Sheep are the perfect source of red meat for beginning homesteaders. Besides being a safer animal to interact with, their small size makes them manageable and more sustainable on small farms. As a bonus, their meat is known for its tenderness and delicate flavor that is somewhat similar to beef.
However, sheep are also known for squeezing the wallet if they don’t have a large tract of land to graze on. Fortunately, beginner homesteaders with small acreage can cut costs and economically raise sheep on as little as half an acre.
Using Bottle-Fed Lambs
Buying sheep can be the largest sum of money you invest in raising them. Depending on the breed and age, a sheep can cost anywhere from $100 to $1,000. However, you can get a sheep for free—or at least less than $50.
Depending on where you live, sheep farmers often get what are known as “bum” lambs or “bottle-fed” lambs. These lambs are orphaned because their mother has died or abandoned them. In these cases, it’s often more of a hassle for the sheep farmer to raise the lamb than to give away or sell it.
This is where you have an opportunity to get free or low-priced lambs.
A simple internet search of the sheep farmers in your area can connect you with a farmer with bottle-fed lambs. You might find that the sheep farmer you first contact doesn’t have bottle-fed lambs. But sheep farmers are a close-knit community and often network together.
If the shepherd you have contacted doesn’t have bottle-fed lambs, he or she probably knows a farmer who does.
Bringing Home a Lamb
When you bring your lamb home, you should have already prepared a small enclosure for it. Still, some people are willing to share part of their house with their lambs, especially in the winter when lambs are more susceptible to the cold. But even though lambs are almost puppy-sized for the first few weeks of their lives, they grow fast.
Overall, keeping lambs indoors is feasible but might end up being more than you care to deal with. The preferable course of action is to have a warm and dry outdoor enclosure, such as a shed or barn.
If you don’t have this setup but still want to go cheap and simple, don’t worry. You can build a shed inexpensively out of old shipping pallets, usually available for free or at low cost in construction yards. You can also apply cheap but durable insulation by wrapping a waterproof tarp or construction plastic around the structure.
Milk replacer is necessary for your lambs, although expensive. Common advice is to give lambs milk every two to four hours. But feeding this often can really add up the dollars and may cause diarrhea.
As if that wasn’t expensive enough, lambs have a 14-weak weaning period! At that rate, the cost of just your lambs’ food may not make raising sheep worth it. The best way to get around this expense is early weaning.
Fortunately, you’ll find that lambs, in early spring climates and with proper shelter, survive very well on only one bottle in the morning and in the evening. That significantly cuts milk costs, but you must still contend with that 14-week weaning period.
The sooner you get your lambs entirely off the bottle and grazing on their own, the less you’ll have to spend unnecessarily.
Somewhere around the third or fourth week, you’ll probably notice your lambs eagerly trying to nibble grass. They won’t be very good at it, but it’s a good time to take half a bottle away to see if they’ll start shifting to a grass diet.
To help your success in early weaning, make sure your lamb is outside and around plenty of grass so that they have a chance to explore it as a food source. Once they figure out that they like grass as much as milk, they’ll become dependent on grazing instead of bottle-feeding. Then you’ll no longer have the expense of milk.
Now that the milk is gone, you must deal with having enough feed for your growing sheep. Grain may be an automatic thought, but sheep farmers are finding that, in addition to being expensive, grain makes sheep meat fatty, affects the meat’s flavor and isn’t necessarily the sheep’s natural food source.
A grain diet would be comparable to a human living on cereal 100 percent of the time. Also, if you intend to sell sheep meat, many customers—especially when buying from smaller farms or homesteads—opt for grass-fed-only meat.
Unless you plan on feeding your sheep through the winter (in which case, hay would be the best food source) the best diet for sheep is a grass-only diet.
At first, this may sound inexpensive because. After all, grass grows everywhere! However, sheep eat through grass like lawnmowers. Also, once they go through the grass blades, they’ll try to pull up the roots, killing the grass and potentially causing themselves dental problems.
But even if they don’t eat the roots out, their hooves alone can damage the grass and grass roots if they’re kept in the same area long enough. This can leave you with a dirt-patched field that might take years to recover and won’t sustain your sheep until harvest time.
In short, grass feeding can turn into a damaging and expensive way to feed sheep.
Is there a simple solution? Yes—when the sheep eat the grass down, move the sheep.
A popular method used by many homesteaders with little land is rotational grazing. This method sections off a pasture into multiple small sections. The livestock then rotate into the different sections every two or three days.
The health of your pasture, the rate of your grass growth and how many sheep you have will determine how often you need to move your sheep. A good recommendation for small homesteaders with only half an acre is to start out with no more than two sheep. This small flock will safely allow you to see if your pasture is hardy enough to support sheep until harvesting time.
Overall, this rotational system ensures you can control how much your sheep eat and that they don’t overtrample or overeat the grass into oblivion. It also ensures grazed grass has time to regrow.
Also, because the sheep leave their manure behind when moved into different sections, the grass will be fertilized and grow back richer. Overall, rotating your sheep helps save money on feed and keeps your fields healthy throughout the spring and summer months.
Rotational grazing may save you money, but then comes the problem of sectioning off your pasture. This expense can surpass even the cost of purchasing a full-priced sheep. Also, you may not even be sure that raising sheep is right for you.
Of course, you don’t want to invest in an expensive fence if you’re only going to use it for one year. The usual go-to, electric fencing, quickly becomes expensive when you fence off multiple sections of land.
Fortunately, alternative solutions are available to pick from, each with its own pros and cons.
The most direct and inexpensive enclosure is a mobile one made from cattle panels. You can purchase panels at different sizes and connect into triangular or square enclosures, depending on your preference. Enclosures of this size are light enough to move easily and can sustain about two sheep if moved once every day or two.
However, moving it will require you to either drag it (which can damage the paneling over time) or enlist extra hands to help safely move the enclosure. Also, if you want a sturdier structure, you’ll want to drive in T-posts by each panel.
Bracing the paneling with T-posts keeps the sheep from bending the paneling when they lean or rub against the panels, which hair sheep do when they shed. But T-posts will have to be pulled out, moved and redriven into the ground every time you move the mobile enclosure. Whether done by one person or multiple people, removing paneling and driving in the posts can take up to 30 minutes.
If this method sounds too tedious for you, a mobile sheep pen with a wheeled frame might be more to your taste. You can buy this type of mobile enclosure or make it yourself if you happen to be good at welding.
Wheeled mobile pens have a metal frame at the base with two removable wheels on either side of the frame. This allows one person to pick up one side of the pen and move it without causing panel damage. Though mobile pens can seem expensive, in the long run they save time and keep money in your pocket by preventing wear on your panels.
But you don’t necessarily need a mobile enclosure. If you have the time, you can build a permanent enclosure and graze your sheep by leading them out to pasture every day. Because you have been your bottle-fed lambs’ food source for most of their lives, they’ll likely follow you wherever you go.
In other words, wherever you are is where they graze. This is great because sometimes you can’t enclose all of the good grass sources on your property.
If you choose to graze your sheep by leading them to pasture, note that this works best with bottle-fed lambs. But if you aren’t using bottle-fed lambs, you may use a bucket of sweet feed to bribe your sheep until they see you as a food source and someone to follow.
With that in consideration, this method allows you to lead your sheep wherever you want them to graze and bypass a mobile enclosure altogether.
When you find bottle-fed lambs, make sure they have colostrum. Colostrum is the important, nutrient-packed milk that the ewe gives her lamb when it’s born. Ingesting colostrum at the beginning of their lives is essential to your lambs’ survival since colostrum gives them the proper nutrients to boost their immune system during their first few weeks when they’re most susceptible to disease and infection.
If you’re bringing home newborn lambs, make sure the sheep farmer has already given them colostrum or has some colostrum for you to feed them later. You should also make sure the lamb ingests the colostrum within 12 hours after birth.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.