Frequently Asked Questions
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This is a list of questions that seem to come up quite frequently amongst new sheep owners. I make no claim that the list is complete or the answers as full as they could be--feel free to send me any additional questions you think should be included, along with whatever answers have worked for your situation. See Sheep References and Links for books and other resources that will give more complete information.
Please remember this is just a starting point. Your best sources of information are in your own neighborhood: successful shepherds you can visit and talk to. Next to that, your local vet and extension agents are fantastic potential teachers. Finally, there's not much better than having a good book to turn to when you've got a problem and can't get to the computer. Use this page as just a place to begin your shepherding education.
What are the housing needs of sheep? To some extent this depends on breed. Primitive breeds need little, if any housing, other than perhaps a bit of shade from the sun when it's hot, and a windbreak for protection from the worst winter winds. Modern breeds may need overhead protection from rain and snow. Few sheep really need barns. They are generally more for the shepherd's comfort than the sheep's. If we were doing it over again, we probably wouldn't build a barn for the sheep, though we would definitely build a barn for the hay!
What's a simple way to provide shade for summer pasture rotation? We've tried a couple different things, but the easiest and least expensive is simply a tarp attached to fence poles using leftover pieces of baling twine. We tie the grommets of the tarp (sized according to the size of the flock typically in that pasture) to fence posts, along the side of the paddock which borders the next paddock the sheep will be moving into. Two more posts are set at a distance from the fence to tie the other corners of the tarp to. When it's time to move the sheep to the next paddock, the ends on the fence remain tied, the tarp is flipped to the other side of the fence, and the posts for the free end of the tarp are pounded in and the tarp tied to it.
How do you know how much to feed a sheep? The easiest answer is allowing the sheep to feed herself from a pasture or source of hay. Sheep will rarely eat too much grass/hay because there's a lot of dry matter mixed in that will fill them up appropriately. Given much grain or other concentrated feeds, though, sheep can gain too much weight--like eating dessert first, dinner afterwards. We limit grain to flushing and late gestation/early lactation. During those times, we give about 1/2 pound of mixed grains (cracked corn, oats, wheat, and soybean with about 18% protein altogether) per day per sheep. This is not the only way to feed, but it has worked well for us, and minimizes input expenses.
How do you estimate the hay you need? Sheep need approximately 4% of their bodyweight in hay each day. So if you have a 100 pound ewe, she will need about 4 pounds of hay. This allows for a little waste, but do try to find ways to feed hay that minimize waste. Here's a hypothetical example:
Then figure out the weight of hay per unit you will buy. For example, square bales at 50 pounds per bale. Divide the total pounds of hay you need by the pounds per bale to give you the total bales: 12,000 pounds of hay / 50 pound bales = 240 bales to buy. You might want to round up a bit in case your hay-feeding season is longer than usual, and buy 250 bales to be on the safe side.
Which is better, square bales or round, when buying hay? The quality of the hay is about the same, if they've been stored right, so the answer to this question lies in your situation, equipment, storage area, and experience. In general, if you don't want to use tractors, square bales are much easier to manage. They do require stacking and protection from rain, but are small enough (40-50 pounds is what we usually see around here) for an average adult to be able to move relatively easily. Round bales are usually much less expensive per ton of hay, though, so if you have a tractor or can store the bales in the field where they will be fed, round bales are definitely cost effective.
How do you determine what is good hay and what isn't? First, ask around to find out which hay farmer in your area is known for quality hay. Next, talk to that farmer, ask him how he raises his grass, how he hays it and stores it, what additives he puts on his field, etc. Not in the form of an inquisition, but just getting to know him and his craft. Tell him you're new to hay and want to learn from his expertise and you'll learn a lot!
Find out if he has his hay tested for its nutritional content--if not, buy some representative bales and have them tested, which can usually be done through your local university extension service.
Don't neglect the eyes and nose when looking at the hay. Open a bale and note:
Be sure to have your hay tested, so you can adjust the supplements you give your sheep, especially if your hay seems less that perfect, which it usually is.
Another way to get quality hay is to volunteer to help the farmer when it's time to bale. Many hay farmers have the equipment and knowledge to produce good hay, but lack the help that once was common on the farm. Helping the farmer pick up bales in the field and stack them in the barn can give you first pick of the best hay, or a discount in price, or both.
What does 'first cutting' and 'second cutting' hay mean? First cutting hay is just that--the first time during that season that hay is cut on a given field. Logically, second cutting is the second time hay is mown on that field. Some areas get third and even fourth cuttings, depending generally on the climate zone, the condition of the field, and the weather that year.
In general, first cutting is lower in protein than later cuttings because the grass grew very quickly in its first month or so. Second cutting is generally higher in protein. If you can get a good deal on second cutting (it's usually more expensive that first), then you may be able to use it for your flushing or late gestation/early lactation feeding.
How good is good when it comes to hay? Some people swear by alfalfa hay, or alfalfa-grass hay, or second cutting hay, or other, generally higher-protein, hays. We've found that first cutting grass hay is perfectly fine for our sheep, and is usually significantly less expensive. On those occasions when a little more protein in their diet is a good thing, we feed a little grain mix.
How much copper do sheep need? Yes, sheep do need some copper--but not very much, and they can usually get what they need from the grass and other forages they eat. If you use a mineral block, make sure you it is formulated for sheep. The analysis should state no copper has been added.
What about water? It's smart to ask about water! Sheep need plenty of good water to keep their digestive systems moving. We've heard as much as a gallon per day per sheep can be needed. We keep a hose with its end in the tub that holds their water. An old child's plastic ball that's brightly colored acts as a float to let us know whether the water needs to be topped off, even when the field the sheep are in is 500 yards away. We can then turn on the faucet near the house to refill the water tub.
If your sheep drink from a natural pond, lake, or stream, do consult with your local extension agents about ways to protect that watershed from manure run-off and erosion. Farm animals are one source of water pollution, but it can usually be controlled. Don't overlook this! Many states have laws and penalties for farm pollution of local watersheds.
How do you keep water liquid in the winter? We ran electricity out to our barn after the first winter so we could easily use tank deicers to keep our water liquid in the winter. Some breeders are able to let their sheep eat snow for water, and we've noticed our sheep prefer that when there's plenty of fresh snow. But when the snow isn't fresh, they do drink the water in the tub.
What is "flushing"? Flushing is the term used for raising the nutrition for ewes and rams just prior to breeding season. The result, according to some experts and our own experience, is the ewes will produce more eggs and the rams fertilize more eggs, during breeding. Then more twins will be born, a plus in a production-oriented flock.
How do you "flush" the sheep? We simply add 1/2 pound of mixed grains per animal to their daily hay or grass, for about two weeks before breaking our sheep into breeding groups. We continue this higher level of feed while the sheep are in their groups, and then stop the extra grain gradually just before bringing the ewes back together.
What is a breeding group? Most simply, a group of ewes that will be bred by one particular ram. The shepherd decides which ram would be best to use with which ewes by assessing how they reflect his/her flock goals. Is the wool of the ewes not quite fine enough? Then use the ram with finer wool to sire lambs that are finer than mom's wool. Not all characteristics are that easy, of course, and it's often a balancing game, but at its simplest, this is what a breeding group is. Important: Don't put more than one ram with a group of ewes when the ewes are ready for breeding! They will beat up on each other until one is dead or incapacitated.
How do you know when to put the ram with the ewes? Some breeds are seasonal, meaning the ewes begin to cycle in the late summer or fall and will always lamb in the late winter or spring. Other breeds can cycle any time of year. Basically, when the rams start to sniff at the ewes and the ewes start to waggle their tails at the rams, that's when breeding can get started. You, as the shepherd, should decide when you want to lamb within those limitations, and breed accordingly. Be sure to remove ram lambs from their mothers at at least a month in advance of breeding signs, or you may find those 'lambs' were up to no good!
How long are ewes pregnant before they lamb? About 145-149 days, depending on the breed, with more primitive breeds tending towards shorter gestation times. Some breeders use breeding crayons set in a harness on the ram. Then they look at the ewes' rear ends each day to determine just what day she was bred on. We don't bother with that, but it works well for people who need to be very certain when lambing will begin.
How long should the ram remain with the ewes? We leave our rams with their breeding groups for a minimum of six weeks. The ewes are ready for breeding ("cycling") about every 19 days. Six weeks with the ram ensures every ewe will cycle at least twice if not bred the first time.
How can you tell when lambing will start? A ewe will find a relatively secluded area away from the rest of the flock, most often near a windbreak of some sort. She will seem restless, walking back and forth, pawing at the ground. She may show a thick mucus plug coming out of the vagina.
What do you do during lambing? Nothing! As Shetland breeders, we have never needed to intervene during lambing. The ladies are quite capable, even as yearling first-timers, of taking care of the business of birth all by themselves. That doesn't stop us from having references and some basic tools handy, just in case. But we are definitely in favor of letting Mother Nature take care of the ewes during lambing.
What about after lambing? Again, we avoid interfering as much as possible. Shetland lambs are up and nursing in five minutes or less, usually. We do like to watch as mom cleans the baby off, often while in labor with the twin. But we let her do the work, bonding with her little ones very thoroughly in the process. The only thing we do at this point is move baby and mother into a lambing jug (small pen in the barn prepared for the mother/baby couple) if the weather is wet and cold.
What about ear tags, selenium, etc? We let this wait a day before we subject the newborn lamb to these stresses. We give the lamb a helping of selenium paste because we're in a selenium-deficient area. We ear tag the lamb at the same time, and weigh it in a sling hanging from a scale. We quickly check to make sure it's OK (no defects, for example) and to get a look at its birthcoat color, an important clue to its color genetics. Then, having taken just five or so minutes to do this, we put baby back with mom for some comfort. We don't apply iodine to their navels, as there is conflicting evidence about the effectiveness of this practice. We've only had one lamb out of 40 so far show signs of possibly becoming sick as a result.
What medications are recommended to use on sheep? A lot more than may be needed! We use a vaccination (Covex-8) as recommended on the label, for protection against common infections. We give selenium gel to lambs as we're in an area where selenium is deficient, so the ewes don't necessarily get enough in their feed to pass on to their babies. We no longer worm routinely. Instead, we rely on pasture rotation and natural resistance to worms to keep our flock healthy. Other than that, the only medication we give is an antibiotic if we're sure a sheep is actually infected with some sort of bacteria.
How do you give a sheep a shot? There are different types of injections. Subcutaneous, or 'sub-q', meaning just below the skin, is the most common for the shepherd, and the easiest. Needles with syringes can be purchased at most farm supply stores, or via mail from large farm supply catalogs. We use 20 gauge, 3/4" needles on our Shetlands.
We have in the past used a cotton ball with alcohol to slightly clean the skin at the injection site, just as is done on humans. However, we don't any longer because the alcohol really just dissolves surface dirt and grease, making it easier to push into the wound with the point of the needle.
When do you shear, and how? Shearing is done usually once a year. Some breeds need shearing twice a year because otherwise their wool is too long for most purposes. How long is too long? Handspinners can process wool up to about 8 or 9 inches without too much difficulty.
The timing of shearing is important if wool quality is something you are interested in. Most shepherds prefer to shear their sheep not long before lambing. Usually the weather has warmed a little by then, so the sheep aren't too cold, though if the weather is particularly frigid they will need extra calories and more shelter than usual for several days as they adjust to the lack of winter coat. The main advantage to shearing before lambing is the lambs won't have a chance to trash the ewe's wool. Also, if lambing is stressful, the stress break will be right at the tip of the new coat, where it will be much less of a problem.
For more information about preparing your sheep for shearing, see our shearing services page. Be sure to start looking for a shearer several months before you need one! They can be hard to find. If you decide to shear your sheep yourself, there are many books on the subject. Or you can keep things simple, if a little slow, and tie the sheep standing up, and clip off its wool with scissors or blade shears.
When and how do you trim hooves? Hoof trimming is often done at shearing time, or any other time when all the sheep are rounded up for treatment of some sort. Tip the sheep on its backside. Take one hoof at a time. Use the tip of the trimmers to clean out manure or mud that blocks your view of the foot. Now cut off the flaps of hoof material that extend beyond the edges of the feet. As you cut into thicker parts of the hoof, you will see the freshly-cut edge is light in color, even on black hooves. If that edge becomes pinkish, stop trimming. The next snip will probably cut into blood vessels in the hoof, and it's incredible how much these bleed! Warning: Be sure to keep your face out of reach of thrashing hooves! Sheep don't mean to attack you but can do so very effectively nonetheless.