Recent Posts

How Do You Know If Sheep Have Worms?

Sheep are susceptible to worms and, unfortunately, those worms can cause tremendous problems with your flock.

Your job is to take care of the flock and handle any problems that come up, but there’s the catch: since the parasites are inside the sheep, how do you know if your sheep have worms?

Sheep that have an overload of internal parasites (worms) will be losing weight, lack energy or enthusiasm, have pale eye membranes and have high fecal egg counts.

ewes with lambs in barn

Physical signs that your sheep has worms

One of the first things most folks notice about sheep that makes them suspect worms in the flock is that the sheep are not keeping on weight.

In a parasite infested sheep, inability to keep up her body weight is due to the internal parasites stealing a portion of her blood and the nutrients it contains before the sheep can use those nutrients for herself.

Is Keeping Sheep Easy? is my article that goes into some of the things a shepherd needs to handle on a daily basis, one of which is dealing with health challenges like parasites.

What to look for on the sheep

When your sheep have worms what you are likely to see is that the sheep seem to be losing weight rather than gaining it.

Does the ewe look full? On people, we tend to think of a big belly as a negative, but in sheep it is actually a good thing, this is where the food is worked on by her microbial factory and turned into energy.

Taking in plenty of food and having a full tum is what you’ll see in a healthy sheep and the opposite of what you’ll see in a parasite stressed sheep.

The parasite stressed ewe will start to lose her full tum and look more tubular. As this happens her fat reserves on her body are being used up, which makes ribs and backbones more prominent.

The parasites are stealing more from the ewe than she has to spare. She has an overall loss in weight, even though she is eating enough food that she should be gaining or at least maintaining her weight.

Ewes that are losing weight need dewormed as soon as possible. The parasite population must be cut to save the life of the ewe, yes, it’s that serious.

To be upfront, there are other reasons a ewe might be losing weight, but with sheep, we have found that it’s most likely parasites. Knock out the most likely problem first and see what that does for her.

white faced ewe looking directly at camera, close up
Could this ewe have worms? Sure. Are they causing her problems now? Probably not, since she looks full and seems curious.

What to look for in the poop

Depending upon the parasite, some times the parasites cause diarrhea, poopy butts, runny plops of poop on the ground or poop with little segments of worms in the pile.

The confusing part here is that sometimes what you’ll see is nothing, the poop and the backside of the sheep or lamb look great, yet clearly something is not right or the sheep would be gaining weight!

Use a microscope to see eggs

This is where you need to use a microscope to look for eggs or have a vet do this for you. This will give you an idea of what parasites you are dealing with and in what numbers.

You can also start to identify high parasite load individuals and cull them, which will help to stop the spread of worms to the rest of the flock.

Most of the time a sheep that is losing weight or unhealthy has worms. The problem with the sheep being something other than worms is not likely.

Please note that one test of eggs in manure just shows you if the parasites are present in the sheep. If you want to see if the parasites are killed, you need to retest after deworming.

This procedure is spelled out in this article at Sheep 101, which will also teach you how to understand the results to know if your dewormer is still working effectively.

Looking at the eyelid (FAMACHA test)

An on farm method that is becoming more popular is to look at the coloration of the lower eyelid and compare the color to a chart to show the level of anemia, which is an indication of worms.

This test is called FAMACHA and is quick for both you and the sheep. You compare the the inner eyelid skin color, anywhere from white to red and compare it to the chart to see if the animal needs dewormed.

Have someone show you how to perform the FAMACHA test and see if you want to use this method of parasite detection.

What is FAMACHA system and how do I get a card? at Sheep 101 is a great place to start.

Please note that this is not foolproof, some animals can have high levels of parasites and still have good to great FAMACHA scores. For the most accurate test of parasites, you must do the fecal egg count.

Behaviors that might mean your sheep has worms

Sheep that have an overload of worms start to show other problems, like lagging behind the group or general lackadaisical approach to life rather than jumping right in and eating like a healthy ewe or lamb.

Healthy lambs like to play around with each other, run and jump and explore. Lambs that are dealing with a parasite overload will be slow to respond, not gain weight well and seem almost a bit dopey.

And for good reason, they are carrying a stomach full of little stealers so the lambs are being nutritionally robbed. Of course they feel poorly and are not growing well!

You may see other problems start to show up in your sheep, like foot problems or sickness. What do these things have to do with worms? Worms drag down the entire system of the sheep.

She is working hard to give herself the energy she needs and the worms steal it, that shows up as problems in the entire body, anytime she has a health challenge from bacteria to general stress.

She is much more susceptible to problems because the parasites are stealing her ability to maintain and repair.

How To Find The Right Sheep Breed For You is my article that goes over things to look for in sheep that fit your farm.

What to look for with your feed

The other place that you may notice worm problems with your sheep is in the amount of feed they are eating compared to the resulting growth you are seeing, or more likely, not seeing!

Have you noticed that you are feeding the same quality of hay to your sheep yet getting less results?

After you have considered that the sheep’s feed or energy needs may have changed, but nothing like that has happened, the next obvious place to look is parasites.

How Much Does It Cost To Feed A Sheep? is my article that goes over figuring up the costs to feed a sheep based on your situation.

What if you have already dewormed?

If you have already dewormed yet are still having problems with what looks like a parasite overload, there are a few more things to consider.

It may surprise you to know that not all stages of internal parasites are killed by dewormers, the dewormers normally only get the adults.

This means that some of the less developed larvae can continue to mature and of course the eggs will continue to pass out with the manure.

Are you using a dewormer that kills the specific parasite that your sheep are dealing with?

For instance, if you think your main parasite problem is liver flukes, read the label to make sure it lists out liver flukes, not all dewormers can kill all types of parasites.

You have to match the dewormer to your needs.

You also have to consider that your dewormer may not be working for these parasites anymore. It could be the formulation has changed, the parasites are resistant or the dewormer is being used incorrectly.

If you have been using the same dewormer yet getting little to no results, you need to contact your vet and figure out what to do next in order to successfully deworm your flock.

Sheep 201: Internal Parasite (worm) Control gets into more details on parasites and sheep, going from what the parasites are to how to deal with them.

How Do You Know If Your Sheep Is Having Twins?

We all hope for every ewe to have twins, but we know that the lambs born per ewe can reasonably anywhere from one to three, and occasionally, none. So, how do we know which ones are having twins?

two lambs standing behind ewes in barn

Ultrasound scanning shows number of lambs in ewes

The only way to know for sure if your ewe is going to have twins before birth is to pregnancy scan (ultrasound) the ewe to see how many lambs she is carrying.

The way the scan works is similar to pregnancy scans done on women to check the size and anatomy of her baby.

The ultrasound is a scan that requires a knowledgeable person to read the image since the ewes are wiggling about and the scanner has to search a bit for the right image to count lambs.

No image ultrasound do not show lamb numbers

There is another ultrasound device that produces a sound if the ewe is bred and nothing when the ewe is open (not bred). This device does not produce a picture, it is just a sound.

The catch here is that this device is only useable at a certain small window post breeding and if you get a positive, all you know is that the ewe is bred, not how many lambs are coming.

This is a step up from not knowing at all, but is not nearly as helpful as an image based scan that gives you lamb numbers.

How Much Will A Ewe Cost? is my article that will help you figure out the cost of high quality, productive ewes in your area.

white faced ewes on pasture with spring lambs

Ways to increase the chances of having twin lambs

While the only way to know for sure if the ewe is having twins is to use an ultrasound scan, there are a few management practices that you can use to increase the chances that your sheep will have twins.

Your main options to increase twinning are:

  • Flushing the flock
  • Using a breed known for twins
  • Having prime of life ewes

Feeding ewes pre breeding for twins

You have the option of increasing your chances of ewes having twins by feeding the flock a bit better than normal for a few weeks before breeding season begins. This is called flushing.

Flushing could be done with nicer than normal hay, by putting the ewes on a pasture saved for this time period or by giving the ewes some grain. All of these options increase the calories she is getting.

Flushing will bump up the ewe’s nutrition to a higher level to make sure her body is good to go at breeding season, giving you a higher chance of twin births.

For flushing to work, the ewes being flushed must be in good condition to start with.

Flushing will not make up for underweight ewes

Flushing is for ewes in good shape, just to give them an extra bump up in calories.

Flushing will not make up for other management problems, like underweight or wormy ewes. These problems need sorted out long before breeding season.

Do not flush fat ewes

If for some reason your ewes are already over conditioned (fat) flushing is not what you need to be doing, you need to plan ahead and have the ewes in good body condition a few weeks before breeding season.

Fat ewes are less productive and have lambing problems, definitely not something you want to make worse by adding to the problem!

For more information on flushing sheep, read Small Ruminant Q & A: Flushing on Sheep 101.

Some breeds are more likely to have twins

Some breeds of sheep are more likely to have twins, others tend toward singles.

For most breeds, number of lambs depends more on the nutrition of the sheep and overall health rather than specific breed, as long as you are not working with a breed known for having single lambs.

Best Breeds of Sheep For Beginners is my article that gives you some ideas of great sheep breeds to look into and a few to avoid!

Age of ewe makes a difference

The other thing to consider here is that the age of the ewe tends to make a difference with number of lambs born.

Generally, a ewe lamb is more likely to have a single, an aged ewe is more likely to have a single and a prime of life ewe is more likely to have twins.

For more insight into increasing twins in your flock, read Why Twinning in Lambs is a Winning Combination by Ulf Kintzel on the Cornell Small Farms program site.

Can You Have 2 (Or More) Rams In A Flock?

Every sheep flock needs a ram for breeding season, but what about keeping more than one ram? Can you have two rams in a flock or is it better to have just one?

ram with breeding harness

Can you have 2 or more rams in a flock?

You can have 2 or more rams in a flock. Keeping more than one ram is an easy way to make sure that your ewes get bred in a reasonable amount of time.

We routinely keep around 10 rams, so that we have enough rams for the main flock, which gets at least 5 rams for breeding season and a few extras for smaller groups of ewes.

Ewe lambs are more likely to be bred to lamb in their first year if they are kept in a separate pasture with their own rams for the breeding season. These rams are in addition to the rams in the main flock.

How Much Does A Ram Cost? is my article that will help you find the current price for a high quality ram in your area.

Why have 2 or more rams?

Actually, there are many reasons why you may want to have more than one ram available to breed your ewes, here are a few examples:

  • keep your lambing season tight
  • you have a young ram
  • a spare breeding ram incase something happens to your main ram
  • make a more competitive breeding environment
  • see which type of lambs perform better for you
  • have separate rams for different purposes

More rams keeps your lambing season tight

Having more than one breeding age ram helps you to keep your lambing season to a smaller period of time, which helps you keep up with the needs of the flock.

Can You Keep Rams With Ewes Year Round? is my article that goes over the pros and cons of keeping a ram with the flock rather than having a specific breeding and lambing season.

A normal heat cycle for sheep is 17 days, so if you plan on your ewes all breeding in the first or second heat cycle, that’s 34 days that you are on the look out for new lambs.

Anyone who has been through a lambing season or two will tell you that you really need to be ready for lambs about a week before the actual start date and probably a week after the end date.

This potentially adds another 2 weeks to your lambing season. Lambs are born when they are ready, not just when it lines up with the calendar!

If your flock needs another heat cycle to all be bred, that adds another 17 days, which keeps you busy with lambing tasks for longer into the year and spreads out the ages of the lambs quite a bit.

Now the older lambs are going to be 45 days older than their peers.

This is a big difference that the older lambs will take advantage of by doing things like stealing milk from new moms, which is harmful to the newborn that missed out.

white faced ram in with ewes that are eating hay
This is one of the 10 rams in the main flock of ewes, he ram is the one in the middle with his head up, you can see the black strap of the breeding harness on his shoulder.

Have two rams if they are young

If your main breeding ram is young (under a year old) you may need to have a spare ram of his age (or close) to make sure that all of your ewes are bred.

Generally speaking, most smaller farm flocks would want a ram lamb for 10-20 ewes, more than that and you are risking him not being able to breed all of your flock in the breeding window.

What happens is he will pick a favorite ewe and follow her around all day and not realize that there are other ewes in heat, or maybe he picks two or three, but there are 5 in heat, so some are not getting bred.

Having multiple rams fixes this problem. As he gets older he’ll understand the situation better, but for now you don’t want his inexperience to hinder your results.

A buddy (or a rival, depending upon how you look at it), makes them competitive and gets them in gear.

This is especially the case if there is a size difference between the ewes and rams, if the ewes are taller then the young rams have to work harder per ewe.

The rams will grow a bit for next year, but for now having two rams is a good idea.

You’ll have an extra if something happens to the main ram

Sadly, crazy things can happen and you end up with an injured ram at breeding season. Yikes, now you are in a pickle! But not if you have a spare ram on hand.

I know that for some folks keeping a spare rams for the “just in case” situations that are unlikely, but you hear about them from time to time, might not be feasible.

If that’s the case for you, then you work with what you have and see what shakes out. If you can have a spare ram , it’s a good idea.

breeding age rams in their own pasture
These are the rams before breeding season. They are kept in a separate pasture (or housed in a rams only pen in the barn, depending upon the year), until December 1st, when they go in with the ewes for breeding season.

Multiple rams keeps the breeding season competitive

Having a bit of competition out there in the field keeps the rams on task. Realize that there is competition between individual rams as well as competition between genetics.

By competition between rams, I mean that having more than one ram keeps them both/all searching around for other ewes that are in heat, which increases the likelihood that all of the ewes breed.

The other form of competition is between genetics.

The easiest way to see this would be if you had a white faced ewe flock and used rams of different breeds each of which has a distinctive genetically dominant feature, like different colored faces.

Keeping with this idea, you could run a black faced ram (Suffolk, Hampshire, etc. ) and a white faced ram (most other breeds) in your flock for breeding season.

At lambing, you would see which lambs had speckled faces (meaning they are sired by the black faced ram) and which lambs had all white faces (sired by the white faced ram).

This would give you a good idea as to which ram is doing more for you in the breeding season.

See which genetics work better for you

You would also get some insight throughout the year as to what lambs perform better in your situation.

For instance, you might find that the speckled faced lambs seem to grow to a larger frame (body) size that is more suited to your customers or that the white faced lambs seem to finish (put on fat) faster.

Another example would be you notice that lambs that are sired by one ram seem to be more hardy than lambs sired by the other, now you have some insight as to what direction to take your breeding program.

From these examples and many others that you could observe, you can choose what suits you and your operation best.

Of course, you could have two different white faced rams in your white faced flock or two different breeds of black faced rams in your black faced flock, it’s easier to picture when the sire of the lamb is obvious.

Best Sheep Breed For Meat is my article that gives you some ideas on great choices for meat type sires.

Separate rams for different purposes

Once you get to having a larger flock, you may decide to have separate breeding rams, each with a different purpose.

For example, have one ram that produces your potential replacement ewe lambs and use the other ram(s) on the main flock to produce market lambs.

Let’s say you have a main flock of Dorsets and you want to use 2 rams, one to put with your favorite ewes to keep lambs from, so he would be more of a maternal breed (great mothering, not so great muscling).

Then with the rest of the flock, you would run a meat sire, maybe a Suffolk or a Cheviot, depending upon what your market wants and these lambs would all be sold.

In this case, you would need to keep the two flocks separate for breeding season if you wanted the replacements from specific ewes, but they could all go together after breeding for the rest of the winter.

While this would be more work, it will also get you more results in the form of a meatier, faster growing crossbred lamb crop from the main group of ewes and keep the genetics you want as replacements.

If you have a handful of ewes, then this is going to be more complication than it is worth to you and that’s fine. Pick a good ram, the best you can afford (seriously, quality pays!) and go with it.

If you have a bit of a larger flock and want to start being more selective on your breeding, consider a what a different type of ram could do for you and your flock.

Get your rams early!

A final word on rams, get them early! I would want at least 60 days before breeding season to make sure that they have time to recover from the trip to your farm, especially if it is done in the heat.

When we milked cows for a living and just had a few sheep hanging around, we were much more causal about when we got the ram.

Now that sheep are our main income, we don’t take chances on ram fertility and neither should you!

For more information on taking care of rams, consider reading Caring For Rams Beyond Breeding Season, written by Ulf Kintzel for the Small Farms program at Cornell University.

Should You Mow Your Sheep Pasture?

Mowing is one of your pasture management tools that you have to decide if, when and where to use.

Sometimes mowing is a great option, other times your pasture would be better managed with a different tool, so how do you decide? Should you mow your sheep pasture or not?

lamb on pasture in the shade

Are the sheep keeping up with the growth?

Let’s start with the forage growth, are your sheep keeping up with the current growth of the pasture?

If it looks like the sheep are keeping up with the growth of the pasture, then there really is no need to mow.

Do Sheep Ruin Pastures? is my article that talks about using sheep to improve your pasture growth.

If pasture has uneven growth

Are you seeing that part of their pasture is overly mature and getting scraggly, while they keep eating back the regrowth from their favorite plants? These sheep have too much space.

You may have to mow down the tall spots in this pasture to stop the less desirable species from taking over. But, better than mowing would be using the sheep to keep up with the grass in the first place.

The problem here is that with the way the sheep are grazing this pasture right now, the grasses or other plants they prefer are getting knocked back repeatedly, which will eventually weaken them.

That’s not great, but the other part that is happening at the same time is worse, the plants the sheep do not like are growing and reproducing like crazy, yikes!

This means you’ll have more of the not so great plants and less of the good plants next year. This is the opposite of what you want to happen in your pastures.

How Many Sheep Can You Have Per Acre? is an article I wrote to help you figure out the number of sheep your land can support.

Give the sheep a section of pasture

So what do you do to fix it? Since your sheep are falling behind with certain parts of the pasture, you can restrict their grazing area by dividing the pasture into sections.

Give them a smaller section of pasture so that they will eat down one area, then be moved to another area while the eaten down pasture is rested so it can regrow.

The resting phase is crucial here, keep the sheep completely off of the first pasture during the rest period.

As crazy as it sounds, the sheep need to be kept off of most of the grass for most of the year.

You need to restrict their movements to direct their eating in a way that best grows and regrows grass. If you let them do whatever, you’ll end up with poorer and poorer pastures each year.

If you have extra grass in one or more of the pasture sections, you can switch between the pasture sections more quickly, make hay or keep the area back as a set aside or drought reserve.

How Do You Make Hay? is my article that goes over the basics of making hay, since that is one of the options for managing your extra pasture growth.

flock of white faced sheep in tall section of pasture
Here is the main flock in a fairly tall section of pasture. They will eat most of what you see, including the “weeds”.

Have a drought reserve area

It’s a good idea to have a section of your pasture set aside in case of low rainfall or poor regrowth, called a drought reserve, which is just stockpiled (uneaten) grass that you keep out of the grazing rotation.

This area will have grown up grasses and some weeds, but that’s okay since you really need it to get you through a tough grazing season.

If you don’t need it in the grazing season, your sheep can use it in the winter. This set aside area is not mowed or partially grazed, your job is to keep the sheep off of it until you need it.

Do you like the plants currently growing?

Do you like the plants that are currently growing in your pastures?

If you like the plants in the pasture:

If so, super, keep on doing what you are doing since that is what is getting you the results you currently have out there.

If you don’t like the plants in the pasture:

If you do not like the plants that are growing in your pasture, you need to do something a bit differently to get different results.

For instance, if you let the sheep eat whatever they want, wherever they want to eat it, they will eat down the tasty plants and leave the less desirables to get even more unappealing to them.

That is the opposite of what you want.

To fix this you have to take more control of the area and either have the sheep graze the sectioned off pasture a bit harder, meaning make the space smaller or mow to knock back the plants they did not eat.

In the long run, improving your management with rotation, adequate rest, and appropriate stocking rates will likely be more viable than continuously clipping underutilized areas.

Sometimes the sheep won’t eat more mature less desirable plants

Mature less desirable plants, also called weeds, can block out the grass growth of an area.

We notice this in some of our harder to reach fields, the non grasses, like goldenrod, that the sheep like when they are just coming up in the spring get too woody later in the year for the sheep to eat.

These less desirable plants need knocked back by mowing to give the grass underneath the opportunity to grow, not so much for the early part of the year, but for the grazing we need later.

This is an easy one to overlook because the plant, goldenrod in this case, is something they like when it is small, but any goldenrod that does not get regularly eaten off grows woody and shades out grass later.

That’s a double problem, since it is growth that the sheep won’t eat and hogging space that could be growing something they would eat, like more grass.

sheep grazing behind electric netting in spring
This is the main flock in the spring right before shearing. The grass has not started to regrow well yet, but it will soon!

Mow less desirable plants so grass underneath can grow

Not sure what’s under your less desirable plant cover? Mow a strip or two and see what it does. In the case of the goldenrod, this makes a huge difference.

Unfortunately, extra mowing is one more job to do at a time of year when the schedule is already full of things to do, but getting the mowing done seems to make a tremendous difference later.

If you don’t like the results from mowing the area, figure out a different plan like feeding hay there over the winter and see if that works to change the growth the following year.

What is the non edible plant situation?

What non edible plants or weeds are growing in your sheep pasture?

To be clear, I am defining a weed as a plant that the sheep will not eat or that you do not want them to eat, for example something that is poisonous.

The plants in the section above, called less desirable plants, would be eaten by the sheep at some growth stages, but not when mature. These plants are different, they not eaten by the flock, so are called weeds.

How much of your pasture is weeds and is this amount of space growing non edible plants increasing or decreasing throughout the year?

If the weedy area is shrinking, super, you are doing something right, nice work!

Mow to control weeds

What if the weedy areas are growing or you have certain spots or specific plants in the pasture that the sheep seem to avoid?

If the sheep are not being or can not be managed in a way that reduces these weeds, mowing the weeds is an alternative option. Plan to mow the weeds multiple times and maybe for a few years.

For those harder-to-eliminate perennial weeds, although mowing may not be killing them outright, every time the plant is mowed it has to use additional energy for regrowth, draining its energy reserves and weakening the plant over time.

Mowing is probably your best bet if you are dealing with a poisonous weeds, as well. These are more of an urgent problem, since if you don’t knock them back they will reseed and you’ll have more next year!

Another option is to get something in there that will eat the weed. If the sheep refuse that specific weed, would cattle or goats eat it and fix the problem for you?

If the sheep eat it, it’s not a weed

The sheep will eat all kinds of plants that you would not consider first choice options. You may even call that plant a weed, but we figure that if the sheep eat it, it’s not a weed, it’s forage.

Our sheep, for instance, seem to love burdock leaves, so much so that they zoom over and eat these first! To me, those leaves look like a terrible option, but they love the stuff.

If the plants in question were something that the sheep did not eat, then it is a weed and needs mowed so we can knock it back and allow something else that the sheep like to grow there instead.

Is that weed habitat for wildlife?

Anther thing to consider is that the sheep are not the only animals in the pasture. Is the weed in question habitat for something else that you are happy to have or is important to your ecosystem?

For instance, we have quite a bit of milkweed that grows in one of the fields. The sheep eat it somewhat, but it’s really for the monarch caterpillars. (Don’t forget some blooms, like red clover, for the adults.)

We try to leave sections of field, maybe along the edge of a hay field or in a stockpiled area, that has food for the rest of the farm population, like insects, or nesting areas for birds.

While this may look a bit messy for parts of the year, it is important to us to encourage more beneficial wildlife, which does require a place for them to hang out and food for them to eat.


For more information on encouraging wildlife in your pasture, read Managing Pasture and Hay for Wildlife by Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

To learn more about timing of mowing, read To Mow or Not to Mow? from University of Maryland Extension.

Pros And Cons Of Inbreeding Sheep

Inbreeding and sheep, you’ve heard about it and maybe even considered using inbreeding in your flock, but the question is: is inbreeding good or bad?

Well, as you may have guessed, inbreeding has advantages and disadvantages, both of which we’ll go over so you can decide if inbreeding would work in your situation or not.

white faced ewes grazing hay in winter

Sheep inbreeding has some definites (things that will happen)

Inbreeding has some definites, meaning things that will happen.

These definites may be good or bad, depending upon how you look at the trait and what you are shooting for with your flock and your management goals for your sheep.

Can You Breed Closely Related Sheep? is my article that goes further into reasons for inbreeding and times when you should use a different breeding system.

Inbreeding is one of many tools that a breeder (of sheep or any other livestock) has available.

The results are always a trade off, which to add further complication will also be combined with seasonal variabilities and management shortfalls, if there are any.

Inbreeding is a long term game, it depends upon keeping same outlook and goal over generations of sheep and culling ones that don’t make the cut.

Inbreeding sheep has some advantages

Inbreeding sheep has some advantages. Most folks would consider these things to be positive, but not all things are good to all flocks or at the very least are not the main priority of the flock owner at the time.

The main advantages of inbreeding are:

  • concentration of traits
  • brings out hidden genetics
  • makes sheep more genetically similar
  • can be used at any scale
  • can be used on any farm

Concentration of traits

Inbreeding concentrates traits, it makes the trait that you most associate with a specific breed of sheep show up in those sheep and not other breeds.

This is why you look at a Suffolk and can tell that it is a Suffolk with just a glance, you don’t have to ponder if it is a Dorset or a Texel, you can clearly see breed characteristics that make it a Suffolk.

Other breeds have done this same thing, just with different traits and for different results. All of this is accomplished through years of inbreeding.

Inbreeding is essential to the development of prepotent animals — animals that uniformly “stamp” their characteristics on their progeny. 

Sheep 201: Breeding Systems

For instance, this is why you can tell a lamb that is sired by a Cheviot ram, even if the ram is a crossbred, the characteristics of Cheviot genes shine through.

This is because what makes a Cheviot a Cheviot has been stamped into the breed over years of selection.

I see the Cheviot influence most easily in the head and ears, but you can also see it in body conformation of lambs. That is a legacy of very selective breeding and concentration of traits.

one black ewe in flock of white faced ewes
Notice the black sheep? She is a surprise result of some of our genetics, since all the rest of our sheep, including her parents, are white. I get a kick out of her, love working with her fleece and, on a more practical note, she does a great job, so she stays in the flock as a commercial ewe.

Brings out hidden genetics

When you concentrated genetics, you also increase the likelihood that undesirable genetics will show up.

While this may seem like a negative result, it is actually a positive outcome since no hidden genes or recessive traits will remain after a few generations of inbreeding.

Once you find the recessive genes that are lurking in your flock, now you can eliminate them and carry on with your breeding program being fairly sure that no other genetic surprises are going to pop up.

Makes sheep more genetically similar

Inbreeding makes the sheep you have more genetically similar than most sheep of that breed.

This means that you are developing specialists that are well selected for whatever traits you are concentrating in your inbreeding program.

Is It Okay To Inbreed Sheep? is my article that goes more into figuring out if your flock would benefit from inbreeding or use another breeding plan.

Can be used at any scale

Inbreeding can be used in part but not all of your flock. This would require multiple rams and more management, including running mini flocks for at least the breeding season but it is an option.

For example, you could inbreed one set of sheep for a sire line, but not inbreed the flock as a whole. This means you would have two separate lines (families of sheep) with one line inbred and one line not inbred.

This would be more work on your part, but it would give you a way to keep the genetics tight on a select few breedings, like to produce a ram, but keep the genetics spread further out for the rest of the flock.

Can be used on any farm

Another advantage of inbreeding sheep is that you can use this approach to genetic improvement on any farm, it is not limited to those with large numbers or technical advantages.

Regular folks with a plan that they stick to can successfully use inbreeding to improve the flock.

Inbreeding has some disadvantages

Inbreeding has some disadvantages. These may be things that the flock owner is willing to deal with or have happen in order to get a higher priority result

The main disadvantages of inbreeding are:

  • forces recessive genes to surface
  • can turn out poorly
  • lowers performance of flock
  • must keep singular focus over years
  • requires higher levels of planning and management

Forces recessive genes to surface

In many flocks, crossbreeding (using a ram of a different breed than the ewes) or at the very least getting a ram from another flock, rather than keeping your own, is that you dilute out recessive traits.

With inbreeding you are doing exactly the opposite, you are working to surface these traits, which means things you would normally not see will show up more frequently than if you were not inbreeding.

This is one of those things most folks would consider to be a negative, but for the purebred breeder, I consider this to be a positive. I’d want these genetics found and rooted out of my stock.

Can turn out poorly

It is possible that you will not like the results of the concentration of traits, since it will surface some recessive traits that result in poor performance or increased mortality.

The catch here is this is one of those you don’t know until you try it kind of things. When will the negatives show up? You don’t know. What will that negative be? You don’t know that either.

For anyone who needs their stock to perform for income’s sake, inbreeding may have too high of a financial risk, since you do not know what you’ll get until you have it and by then you are stuck.

How Do You Keep Sheep From Inbreeding? is my article that will give you some tips to reduce the chances of inbreeding in your flock.

Lowers performance of flock

Inbreeding will lower the performance of the flock, especially when compared to farms that are using rams from other breeds to take advantage of hybrid vigor.

In general, inbreeding results in an overall lowering in performance: vigor, disease resistance, reproductive efficiency, and survivability.

Sheep 201: Breeding Systems

This is commonly called inbreeding depression, which I consider to be the opposite of hybrid vigor.

Must keep singular focus over years

Inbreeding takes focus and consistency, over a period of years. For many folks this is more effort than they are willing to put into their breeding plan.

For inbreeding to be successful, you must choose a specific direction and stick to it for generations of your sheep.

Since sheep can reproduce once per year (some every 8 months) your results are slow to show up and changes in genetics take more time than if you were working with something that reproduced faster.

You also have to stick to your plan, even when you have doubts. Breeding stock is not a game for folks who want a quick result or who are easily discouraged.

Requires high levels of planning and management

Inbreeding requires a higher level of planning and management from you the flock owner and manager than most other breeding plans require.

You have to go into breeding season with a very specific goal in mind and have the specific animals selected to use to further that goal.

This probably means more than work than normal for you.

You will also have to have a clear set of things that you are looking for and a specific way to determine if you are getting those results.

For instance, if you are going for a shorter style of sheep, how are you determining shorter? If that sounds dumb, you are not fully thinking this through.

Do you mean that you are measuring at hip height at one year of age?

Are you wanting to reduce leg length but keep the body size the same as it is now?

Do you want the sheep to be thinner built and shorter or keep the same build as now and just be two inches shorter?

You must have a clear idea of exactly what you are looking for and what you are using to determine if your results are headed in the direction you want.

Additional resources:

Science Direct has an article on Inbreeding trends and genetic diversity in purebred sheep which shows data on the percent inbreeding in some common sheep breeds

Can You Breed Closely Related Sheep? (Ram to daughter, siblings, etc.)

A common problem with small flocks of sheep or sheep with a limited genetic pool is what to do when you need to breed the ewes but the only ram you have is the one you have been using for years.

That means you’ll have some closely related sheep breeding to produce inbred lambs. Is this a workable solution or do you need to figure out something else?

white faced ewe lambs on winter pasture
Ewe lambs grazing a winter pasture, these gals are all born and bred here.

You can breed closely related sheep

You can breed sheep that are closely related, for instance breeding a ram to his daughter. This is called inbreeding.

Is It Okay To Inbreed Sheep? is my article that goes over the reasons why inbreeding is used and the situations where it is a poor decision.

Examples of breeding closely related sheep would be:

  • father to daughter
  • son to mother
  • breeding half siblings
  • breeding full siblings

The specific animals used are slightly different in each example, but the potential problems remain the same: by breeding closely related you are running the risk of complications from inbreeding.

While you can breed closely related sheep, the real question you need to ask is should you? Chances are that is a no, especially if you are new to sheep.

Inbreeding is a management tool used to increase a certain trait in the flock. The most common example of inbreeding is probably a father to daughter breeding.

Common situations where inbreeding is considered

Here are some common situations where inbreeding in sheep is likely to be used. To be clear, many of these situations are lack of management, not good reasons to breed closely related sheep.

SituationIs inbreeding a good idea?
you are short on time and need a ram nowno
you have a slow growing ram lamb left over from last yearno
you didn’t get around to castrating ram lambsno
you don’t feel like getting another ram, even though he is related to all of your ewesno
you have experience with sheep and a specific plan to improve your flockmaybe
you have years of sheep experience and plan to solidify a specific trait that you have or need in your flock by using only on site geneticsyes

Read through this table and see where you are at with the reasons why you are thinking about inbreeding your sheep.

The short version here is don’t be lazy, if you need another ram, get one. I don’t mean to be harsh, merely upfront, inbreeding is not to be used lightly.

If you have years of sheep experience and a solid plan, consider inbreeding as a potential way to get what you are looking for in your flock.

That does not mean inbreeding is the answer you seek, it is a potential answer that you will need to research and carefully consider to determine if inbreeding suits your situation and your goals.

How Do You Keep Sheep From Inbreeding? is my article that goes over some of the simple steps you can take to reduce the chances of inbreeding in your flock.

lamb resting in shade in pasture
Lamb resting in the pasture, I’m surprised that I could get this close for a picture!

When should you inbreed?

Sheep farmers with experience and a well thought out plan could consider inbreeding. Maybe it will be a good option, maybe it won’t. If you are new to sheep, chances are you should not inbreed your flock.

Inbreeding is a tool for experienced sheep farmers to use selectively and with care, note the “selectively” and “with care” parts. Inbreeding is not for everyone, and most likely, not for most.

Do you have a specific trait that you need to have increased in your flock and the management ability and drive to orchestrate this work?

Are you sure of the specific trait you need?

Have you fixed all of the leaks in the system, meaning are you on your game with the management of the flock under normal circumstances? Inbreeding will only add to your job, at least in the short term.

Are willing to work for years, through many possible rounds of unintended results to get the traits you want solidified in your flock?

If you can honestly answer yes to all of these questions, then inbreeding may be right for you. Look into it further and see if this is the right management tool for your particular situation.

When should you avoid inbreeding?

Avoid inbreeding your sheep if you do not have a well thought out and specific goal for this particular breeding decision.

If inbreeding is your last minute answer since you don’t have a plan or you’re late getting another ram or any thing else along these lines, do not inbreed your sheep.

Inbreeding requires a plan, without one you are just going to have a mess and be headed towards disappointment.

Inbreeding can be costly

Inbreeding should be avoided if you are not able to handle set backs, are working with a short time horizon or are not willing to think through your options and formulate and stick to a plan.

Inbreeding requires time and money. Why? You will have some results that you like, at least hopefully you will, and you will also have plenty of results that do not go as planned. Can you handle it?

What happens if the entire lamb crop takes months longer to grow than normal?

What happens if half of the lambs die due to a combination of a weather event and weaker than normal genetics?

Inbreeding can have lasting consequences

Another area where inbreeding can have negative consequences is in future performance of your flock. The catch with this one is you don’t know about this until the results show up years later.

What happens if you end up with problems in your yearlings or coming two year olds?

This means you are working with sheep that you have had for a year or two, have more sheep of this breeding plan on the way and now you have what looks to be a total mess.

Can you financially survive selling off these sheep and potentially starting over? Not to mention the toll it will take on you mentally.

While it may sound otherwise, I’m not trying to scare you off of inbreeding, I’m trying to present the results in a straightforward manner. Choosing the genetic direction of your flock is a weighty matter.

You have a right to know the potential good and the potential bad so you can make an informed decision about what will be the best move for you, your sheep and your farm.

For more data on inbreeding in sheep, consider reading:

Science Direct has an article on Inbreeding trends and genetic diversity in purebred sheep that goes over the frequency of inbreeding in purebred sheep and what that does to the performance of the flock.

For an overview of sheep breeding systems, read Sheep 201: Breeding systems.