Sheep Keeping For Beginners

black faced ewe from The Sheep Game (YouTube)

Sheep are becoming more popular to raise. Folks with a bit of land and the desire to raise livestock are realizing that sheep may be just the thing they are looking for to get into raising animals.

So, where do you start? What are the things that beginners need to know about keeping sheep?

To get started with sheep you need adapted sheep, forages for them to eat, a basic idea of your management plan for the flock and the willingness to observe the sheep daily.

How To Get Started Raising Sheep goes over the specifics you should figure out before you purchase your flock, which be a more in depth read than this article, which is more of an overview.

What do you need to start raising sheep?

To start raising sheep you need a flock of locally adapted sheep, fencing, water, salt blocks, hay for the non growing season, some sort of shelter for the flock and the willingness to observe the sheep.

One of your most valuable uses of your time when raising sheep is to spend a few extra minutes observing them. How are they acting? How is their body condition? This is the information that helps you manage your flock successfully.

Starting with good stock, having high quality grass or other forages and spending time observing your sheep (behavior and body condition) will keep you and your flock happy and healthy.

Guide To Raising Sheep is a longer article I wrote that is more of an overview of raising sheep, which goes over all the aspects of sheep and sheep production that you need to know.

These are our sheep in some turnips we planted. Notice the electric netting in the foreground of the picture, this is what we use to move (in the growing season) and fence our sheep, year round.

Sheep in a barn require more work from you

You can raise sheep in a barn, which will mean you bring all of their feed and water to them. You are also in charge of their comfort, which includes group dynamics, ventilation and bedding.

Raising sheep on pasture takes advantage of the flock’s natural abilities

Raising sheep outside, at least part of the year as your area allows, is the best way to take advantage of the flock’s ability to self harvest forage and fertilize your land at the same time.

Managed well, grazed land actually improves in fertility, which increases production from the land and your sheep. Sounds like a great idea to me!

9 Things You Need To Raise Sheep goes over some of the basics, equipment wise, of getting started with sheep.

lambs sorted off to sell The Sheep Game (YouTube)
This is Cammy Wilson of The Sheep Game YouTube Channel showing lambs he has sorted off to sell. Notice they are not in a barn, the pen is portable. Check out his channel, he’s fun and does very interesting things as a shepherd and shearer. Quite often he shows really wonderful scenery and sheep breeds that are not so common, sometimes not available at all, around here.

How many sheep should you start with?

I would start with at least five sheep. These five sheep would ideally be one ram and four ewes. Not ewe lambs, ewes. Ewes have had lambs before, so they know what’s what. Ewe lambs are as new as you are! Go with the ewes.

Of course you can start with more sheep, but now you really should start to figure up how many sheep your land base can reasonably support.

How Many Sheep Do You Need? shows you how to find the number of sheep that will work best for your farm and flock plans.

Finding the specific number of sheep to start with will require research

To find a more specific answer of the number of sheep you should start with, you’ll need to do some research.

Sheep stocking rates will depend upon the land you have available to you, more specifically, the forage production of the land. General numbers for my part of the country are 5 sheep per acre or one cow.

The reason I list the cow is because sheep per acre is harder to find, especially if sheep are not common in your area, but cattle per acre numbers are normally easy to find.

Find the acres per cow then convert that to sheep using 5 sheep per cow. You may also run across animal units per acre, this is still 5 sheep in my area. If you find animal units, the math still works out.

Best sheep breeds for beginners

The best sheep for beginners are sheep that you get from someone local who is raising sheep the way you want to raise your sheep.

You’ll notice, I did not give you a specific breed as the answer, this is on purpose. It is far more important that you get sheep that will work for your area and your management rather than you pick a specific breed.

If you really are set on choosing sheep by breed, get something with a commercial type Dorset or Polypay as the base breed, meaning they could be crossbred sheep or purebred. These are solid breeds that will suit most people.

Easy Sheep Breeds For Beginners goes over a few breeds in more detail. However, I must once again say that you will be better served with a local breed or cross rather than picking by specific breed.

Easiest way to raise sheep

The easiest way to raise sheep is to have sheep that lamb in the spring and to keep the ewes and their lambs on pasture throughout the forage growing season.

Sheep that are inside or are lambing at different times of the year, require more management than sheep that are kept to the traditional spring lambing time.

Normally, your sheep year starts with breeding season, this puts the entire rest of the year into motion. You’ll get the rest of your sheep year started right by planning out breeding season, which is actually planning out lambing season.

Planning lambing season

Sheep gestation is just under 5 months, so if you turn in the ram on October 1st, you’ll get the first lambs at the end of February.

How’s your weather at the end of February? Around here, not good so we do not put in the rams this early!

We put in the rams December 1st, which gives us an expected lambing date of May 1st, with the earliest lambs coming in the last few days of April.

While May weather is not perfect, it is generally acceptable for lambs being born outside on pasture. If we were lambing inside, we could pick an earlier date.

As is, we go with December 1st to coordinate newborn lambs with nicer weather and grass growth for the lactating ewes.

Shearing normally coordinates with lambing season

Believe it or not, deciding lambing season also determines shearing. If you have wool sheep, you’ll want them to be shorn a few weeks to a month before the start of lambing.

Call early, months early, shearers book up fast! Be sure to call around and ask, sometimes the shearer can put together a route of smaller jobs or add smaller jobs on at the end of a bigger job, if it’s in the same area.

If you have just a few sheep, you can also learn to shear them yourself. This is a business opportunity. Think about it, if you are having trouble locating a shearer, so is everyone else in your area.

Acres needed to raise sheep

The amount of land needed to raise sheep is small, actually. In my part of the country, you can have 5 sheep per acre. Many of my neighbors have 5 acre yards that they mow. Instead of mowing, they could have 20-25 sheep!

If you have a smaller amount of land, no problem. Read Backyard Sheep, which is an article I wrote to show you the options of sheep on smaller land bases. Grazing your yard rather than mowing would be pretty simple to set up.

When you are working with a smaller acreage, dividing up the sheep pasture into smaller paddocks will extend out the grazing and increase the grass production for that paddock. It’s more work, but gives you more results for your sheep.

Sheep can eat purchased hay if grass production is lacking

Another option for sheep is to plan to have your sheep eat purchased feed, which would be mostly hay, and use the land available to them as more of an exercise lot, since the sheep would eat it down quickly.

If you are willing to feed your sheep hay the majority of the year, the amount of sheep you can keep goes up considerably.

Keep in mind, that if you are bringing them all of their feed, you are also going to need to take care of bedding and have a plan for poor weather conditions, which will make for soggy spots.

If feeding your flock purchased feeds, use a feeder or hay rack

If you are feeding the flock all of their food, they are not eating hardly any grass, you’ll need to find a way to feed them off of the ground.

This can be a purchased or homemade feeder or hay rack, but you need to have something, other wise they will waste a large part of the hay by tromping on it and then refusing to eat it, since it’s dirty.

You can feed some grain, to make up for lack of forage, but be aware that sheep will “pig out” on grain and make themselves sick, sometimes to the point where they can not recover. Take care if feeding grain to sheep.

Sheep 101 has an extensive library of sheep related articles. I highly recommend you taking the time to click through this site, it’s definitely worth your time.

Image Credit: featured image of the black faced ewe is from The Sheep Game (YouTube)

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