Do you have a good sized yard and are wondering “why do I keep mowing this thing?”
Maybe you’ve seen other people with grass to spare get some livestock and start using their grass as a resource. Why not you? Sheep could be just what you are looking for!
Sheep require food, which consists of grass and hay, plentiful water, a safe and low stress place to live and occasional care (like deworming).
Whether you have some spare land or you just want a few pets, sheep can be a fun, easy and often productive addition to your farm or backyard.
We have a lot to cover here. Some of it will be involved and some super basic, so feel free to skip around a bit if you are not a completely new to sheep reader.
Easiest Sheep To Raise goes over a few reliably easier sheep to work with that seem to be popular in much of the country.
Never fear-if you are totally new, just read everything and you’ll have all of the basics and the terminology covered.
Get your sheep information from people with experience
This is the why listen to me section. First off you don’t need to listen to me. And certainly don’t use only one source for information!
Look around and compare what you are reading to see what you think will work for you and our situation.
There is a ton of great information on raising sheep available online, Look into it.
One caution: be sure the originators of that information have hands on experience with the sheep they are talking about.
Many blogs have writers who look over the internet to find other articles to use as sources of a new article.
That’s fine except for the part about the writer having no experience. You could have looked up that information just as easily.
You need to seek out people with experience as your source of foundational information.
Is Keeping Sheep Easy? gives you the pros and cons of keeping sheep.
YouTube is also a great source. Once again, you need to vet the source, but the good information is out there.
Be sure of what the speaker is doing with her sheep and how she plans to fund it.
Take advise from a person running her sheep operation the way you want to run yours, management and finances should be considered heavily.
We have 20+ years of sheep experience
We (my husband and I) have grown our flock to over 300 head of commercial ewes.
We both grew up with a few sheep and have had sheep for over 20 years. Neither of us has an off farm job to bring in money.
The sheep are our job. We run the sheep as a business, so decisions are made with profit as the main factor.
This means these sheep are not pets. If you are interested in sheep as pets, much of this information will apply, but some things like culling or selecting replacement stock, will not.
Sheep are the ideal small farm animal
Sheep are an ideal backyard or small farm animal.
They are quiet, smaller than most other livestock and take less feed than something bigger, like cattle. A lot of American families are missing the boat here!
Backyard Sheep is an article I wrote to specifically highlight the great fit of sheep and smaller acreages.
Sheep are pretty easy to deal with, don’t need special equipment for sorting or handling them, can be hauled in your SUV type vehicle (in a dog carrier) and most adults or even good size teens have enough muscle to handle them.
There are tons of breeds and crossbreds to choose for nearly every situation.
You could go with a production flock, show stock or feeders, there are lots of options.
Yet, sheep still seem to be overlooked. What a missed opportunity for anyone looking to get started with livestock!
The current popular livestock to be getting into seems to be goats, not sheep.
This always seems surprising to me, since sheep have so much to offer the new livestock owner.
A side note: I’m wondering how many people are happy with that decision (choosing goats instead of sheep) when the goats start acting like goats?
We have a few goats as well, and they certainly are characters. When the goats annoy me I think “those darn goats, the sheep wouldn’t do that!”
Sheep are grazers, goats are browsers
What’s so different about sheep and goats? Aren’t they about the same anyway? No, actually they are quite different.
For some reason, sheep and goats seem to get lumped in together and really they are quite separate. At least in everything except size and having the same type of parasites.
Should You Raise Sheep Or Goats? goes over the basic differences between the needs of each and how to figure out which ones would work best for you and your farm.
Sheep are grazers, like cattle. That is the main thing to keep in mind about feeding sheep.
I think this is where people get confused since sheep are similar in size to goats, but similar in eating habits to cattle.
Sheep are kept the world over for their ability to go over the land and find enough forage to support themselves and their lambs.
If you live in an area with plenty of grass, no worries! If you live in a drier climate, sheep will still work, you just need more land or to feed hay.
Consider places all over the globe with little vegetation. Any livestock has to be able to travel quite a bit to get the calories for the day.
Sheep are more efficient calorie converters than cattle or goats, meaning when food is scarce sheep have a better shot at growing and thriving in that environment.
If sheep can work in this situation, and they can, then sheep are likely to be able work for you.
Sheep raising has challenges
As I’m sure you are aware, there are some downsides to raising sheep.
As with any animal or opportunity, it is a package deal, meaning the parts you like and the parts you could do without still come together and can not be separated.
The main challenge with sheep is their sensitivity to stress. The biggie with stress is that sometimes the results don’t show up for a while after the stress has occurred.
For instance, dogs get into your flock and chase them around, maybe get a hold of one and hurt it.
It’s easy to see the damage done to the sheep that is wounded, but hard to see the stress related damage that will show up later as slower gains or lowered reproductive performance.
Sheep are not as resilient as other animals and once they get “down” physically or mentally it is hard to rally them back to health.
Disadvantages Of Raising Sheep is an article I wrote that digs into the main “downsides” of sheep raising.
Quite frequently a sheep will try to “hide” her problems, since looking like the other sheep is one of the ways to keep safe in a flock.
It is easy to blame the sheep and say “I have no idea what happened, she was perfectly fine yesterday!”
Unless it was bloat or a predator, (both things that happen fast) that’s not the case.
Pay attention to your flock
Often the real issue is your lack of attention, you need to know your sheep!
If you are not looking at the sheep daily, preferably twice daily then you could have missed the subtle signs that she was feeling off.
Now that her problem, whatever it may be, is obvious, it may be too late to effectively help her.
Don’t let this scare you off, sheep are wonderful animals!
Just keep in mind that they need tended, not 24/7 of course, but being totally absent won’t work out well either.
There are opportunities raising sheep
One of the best opportunities you can take advantage of raising sheep is that sheep are great on grass alone.
You can feed them grain of course, but you don’t need to. Fresh water, a good fence and a salt block are all you need to raise some super market lambs!
Keeping your new flock healthy and happy can be easily done with minimal investment and facilities, compared to other livestock choices.
How Much Will My Lambs Sell For? shows you how to find the current pricing information for your area.
Another plus is that since sheep are smaller animals they will be easier on you and your equipment.
Additionally, sheep are much more small area friendly than a bigger, heavier animal. Sheep will be easier on the land since they are lighter weight.
Check out Cud Crew. This is a sheep for hire grazing operation, look around and get some ideas for your flock.
Sheep bring more money per acre
Sheep can be kept 5 per acre (around here, you’ll have to look this one up for your location) compared to one cow per acre.
It’s also hard to believe, but if you are selling to the weekly livestock auctions (not private sales, those numbers could be different) sheep will bring you more profit per acre than cattle.
What? Cattle are big and sell for more money! True, but it’s the money you keep, the net profit, that matters!
Do the math: a feeder steer will sell for around $1.00 per pound making a 500 pound calf worth $500 using current auction prices for my area (Ohio).
There are quite a few livestock auctions in Ohio so I looked at the most recent market report and averaged the results.
Be sure to also take off hay costs to feed the cow, we’ll use $400 (2 tons).
$500 for the calf-$400 for cow’s hay=$100 profit for cattle
5 sheep (generally considered the equivalent eating ability of a cow) will have 5-10 lambs per year to sell at $100-150 each.
The low income would be $500 (singles at $100 each) high income would be $1,500 (all twins at $150 each). Reality will be somewhere in the middle.
The first example uses low production numbers of one lamb sold per ewe.
$500 for lambs-$250 for hay for the ewes= $250 profit for sheep
If you are willing to go with average lamb numbers, rather than the low numbers in the first example, then the example looks like this:
$700 for 7 lambs-$250 for hay for the ewes= $500 profit for sheep
(How did I get 7 lambs? A good average guess is 1.5 lambs per ewe, which is 7.5 in this example. Since you can’t sell .5 lambs at the auction I rounded down to 7.)
Using the numbers in this example, even at low lamb production per ewe the sheep will pay better than a cow calf pair, more than twice as good actually.
If you are feeling the hay costs are too high, redo the math, just be sure to change the hay cost for both the sheep and the cattle numbers.
How Many Sheep Do You Need? gives you a way to figure up what your farm forage production is to match it up with the number of sheep you need to have to eat that grass!
Sheep start returning money to you sooner
Sheep will have 1-2 lambs each per year. Those lambs will be ready to sell at 6-8 months. In less than 12 months, your flock will start returning you money.
Once you earn back the money you paid for the original ewes, all the profit after that, coming in year after year, goes to your pocket!
Your sheep need a shelter and fence
As mentioned above, generally you can figure 5 sheep per cow in terms of need, space, grass etc. This is important since cattle numbers for an area are usually easier to find.
Have an acre or two of backyard? Perfect! Maybe your section of yard is smaller? No worries, just realize you’ll be feeding hay sooner than an area with more grass.
Sheep can live all over the world! So as long as you don’t think about moving to somewhere crazy, like the moon!, you can get sheep that will work for your area.
All sheep have special breed characteristics that help them live in a specific type of area. That’s the good news!
Figure out the challenges of your area and get sheep that are suited to those challenges.
The bad news? Sometimes the breeds you have your heart set on will not do well in your situation. Sad, but true.
Choose a breed, or mix of breeds that will work well for your area, you and the sheep will be happier for it!
ElectroNet 9/35/12 For Sheep is the netting we use for our sheep, year round.
Breeding stock vs feeder sheep
Here I’m going to get into raising breeding stock versus raising feeders. (Breed choices and specifics are for another section.)
Basically, you have two options available to you for farm sheep that are business based: breeding stock or feeders.
A breeding stock or brood flock means you keep the adult sheep and sell lambs that are born and raised from your sheep.
Feeders are a group of lambs that you purchased (that would have been born and weaned at someone else’s farm) and you raise them to market weight.
Get a starter flock of breeding sheep
A starter flock is what most people will be thinking of when they want to get into sheep.
A starter flock would commonly be 5-10 breeding age ewes and a breeding age ram. You could go smaller or bigger, to suit your needs and grass.
Buying a starter flock of ewes and a ram, caring for them and the resulting lambs, then selling the lambs to make money is the business plan, here.
Buying A Starter Flock Of Sheep shows you how to increase your likelihood of being happy with the sheep you get by picking out a flock that suits your needs from the beginning.
Buy sheep that will sell well in your area
The good news here is there are several options for selling lambs that you would be able to tailor your operation to.
Smaller and chunky hot house lamb style lambs that sell for quite a bit of money per pound are popular on the east coast.
Or market lambs that are grass or grain finished mature lambs, which sell for less money per pound but weigh more in total.
Look over the auction results for lamb prices
These are just two examples of common sizes sold in our area. Go to the local auction and see what comes through and how it sells.
Look over the market report (the results of the auction from the previous sale) that most auction houses would have online.
Mt. Hope Auction, is an example for you to get the idea. This is where we sell our lambs.
Do some calculations and see what shakes out. Be sure to actually do the math, sometimes the total prices will surprise you.
Direct sales are an option for lamb
Maybe you want to sell direct to customers? Go spy around at the local grocery stores and see what the higher end meat is selling for in your area.
Look up locally produced lamb online and sell what others are selling and the prices they are getting.
Age of lamb to sell depends upon your market
The best age of lamb to sell will depend upon your market.
You’ll have to do some research for this one, maybe even head on over to the nearest specialty meats market and see what they have and what they are having a hard time getting or keeping in stock.
Opportunities are everywhere. However, not every opportunity is in every location.
Find out what is being sold in your area and what is always bringing high prices because of it being in high demand.
Before you get too crazy here, slow down. Calculate the price per animal sold, selling prices multiplied by the weight of the lamb.
High priced lambs have a high standard
Realize that normally the higher priced lambs are higher priced for a reason, as in they are more difficult to raise to the standard needed for the buyers to pay the high prices.
Are you willing and able to put in the time and usually extra money to get your lambs to this standard?
Once you look into all the costs, it may not be worth it to you.
Raising feeder lambs is an option
To me, this is more of an ideal option for someone who has limited space, only wants lambs part of the year, or is great at marketing!
They plan to leave the late night lambings and dealing with frozen water in the winter to someone else!
A person buying feeder lambs plans to concentrate on finishing out lambs (growing the lambs to marketable size and weight) and wants to leave the breeding flock management to someone else.
In our area of Ohio, most people that have sheep would have a breeding flock.
This is the thinking that keeps many potential sheep owners/raisers out of sheep, thinking they have to keep adults all year. Feeder lambs would be a seasonal project, just like feeder pigs.
It is common for kids with market lambs at the fair to buy feeder lambs as the start of their project, it would be no different for a meat lamb enterprise.
The real positive here is that buying feeder lambs can keep your pasture eaten down and give smaller acreage owners a chance to raise their own livestock for at least part of the year.
I know many families around here like the idea of raising some animals but don’t want to be missing out on trips because of livestock at home.
Feeder lambs that would work around your travel or family schedule are an easy option here!
Sheep Creep Feeder gives you the scoop on creep feeding your lambs, how and why to do it and if it suits your flock management plan.
There is no “perfect breed” of sheep
You’ll notice, there is not a breeds list in this article. I didn’t put one in, and for good reason.
People get hung up on breed, it’s all too easy to think that if you just find the perfect breed all of your worries are over! (I find myself falling into this trap sometimes as well!)
The truth is there is no one perfect breed. All sheep are a package deal, you get the good with the bad. Your job is to pick the package that will suit you and your management style the best.
Far more important than breed is getting your sheep from a flock that is being successfully and profitably managed the way you want to manage your sheep. The proof is in the results.
Take a hard look at your farm, terrain, forage, climate, etc.
Now what do you want your sheep business to be focusing on? What management practices are you willing to do and what is a deal breaker?
Think about it and list all of this out. Be very clear here, this will be the foundation of your business.
Once you have your list and number one priority, find the breed or mix of breeds that will do this for you.
All sheep have characteristics that make them ideal for certain situations. Your life as a sheep farmer will be easier if you match the sheep to your situation!
If you are set on a specific breed, know the good and the bad
If your heart is set on a specific breed, do your research to make sure that those sheep can handle living in your area.
Be aware these sheep will likely need special care/allowances that a sheep adapted to your area would not need.
You should also be aware that this is a hobby farm decision, not a business decision. Nothing wrong with that, if you are keeping sheep as a hobby.
If this is to be a small business, reconsider your decision. Unless you can get more than normal pay for having a special breed, this is tough to make pay.
Sheep are versatile
Starting a sheep enterprise could be as simple as wanting some livestock to eat down the pasture. Why mow it when the sheep can do it for you?
If you are interested in raising some livestock and have limited acreage, sheep would definitely be a possibility to consider.
Sheep would even do great in a backyard, they are small and relatively quiet.
Another growing area of interest in sheep if from people wanting to grow your own wool for crafting, like spinning and weaving, or selling special fleeces to other fiber enthusiasts.
If you are not aware, this is a pretty big thing.
Raising some sheep is also a great way to get lamb for your freezer. I can’t think of a more small acreage appropriate and beginner friendly animal to raise than a few feeder lambs.
Not to mention that you could go 100% grass and get a superior market lamb for your freezer that you know all of the things that went into getting your meat.
Lamb prices in the U.S. are high compared to other meats in the grocery store or directly from your local farmer.
Raising your own lambs won’t be free of course but will be less money overall than you would have to pay for someone else to do it.
Have a purpose for your flock
If you are enthusiastic about livestock, welcome, welcome, welcome! I love having livestock around the farm, it feeds my soul.
I know that sounds a bit corny but it’s true. I’ve always been this way, it’s bone deep.
So, that’s good to know, but how is it helping you? Actually, it is a bit of a warning.
Reign in your enthusiasm, and purchase sheep that will do what you need them to do, not just ones that are cute or available today. This is hard, sometimes really hard!
It is crucial to the success of your sheep business that you have put in plenty of time, thinking and researching what you are planning to do.
Boring, boring! Actually, it’s not, jumping right in is foolhardy. I’m heavily suggesting a pause that will save you endless frustration later.
Get sheep that are likely to be successful in the management system you are planning to put in place by matching the sheep to your needs and resources.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with a hobby flock. Just keeping sheep around because you want to have sheep is super!
Many people, farmers included, have a favorite animal or two that they keep for what amounts to pet or sentimental reasons.
Just be aware that your pets will not make you any money, or even pay for their keep. If your sheep are a hobby, great-enjoy them!
If your sheep are a business or have an economic purpose, then keeping pets is costly and a poor decision that will hamper the future success of your business.
Feed your sheep grass and hay
Sheep can grow well on grass, just grass!
An easy option here is just grass! Sheep will do great for you as long as you keep them on nice grass, this could be your backyard or a pasture.
Notice I wrote grass, not weeds or brush. Sheep are grazers, they eat forages (plants grown to be eaten by livestock).
Sheep are not brush hogs, they will nibble on tasty bits of course. They will not totally destroy the brush or weed takeover, that is more of a goat thing.
You’ll still need to mow after sheep if the area is brushy or weedy.
How Many Bales Of Hay Do Sheep Need? shows you how to figure up your flock’s hay needs.
Choosing hay that suits the needs of the flock
What hay to feed your new sheep? The ideal is to use whatever the person you got your flock from was feeding.
Ask if you can buy a bale to take with you. This would ease the transition of the flock to their new home at your place.
No idea what the sheep are used to eating? Start with a nice grass hay, like orchard grass or timothy.
If those aren’t the common hay grasses in your area find what other sheep people are using.
Hay For Your Sheep goes over which hay will suit your flock and how the hay you choose changes over they hay feeding season.
Start your sheep with first cutting grass hay
Ideally, a well made first cutting grass hay is where you should start. First cutting is a pretty safe bet, everything will eat it.
Stock that needs something nicer, like lambs or nursing ewes up it to a second or third cutting.
Some of the higher protein hays, like alfalfa, are beautiful and your sheep would love to eat it, except (if given all they want) they will eat too much!
The sheep will pig out then have digestive problems. You could feed a few slabs as a supplement to other hay, if you feel they need it.
A mix of grasses and a bit of alfalfa will make a super hay for your flock.
Just reserve the straight alfalfa or any other high test hay for the specific times and animals that need it. As a general ration, it’s just too rich.
You should know pretty quickly if the sheep like what you put in.
Do they dive right in and start chowing down? Or do they look at it and seem to say “is this the best you’ve got”?
Hay for sheep should not be hard to find, assuming of course farmers in your area make hay!
Otherwise your local farm store will have some options for you, like small bales of hay or hay pellets. Be aware of cost here, things will get pricey fast.
Better to buy bales of hay from a farmer than dish out the cash for 50 pound bags of sheep food! Look online or just advertise locally.
Don’t over think this hay stuff, get something nice (smell it to tell) and things will be fine.
No mold, no big sticks, pay a bit more for quality-it’s worth it.
Calculating the amount of hay your sheep will need, per sheep is in How Many Bales Of Hay Do My Sheep Need?
Your sheep do not need grain, but….
Do your sheep need grain? No is the short answer, hinging on the word need.
Should you consider feeding your sheep grain? Maybe, it depends upon what you are trying to do and your options available to get it done.
Grain is wonderful for sheep cooperation
Right off the bat, in my experience a big plus for grain feeding is bribery.
Maybe the word snack or reward, like a dog training treat, makes it sound better, but I’m going to be upfront here and call it straight up bribery. And I love it and definitely use it to my advantage!
Nothing gets sheep into the barn or a catch area faster than them running to a bit of grain.
Once they know what is in the bucket (this does take a bit of training on your part) they will run to the snack, emphasis on run.
Bribery is significantly more appealing than trying to convince them to go into the barn when they don’t want to go anywhere or do anything cooperative for me.
Sheep that think you have a snack whenever you bring in a bucket are happy to see you and will come over when you enter the pasture or walk through the barn.
Sheep that are never given treats and only see you occasionally, are suspicious when you show up and will be harder to work with.
Grain can be an energy bump up for sheep
Now, moving past bribery, there are situations where grain feeding would make sense for your sheep.
If the price of hay goes crazy high, you could use grain to provide some of the calories needed, but just some, not all.
Or maybe your situation is not so extreme, you just have more eaters than you have grass.
In this case the extra calories needed have to come from somewhere and grain is an option.
Sometimes the quality of hay or forage available is not sufficient for the needs of your flock, especially for fast growing lambs or nursing moms.
You could look out of your local area for higher quality hay or just supplement with a bit of grain to increase the available daily calories.
You may find some of your lambs are not growing as well as you would like on grass, pasture or hay alone.
Be sure to deworm these guys then consider this group as candidates for supplemental grain, to help them gain weight.
Don’t keep these lambs as breeding stock, since they are under performing. Use the grain to prop them up until they are in a good enough condition to sell.
Some people prefer to feed grain to sheep
Some people prefer the taste of grain fed, or just think feeding grain produces a higher quality carcass.
That’s a great reason to feed some grain to your sheep. We know a few sheep raisers who always feed out their home raised lambs in a pen on grain.
As an example: One gentleman that we know has had sheep for years and feels that with his style of sheep and his access to grain, it is well worth his time and the cost of the grain to feed out the lambs to a higher finishing weight.
He is selling 120 market lambs. (We normally sell 80 pound lambs.) With his limited access to land and the size of his flock, feeding out the lambs on grain is the best option for him.
Flushing the flock can be done with grain
A final reason for grain feeding would be for a practice called flushing.
Flushing means giving the breeding ewes a high energy feed source a month or so before putting in the rams. We use shelled corn.
Flushing will increase the number of lambs born compared to a flock that is getting a declining level of feed leading up to breeding time.
Of course any higher energy level feed can be used, pasture included, it doesn’t have to be grain.
However, grain is easy and at least for us the most economical way to make sure all the ewes have all the calories they need to keep lambing rates up.
Sheep need a white salt block
Don’t forget the salt block! Whatever you are feeding the flock be sure to have a salt block available.
Even if you have a ration formulated for sheep, put in the salt block. Get the 50 pound one, it’s a much better use of your money.
The salt helps the sheep balance her rumen and keep control of the microbes if things get a little wonky inside her digestive system.
I have an article on salt, click here if you want to learn more. It is written for cattle, but applies to sheep as well.
Salt blocks are cheap preventative for sheep
The worst thing that will happen here is that you spent $6.00 on a salt block that they never use.
Much more likely is that you will see them use it, sometimes occasionally, sometimes a lot, depending upon the hay or grass they are getting.
Be sure to choose the white block only! The other blocks are made with higher copper levels than sheep can handle, which will eventually kill the sheep.
Sheep need water
Keeping water easily available to your flock is a great way to ensure the best performance of your sheep.
The importance of water is often overlooked, maybe because it is so basic?
When you think about it, what can a sheep do without plenty of water?
Digestion, elimination, reproduction and so on all require hydration to work efficiently. Water affects all other aspects of your sheep operation down to your wallet.
Unpalatable water sources lower growth of the lambs, since they will only drink the minimum possible. This limits their growth and costs you money.
That’s why water is so important and that’s why you need to be sure to provide plenty of clean water.
Basic watering sheep is with a trough
Your watering set up can be quite basic, just a trough and a hose will do.
As long as there is some water left in the trough when you come back to fill it, the sheep had enough to drink. If the trough is empty either get another trough or two or water more frequently.
Automatic waterers are great, if you have one
Of course you could use automatic waterers, those are great!
Most automatic waterers need to be plumbed into the pen, so would need a permanent location with the water piping, cement and possibly electric depending upon the type of waterer you install.
We don’t have any automatic watering systems for the sheep, we just use the hose and trough system. It works fine.
A trough with a float will automatically refill
An in between step would be a float valve on the or in the water trough.
The float will open when the water level drops to let more water in from the hose to refill the trough.
Floats work great as long as the animals can not knock it off of the trough, then the hose will run all over the pen floor until you discover the incident and get it shut off!
Sheep drink from streams or ponds
Having the flock drink from a stream or pond is handy, but can compromise the quality of the water and muck up the edges of the water from the repeated stepping on an squishing around already wet soil.
Instead of helping grow forage and reducing erosion at the edge of the stream, the squished up soil will easily wash down stream.
This leaves the upper area with less good soil and the lower part of the stream with silt built up in the stream bed. That’s a waste of your most valuable asset, the soil.
The other downside of drinking directly from water the sheep can stand in is they will also eliminate (poop) in it. Not a good plan for the rest of the flock also drinking from that water and a sad loss of nutrients.
One of the main benefits of having livestock, sheep included, is that they can fertilize the land as they graze the forage.
Any poop washing away is nutrients lost from your land and reduces the future production ability of the land by taking from instead of adding to the nutrient bank of the soil.
If you decide to use direct drinking from a natural water source for your sheep continuously monitor the condition of the water and the banks.
If your sheep spend all day standing in the water, you can be sure they are pooping in it. Fence them out.
Do Sheep Need Water? goes over the times or situations when your sheep do not need fluid water and gives you some resources to check.
Fencing is needed for your flock
Sheep are pretty easy to fence with woven wire or electric netting. Sadly, single strand wire or polywire/polybraid will not keep them in, unless you have trained them and keep the fence smoking hot.
I have all of this fencing information in great detail in my article, Sheep Fencing: Woven Wire vs. Electric Netting. Check it out if you want more of the specifics including prices and links to articles explaining the fence training.
Permanent vs. portable sheep fence
Here are the basics: permanent fence is more secure (doesn’t require power), good for perimeters and more expensive, since you have to pay all at once for the entire fence.
We got an estimate on one line of fence to completely do the west side of our property in woven wire, it was over $7,000! We had to pass on that one.
It would have been a great fence, just too big of a chunk of the budget at the time.
Electric fencing/netting is more portable, can be rearranged at will, but is less secure (power goes off or shorts out = no containment for sheep).
A big plus to netting is that you can buy more as you can afford it and expand your fencing ability.
Remember, the netting needs to be kept obstruction and weed free.
Anything touching it can suck the power down so the fence is not hot enough to keep in the potential explorers in your flock.
We use a combination of both fencing types. We like to have perimeter fence done in woven wire, especially along the road.
Then we set up divisions and move the sheep to new grass with the netting as the portable fence division.
Reproduction in sheep requires management
I love new lambs! They are so cute and a little klutzy for a few days, then in a few days they are zooming around!
They are still cute of course, but now have an amazing amount of coordination for something so young and awkward not too long ago.
Once your new lambs get to this point, things are looking good! But how to get here?
Start with high quality breeding stock
First off having high quality stock. I don’t mean show stock, unless of course you want to show, I mean high quality commercial stock.
Starting your flock with someone’s cast offs or just whatever ran through the auction barn is a bad idea! Get breeding stock.
The ram has huge influence on your success
The ram should be more sizable than the ewes and look more masculine, even if you have a more maternal breed.
Make sure he is well grown, in good condition, and has large evenly sized testicles.
If he needs a few pounds or feet trimmed, some things that would keep him from performing at his best, do these things early.
Do your final prep work a month or so before breeding season starts. Have him ready to go the first of the breeding season.
You bought him for a single purpose, this is it. Make sure he is ready.
Use a marking harness on the ram
Put a marking harness on the ram. They are easy to use and will last nearly forever.
Use the lightest colored crayon first and work towards the darkest color, changing the crayon every heat cycle.
The crayons come in three different formulas based on weather conditions, hot, med and cold.
The only difference I can tell is in the hardness of the crayon, harder formula being for the hotter weather.
A word to the wise-we used black crayons last year, bad idea.
The black mark was hard to see on the ewes, it looked like dirt from a distance. Choose more of an eye catching color.
You might need more than one ram
How many rams do you need? Generally speaking one mature ram can breed 50 ewes. A ram lamb more like 25 ewes.
Keep in mind that the ram can only breed two or three ewes per day, so on the days when 10 come into heat at once, chances are low one ram will be able to breed all of them.
Some of them, sure. All of them, probably not.
So what are the options? An easy one is be okay with a longer lambing season as a result of a longer breeding season.
If you want a tighter lambing season you will need to get more rams or sell some ewes to make the numbers work out.
The range sheep producers figure one ram per 100 ewes plus one ram. A bit confusing at first, but here’s the math.
1,000 ewes would mean needing 11 rams. 1 ram per 100 ewes plus add one ram to the total to equal 11 rams per 1,000 ewes.
The ewes need to be in great shape
The ewes should be well grown, if they are younger, and in good condition no matter what their age.
Start flushing the ewes a month or so before breeding season. Flushing is giving them extra calories, feed or grass, so they are in tip top shape when you put in the ram.
Ewes is good condition will conceive more lambs.
Flushing is an easy step that definitely will pay for itself in increased lamb crop. We use corn, because we have it. High quality pasture will work great also.
Only well grown ewe lambs will breed the first year
Ewe lambs need to be well grown to breed the first year, otherwise don’t count on them lambing until they are approaching two years old.
It’s worth your time to separate off ewe lambs and make sure they get high quality feed to help them be big enough for the first breeding season.
If not, you’ll have to wait an extra year for them to start earning their keep.
Sheep gestation is 5 months
Remember that the sheep gestation is 5 months, meaning that a ram put in on October 1st, will be giving you the first lambs born March 1st.
Sheep heat cycle is 17 days
The ewe’s heat cycle is 17 days. It is unlikely that all of the ewes will breed the first cycle, but should breed in the first two.
The number of heat cycles you keep the ram in is up to you, but remember whatever you allow in your stock you will keep having year after year.
A ewe that doesn’t breed on time will be late next year and produce babies that will have the same issue.
Have the culls sold before the rams go in!
You should already have your culls out of the flock, if not get them out ASAP!
Do not be in the situation where you breed back a cull ewe because you didn’t get around to selling her. This is asking for problems, and who needs that?
Bred ewes need to stay in shape
While the sheep are pregnant give them good quality hay or forage but not great hay or forage.
Too good of feed will make them fat and fat sheep have problems with birth and milking.
Please note: I didn’t write junk or low quality hay, the hay must be good to support her nutritional needs and to have healthy lambs.
Shear at 6 weeks pre lambing
Six weeks or so before lambing the sheep should be shorn.
For information on shearing your own sheep check out my article Learn To Shear Your Own Sheep written specifically for beginners.
If you don’t get this done until the lambs are born, skip it until the lambs are older.
Putting ewes with new babies in a catch pen to shear them will cause them to trample the lambs. Don’t do it.
Lambing season is a big event
A week or so before the first lambs should start being born, have everything ready. The pen, including lambing jugs, should be set up with the moms to be in it.
Since schedules are for you and not the natural world, the lambs will be born when they are ready to be born, not when the calendar says a certain date.
Generally, there will be one or two births then the flood gates will open and there will be new babies all over the place.
Lambing can go as much as a week after the calculated date of when the last of the rams was pulled out of the flock.
Any lamb born inside we put in a lambing jug for a day or two, the ones born outside we do not. You will still need to check the ewes when they are lambing outside, to make sure all of the lambs are with their mom.
Looking for a more in depth look at getting ready for lambing? Check out my article on Lambing Season. This article has more details.
If you have predator problems in your area, now is when you need to protect the new lambs.
For us, just having the newest lambs spend their first few nights closer to the house seems to make a big difference.
What works for you will depend upon your predator pressure.
Sell market lambs for income
Now your sheep business is finally getting to the part where you start generating some income!
It is always best to sell lambs when they are looking finished. What on Earth does finished mean?
Finished means they are fully covered with muscle and have a good fat layer built up, short version-they look meaty.
Are the lambs smooth over the hips and well filled out? Then they are ready to go!
Does the wool “break” or look like a crack from above? This means they need more time to put on weight.
This could be a lamb with a larger frame compared to his peers, he’ll just need more feed and time to finish. Or it could be a parasite problem.
Any lambs noticably behind their peer group should be sold. Deworm poor performers. Be sure to note the withdrawl period for the dewormer, then sell these as soon as they look acceptable.
Don’t hold out for this group to look good if other lambs have already been sold. Poor performers tend to stay poor performers, keeping them will suck more of your time and money.
When are the lambs ready to sell? This is the big question and it varies like crazy.
When the lambs are ready to sell depends upon the breed, the conditions they have been raised in and the feed they have been getting. Keep an eye on your stock.
Catch a few and feel how well filled out they are.
Should you hold out for special times or holiday sales? So far, that is not a great idea for us.
We are always better off to sell our lambs at their best versus holding out for a special market, like everyone else is doing!
Select replacement ewes from your best growers
Some of our criteria for keeping back replacements (yours should suit you) to give you an idea of where to start:
- Well grown for her age/peer group
- Better than average performance in our system
- Good attitude
- Wider and deeper bodied (we have a maternal breed so nobody here is a tank, but meaty lambs come from meatier moms)
When you are just getting started or have less sheep than you want in your flock, it’s tempting to keep all of the ewe lambs. Very tempting. Don’t do it.
These ewe lambs will be the foundation of your sheep flock for you and your family. Make your job easier later by being business minded now.
What to look for? Well grown and easy to deal with are two of the biggest for me. You’ll need to choose the goals for your flock.
Remember-what ever you put up with now you’ll have to put up with for the life of those sheep.
If you don’t want to feed grain, get and keep sheep that do well without grain. If you don’t want to pull lambs at birth, get sheep that lamb unassisted and don’t keep lambs or ewes that end up needing your help.
Sometimes this is hard, very hard. However, giving poor doers a second chance, when the rest of the group is doing fine, just results in more work for you, not a better flock of sheep.
Know the flock management before you buy replacements
Maybe you want to buy some replacement ewes? Get the full scoop on how the farm manages their flock.
The best replacement ewes for you will come from a farm close to you that operates in the same management style you do.
Not every ewe or ewe lamb should be kept as a replacement in your flock or in the flock you are buying from.
Get the details on why these particular ewes were kept as breeding stock potential.
It could be they are great sheep and the farm has too many head right now, a great place to get new sheep from!
It could also be these gals are female so in the mind of the seller they qualify as breeding stock, not so. You can do better, look somewhere else for your replacement stock.
Don’t keep back a ram, buy one
Generally speaking, don’t keep back one of your own lambs as a flock ram.
If you are new enough to sheep that you are looking for basic information on sheep management, like the info in this article, you do not have the experience to accurately evaluate and choose a ram lamb.
Buy one from someone with more experience who is running his or her flock the way you want to run yours.
If you are going to keep back your own ram no matter what I suggest (and I’m still standing strong on the fact that you need more experience first) then at least get a knowledgeable person to look them over for you.
I repeat: this is not a wise decision.
Purchasing a ram is the best option
Criteria for selecting a ram (you need to choose your own to fit your situation):
- Masculine appearance
- Structurally correct
- Even tempered
- Well grown for his peer group
- Large testicle circumference
The ram (or rams) you choose for your flock is a huge decision!
And by far and away the most influential and long lasting choice impacting your sheep operation. Choose wisely.
Pick a ram that looks masculine and is well put together. Good conformation equals a ram that will last for years.
Maybe you only need him for a year or two, but keep in mind a well built, high quality ram will resell well too.
The same rules apply here as I wrote in the replacement ewe section, only choose rams that come from a flock that is doing the things you want or are willing to do.
Like it or not, your ram choice influences all of your profitability for next year. All of it! Don’t cheap out here!
Consider a terminal sire (meat breed ram)
If you are running a commercial flock, selling market lambs specifically, it is worth your while to consider a ram that is a different breed than the majority of your ewes and is a terminal sire.
Terminal sire means all of the lambs will be sold as market lambs, you won’t keep back any ewe lambs for replacements.
The advantage of choosing a different breed of ram is two fold.
First, you can get more meat on the lambs from a meat sire, even if your main flock is more of a maternal (less meaty) breed or conformation.
Second, is hybrid vigor. A hybrid or cross breed, sometimes called an F1, will be more hardy and grow faster than a purebred animal.
This applies to all genetics not just sheep.
Cull to improve the flock
The fastest way to loose money is to keep around the sheep that are not working.
This is like paying someone that is employed at your company her full salary but she never shows up to work!
Your sheep are working for you. If they don’t work for their pay (food and security) they need to be fired (sold)!
What are the things you should cull for? Every flock owner will have a different set of most important things, depending upon area, management and the sheep you have at the time.
That being said here are some of the things most important to me and are reasons to cull a sheep from our flock:
- Not producing a lamb to sell
- Overly burdened by parasites (more than her peers)
- Difficult to deal with (very reactive, jumping fences, etc.)
- Not able to maintain body condition do to age (I love the older ewes, they are the best moms! But eventually they get so old that they can’t take care of themselves any more and have to be sold.)
One thing to make clear here: if you are keeping pets then you can and should keep whoever you want for whatever reason you want.
However, if your sheep flock is a business, you need to operate it like one!
Let’s talk money: sheep income
First off, the first year or so you will not make any money. Sad but true.
You will still be in the negative when because you purchased the breeding stock.
This is not just a sheep thing, this is the case for starting with any kind of livestock cattle, goats, whatever.
Your original stock will take a few years to pay you back for their purchase with profits from their production.
Raising feeder lambs can pay the first year
Getting a quicker pay back is one of the main reasons to grow out feeder lambs.
Feeder lambs would be purchased in the spring and sold or put in the freezer in the fall, so you would only have the money sunk in this sheep operation for a few months.
We don’t purchase feeder lambs but I’ll run through some numbers to give you an idea of what is likely if you want to try it.
Remember to get a few lambs, not just one, lambs need friends to be happy and grow well.
Purchasing a few feeder lambs will currently cost you $1.70 per pound for a 60 pound lamb.
Using today’s prices that would be $1.70/pound x 60 pounds=$102 per lamb.
Right now they are selling for that price or a little higher at 20-40 pounds heavier.
So for every pound of gain you put on the lamb you would get $1.70, once again assuming the price holds.
Using today’s prices you would get between $136 per lamb ($34 more than you paid for a lamb that is now 20 pounds heavier) and $170 per lamb ($68 more than you paid for a lamb that is now 40 pound heavier).
Remember, the price you get for your lambs will depend upon the demand and the supply that week at the sale.
Look up past year’s market reports and see how the prices for the weight your lambs will sell at tend to be when you plan to sell them.
Lambs in top condition will always sell well compared to less well fed lambs at the same sale. That does not mean you will get the high price for the year or season, just a good price for the day.
Breeding stock purchases make first year a loss
Most people would be raising their own lambs and keeping a flock of sheep year round. Here are some of the figures you should be aware of and calculating out for yourself.
Cost of ewe $300 all included in the first year’s expenses. I realize not everyone takes out the complete cost of the animal the first year, but I do since the entire cost of getting the ewe came out of your bank account this year.
Cost of ram $450 not included in expenses per ewe because ram per ewe cost depends upon the number of ewes. For example, if you have a flock of 10 ewes the cost per ewe of the ram is $45 each.
Cost to keep an adult per year $60 including hay and dewormer, figured at a quarter ton per ewe per year of $200/ton hay.
Profit per year (not 1st year) per ewe: single lamb=$93.98 twins=$243.98
Profit per ewe in the first year (the year you bought the breeding stock): single lamb= -$206.02 twin lambs= -$56.02
The most important thing to notice here is the last line just above this paragraph.
You will lose money, speaking of cash out versus cash in, for the year in the first year. Even if you do a great job and all of your ewes have twins.
I know this is hard to see, but I don’t want you to jump in and not be able to afford to keep your sheep once you get them!
After the first year, your sheep should make money
Don’t loose heart! The good news is once you pay off the cost of the breeding stock, every year after this the ewes all will be bringing in money.
As long as they have at least one lamb that is raised and sold, each ewe will more than pay for her keep.
I have all of this information in more detail in Raising Sheep For Profit, if you want to go check it out. I have a much more involved table with the explanations of what the numbers are that you need to include and how I got them.
Your flock needs routine care
Mainly here we are talking about deworming the flock. This could also include some hoof trimming, but deworming is the big one.
We have a more efficient sheep handling system in place now, we built a sorting chute out of wood and have a series of pens and of course lots of gates and cattle panels to rearrange as needed.
But we didn’t have any of the chute made until earlier this year, so we worked sheep in various numbers for 20 years or so, with just cattle panels as catch pens.
An easy way to start with catching your sheep is to secure a cattle or hog panel across a corner of the pen then move the sheep into the corner and loop the panel around behind them. Tie it in position.
Now you can walk in to the group and grab the sheep you need to catch and get her fixed up.
The first catching attempt is the best, be ready
No matter what you are planning to do or use, have it all set up and ready to go ahead of time.
Hasty, last minute tie ups or thinking “it’ll be okay, I’m sure they won’t go through there” is asking for your afternoon to be frustrating. Be ready and have the pen secure.
Unfortunately, this is experience talking-your first shot to catch your sheep is the best and least stressful.
Get it right the first time. Once they catch on to your plan they will be more difficult to get to the holding pen.
Hoof trimming should be occasional
Trimming hooves shouldn’t be something you spend a ton of time on, just an occasional hoof wall that needs trimmed back.
If hoof trimming is a full time job for you, get different sheep.
Trim the hoof so it sets flat on the ground. If you cut in too far you will hurt her, so go easy and trim a small amount at a time.
Not sure what the hoof should look like? Grab another sheep and scope it out so you know what you should be trimming and what you should leave alone.
Deworming your sheep is crucial
Read the directions on the bottle and follow them.
You should deworm before the sheep look like they need it.
How can you tell? Poopy butts, slower growth and bottle jaw (swelling under the jaw), all these signs mean you are late and already losing performance.
The standard advice is to deworm when the weather changes. Wow, that’s not very helpful at all! Sometimes that would be every few hours here!
To be fair, if that advice came from areas that have range sheep operations, it would be more helpful, but for our area it doesn’t do much.
Here is our current approach/plan to deworming-lambs are dewormed at 30 days, 60 days and when we wean them.
Ewes and rams are dewormed as needed and every year or so all adults are dewormed.
A note on dewormers: not all dewormers are safe for pregnant ewes and all will have a slaughter withdrawl time, normally 10-14 days or so. Read the labels so you know what you are doing.
Be sure to have a marking crayon of some sort to keep track of who got the dewormer. Being sure you will “remember” the ones you treated is a set up for overdosing a ewe or completely missing her altogether!
Use marking spray for identification
While we are on the subject, marking spray is essential for your operation. Once you get more than a couple of sheep, things can get confusing fast.
Make your life easier and have a crayon or spray ready.
I prefer the spray. It is easy to see, lasts quite some time, even if the sheep are outside and can be used on wool.
Crayons work best on hair, like the forehead or recently shorn sheep. While marking crayons are cheaper, I find them frustrating to use, especially on wool.
Be sure the spray is made for sheep specifically, otherwise it will not be scourable (come out of the wool). The spray does cost more, $10 per can, but worth every penny!
Use tags or tattoos for sheep identification
Tags or tattoos for identification? Really, it’s up to you, both have good points and not so good points. You would also be fine doing nothing identification wise, as long as you are not registering your animals.
If you want to track animals individually, tags or tattoos are a must.
It’s unlikely you will need to tag your animals at first, most will come already tagged. New lambs are a different story, but totally up to you.
I spell all of this out in my article Tags or Tattoos, check it out for complete details and how to information.
Be ready for emergency flock care
It’s best for you to know how to deal with an acute emergency, like bloat.
With bloat, by the time a vet can get to you the sheep may already have died. Bloat is fast.
Otherwise get some help from a knowledgeable shepherd or your vet when things start to get out of hand.
I’m sure you were hoping for more specifics, we prefer to do as much as we can ourselves as well! Doing your own “vet” type work right now, as a new flock owner, is not a good idea.
Because of your lack of experience this is professional territory, get some help.
You’ll learn as you go and next time be better able to handle a problem that crops up, but until then you need professional reinforcement.
Your vet wants you to succeed
When the vet shows up, stick around and ask what she’s doing and how you could do things differently.
Your vet wants you to succeed with sheep and never would want an animal to be in pain if you could have helped it sooner.
Your vet is a valuable resource for you, use this opportunity and learn.
Help a bloating sheep quickly
Back to bloat, if the bloating is just getting started, the ewe is likely laying down and can’t get up. See if you can get her to her feet.
Sometimes just laying in the wrong position is the problem. If she can toddle off and start eating then she just laid down oddly.
Check on her in a few minutes and again in 15-20 to make sure she is still eating. If that’s the case, good news, you had an easy time of it.
If the bloat is more severe-get a hose, like a cut off garden hose and shove it down the throat of the sheep.
There are two options for the hose, lungs and stomach, if you hear breathing you need to try again. Quick action is critical here, she is dying.
You’ll know when you get it right, since a bunch of frothy, stomach contents will come up through it.
This is good news, you are trying to release the pressure in her stomach, like deflating a balloon.
Sadly enough, most bloat happens so quickly you will just find a dead sheep.
If you do your morning and evening flock checks, you will catch the ones that just are cast (stuck with stomach low and legs high) and get them up before they bloat.
Salt blocks help prevent problems like bloat
Salt blocks are one of the best things you can do for your sheep regarding bloat prevention. Salt blocks are not a guarantee but they are able to help in some situations.
Flystrike on sheep happens in the summer
The other situation, aside from bloat, that you can and should treat at home is flystrike. This is maggots growing on the live sheep.
Flystrike is disgusting and really bothers me anytime I see it, which thankfully is not too often!
Here’s what you’ll see-bottle flies (the really fat, round flies that shine like oil on water) all of a sudden taking an interest in a specific spot on a sheep.
Usually the tail, but could be anywhere on the sheep, head to hoof. Bottle flies interested in a sheep means you need to catch that sheep today!
Flystrike can and will get out of control quickly, but caught early is pretty easy to fix.
We use a spray for screw worms (maggots on animals) that you will be able to find at your local farm store, it’s the white can pictured (above with the marking paint).
Spray down the entire area. The spray we have comes out a foamy blue/purple color and works well.
Look through the wool and be sure to get all of the maggots.
Usually this is a one time spray, but check her over tomorrow to make sure all the maggots are dead and you didn’t miss any spots.
Delaying treatment will stress the sheep enough to kill it. Even when you spray the maggots, the sheep will not recover if the stress was too severe.
Value added sheep enterprises
Fiber based value added sheep options
There are a huge amount of options here! Raw wool, washed fleeces, sheep skins, yarn, batting, roving and all manner of hand made fiber arts.
If this, the fiber end of sheep, is where you want to go, get a mentor who is already doing it.
Some sheep need more care than others, like multiple wool protection coats worn year around, for the wool to be in acceptable condition for processing.
Other breeds just need a clean pen or pasture and the hay to be fed on the ground, so the chaff doesn’t fall into the wool.
Get the scoop from someone who is successfully marketing her wool before you get started.
Also, get the details on the time involved and the profits, to make sure you are willing to do the steps it takes to get the results you want.
A note of caution here: be sure you get information from people who are currently doing what you want to do.
Not people who say things like “you know, sometimes this rare wool, special colored wool, etc. sells for $$$ a pound.”
Is she getting those prices? If not don’t make your budget quite yet. Get the scoop from someone actually doing it.
Sheep and contract grazing is up and coming
Some sheep owners take their flock in a different direction and get paid for using the sheep as a clean up crew. This is called contract grazing and is an interesting idea for a sheep business.
Check out Cud Crew for an example of a business using sheep for contract grazing.
For smaller flocks: In the eastern part of the U.S. this is doable with a smaller amount of sheep. Look around your home area and see what is overgrown and currently unused land.
If people in your area are looking for a non chemical/low fossil fuel alternative to mowing their land, you have an opportunity. Check out Greg Judy of Green Pastures Farm, he’s doing this with cattle and sheep in Missouri.
For bigger flocks: Around here this is not popular, but in the western part of the country, especially the wildfire prone areas and areas with an out of control invasive species taking over range lands.
Grazing to reduce burnable vegetation is becoming more common. Grazing control is seen as an economical answer to getting rid of the dry grasses without applying chemicals.
Grazing to eat back invasive plant species is coming around as well. Any plant that the normal eaters of the area don’t care for, will be skipped over in favor of finding something else.
This leaves the invasive plant to grow to maturity and set seed! Yikes!
Range areas that have traditionally been grazed by cattle are now looking for sheep or goats to go through and eat off the invasive plants the cattle are not eating.
Marketing and direct sales of sheep
Direct sales of sheep or wool is a way to keep more of the money that the customer pays to get the meat or wool that you raised. It also takes more of your time in return for that increased pay.
It is worth is to direct sell your lamb? If you love interacting with customers and are a true believer in the sheep you are raising, give it a look.
Be sure to listen to the experts listed below to set up your plan and budget.
Marketing is an area we do not get into much, our sheep and other stock goes to the auction. I’m not advocating selling your sheep at the auction, that is just what we do for the time being.
So, why am I telling you this? I can’t help you with marketing for your farm, but I know of some people who can.
If I were looking into starting direct sales I would spend tons of time listening to and researching what these people tell you:
- Small Farm Nation-a podcast by Tim Young at SmallFarmNation.com that I get a ton of information from. We do not direct sell, currently. Even so I get plenty to think about when I listen to his podcasts.
- Small Farm Marketing Solutions by John Suscovich at SmallFarmMarketingSolutions.com-he has a podcast as well as a YouTube channel
- Polyface Farm owned and operated by the Salatin family-they have a farm website PolyfaceFarms.com and a blog TheLunaticFarmer.com that I love, multiple books, workshops and a set of DVD’s called the Salatin Semester that has all of their whys and whatfors all in one place
This is not a complete list, there is tons of marketing help online if you are willing to look. These are just the people I know of specifically speaking to farmers about the marketing of their small farm products.