wonderful sheep to work with and are reliable producers of nice, well grown lambs for market.
Dorset sheep are moderately sized and relatively calm
Another bonus with Dorset sheep is they have a moderate body size, so working with them is easier and they will be an easy keeper since they need less feed per sheep than a larger breed.
The third highlight of Dorset sheep is that they are available nearly everywhere. Dorset sheep are popular, for good reason, so you getting a starter flock of Dorsets should be one of the easier breeds to find in your area.
Is Keeping Sheep Easy? goes over the life of a shepherd and the main things you need to make sure you have “top of mind” to keep your sheep happy and healthy.
Choose production focused Dorset sheep not show sheep
Some flocks of Dorset sheep are focused on showing, not commercial production.
This means these sheep will be taller than the production focused flocks and will not have as much of a focus on production. Instead, the focus will be on show type (conformation).
There is nothing “wrong” with show sheep, but keep in mind they are selected for looks, not production or easy care qualities that you are looking for in your first sheep.
Get the production based Dorsets, for the most beginner friendly flock.
Here’s a link to Oklahoma State’s breed description and history of Dorset sheep.
Polypay sheep are great for beginners
Polypay sheep will have great mothering skills, higher lambing percentages and easier to work with attitudes. They will be very similar to Dorsets.
We have quite a bit of Polypay influence in our commercial flock and love them as much as the Dorset based ewes. Actually, our favorite ram is a Polypay. He’s a looker and has sired some great replacement ewe lambs for us.
Polypay are more of a fine wool type sheep and are more popular with range producers than a Dorset. If you are in a more range sheep type area, consider Polypay as your best shot for getting a great starter flock of sheep.
For some reason, many folks have not heard of Polypay sheep, so this is why I am comparing them to Dorset, which most people have heard of.
Polypay sheep and Dorset sheep are very similar in performance and maternal traits. We have a mix of both, and really the main difference is looks (head shape and wool). Both are great sheep and super beginner friendly choices.
Here’s a link to the American Polypay Association, history and goals of the Polypay breed.
Suffolk sheep are easy to get along with
Suffolk sheep are easy to get along with, meat type sheep. In the U.S., Suffolks are the most popular breed of sheep for small farmers to raise and it’s easy to see why.
Suffolk sheep are fast growers, known for producing meaty stylish lambs. They have a clean head, meaning no wool, and an attractive appearance. Suffolks are a larger sheep breed and are a popular showing breed.
Be sure you know what the breeder was selecting for when you look into getting a starter flock, you’ll want the sheep selected for production. You want sheep selected for breeding on time, easy lambing and good mothering skills.
If you like their looks or are wanting to finish out a larger market lamb, Suffolk sheep are one of the better choices for you to start with.
To be clear, we have never owned any Suffolks. However, my husband shears a small flock of them, we know several small farmers with Suffolk flocks.
The Suffolks we have been around seem to be calm sheep, overall, and in our area are a favorite breed for raising larger sized market lambs from.
Here’s a link to Oklahoma State’s breed description and history of Suffolk sheep.
Crossbred hair sheep would suit beginners
If I were looking for hair sheep, I would be seeking out a commercial crossbred hair sheep flock owned by a breeder or farmer with years of experience.
This way you would be getting the best of both breeds and reducing the drawbacks of the specific breed (all breeds have drawbacks, both hair and wool sheep).
I do not have any hair sheep. I have looked into getting some, to see how they do compared to our wool sheep, but I can not find any data on their growth to support the change in genetics.
I only have what I see around here to go by, which is that there is a huge variety of quality in hair sheep available. Be very, very choosy about what hair sheep you buy!
There are great flocks of hair sheep out there. Flocks chosen for performance and growthy lambs, but there are also plenty of flocks chosen for looks and are unfortunately letting performance suffer.
If you decide hair sheep are right for you, be sure to get stats on lambing percentages, age of first lambing, deworming, supplementation, the whole shooting match. Ask, ask, ask.
For some reason, folks get the idea that hair sheep equals no care sheep. Sorry, that is not the case.
You’ll still need to be vigilant about selecting your best replacements and be on par with your management, just like with wool sheep, to have great hair sheep flock.
Are Sheep Easy Keepers? goes over how your flock genetics and your management will result in how easy or hard your sheep are to raise.
Katahdin sheep are easy care hair sheep
In my area, Katahdin sheep are the most popular hair sheep. Katahdins have a great reputation as a beginner friendly sheep. I see quite a few of them here, in north central Ohio.
Be sure you are buying from a production based flock, you’ll know when the shepherd gives you lambing percentage numbers and goes into details about management.
Make sure you hear more than “you don’t need to shear”, you already know that! Get the important details like parasite management and percent lambs marketed/kept as replacements this year.
I keep mentioning production stats, especially with hair sheep, because many hair sheep in my area are kept as pets or a hobby flock. Both of which are great and can be fun and a wonderful way to keep your lawn mowed!
But….hobby flock raisers are not making the same decisions as a person raising sheep for a business. Make sure you get sheep from a flock that is selected for working, not looks.
Here’s a link to Katahdin Hair Sheep International, if you are interested in checking out this breed.
Do not get unusual sheep breeds as a beginner
As a beginner, it will be easier for you and more likely that you will have fun raising sheep if you get a more common breed.
This means you need to steer clear of:
- super prolific breeds
- wild sheep breeds
- sheep that do not need people
All of these types of sheep will require special management and have unique challenges that a beginner will have a hard time dealing with.
Stick with a breed of sheep that has been proven to perform well in your area and is easy to work with.