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Getting Started With Sheep As A Business

ewe with newborn twins

Sheep are the new up and coming livestock with a lot of folks looking into getting started with a flock of their own. But what are the first steps? What do you need to know in order to set up a successful sheep business?

To get started with sheep as a business, you need to know what lambs are selling for in your area, know what resources you have available for the flock and choose sheep that will produce lambs to fit your chosen market.

We raise sheep for a living and are seeing an increase in interest from folks thinking about getting into sheep, as well. Here are the things you need to consider before getting started with sheep as a business.

Sheep farming can be a profitable business

Sheep farming can be a profitable business, if you are able to keep costs down and manage the sheep in a way that keeps the sheep healthy and meets the demand for lamb in your area.

Here are some of the things you’ll need to figure out, before you get sheep:

  • What resources do you have for the sheep operation? grass, fence, building, etc.
  • Price of lambs in your area
  • What type of lambs sell well
  • Seasonality of lamb prices in your area

Raising Sheep For Profit is an article I wrote that goes over the numbers of sheep raising and gives you a budget to work with to see if raising sheep will work for you. The budget is based on our numbers but is easily adjusted to yours.

Here is a look at the summer management of our sheep.

Evaluate your situation to see if sheep work for your area

Sheep will need feed, a place to stay and some management, which means they need your time and attention. What you decide to feed them and where they stay depend upon your situation. Sheep needing your time is a constant.

What are the sheep going to eat?

The main thing to know about feeding sheep is that sheep are better suited to areas that have plenty of grazing. Some sheep are more adventurous eater than others, but overall, sheep are grass eaters.

  • What’s available for the sheep to eat?
  • Do you have pastures? If so, how much land do you have available?
  • What does that land grow, both what forages and how much of it?
  • What is your grazing season for the year?
  • What will the sheep eat in the winter?

How Many Sheep Do You Need? shows you how to figure out the number of sheep your land can support based on the amount of forages you land produces.

If you have a neighbor who has sheep, stop by and ask about how many sheep they have per acre and how much hay they feed in the winter. This first hand information will go a long way toward helping you plan for your sheep.

We have the main flock outside all year and bring the lambs into the barn at weaning. Which means we are feeding mostly grass from mid April through mid November and mostly hay for the rest of the year.

Where are the sheep going to live?

Where are your sheep going to live? If you have pastures, you already know where your sheep will be hanging out, but if you plan to keep sheep inside or do more of a dry/exercise lot plan, you’ve got more planning to do.

Granted, most folks would be keeping sheep outside, we certainly do, but it is possible to raise happy and healthy sheep inside a barn, as long as the sheep are dry, it’s well ventilated and the sheep have plenty of room.

Of course, with sheep inside you are also now responsible for feeding them. What’s the feeding plan? Purchasing hay and probably some grain? Where will you get the hay and grain and for what price?

Cheviot mule ewes in Scotland, image from The Sheep Game (YouTube)
These are Cheviot mule ewes in Scotland. Their owner, Cammy Wilson, is a shearer and sheep farmer who rents all of his land! He has a fun and interesting channel The Sheep Game (on YouTube) where he shows how he manages over 600 sheep and gets done loads of shearing, as well.

How many sheep will you be able to raise?

Now, if you don’t know already, you’ll need to figure up how many sheep you will be able to raise. This should be a number of sheep per acre that is common in your area.

Generally, the number of sheep you can have in an area is 5x the number of cattle that same area can support. For instance, if your area is normally has one cow on 10 acres then you will be able to support 5 sheep on 10 acres.

In my area, Ohio, the standard numbers are 5 sheep per acre, so if you had an acre yard you could fence it in and keep 5 sheep as lawnmowers.

Your state agronomy guide should help you figure this out. To find my state’s agronomy guide, I search “Ohio agronomy guide”. Your area will have something similar, click around to find the free online version.

Small Acreage Sheep is an article I wrote to give folks with a smaller land base some ideas of how to raise sheep with limited pasture area or even in your yard.

The number of sheep you can keep is strictly based on forage production, which you should already know from the “what are the sheep going to eat” section. If you skipped the math, go back and calculate this stuff out.

You can add sheep numbers by adding in hay to supplement the grass

I also want to remind you that the number of sheep you can raise is based on forage, not necessarily grass, meaning if you are willing to feed hay, you can have more sheep per acre.

I am specifically thinking of folks with little to no land, but who have a decent sized barn and want to raise sheep.

The catch here is overstocking your pasture will be hard on the land, increase parasites, and cost you more to raise the sheep, since you are increasing feed costs with hay or grain.

However, if you need more sheep to make your operation viable, you can add forage (in the form of hay, haylage or silage) to the system, as long as you have enough space to keep the sheep dry and comfortable otherwise.

Heavily stocking an area will require more management from you, but it is doable as long as you keep the sheep happy.

Know the price lambs are selling for in your area

Sheep farming hinges on selling lambs, usually market lambs, which are butcher ready lambs at the weight the customers of your area prefer.

You need to figure up the prices for lambs in your area. The easiest way to do this is to look at the market reports of an auction in your area, or something as close as possible, and see what the current prices are.

There is no definitive answer to price, it tends to be seasonal as well as vary with area.

For instance, we just sold a load of lambs for $225 each, that’s a pretty good price, since it’s mid December. We usually start selling in January, but this year price went up before the first of the year, so we sent some lambs that were ready.

How is the lamb price and seasonality in your area? Read How Much Will My Lambs Sell For? an article I wrote to show you how to read a market report and figure the lamb prices for your area.

Please, do not go any further until you have figured out the selling price and seasonality of lambs where you live.

This is a business, you must know the potential income you are working with before you can decide if sheep will work for you. Be sure to check back through the past few years of market reports and figure the price ranges.

How do I start sheep farming?

By now you should know if sheep will work for your farming situation and what the prices of lamb is in your area. Hopefully, you have done the math and feel that sheep will be a good business to get started with.

Now, how to start?

You need to know exactly what type and size of lambs you are trying to produce and when you need them.

Successful Farming: New Ideas For The Sheep Industry is an interesting article in an online magazine featuring three sheep operations in the U.S. that all serve different markets. Read through here for some ideas.

Know type and weight of lambs that sell best in your area

Since your main income will be from selling lambs, you need to see for yourself what type and size of lambs that are selling well in your area.

In our area a 55-60 pound, chunky little Cheviot cross lamb sells very well, they always top the sale. This weight group is very popular in our area and tons of folks are aiming to hit this market with their lambs.

We raise bigger lambs that finish out in the 80-100 pound range for folks who want cuts of meat, rather than whole lambs, like the Cheviot lambs.

Our lambs take longer to reach market weight, which has them selling later in the year when prices are normally much higher than that of the lambs sold directly off of pasture in the fall.

These are just two examples of type and sizes of lambs that buyers want. What is the type of lamb that sells the best in your area? What size do people want those lambs?

You also have the option of private sales, some folks do stunningly well privately selling all of their lambs, so this is a great option for you if you have customers in your area.

Each group of people have differing ideas of the ideal lamb, so make sure you know what the folks in your area want and what they are willing to pay.

Pros And Cons Of Raising Sheep goes over some of the things you’ll want to think about before getting your first flock.

Know when you will sell lambs

I’ve mentioned it earlier, but since it’s important, we’ll look into it again. You need to have a plan of when you sell your lambs, specifically which month or time of the year.

Your area will have a “glut” season for any livestock. This is when all of the farmers are selling their market animals for the year.

Not too surprisingly, prices during the glut are low because of all the lambs going to the sale at the same time, the supply is high, so the price per lamb will be lower.

The opposite is also true, when lambs in your area are not normally ready for market, in the off season, the prices will be higher, since there are less lambs for the buyers.

Seasonality of lamb prices is usually tied to grass growth

Normally, the seasonality of prices is directly related to grass growth. Lambs are born in the spring, grow through the summer and sell in the fall.

This is a very normal pattern that most folks will follow, which also means that anyone using this plan will automatically be selling their lambs in the glut.

If you want higher prices for your sheep, you need to figure out what the glut for your area is and then sell at a different time. This is why we feed our lambs, to keep them past the glut and sell at higher prices in the late winter.

Other folks are using sheep that breed year round, having the lambs born in the barn, feeding them a creep feed to get the most growth and selling the 50-60 pounders that are popular in my area.

Sheep Creep Feeder is one of my articles going over your options to creep feed your lambs.

These folks want their money back as quickly as possible and do it by selling smaller, well finished lambs that always sell well, or sell these lambs at the less popular times of the year for an additional bump in price.

Whichever way you choose to set up your business, know that nothing is perfect. All decisions require you to weigh the good and the bad and decide which one works best for you.

For example: the sheep that require the least extra work are the sheep that follow the normal pattern and sell in the glut. If you want the easiest plan, this is probably it. It is also likely to be the least profitable.

If you want to sell off season lambs, you’ll get more money for the lambs, but it will require more work and facilities on your part.

Selling direct to customers will likely get you the most money per lamb, but it takes work to find the customers and work out an arrangement that keeps both of you happy.

Choose the type of sheep that will fit your needs

Finally, you need to pick the sheep that will fit your needs. The ideal sheep for you will produce the lambs you are wanting to sell at the times you are wanting to sell them.

Best Sheep For Beginners gives you some breed ideas.

Your ideal sheep could be purebred or cross. The breed is not the main thing you should be picking on, it’s what the sheep can do and does it fit your needs.

If you are stuck on one breed and want it no matter what, know that you are probably not going to be able to get all of the things you want from your sheep business.

If that’s acceptable for you, choose the sheep breed first, then work with the characteristics of that breed. Since this is a business, I do not recommend choosing the breed first. Know your needs, then choose the breed that is a close match.

Sheep 201: Business Planning is a resource showing all of the paperwork you’ll want to have to make sure that your sheep business is a business and not just a hobby, meaning it will make you money, as intended.

Sheep Or Cattle: Which One Is More Profitable?

ewe with lambs and Hereford cow

If you have grazing available on your farm, you are probably thinking about getting into sheep or cattle. Both grow well on grass, are popular choices for both small and large farms and have the potential to produce an income.

Which one should you pick, will sheep or cattle will bring you more money for your farm?

Generally, sheep are significantly more profitable per acre than cattle. This depends upon the prices of both sheep and cattle in your area, if your area is appropriate or too harsh for sheep and if you are willing to put in more management time for the sheep, as compared with cattle.

In my area, north central Ohio, sheep are easily more profitable than cattle. Here are some numbers to show you why:

Market Animal Sold
(one year’s worth of production)
(per head)
Price per animal unit
(1,000 pounds mom equivalent)
500 pound steer @ $1.25 per pound$625$625 (one calf)
79 pound lamb @ $2.97 per pound$234.63$1,642.41 (7 lambs)
income difference$1,017.41 more for sheep per animal unit
Animal units are a way to compare different animals to each other based on intake of forage. Each animal unit is 1,000 pounds, which is one smaller sized cow or 5 medium sized sheep. One cow will have one calf, the 5 sheep will have 7 lambs. 12/15/21 Market Report for prices

These prices are from this week’s (as of writing) market report from Mt. Hope Auction.

The lamb prices are what we got for the larger group of lambs that we sent. The price for the steer is from the market report linked in the table. Both prices are middle of the price range for that weight group.

Raising Sheep For Profit is an article I wrote to show you the budget for raising sheep, with current prices (for my area), including how to find prices for your area, so you can see what sheep can do for you.

Sheep are more profitable than cattle, per animal unit (1,000 pounds)

Sheep are more profitable than cattle, if you are comparing by animal unit.

If you are just comparing money from sheep per acre to money from cattle per acre then the answer is: raise sheep. You get more income from the pounds of lamb raised on the same acreage as the pounds of calf raised.

This is what the chart is showing. One animal unit is 1,000 pounds of grazing animal, which in this case is one cow or 5 sheep.

Animal units are a way to make things even (or close to even) so you can compare likely results between species (sheep vs cattle) or age groups (feeders vs brood cows), based off of forage per acre.

The cow has one calf per year, this is where the 500 pound steer comes in. The 5 sheep have an average of 7.5 lambs, 150% of number of ewes, but since you can’t have .5 of a lamb, I went with 7 lambs per animal unit for the sheep.

If all things are equal, you get $1,017.41 more per animal unit from sheep than you do from cattle.

But…all things are never equal, so let’s get into a few of the things you should consider before making a decision on sheep vs cattle for your farm.

Is Keeping Sheep Easy? and 7 Disadvantages Of Raising Sheep are two of my articles that will help you with raising sheep, specifically.

Here are some ram lambs we sold earlier this fall.

Management is more demanding for sheep than cattle

Sheep take more management than cattle, by that I mean observation time by the shepherd. Observation is far more important with sheep, since sheep seem to have less ability to rally back to health than cattle.

The key with sheep is timeliness, you must be “on top of it” with sheep, lagging behind in care, like deworming, seems to lead to problems in sheep faster than in cattle.

I don’t mean to say sheep are overly needy, they are not, but they do tend to require more attention from you than the cattle herd that would be on the same amount of land.

The other aspect of management that is often overlooked is that sheep are just less well known than cattle, which means you have less vet and medicinal support with sheep (or goats) than the vet knowledge and meds for cattle.

This is simply a matter of numbers, since there are 93.6 million cattle in the U.S. and 5.17 million sheep in the U.S. in 2021. That’s 18x more cattle than sheep!

On the plus side, interest in sheep (and goats) is growing rapidly, since folks with smaller acreages are realizing that they can raise livestock, too.

Sheep knowledge and support businesses are growing, but as of today, it is still easier to get help with cattle than sheep, since both neighbors and vets are more likely to have experience with cattle rather than sheep.

Selling price for lambs or calves is based on your area

This is one that may come as a surprise to you, especially if you are new to livestock. Not all areas will have the same demand for what you raise. This applies to cattle or sheep.

How Much Will My Lambs Sell For? will show you how to figure up the likely prices for lambs in your area based on auction prices. Even if you are selling privately, you should know the current market prices for your area.

In our area, I would say there is actually a higher demand for sheep rather than cattle, despite this being a predominantly dairy cattle raising area up until the past decade or so.

Our area has lots of smaller Amish farmers who are looking for something to eat the grass then sell for a bit of extra income, this is where the sheep come in and why sheep are doing well at our local auction.

Sheep are just more small acreage friendly than cattle.

What is the trend in your area? If most folks selling at the auction are commercial beef farmers with tons of cattle and acreage, chances are your local market for sheep isn’t so great.

Why? Not many sheep are showing up, so the sheep buyers don’t show up either. If this is the case in your area, you’ll need to either figure out how to privately sell lamb to customers or ship your stock to a more sheep friendly auction.

If transport to an auction is an unreasonable distance, you need to have a plan for those sheep before you get them or be willing to sell custom raised lambs or ship packaged lamb directly to customers.

Please take some time to figure this out! Raising sheep without a reliable sales outlet is a recipe for disaster, not to mention a huge drain on your wallet!

How To Read A Cattle Market Report shows you how to figure up cattle prices for your area.

Facilities are less demanding for sheep than cattle

After the biggies of management and selling your sheep or cattle, working facilities will be a minor point, but it’s worth mentioning.

If you just have a few sheep, they can be corralled and worked in the corner of the barn with a hog panel or a couple of small wooden gates. Sure sheep can be hard on facilities, at times, but they are nothing compared to cattle.

If you are going to raise cattle, you need a sturdy working area with a few pens, at the very least.

Even if you do near no vet type work with the cattle, you still need a cattle tough place to sort off a steer or two, or pen up a cow for the vet.

Of course, a working area is simple to set up, but will need to be tough, so it will be more costly than a working area that will be fine for sheep.

Sheep and cattle can be raised together

Sheep and cattle can be raised together, if you want to have both, and have the grass to do it.

This will not change the profit per acre of sheep or cattle, but you can quite often “double up” by multi species grazing with little increase in costs, which will get you more total animals raised per acre for your farm.

5 Animals That Can Be Raised With Cattle goes over some good combinations, including sheep, and what you need to take into consideration for all (you, the cattle and the sheep) to be happy.

How Much Does A Ram Cost?

You’ll need to have a good ram to get the best out of your flock and to have plenty of lambs to sell next year. How much is a good ram going to cost you?

Plan to pay $500-1,000 for a high quality breeding ram. Ram prices depend upon availability of breeding age rams in your area and the supply of the specific breed (or cross) you need for your flock. In areas or years of high demand and low to moderate supply of breeding age rams, expect to pay more to get a high quality ram.

You get what you pay for. High quality breeding rams are going to cost you more because they are worth more, quite often, a lot more, when you add up all the benefits you get from using a good ram vs a poor quality ram.

When Do Sheep Breed? goes over your breeding season options, depending upon the breed of sheep you have and shows you how to figure up the number of rams you’ll need.

Sheep Profits is an article I put together to show the business side of sheep, if you are interested in keeping sheep as a money maker, be sure to read this one, specific budget figures and how to find prices for your area are included.

Plan to pay $500-1,000 for a good commercial ram

You should plan to pay $500+ for a well put together, high quality commercial ram that will produce high quality lambs, especially if you plan to keep back any of the ewe lambs as replacements or additional breeding ewes.

Even if you plan to sell all of the lambs, you still want a high quality ram, since well built lambs will grow better and sell better than lambs that are less thrifty or growthy.

Actually, my husband was just at our local auction last night and stayed for the entire sheep sale. It was a long one! This is what we do for a living, so it’s important for us to keep up with prices and be aware of what the buyers want.

The reason you may be interested in this story is that he was noticing that breeding age rams were selling for $2.00 per pound, some for more. This is going to be $400-450 minimum, at an auction, not a breeding stock sale!

These are two Polpay rams from the NSIP sale in Wooster, Ohio in 2019.

Paying more for a high quality ram is worth your money!

It is always worth more to get a high quality ram rather than buying a low quality “just get something in there to breed the ewes for this year” cheapo ram.

I’m not saying that a higher priced ram is always better, but higher quality, that is always a better choice. Let me show you why.

If you get a cheapo ram for $300 and you get acceptable lambs that sell for $2.50 per pound at 75 pounds. These lambs are fine, not great looking, but fine. This would give you $187.50 each per lamb sold. That’s doing pretty well.

Ram UsedIncome per lamb
(75 pounds each)
Income from 10 lambs
(75 pounds each)
Lower quality ram (lambs sell for $2.50/pound)$187.50$1,875.00
Higher quality ram (lambs sell for $3.00/pound)$225.00$2,250.00

If you get a nice ram for $500, you get great looking, well grown lambs. These lambs are going to be attractive to the eye and to your wallet, since they will perform better for the same, if not less, amount of work from you.

These higher quality lambs will sell for $3.00 per pound at 75 pounds, which is $225. Why are you getting more for these lambs? Easy, they look nicer to the buyer because they have more meat!

For each lamb from the more expensive ram you are getting an additional $37.50 per lamb.

So remember that extra $200 you spent at the beginning to get the nicer ram? You only need to sell 6 lambs from the high quality ram to pay for buying him rather than buying the cheaper ram.

All lambs sold after that make extra income you keep. And, all for the same amount of work, on your part!

Now, here’s the real kicker, the lambs from the high quality ram will also perform better. This means gain better since they will hit the 75 pound mark at a younger age, have more vigor and be overall better sheep to work with.

These better lambs will also carry on as better replacements, for any ewe lambs that you choose to keep back, rather than sell.

Here is a link to the Center Of The Nation NSIP Sale Results for 2021. This will give you an idea of what high quality rams are selling for currently.

ewe lambs grazing
Here are some of our ewe lambs.

Rams will be more expensive than your ewes

Just as a general rule, you should plan to spend noticeably more for your ram than you spent for the ewes. I’ve been trying to come up with a nice and simple way to put this and I think I’ve got it:

For your ram, plan to spend 150-200% of the cost of your average ewe. For instance, if you bought ewes for $400 each then expect to buy a ram for $600-800.

Ram lambs will be a bit less money, since they are younger and are limited in their breeding capacity for the first season. Mature rams will be more since they can breed more ewes, right away in the first year.

How much the sheep in your area cost will depend upon where you live and the current demand for the type of ram you are interested in buying.

Producers should be willing to pay much more for rams than ewes. The old rule of thumb is that a ram is worth five times the value of a market lamb. If market lambs are worth $200, you should be willing to pay $1000 for a ram with superior genetics. It is better to start with mediocre ewes (so long as they are healthy) and a superior ram rather than superior ewes and a mediocre ram.

Sheep 201: Selecting Breeding Stock has a wonderful section on selecting rams. Click around, this is a great site to use as a reference.

Look around online for current ram prices in your area

You’ll have to do some research to see what are the current prices by attending a few sales or reading auction market reports.

Another good place to find rams is online on free ad platforms. Look around and see what most folks are charging for rams, you’ll get an idea pretty quickly.

Don’t go with a crazy low price, the likelihood of a deal is low, this is usually an expensive sheep in the long run, since lamb quality is poor so getting results with a cheap ram is actually more expensive!

Stick to something in the medium high range of the prices for your area. Be sure to look at breeds that you are not specifically interested in, just to get a better feel for the price range.

Choose the ram that fits your flock plan

The ram you choose and the price you pay will also depend upon your purpose for getting him. Of course you want lambs, but lambs for what specifically?

  • Are you going to sell all of the lambs, no matter what? You’ll want a meaty ram that will sire meaty lambs.
  • Do you want to keep back some ewes as replacements? You’ll want a more maternal type sire, since you are hoping to keep some of the lambs for future breeding ewes.
  • Are you trying to produce short, chunky lambs or taller lambs that finish at higher weights? You’ll want a breed that has the shape you or your market prefers.
  • Does your area prefer white, black or speckle faced lambs? Sometimes color matters, sometimes it does not.
  • Does wool type matter, tight fleeces vs longer, looser fleeces? In our area, tight fleeces seem to sell better.
  • Do you need to use the ram for out of season breeding? If you want out of season breeding, be sure your ram is up to the task, as well as the ewes.
  • Do you want to produce replacements that have specific qualities? Be sure the ram comes from a flock that has the specific quality you want.

These are some examples of things you might be considering, note that none of these options are better or worse than the others, it’s just a quick list to get you started thinking about your flock and your ram choices.

Take some time to think about what the main purpose for your ram is so you can get one that will produce the type of lambs you are looking for.

If you don’t have a plan, you still need a high quality ram

Even if you don’t have a specific plan and you just want your ewes bred, be sure to get a high quality ram.

Many breeds cross well together and it’s common practice to use a ram of a different breed to take advantage of hybrid vigor in the lambs.

As long as you like the looks and build of the ram, picking one specific breed over another really doesn’t matter all that much.

Plan to use the ram for 2-3 years

You can use your ram for as long as he is fit, meaning he’s keeping weight on well and seems to be vigorous and healthy. There’s no reason you can’t use him for 5 years, or more. But, most people won’t.

Most shepherds will find another ram every 2-3 years, if for no other reason than trying to adjust to the current market needs or seeing if another ram will suit your farm or match your flock better.

For instance, in our area using a Cheviot ram on a more maternal type ewe flock is a popular choice since Cheviots produce an attractive, fast growing lamb that sells well in this area.

This Cheviot cross works because the buyers here want a smaller sized, meaty lamb. If buyers in your area want a bigger lamb, you’ll need to use something else, maybe a Suffolk, instead.

The other reason most folks would change rams is to avoid inbreeding (sire to daughter breedings) when keeping back replacement ewe lambs.

While inbreeding has it’s place in genetics, it is not for the casually managed flock or new stockman. Inbreeding, called linebreeding when you are breeding close relative to “lock in” a specific trait, takes more skill than most new folks have.

Until you have a few years experience with sheep, buy a new ram rather than taking the chance with unintended genetic consequences of inbreeding.

How Can A Dairy Cow Milk If She Is Not Pregnant?

Jersey cow in sunflowers

Doesn’t a cow have to be pregnant to also be milking? What is the real scoop here?

A dairy cow will start milking after the birth of her calf. At this time she is no longer pregnant, but is milking, which will last for three months. Then she will breed back and for the remainder of her lactation, which is another 7 months, she will be pregnant and milking, at the same time. Next, the cow will have a dry period, where she is in the last two months of pregnancy, but not milking, which lasts until the birth of her calf when the cycle starts again.

The milk production cycle for a dairy cow can look confusing at first, but it’s really the same thing that happens for most any animal that feeds her baby milk.

This is our family cow, Aleene, with her new calf.

Cows produce milk after having a calf

Cows start to produce milk after giving birth to a calf. This is the case with all cattle, whether they are dairy animals or being managed as beef cattle.

A mom needs the milk to feed her baby once it is born, but not before! This is why the cow does not start milking and then the calf is born, it’s the other way around. There’s no reason to have milk available if there is no baby to drink it.

The pregnancy produces hormonal changes in the cow that help her body prepare to take care of her calf by providing initial immunity for the calf in the colostrum which transitions into milk to help the calf grow.

The reason pregnancy is the first step is to start the hormonal changes that will result in milk production.

The biologically required steps for the cow to produce milk are:

  1. pregnancy
  2. birth
  3. milking

These steps must be done in the order listed. Milk production is a biological system, so you have to go by the biological rules for the system.

If you think about the steps, you’ll notice that the cow is actually not pregnant when milking starts!

She just had her baby, so the gestation (pregnancy) part of her reproductive cycle is over for this year and she is now in the lactation or milking part of the cycle.

If you want an easy to understand overview of the hormonal changes in a cow that influence milk production, read Is it True That Cows Can Only Produce Milk If The Have Been Pregnant?

author's husband milking cow by hand
This is my husband milking our cow. She went into the machinery shed for some reason, so he just milked her there. We just have one cow and milk her by hand, so as long as she is happy to stand still, we milk her there!

Cows will continue to milk once bred back

Milking while pregnant is possible and happens normally in the life of a dairy cow.

She will have her calf and milk for 10 months or so.

Then she will have some time off of milking, called a “dry period” where she is no longer milking, she is just resting and relaxing to get her body ready for the new baby and the start of the next milking cycle.

While she’s milking, she will be bred back at 3 months of lactation, so she’s milking and pregnant at the same time for 7 months of her milking period per year.

This overlap period, where the cow is milking and pregnant is normal and is the same for both dairy and beef cows.

This basic schedule is also roughly the same schedule for a beef cow, with the exception being that the calf is the only one getting the milk.

Milk Production Cycle is an article I wrote to explain what is called the lactation curve (amount of milk the cow produces and when that amount goes up then down is called the curve).

The most milk is produced 6-8 weeks after calving

The most milk produced by the cow is made around 6-8 weeks after calving. This is the time when the calf needs the most milk to keep growing well, but is not able to feed itself well enough off of the things it can eat.

After the 6-8 week mark, production tends to naturally fall. The better fed the cow is, to meet her nutritional demands, the longer she will keep milking at her best levels.

Most farmers do their best to keep milk production high per cow, to give her the best chance at having a productive lactation.

How long will the cow continue milking?

A cow will generally follow the milk production cycle every year for 5-10 years, depending upon how well she is managed.

Some cows are not on a yearly cycle, they are milking well and will keep milking for longer than the normal 10 months, so they are bred back at a later time in lactation.

This keeps the cow producing more milk, since she does not also have to support a pregnancy. As long as the cow can eat well, she will be able to also milk well.

Once the cow breeds back, she will start to naturally taper off the amount of milk she is producing. This makes sense.

With the new pregnancy established, she needs to keep herself in good shape and have plenty of energy for the growing baby. As her body feels it is appropriate she’ll reduce the amount of milk now to keep her baby growing well.

The amount she milks will depend upon her breed and how she is fed. If you are interested in learning more about breeds of cattle that will work well for a family cow, read Best Family Cow Breeds.

How are the dairy cows bred back?

Bred back is the term folks use for when the cow is bred for another pregnancy. At this time she is milking, as well. Cows are bred back at three months so they have a calf at the same time each year.

Most dairy cattle are bred by artificial insemination, called A.I. for short. It is a very common practice in dairy herds and also done in smaller beef herds.

Wondering About A.I. In Cattle? goes over the basics of A.I. for anyone with a small herd, even a herd of one, that is considering using A.I. this year.

Do Sheep Eat Hay?

feeding our sheep on pasture with a bale unroller

Most livestock, like horses and cattle, eat hay, but what about sheep? Do sheep eat hay, as well, or do sheep normally eat something else?

Sheep eat hay when grass or other grazeable forages are no longer available to them. Sheep eat hay from many types of plants, but mainly grasses. Sheep can be fed hay in the winter, when the grass no longer grows or during times of forage storages, like drought.

We most commonly think of sheep as being outside on a nice green pasture, grazing peacefully. But, grass, whether in the pasture or in your lawn, doesn’t grow all year, so what do sheep eat then?

Best Hay For Sheep shows you how to pick out the hay you need for your sheep, based on your flock’s nutritional needs.

Sheep eat hay

Sheep are commonly fed hay as a source of roughage (long stemmed plant material) for their diet. Sheep are ruminants, like cattle and goats, so they are well built to digest plants in both fresh and dried (hay) forms.

Is Keeping Sheep Easy? gives you some insight into the easier and the more challenging aspects of keeping sheep.

Hay is fed to sheep when there is no more grass

Hay is usually fed to sheep in the winter, since the pastures are not growing then and anytime throughout the year when the sheep need more forages (plants to eat) than they can get themselves.

Hay makes up for lack of pasture due to drought and limited pasture space, which I am defining as having more sheep than the area can grow a year’s worth of forages for. In this case the sheep eat pasture part of the year then hay.

This is how we feed our main flock of sheep on pasture.
They are fed from mid November through early to mid April, when the grass starts growing again.

We feed our sheep hay every winter

We feed our sheep hay for the winter months, which are normally mid November through early to mid April here in Ohio.

Even though the main ewe flock is outside all year on pasture, they are fed hay to make sure that they have enough to eat every day.

Farms and ranches in states south of here will have much longer grazing seasons and have a shorter winter hay feeding window. In the really hot areas, they do not have grass growth in summer, it’s too hot, so they feed hay in the heat.

How Many Bales Of Hay Do Sheep Need? helps you figure up the hay needs for your flock.

Hay is fed during forage shortages, like drought or heavy snow

Every once in a while, even on a farm that normally has plenty of year round grazing for the sheep, there are forage shortfalls.

These shortfalls are usually due to crazy weather, like drought, where the grass just plain does not grow, but can also be due to heavy snow, since the grass is there but the sheep can’t get to it!

Either way, the sheep need to eat and if they don’t have grass or can’t get to it, they need hay.

Is hay good for sheep?

High quality hay is good for sheep. Low quality hay is good for bedding or mulch.

If sheep are eating a well made hay, they are getting a species appropriate diet that will have nearly all of the benefits of pasture.

7 Tips To Choose High Quality Hay shows you how to evaluate hay to make sure you are getting hay that your sheep will eat once you get it home!

Can sheep eat too much hay?

Sheep will eat hay until they are full. As long as the hay is a well made first cutting, they are probably not going to eat too much of the hay. If the hay is a later cutting, sheep can overeat and upset their digestion.

Sheep eating first cutting hay is like you eating vegetables. Vegetables are good for you and you can eat as many as you want. You are unlikely to overeat vegetables. The same is true with sheep and first cutting hay.

If the hay is one of the more energy packed cuttings, like a 2nd or 3rd cutting, especially if the hay is a high proportion alfalfa, then the sheep will eat that hay more like kids eating candy and end up with the same upset stomach!

This type of hay is almost too nice and must be given in small amounts or only given to sheep that need the extra energy like growing lambs or ewes (mom sheep) that are milking.

Can sheep live off hay?

Sheep can live off of hay. Most sheep seem to prefer grass to hay, but when the grass is not growing or there is not enough for their needs, hay will be fine for the flock.

I need to mention that all hay is not equal. Hay that is well made is good hay worthy of feeding your sheep. Poorly made hay or hay that is damaged (rained on or improperly stored) on is going to have diminished feeding value.

The point here is that sheep can easily live off of good hay, but living off of poor quality hay is like you living off of fast food, it’s a bad idea and eventually your health will suffer for it.

Sheep that are kept indoors would be living off of hay, and, most likely grain, year round. Most sheep would be outside, at least part of the year, so would eat some grass and some hay, depending upon the time of year.

Which type of hay should sheep be eating?

Sheep should, generally speaking, be eating hay made from the most common plants, especially grasses, that are grown for forages in your area. If it’s a grass and the sheep will eat it fresh it can also make good hay.

Common plants made for hay in my area are:

  • Orchard grass
  • Alfalfa
  • Oats
  • Timothy

Unless you live in an area similar to mine, the common hay available will be made from different forages than the ones on my list. That’s to be expected, go with what is normal in your area.

All of these forages, when made on time, will make great hay for sheep. With the exception of the oats, these forages will regrow and produce additional cuttings off of the same field, just like your lawn regrows.

Not all forages make good hay, for instance anything with fleshier leaves, like brassicas will not dry down well, so is grazed by sheep rather than harvested for hay.

Be cautious of “brood cow” hay

A caution on “brood cow hay”, some of the not so well made hay is sold for brood cows, which is usually code for not very good hay. This hay is usually very low quality and will not be worth your money for your sheep.

Don’t buy this stuff for your sheep, unless you are using it as bedding. Get a nicer, made on time hay that is worth your money and will provide nutrition to your sheep.

Which cutting of hay should sheep get?

Sheep should get the cutting of hay and the type of hay that matches their nutritional needs. This is a non specific answer because the needs of your sheep will change throughout the year.

1st cutting hay is for sheep with maintenance energy needs

For most sheep with maintenance energy needs, a nice first cutting hay will be perfect. Maintenance energy needs sheep are adult rams, open ewes that are not nursing and ewes in early gestation.

What Is 1st Cutting Hay? shows you how to spot good (and not so good) first cutting hay.

Ewes in late gestation, lambs and ewes that are milking all need more energy than a first cutting hay will provide.

2nd and 3rd cutting hay are for sheep with higher energy needs

Sheep that need more energy are the groups that should be eating 2nd or 3rd cutting hay, rather than first cutting.

1st Or 2nd Cutting Hay? goes over the differences in hay and how to spot the hay that will work for your flock.

Higher energy sheep are: lambs, both weaned and those eating out of a creep feeder, any replacement stock that is still growing and ewes that are in the later stages of pregnancy or are milking.

These sheep need more energy per bite of hay and can use that energy for their work, which is growing or milking.

Suggestions for further reading on feeding sheep hay

What’s For Dinner? is a Sheep 101 article going over the many things that sheep can eat, including hay. If you have never been on this site, click around, there are some great articles covering many aspects of raising sheep.

A Quick Guide To Hay Feeding On Meadows And Pastures is a West Virginia Extension Service article that has guidelines for hay feeding on pasture.

Why Do Sheep Get Maggots?

sheep in a gathering pen, image from The Sheep Game (YouTube)

Maggots, yuck! What on earth are those things doing on sheep? And why are some sheep getting maggots to begin with?

Flystrike (maggots) in sheep is generally the result of manure around the tail of the sheep. The manure soiled wool attracts the female blowfly, which lays her eggs on the sheep. Those eggs quickly hatch into maggots that eat the manure and then the flesh of the sheep.

Sadly, any animal can get maggots: cats, rabbits, chickens, and, of course, sheep.

Do All Sheep Naturally Have Long Tails? will have a small section on docking tails, which is a common way farmers and ranchers try to avoid maggots on sheep.

Sheep get maggots in wounds and wool that is soiled with manure

Sheep can get maggots in wounds, sore or unusually irritated areas, as is the case with sore feet, or anytime the wool is wet with manure, which can happen around the tail in the spring, due to the lush grass or internal parasites.

Maggots tend to be a seasonal problem, most commonly in the mid to late summer, but not in the winter or spring because of the colder weather.

Maggots also tend to be more prevalent in the summer, since any grazing livestock are more likely to have parasite problems in the summer. Parasites stress the sheep and tend to cause changes in the manure.

One of the ways a sheep reacts to internal parasites is produce more runny poop, which then sticks to the tail or wool on the breech (the back of the rear legs). This soiled wool invites in the flies.

Sheep with maggots have flystrike

When a sheep has maggots the sheep is said to have flystrike. Flystrike can happen to sheep of any age, but tends to affect weaker sheep first.

Disadvantages Of Raising Sheep is an article I wrote to go over the not so great aspects of raising sheep, with their poor recovery to stress being a big one that applies to flystrike.

This is Cammy Wilson, a shepherd and shearer in Scotland, showing how he prevents flystrike on his sheep. Check out his channel, he’s fun and always has an interesting video.

Flystrike is caused by blowflies

The fly that causes flystrike is the blowfly. The blowfly is a very round shaped, iridescent fly that hovers around sheep with wet or soiled wool.

In my experience, these flies mean business. If you see these characters hovering around one of your sheep, catch the sheep now. Seriously. If blowflies are interested in that sheep, you need to immediately catch her and see why.

Flystrike can happen to adult sheep and/or lambs

Both adult sheep and lambs can get flystrike. We have seen flystrike on backsides, tails, sides, ribs, heads and feet.

Ewes tend to get flystrike on the tail area or feet. If the ewe has maggots on her side, like in the armpit area, in our experience those maggots are from her feet that traveled up the wool when she was sitting down.

Lambs tend to have flystrike in their feet, between the toes. When you see a lamb hobbling, or walking with it’s weight shifted to the back, you need to check the feet for flystrike.

Flystruck sheep will be sore and slow

Any sheep with flystrike will be slow and sore. This is understandable for the sheep and helpful to you since you can see the flystruck sheep moving slowly or lagging behind the rest. Catch the sheep and see what’s what.

Actually, not feeling well or just being sore seems to make the sheep worse. They sit around, so they are not eating and are not willing to go get water unless they are really thirsty. I feel this only adds to their stress.

Flystrike can be treated with spray on insecticide

Whenever we find flystrike, we use a spray on insecticide called Catron. It’s the best spray we have found, so far.

There are preventative pour on products available in other countries to keep flystrike from happening, CliK is the one I can think of that is available in the U.K and Australia.

There are no preventative flystrike medications for sheep that are available now in the U.S., as far as I am aware. If you want to find something for your sheep, ask your vet for advice.

Estimates Of Genetic Parameters For Breech Strike and Potentail Indirect Indicators In Sheep shows the relationship between dags (balls of poop on the backside) and the likelihood of a sheep getting flystrike.

Untreated flystrike can kill sheep

The big deal with flystrike, aside from the pain to the sheep and the disgusting aspects, of course, is that flystrike left untreated can and does kill sheep.

You have to get flystrike under control early, the larger the area that is struck, the more stress is it causing the sheep and the harder it will be to fix.

Here’s how we deal with flystrike:

Catch the sheep and spray with Catron. We spray more than the infested area, to make sure we get all of the maggots, since they can crawl to other parts of the sheep. Look around, make sure all areas that need spray have it.

If infested area is small, this will do it. We mark the sheep with spray so it’s easy to see her and keep track of if she is getting better or needs caught again.

If the flystrike is in the feet, we trim the hoof, if needed, before spraying. We then mark the sheep with a spray on mark, like Marksman spray.

If the sheep is really stressed, we take the sheep to the barn and monitor her individually. She’ll be shorn, at least around the infested areas and treated with the Catron.

It’s never good to separate a sheep from the flock, but if she’s too overwhelmed to get food and water for herself, then she needs to be inside where we can watch her more closely. When she recovers, she can go back out with the flock.

Cull any sheep that get flystrike

Flystrike susceptibility seems to be genetic. When a few individuals out of the group get struck, you need to cull them. Don’t keep around weak genetics and certainly don’t keep replacements, ewes or rams, from any of these sheep!

If a large portion of your flock has flystrike something else is up, this is now looking like a significant management problem.

Blowfly Strike is a NADIS from the U.K. on flystrike if you want to learn more or see some pictures. Warning, some of the pictures are graphic.