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How to Raise Sheep

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So, you’re thinking about raising sheep. It can be fun and rewarding. Sheep are docile, gentle animals and they are multipurpose, providing meat and wool, and even milk. There are some basics to master before you get your first flock, so read on.

Why Raise Sheep?

Sheep.
Photo © Flickr user Martin Pettitt

People have raised sheep for milk, meat and wool for thousands of years. Sheep have some advantages over other types of livestock: they're relatively small and easy to handle, compared with cows and pigs. They don't need a lot of space. They don't need perfect pasture, and they eat brush, grasses and weeds that grow in poor soil.

Sheep manure will fertilize the soil. They are gentle and docile (although rams can be aggressive at times) and they are trainable (you can teach them to come when called, to follow you, and to stand).

They don't need much space, either: even one acre can support a small flock - three or four ewes and their lambs.

Choosing a Breed

The first thing you need to decide is the purpose for which you want the sheep. Are you raising them for meat or wool (or just as pet lawnmowers)? Or are you taking the less common route and raising them for milk? The reason milking sheep is not common is that sheep don't yield nearly as much milk as cows or goats.

You will need to consider your climate, so ask around locally as to what breeds are being raised by other farmers.

There are hundreds of breeds of sheep, but some of the most popular are listed here.

Dual-purpose (meat and wool):

  • Corriedale
  • Dorset
  • Polypay
  • Tunis
  • Columbia

Meat:

  • Hampshire
  • Katahdin
  • Romney
  • Suffolk

Buying Sheep

Make sure that you purchase sheep directly from the person who raised them. Look at the flock the sheep comes from. Talk with the farmer about the sheep's history.

Check the sheep's physical condition: eyes should be clear and bright; teeth should not be worn or missing. The lower jaw must not be undershot or overshot. Check the head and neck for lumps or swelling, which may mean an untreated worm infestation or abscess. The sheep's hooves should be trimmed properly and the sheep should not be limping (make sure other sheep in the flock are not limping either, because this may mean they have foot rot, which can infect your sheep).

The sheep should have a wide back and deep body and not be too thin or too fat. Potbellies indicate worm infestation. If buying an adult ewe, make sure the udders are healthy and not lumpy (which can indicate mastitis and can damage her milk production for future lambs).

Care and Feeding of Sheep

You can use a characteristic of sheep to your advantage. They love grain, peanuts and apples. Be careful not to make sheep think you are chasing them. They have only one defense against predators or danger: to bunch together and run to escape. So you must learn how to get the sheep to come to you, because if you try to drive them into, say, a barn or other enclosure, they will feel trapped and avoid going in. Lure them in with their favorite treats, coaxing them to follow you.

Sheep are ruminants, meaning they eat plants like fresh grass and hay. Their main feed is pasture grasses, salt, a vitamin and mineral supplement, and fresh water. While the pasture grass is growing, they can feed themselves. If there is a drought, or in winter, you will need to supplement their diet with hay and/or grain. Use a feeder rather than putting the hay on the ground where it will get wet and dirty.

Sheep need salt - it can be granulated or loose. Never use a salt block.

Fencing and Shelter for Sheep

The best type of fence for sheep is a smooth-wire electric or woven wire fencing (not electric). You can also use electric net fencing for temporary paddocks. Rotating sheep into different paddocks keeps them on fresh pasture.

Sheep don't need much protection - they prefer to have a simple, south-facing, three-sided shed to protect them from the worst of the rain, cold, snow and wind. Using a light, portable shed allows you to move it to their current paddock. Its size should be 15 to 20 square feet per adult sheep.

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