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So, you've decided to become a shepherd! Welcome to the wild and wooly world of sheep. This page will try to offer some of the basics to consider when deciding to raise sheep.

First Thoughts

First of all, do you intend to raise sheep as a business, designed to make a profit, or as a hobby, just for the fun of it? Being a business doesn't preclude fun--hard to imagine raising sheep and not having fun at it! But your attitude will be different, depending on your goals. You may choose to coddle along that old ewe for sentimental reasons, whether you're a business or a hobby, but she'd better be all you coddle if you want to make a profit raising sheep. This page is primarily about being a business.

What's your experience level with sheep? Raising 4H market lambs as a youngster is not the same as being responsible for all aspects of sheep production as a shepherd. You can be successful with no background in farming at all, if you're willing to:

  • educate yourself by reading all the books you can get your hands on, all the websites you can visit, all the magazines, and a few conferences if possible--yet take it all with a grain of salt
  • find yourself a mentor in your community who will encourage your visits to his/her farm, and answer your questions patiently
  • learn from experience, figuring out why some things succeed and why some efforts fail, and
  • pay attention to the bottom line--what's productive, what's not productive, and cull what's not--one of the hardest things to do as a farmer!

What advantages do you have going for you, in terms of land, money, resources, equipment, experience, people, climate, community, etc?

What do you lack in those areas? Can you find a way to make up for that lack, can you manage without, or do you have to take care of it before you start? It can be hard to raise sheep without at least a few square yards each to live in, for example!

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What do you really need to raise sheep?

What do you need to put in place before your sheep arrive on your farm? Sheep need surprisingly little to thrive, particularly primitive breeds like Shetlands. Fresh air, some pasture and/or good hay, free access to water--these are the basics. Shelter may desirable at certain times of the year, but if you choose your breed well, you may not need any shelter at all.

  • Shelter: protection from too-hot sun in the summer, and from too-severe windchill in winter, particularly during lambing, are both necessary to most breeds. A tarp over fence posts may provide sufficient shade if you have no trees, while a more substantial one-sided roofed shelter would be the minimum needed in snowy, cold climates if lambing in the winter. It's not necessary to rush out and build a barn for your sheep! Most of us do that, and sometimes it works out well, but it's not a necessity. I don't think we would do so again, if we were starting over.

  • Feed: I'll go out on a limb and state that sheep do best when grazing on grass pasture as much of the year as possible. When not grazing, they will need hay. You must have a place to store the hay away from rain and snow, and someone reputable to buy it from, for the months you can't graze.

  • Water: Sounds like an easy thing to cover until you start thinking about the chemicals placed in public water supplies, the demands on your pump if you're on a well, and the quality of water on your land if giving your sheep access to a pond or stream. And in the latter case, you also need to give thought to manure and mud run-off into that body of water. If you're on a well, consider putting the money you would have used for a barn into a separate well and pump for the farm. Particularly if you live in a cold climate, having a source of fresh water in or near the sheep shelter will save much effort in the wintertime.

  • Land: Most people think you must have lots of fenced acreage to raise sheep. While that may be the most desirable, one of the nice things about sheep is they don't take nearly as much space as larger farm animals like cattle. We're currently grazing 40 Shetlands on less than 5 acres of pasture, managed rotationally, on marginal grass quality.
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What breed will you raise?

After you've given some thought to these issues, you may be ready to think about what breed of sheep you'd like to raise.

What aspect of sheepbreeding appeals to you most? Meat sheep, wool animals, milk sheep, purebred stock, niche marketing, saving a rare breed, some combination of the above? There is no one breed that will be all things to all people, though some come closer than others. Here's some questions to ask yourself:

  • Do you have a hobby, interest, or need that makes you more suited for a particular product to market? A handspinner would logically be drawn toward a wool breed, for example. A person who is allergic to cow's milk might prefer a milk breed.
  • Do you want to be hands-on all the time with your animals, or do you want them able to fend for themselves most of the time? Typically primitive breeds need less care than modern sheep breeds, but there are some modern breeds that are quite self-sufficient, too.
  • Are you willing to put in the effort it takes to market your product? If so, niche marketing of gourmet meat, unusual wool types or colors, organic milks and cheeses, etc, might give you a good return on your investment of time and money.
  • Are you most drawn to the thought of keeping a once-common breed from extinction? Many traditional farm breeds are disappearing because agribusiness doesn't find them 'productive' enough to use in breeding. These bloodlines sometimes turn out to offer important advantages to genetic diversity.
  • Are you willing to keep careful records of your sheep and their breeding? This would be an asset if you choose to raise purebred, registered sheep. It can take a number of years to see a return on your investment in quality stock, but care in recordkeeping and culling of sheep that aren't the best of the best can pay off in the long run.
  • Perhaps your interest is along the lines of homesteading. You don't want to be a hobby, but making a dollar profit is less important than raising quality food for your family. Crossbreeding for good meat and milk production, plus usable wool, might be what you're most interested in.
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Visit some farms

It's usually easiest to buy sheep from someone local. That way you don't have shipping expences, and hopefully you have a shepherd there who can be your mentor. Doing so may limit the breeds you have to choose from, however.

If you're interested in rare breeds, or purebred registered sheep, do your research first into what constitutes quality stock for that breed, and what are normal selling prices. Expect to pay more than for 'mutt' sheep. If the price is much below the going rate for that type of sheep, try to find out why. Sometimes (not always!) it indicates the sheep are poorly managed, unhealthy, or just not of good enough quality to bother with.

Buy from a shepherd who is upfront about his/her records regarding the health of the sheep being sold, and their breeding. You should be able to ask for and see records indicating immunizations, medical treatments such as wormings, whether the sheep was bred, to which other sheep, and what were the results, shearing records, etc, including full pedigrees and registration papers on purebred sheep. The sheep breeder should be able to tell you his/her practices to eliminate or reduce disease, as well.

Ask what the breeder's policy is regarding sheep who die soon after transfer to a new farm, who don't breed as expected, who turn up ill with diseases that must have come with them to their new home, etc. The best breeders will offer unconditional guarantees.

If you're interested in wool and the sheep you're considering has been shorn, ask if you can see a sample of it to make sure it's something you like. Be aware the first shearing of a lamb or yearling sheep is often quite a bit softer than succeeding years. If shorn well before a year of age, find out why, and what would be an average length for an adult fleece. And if shorn first at one year of age, the wool will be slightly longer than other fleeces.

Visit the farm, possibly with an experienced sheepbreeder with you, and look around, using your nose as well as your eyes:

  • Do the sheep look alert, energetic, are they interested in what's going on when you visit? Don't judge them based on how scared they seem to be. Some shepherds don't take the time to 'tame' their sheep, so the sheep may seem very skittish and yet be perfectly sound.
  • Watch them move around. Are they droopy, do they limp? Limping can indicate hoof problems ranging from foot rot to hooves that just need to be trimmed.
  • What's the area like that the sheep are kept in? Does it stink? Keep in mind, if you're not accustomed to barnyards, that all barnyards are somewhat odiferous. But a real stench may indicate footrot.
  • Does it look like the area the sheep are in is always wet or at least damp, even during dry spells? Factors like these can contribute to some diseases.
  • Do the sheep look ratty or gaunt? This is easier to assess when wool is under an inch or so long--long wool can hide a multitude of problems. They may be ill or infested with parasites--or it may be soon after lambing and moms are losing some weight due to nursing.
  • Conversely, do the sheep look fat? Again, it's easier to tell when wool is under an inch or so long. Fat ewes often have lambing problems. Ask what the shepherd usually feeds them. Of course, you have the option of gradually adjusting their feed when they come to your farm, so that they are in optimal condition when you're ready to begin breeding.
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Time to choose your new sheep

You've poked around, done some research, prepared your farm, talked to experienced shepherds, and you've finally decided who you will buy from. More thoughts to keep in mind as you select your sheep:

If you're uncertain about dealing with a breeding ram, consider buying bred ewes. Likewise, if you're worried about lambing, or have chosen a breed known for problems at lambing time, buy ewes who have already lambed at least once. They will be less prone to problems due to their experience.

How do you choose between this ram and that one?

  1. Check to make sure the ram has both testicles. Take them in your hand, and roll them around. Are there two, and are they both roundish, full, smooth, firm but not hard, and about the same size? Do they hang freely below his body? The larger the testicles, generally, the more fertile the ram. Do not buy a ram with only one testicle.
  2. Observe the ram as he urinates and defecates. Does he seem to have any pain or problems? Is there any sign of diarrhea?
  3. The ram's back should be reasonably flat and level with the shoulders. Avoid one with a sway back, or with his shoulders much higher or lower than his hips.
  4. His legs should be sturdy, and his back legs in particular should be strong so he can easily service ewes. He should stand squarely on his legs.
  5. If horned, do the horns come too close to the face? Sheep chew with a sideways, not an up-and-down motion. There should be at least two fingers of clearance between head and horns.
  6. Check the ram's teeth. The top will have a hard gum pad rather than teeth, and the bottom teeth should squarely hit the top pad. There should be eight teeth altogether until at least four years of age.
  7. Pick up and look at each foot. The hooves should be well trimmed so that flaps of the hoof are not covering the bottom of the foot. Take a smell. If you smell something really foul, the ram may have footrot. Check his gait as he walks to see if he limps.
  8. Listen to the ram's breathing. If it's rattly, or he has a cough, he may have a serious disease.
  9. Is he alert and active or droopy and sluggish? Is he very agressive? A ram who is wary of you but not offering to knock you down is better than one who acts like a puppy or a bull. Are his eyes clear? His nose moist but not snotty?
  10. What about choosing between ewes? Most tests are about the same, except: Check the ewe's udder, or bag. Feel it all over. There should be two sides, each with a full sized teat. Is the udder soft, or are there lumps or whole areas that feel hard? The latter may indicate a history of mastitis.

    It's iffier to buy lambs than adult sheep as it can be hard to tell how they will develop. Try to take someone with you who knows about sheep before deciding what lambs to buy. The quality of the lamb's sire and dam can be a deciding factor, so be sure to check them out as well, if possible.

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    Settling your new sheep in

    Moving is a stressful time for sheep, as they are loaded onto a moving vehicle, and brought to a strange new world. Try to make the transition a bit easier by buying some of their usual feed when you buy the animals, so you can gradually change them from that feed to what you plan to use. The more abrupt the change, as from grain to hay, or hay to grass, the more time is needed to help them adjust the bacteria in their bodies which digest the feed.

    Also be sure they have access to some source of minerals, either a commercial sheep block, or kelp. Check the analysis of the block to make sure it offers no more than 15 ppm (parts per million) of copper, which is highly toxic to sheep in higher concentrations. Be absolutely certain your sheep can't get any other animal's salt or feed! Most farm animals can tolerate much higher concentrations of copper, so sheep can die from, for example, eating a mineral block for cattle.

    Make sure they have shelter from weather extremes and free access to fresh water. Don't run them around trying to catch them. Instead, use some sort of chute arrangement, homemade or purchased, to direct them where you need them to go. Watch for the 'election' of a flock leader. By putting a halter on her, or using a small amount of grain to 'bribe' her, you may be able to move the sheep gently and easily as they will naturally want to follow your leader around.

    In spite of everything, you may have stress-induced problems. One particularly obvious problem is a stress break in the wool. If you notice one or more of your sheep suddenly shedding wool, or you can easily 'pluck' the wool from a sheep's back, go ahead and have that animal shorn as soon as possible, in order to hopefully save the rest of the year's growth of wool from the break.

    Hopefully, all your careful preparation will pay off as you observe happy, healthy sheep settling into their new environment.

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