Sheep are pretty easy animals to have around, overall. There are a few things you need to know to make your sheep adventure enjoyable and, hopefully, profitable!
Know basic feeding needs for sheep
While sheep are pretty easy to feed, the do have some basic needs that you’ll have to provide for. An easy one is that fast growing lambs or lactating ewes needs more energy than a maintenance or gestating ewe.
Which Hay Is Best For Sheep? will help you figure out which type of hay you should be feeding your sheep.
The great news here is that sheep are very well adapted to eating grass, take advantage of it! Having your sheep on grass simplifies your management and sheep perform well on it, too.
We have our flock exclusively on grass (with a salt block and water, of course) from mid April through mid November. We have to move the fence, of course, but the pasture provides what they need otherwise.
If we had less pasture per sheep, we would need to supplement with hay sooner in the year. What works for you will depend upon where you live and the weather for the growing season.
How Many Bales Of Hay Do Sheep Need? will show you how to calculate your flock’s hay needs.
Since sheep are ruminants, they do not need grain, ever. There are times when it can be more economical to feed a small amount of grain than to get a really high quality hay, but you never have to feed grain if you don’t want to.
I mention this because there are multiple sheep feeds in your local feed store. If you want to use them that’s fine, just know that you don’t need to as long as your sheep have good pasture or hay.
Know normal vs abnormal sheep behavior
You should be able to look out to the flock and see if they are behaving normally or not. What is normal for your sheep? Well, this is why you are spending time with them to figure it out! Each flock’s normal will be a bit different.
For instance, when you hear lots of lambs and ewes calling to each other right before sunset, what is going on? For our sheep, this is them grouping back up with their moms to sleep for the night, so this calling is normal.
If you never hear anything from your flock, then all of a sudden they are noisy, you should check it out. Something unusual is going on.
As a second example, where do your sheep sleep at night? When they decide to be somewhere else, what happened? Did the wind shift or are they moving away from a predator?
Walking through the flock before dark will help you figure out what is normal for your sheep and what is odd and needs further investigation.
Here’s a great overview of sheep behavior if you want to learn more. Click around on this site, they have a lot of great information.
Understand the sheep reproductive cycle
To make your flock profitable, you need to understand the reproductive cycle of sheep. It is very straightforward but still necessary information.
Even if you are a person who enjoys sheep or just wants a few to keep the grass eaten down and are not really concerned about the business side of sheep, you’ll still want to have a good understanding of sheep reproduction.
The main thing to understand with sheep is that you will get lambs 5 months after they are bred. If you let your sheep all run together, rams with ewes, you can get lambs in the coldest part of the year. Yikes!
Lambing in cold weather requires a ton more work than lambing in the spring. This is why we turn the rams in to the flock December 1st, to get May 1st lambs, rather than letting the rams run with the ewes year round.
Not all sheep will bred year round, but some will. Have the rams out of the flock when you are not happy with the weather five months from now.
We pull rams out in July, since ewes can start coming into heat in August, which would give us January lambs. No thanks, we much prefer May lambs!
Another aspect of reproduction that you may not have considered is that your sheep need to look good going into breeding season, or your number of lambs born will be low.
This means you need to be thinking about ewe condition (body fat) 6-7 months before you want lambing season to start. This is also a great time to be finding a ram, rather than waiting until the last minute!
Be aware of seasonal changes needed, management wise
While your goal is to keep your sheep in top form all year, the things you need to do to make that happen will change seasonally.
For instance, when the temperatures drop your sheep will need a bit of extra energy to keep warm, especially if it is cold and rainy.
Whereas in the heat of the summer, your flock really needs you to keep them supplied with plenty of water, but otherwise let them be during the heat.
It’s not that in the winter sheep need zero water, or that in the summer sheep need less energy, neither are true. Sheep need plentiful water and high quality feed, which will provide energy, year round.
What you are managing for is the thing that is lacking in the situation. As the situation changes, so does the main thing that the sheep need from you.
Seasonal changes apply to sheep that are kept inside, as well. Frigid weather outside will still be super cold in the barn! Just like sheep in the barn will need more water on a hot day than a more temperate day.
Know that all sheep should be doing the same thing
All of the sheep in your flock should be doing the same thing at the same time. When you see the flock laying down, but one sheep is still standing, you need to go see what is going on.
Is she the last one to sit, or the first one to get up or is she acting oddly and not comfortable doing what all of her peers are doing?
Lambs and ewes will be acting a bit differently from each other, of course. The age group of sheep will be acting the same as their peers. You’ll see lambs will be doing what the other lambs are doing and ewes will be doing “ewe stuff”.
Acting oddly is very apparent just before lambing. The sheep that is getting up then laying down repeatedly is probably your next mom, but keep an eye on her to make sure those babies show up in a reasonable amount of time.
As far as lambs go, you should be able to spot the ones that aren’t feeling their best simply by observing which ones are zooming around and which ones are staying in place looking sad.
Know that sheep need prompt care
If you see a sheep that is “off” do something now, rather than waiting.
Even if that “something” is to go see exactly what is going on with her, when you notice a potential problem, prompt attention gives you the best chance of a good outcome.
This is especially true if what you are seeing is lack of sparkle or spunk in the way the ewe handles herself, more of a that ewe isn’t acting quite right situation. That’s weird and needs looked into.
Sheep try very hard to look and act like the rest of the group, so when you can easily see a sheep is feeling poorly, prompt attention is needed, since her problem is big enough that she is no longer able to “fake it” anymore.
As far as physical problems, when one of your sheep looks thin, you have problem. This is especially important if you have wool sheep, since it is usually harder to notice body condition under all that wool. Meaning she’s thinner than you think.
Check her over, is it bad teeth, sore feet or does she need dewormed? The sooner you figure out the problem the more likely a good recovery or at the least you’ll have a cull that is sellable.
Additionally, you can really help yourself out if you figure out how to deal with common problems before they get worse. Ask around to see what are common challenges in your area, so you know what to look for.
A sheep chewing her cud equals a happy sheep
Here is an easy answer to many of your sheep questions, if the ewe is laying down chewing her cud, she is full and things are going well for her.
Happy sheep spend a lot of time chewing their cuds, sick sheep do not.
If you are wondering what is going on with a ewe, like she is standing oddly or laying down when the rest are up and about, if you see her chewing her cud, you know she feels pretty good.
Understand that sheep are quick reactors, not thinking first
Sheep get the reputation for being stupid, but that’s not the case. They are just quick reactors.
To be fair, often they do overreact and that can be frustrating for the shepherd! But, it’s not because they are stupid, it’s because sheep handle changes in their immediate environment differently than we would.
We would see something that was not a threat and think about it, sheep just react then consider if something is okay or not, but the react is always first. This is how sheep survive predators, quick reaction is wired into their genes.
The great news here is that once you realize that sheep will react first and think second, you can change your approach to handling sheep, especially moving them, and get much better results for your efforts.
For instance, you’ll learn that sheep automatically want to follow the other sheep. We were loading a small group of lambs for sale last week and put one lamb on the truck and the others ran up to us and jumped on, too.
Yes, best loading ever! (Usually, this does not happen but we were happy to take advantage of a good thing when it did!)
My point is that if the sheep had thought about it, they might wonder if they wanted to go on the truck or not, but they didn’t think about anything other than being with their buddies.
Know that sheep vary in personality
Sheep in your flock will vary in personality.
If you have a breed that is calm, they all will be calmer than most sheep but some of your sheep will be more calm than others. Some of your ewes will be more friendly than others and some more curious.
These same differences will apply to sheep of different breeds, as well. For instance, we have some Finn sheep and they do not herd as well as the rest of our sheep.
They are great at following a bucket or being first in line to move to a new pasture, though! I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with the Finns, they are just a bit different than the other sheep, as far as working with them goes.
The other type of sheep that will vary in personality is rams, when compared to ewes. I have noticed that the rams just don’t move as well as ewes, unless, of course, they think it is their idea, then they move just fine!
When we approach the flock the rams will give us the “we don’t feel like it” until the ewes start to move then the rams are fine with moving, too. Rams in a pen by themselves, don’t move well, either, it’s just the ram way.
Image credit: the sheep crossing the bridge is from The Sheep Game (YouTube), used with permission