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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 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:
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!
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.
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:
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:
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?
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.
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.