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There’s nothing quite as idyllic as a flock of sheep peacefully grazing on a lazy summer day. Long esteemed as valuable livestock, sheep are gentle animals that are well suited for many types of farms and homesteads. But they also present unique challenges.
If you’re considering raising sheep on your property, there are a few things to take into account beforehand, and the first is: not all sheep are the same.
How to choose a breed
The American Sheep Breeders Association lists over 60 breeds of sheep on an online directory that provides quick facts about each breed. To learn more, there are dozens of smaller associations that specialize in specific breeds, providing information and support to sheep farmers throughout the country.
“I think that’s one of the beauties of sheep, that internationally, we have such a vast resource in terms of diversity of genetics,” said Whit Stewart, assistant professor and extension sheep specialist at the University of Wyoming. “You have sheep that thrive in really arid climates, and sheep that thrive in high precipitation zones.”
Some sheep breeds are prized for meat production because they grow fast and can subsist off natural vegetation, requiring little supplemental feed. Other breeds are valued for their wool or their milk. Local university cooperative extensions and state sheep breeder organizations may be able to help you select a good breed for your farm by offering advice and connecting you with experienced sheep farmers in your area.
“One thing to keep in mind is that purebred sheep breeders are pretty passionate about the breed their raising, so it’s kind of a bit subjective,” Stewart said. “It kind of the Lake Wobegon Effect where ‘all the children are above average.’”
Are sheep easy to care for?
Todd and Peggy Allen were in their mid 50s in 2012 when they purchased their first flock of sheep and established Savage Hart Farm in Vermont.
A spinner and knitter, Peggy Allen had long dreamed of raising sheep that could produce high quality wool for her to work with and sell. To learn more about the differences between sheep breeds, the couple attended the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, which is held annually each May in Howard County, Maryland. The event boasts 240 vendors and 40 workshops on all things sheep.
“We started from ground zero,” Todd Allen said. “Neither one of us had any kind of animal farming or husbandry experience.”
After speaking with several farmers, the Allens decided on Corriedale sheep, a dual-purpose breed that produces fine wool and meat. Now seven years later, their flock numbers 58 sheep, including the 25 lambs that were born on their small farm this spring.
“We’ve enjoyed it tremendously,” Todd Allen said. “To be honest, sheep are not that challenging.”
In the summertime, the Allens rotate their sheep between pastures for grazing, and they make sure the flock always has fresh water. They also provide them with a salt block that the sheep lick for necessary minerals. And in the wintertime, when Vermont is covered in snow, the flock stays in the barnyard, where they receive plenty of hay.
How much space do sheep need?
Stocking rate — or the number of sheep you should have per acre — varies dramatically based on grass production and farm management practices. For example, if you provide your sheep with supplemental food, such as hay and grain, they require less space to graze. Also, the faster the grass grows in your region, the less space you need for grazing.
In general, sheep consume between 1.5 and 2.5 percent of their body weight in dry matter daily when grazing, according to a fact sheet on sheep grazing management published by the Virginia Cooperative Extension.
Past experiences on your farm and input from neighboring farms can help you determine a suitable stocking rate. You can also obtain information from the USDA Soil Conservation Service, which provides guidelines for stocking rates based on soil types.
What do sheep eat?
When it comes to foraging styles, Stewart places sheep somewhere between cows and goats. Sheep will eat grass, like cows, but they’ll also eat shrubbery, like goats. Sheep aren’t picky. Nevertheless, certain types of plants are certainly better for sheep in terms of nutrition and digestibility.
Ulf Kintzel of White Clover Sheep Farm in New York suggests a pasture mix of late-heading orchard grass and a long-lived legume such as white clover in a resource on sheep farming he authored for the Cornell Small Farms Program. He also suggests providing sheep with a supplement of important minerals such as iodine and selenium.
Sheep also need fencing, which is usually the largest initial expense for farmers. Sheep aren’t known for being escape artists like their close relative, the goat, but proper fencing will allow you to rotate sheep between pastures. It’s important to create a grazing schedule that doesn’t allow for grass to mature and go to seed, which decreases its digestibility.
“Sheep are really not too challenging to fence,” Todd Allen said. “They see that barrier and think, ‘I’m inside here and safe in here.’”
Do sheep have natural predators?
In the U.S., coyotes and grizzly bears are the top predators of sheep, but in some regions of the country, golden and bald eagles also pose a problem. These large birds of prey will attack and can even carry off lambs.
“In my area, predators are an issue,” said Stewart of Wisconsin, a state with a reputation of producing some of the finest wool in the country. “We lose a lot of sheep to predation, so we use a lot of guard animals.”
To guard their flocks, sheep farmers typically use specially trained dogs that are bonded to sheep early in life. Other types of animals commonly used to guard sheep include donkeys and llamas.
The tasks of sheep farming
The Allens raise their Corriedale sheep for both meat and wool. Each year, they bring lambs to a local slaughterhouse and tannery, and they hire a professional to sheer their ewes and rams. They then send that wool to a local spinnery.
“There’s a tremendous learning curve for shearing,” Todd Allen said. “You don’t want to make mistakes … You want to make sure you get all the fleece in the first cut. If you leave a little, that extra bit is worthless.”
If raising dairy sheep, another regular task is milking, which can be done by machine or hand. Then, of course, is the creation of dairy products, mainly cheese and yogurt.
Another challenging task is aiding ewes during lambing season, which is usually scheduled for spring.
“During lambing season, you’re always tired because you’re doing barn checks at 3 a.m.,” Todd Allen said.
Once lambs are born, they’re usually nursed by their mothers. However, sometimes that doesn’t work out. Some ewes will refuse to allow their offspring to feed. Or, if a ewe gives birth to triplets, it may not provide enough milk to all three. After all, a sheep only has two teats. In those cases, the farmer typically steps in and bottle feeds the lamb.
“We have one bottle baby this year,” Todd Allen said. “Right now we bottle feed her four times a day, and it’s almost like having a dog. She’ll come running right up.”
Dealing with sheep mortality
Another reason why lambing season can be difficult is because not all newborn lambs survive.
A 2011 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that 96 percent of lambs born in 2010 in the U.S. were born alive. Of the lambs born alive, 6.3 percent died (from various causes) before being marked, docked or branded, and 4.9 percent died after.
In addition, sheep farmers have to often deal with the unexpected death of adult sheep.
In the 2011 study, more than half of the sheep operations that were surveyed lost adult sheep in 2010, and the majority of those loses were due to non-predator causes. The top non-predator causes of death were old age (22.1 percent of non-predator causes of death), lambing problems (13.6 percent), internal parasites (about 9.6 percent) and weather-related causes (8.5 percent).
“There’s a saying that goes, ‘A sick sheep is a dead sheep,’” Todd Allen said. “They’re a prey animal, so if there’s something wrong with the, they’ll do their best to not let you know. So when you do realize there’s something wrong, it’s often too late.”
Are sheep profitable?
The short answer is “yes,” or people wouldn’t bother raising them. Different breeds of sheep produce different products, including wool, meat, hides, dairy and even agritourism opportunities. The Allens provide a short-term apartment rental on their farm, and about half of their guests are interested in learning about sheep.
“Sheep can be really profitable, especially a small flock that can be marketed locally to a buyer like a restaurant,” Stewart said.
Several studies have been conducted to pinpoint ways that sheep farmers can increase their profits, including an Australian study that found improving husbandry practices and overall flock health to be the top two priorities in maximizing returns.
Marketing practices, fluctuations in demand for sheep products and outright luck can also factor into how much profit a sheep farmer makes.
“Wool is at the highest value it’s ever been in the U.S., especially fine wool,” said Stewart. “It’s fun to see awesome products be rediscovered generationally. Back in the day, people knew how awesome wool was. That’s always going to be a timeless story we’re going to be able to tell with sheep.”