A flock of sheep with their lambs on a newly green spring pasture symbolizes renewal and peace, but sheep are far more than lawn ornaments in a pretty farm scene. Sheep provide companionship, produce abundant wool and make delicious milk, cheese and lamb roasts. Whether you’re exploring a new animal to keep on your farm or are specifically after the products that sheep can provide, it’s important to ensure you have the time and resources to provide for them. Here are the key things to consider before adding sheep to your farm.
1. What Breed is Best For Me?
Before you decide on what sheep breed to keep, think about why you want to keep them in the first place. Are you looking to harvest wool? Do you want meat, milk or cheese? Are you keeping them as pets?
Sheep are generally categorized into wool, meat and dairy breeds, but certain breeds can do double- or even triple-duty. The American Sheep Industry’s online breed directory is a great place to start.
Most shepherds begin with a starter flock based on what breeds are available nearby, which may indicate sheep that do well in your area. Seeking out this type of local information is important. What a book describes as good for sheep may cause illness or injury in the same sheep kept in a different context. Meet with an experienced shepherd in your area or contact your county extension agent to begin your research. People affiliated with 4-H chapters, fiber festivals and county and state fairs can also be helpful.
Commercial wool and meat producers use just a few breeds to ensure consistency in the products they’re seeking. A hobby farm, however, is the perfect opportunity to steward rare, conservation and heritage breeds that are often hardier. Visit The Livestock Conservancy learn more about heritage breeds.
2. What About Rams?
Unless you plan to breed sheep, a ram probably isn’t right for your farm. Rams can be extremely aggressive and can cause injury to inexperienced handlers. They also require additional nutrition during breeding season, and you’ll need to house them separately from the ewes to properly manage breeding. For your own ease and safety, aim for a flock comprised primarily of ewes and possibly one or two wethers (castrated rams) when you first start keeping sheep.
If you plan to raise sheep for milk, you will need to breed your ewes at some point. However, there are breeding options for farmers who decide not to raise a ram themselves.
3. How Many Sheep Can My Land Support?
Sheep are ruminants and flock animals, meaning they’ll graze on pasture and will be happiest with at least one other sheep; however, you’ll also need to be able to afford supplemental feed and provide clean water for the flock. When introducing sheep to your farm, plan for your driest time of year and start with fewer sheep than you think you can support to gauge your land’s abilities. A general rule of thumb is that 1 acre of land can support two sheep, but this varies greatly based on rainfall and your soil quality. If rain is plentiful and your soil rich, your land may support more than two sheep per acre, while an acre in drought-ridden area may not support even one. Again, this is where local research can be helpful.
Measure the exact acreage available to graze and identify the plants on your pasture. Not all of them may be palatable. Sheep may not and should not eat every plant that grows. The nutritional value and flavor of your pasture will vary by season, so expect to rotate pastures to keep plants in a vegetative state.
4. How Do I Keep Sheep Safe?
Sheep require protection from predators and inclement weather, and shelter keeps you more comfortable when tending to them. A ewe requires 12 to 16 square feet of housing space, though slightly less is acceptable if your sheep spend most of their time on pasture. Account for additional space in your barn or shelter to store tools, feed and bedding.
Sheep thrive in a wide range of shelters. New barns, pole barns and pre-fab metal structures are expensive but provide excellent protection. Outbuildings and barns already present on your land can also make good housing and might not require much adaptation for raising sheep. Myriad building plans for sheep facilities are available online, and salvage construction materials can often be found for free or low cost.
When siting your shelter, choose a slightly elevated, well-drained spot. Vehicles, even if it’s just a small ATV or UTV, need to be able to access it for feed and bedding deliveries, and you’ll want to determine if you want running water or electricity in the shelter, which can also influence your site.
In addition to providing a shelter, install both movable and permanent fencing. When rotating pastures, 36- to 44-inch flexible, electrified netting works well: It’s lightweight and helpful in moving sheep from one paddock to another. Fence the perimeter of your property with permanent fencing to keep sheep on your property.
If you have coyotes in your area, you may want additional predator control. Donkeys, llamas, alpacas, and guard dogs are invaluable livestock guardians. Consider the quantity and cost of their feed and care when deciding if keeping sheep is financially possible.
5. How Do I Keep Sheep Healthy?
If you decide to keep sheep, you must factor in time to observe your flock, learn their normal behavior and respond immediately when something goes awry. As a prey animal, sheep can be good at hiding problems; an abnormal behavior that appears insignificant could potentially be fatal. Spending time with your sheep every day is a good way to manage flock health. Keep a basic veterinary first aid kit on hand and make friends with a local vet.
Basic sheep care includes dewormers and vaccinations, though some shepherds decide not to vaccinate. Talk with a livestock vet to set up a health care plan for your flock. You’ll want to trim hooves to prevent hoof rot, which is more likely for sheep in damp areas, and shear sheep annually to prevent skin afflictions and other problems. Experienced shearers are rare, so look for and schedule one well in advance. Some shearers also trim hooves.
Being a shepherd is one of the most ancient occupations on earth. If you’re looking to add a new animal to your farm, give sheep some careful thought and attention. They just might be the right animals for you.
Read more about sheep on HobbyFarms.com: