Evaluating Sheep Body Condition Before Breeding Season

It's time to start thinking about spring breeding season. So evaluate your flock's body condition now to determine which sheep to keep through the winter.

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by Jana WilsonOctober 18, 2021
PHOTO: Jonathan Borba/Pexels

With October comes the time of year that I need to think about breeding my ewes for next spring. This will only be my second year of breeding and then lambing. So everything is still pretty new for me.

Something I have read about is ensuring your ewes and your ram are in good condition. So, how do you even tell whether your sheep are in tip-top breeding condition?

I found a good explanation on the Penn State Extension web page called “Breeding Season Preparation for Sheep Flocks.” There are some excellent pictures that you can use to evaluate your own flock.

Rating Sheep Body Condition

So here’s my takeaway: You need to evaluate each animal on a score from 1 (a too-thin, emaciated sheep) to 5 (a really fat, overweight sheep). An ideal sheep body condition score is a 3. 

Run your hands across the back half of the sheep’s back, near the loin and hip area. The spine and ribs should not be prominent or easily felt. If your ewes look like that, their body condition probably is a 1.

So, it’s time to get some extra grain and high-quality hay in them. Ideally, you would start that a few months before breeding.

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A body score of 3 is what you are looking for. It means that you don’t necessarily see the spine and hips but can feel them if you press down just slightly on them. Those sheep are well-filled out and have good muscle tone in their back legs.

The sheep who score a 5 are probably pretty easy to pick out. They are fat—and, no, it’s not the extra wool they have grown over the summer! You have to search pretty hard to find the spine and hip bones and can feel pads of fat on their loins and even over their dock. 


Read more: Do you know your flock’s FAMACHA score? Here’s what it is and what it means for your sheep.


Hands-On

I find it difficult to evaluate the body condition of my sheep without actually feeling them. They really have regrown a lot of the wool that we sheared off earlier in the year. If you have hair sheep, it may be easier to evaluate your ewes if they have not grown their hair after shedding.

You also need to consider prior issues that may have caused problems before putting your ram out with the ewes. For example, did any of your ewes reject their lambs or have issues with lambing or producing milk?

Those types of issues are considered problematic. It’s not recommended that you continue to breed these ewes, as you would probably expect more trouble next lambing season as well.


Read more: The best first-aid kit is one you never need. Here’s how to keep sheep healthy and your kit on the shelf.


Keep Records, Make Decisions

It’s a good idea to keep records of things like this (as well as records of your vaccination, worming and other medical issues). If you are like me, you’ll forget everything by the time the next breeding season comes around.

I actually keep notes on my iPhone so I have a handy record with me every place I go!

Given the above criteria, I’ve chosen 10 of my 14 ewes to breed for the season. The other four will most likely go to the sale barn. It’s just too expensive to feed a large farm animal that is not producing something! 

Over the summer, my flock was either on pasture or eating grass hay. Then, about six weeks ago, we switched to a higher-quality hay with alfalfa in it that should provide improved nutrition for the mothers-to-be.

I will most likely start the ewes on a little bit of grain as well before we put everyone together in mid-November.

Given that ewes have an estrous cycle of about 17 days, we hope to have lambs mid- to late-April. Of course, even the best plans don’t always work out. But if you go into the breeding season with at least some idea of what kind of shape your flock is in (and which ewes have the easiest lambing), you’re far more likely to come out ahead.

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