There are obvious benefits to raising sheep and goats. Meat is likely the first that comes to mind. And supplementing your farm’s income stream by producing that meat to meet the demands of a seasonal market is one consideration.
However, you’ll want to think about others as well.
Sheep, for example, can also produce raw wool and wool products, along with milk that can be used to produce personal-care products such as lip balms and soaps. Likewise, goats can also produce milk and cheese. Once you begin to consider this diverse range of products, you may start to think about your would-be seasonal income as year-round.
Bobby and Debby Collier of Pikeville, Tennessee, raise Border Cheviot and East Friesian sheep on their 3 Hills Farm. Bobby is a lifelong farmer and retired agriculture teacher. His profession ignited his interest in sheep.
“I had students that couldn’t afford to show steers and cattle because they were not as financially able to do that,” Bobby says. “They thought they could show sheep. I thought, ‘If I’m going to teach them about sheep, I’m going to need to learn about them myself.’”
What began as an effort to help his students is now a 35-year background in raising sheep.
Currently, 150 head reside on the couple’s farm, located on the Cumberland Plateau. Their business is multifaceted. For example, the couple chose Border Cheviots for the market lamb, wool and wool products side of their business. They also have other products they produce from the tallow of the Cheviots.
The milk-producing East Friesians supply the needs of the soap the couple produces on their farm.
Because the Colliers strive to meet the demands of a year-round market, they were selective when deciding on which breeds of sheep to raise. They chose Border Cheviots for their suitability to withstand the climate on the Cumberland Plateau, particularly the harsh winter conditions.
In addition, Bobby says less lanolin is produced in the wool of the Cheviots that transfers to improved flavoring in the meat.
“It’s also a personal preference,” he says. “They are beautiful sheep. The wool is quality enough that we can spin it and get wool products out of it.” As the highest milk-producing breed of sheep, the East Friesians were chosen for the volume of milk they produce.
Both the Border Cheviots and the East Friesians are seasonal breeders that breed in the fall of the year with lambs coming around the first of February through March and the first part of April.
“Part of that, especially with the Cheviots, is the genetics of their bodies. Nature has them where they were raised and originated in the Cheviot Hills between Scotland and England that their lambs will have plenty of grass when they hit the milk,” Bobby says.
“That’s the reason they will usually be born in March.”
Raising High-Quality Sheep
The Colliers’ sheep lamb in front of their barn. After the babies are on the ground, they’re moved inside the barn.
“This is for the mamma and baby to bond in lambing jugs or lambing pens,” Bobby says. The ewes and lambs stay in the lambing jugs for a few days before being transferred to a nursery lot for an additional two to three days.
From there, they’re returned to the pasture. The lambs are weaned at the 80-to-90-day mark and from there go to the farm’s feedlot to become market lambs or replacement ewes. The Colliers wait until their replacement ewes are 18-months-old before breeding them for the first time. However, the market lambs are raised to a weight of between 100 and 120 pounds.
Collier’s sheep are rotationally grazed throughout the summer. On top of that, they receive supplemental commercial feed and as high-quality clover and grass hay as possible. The hay fed to the Colliers’ sheep comes from only their fields.
The Colliers are proud of the fact that their hay is produced with no commercial fertilizers. Instead, other than lime, their fields receive only fertilizer produced from chicken manure from the chicken houses on their farm.
To raise as high-quality sheep as possible, the Colliers vaccinate their breeding stock against reproductive diseases and their market lambs against coccidiosis. They also closely monitor for acidosis or grain overload. In addition, they deworm their sheep before breeding.
However, the Colliers don’t rely solely on dewormers to fight parasites.
“Our biggest tool that we use in fighting parasites is rotational grazing,” Bobby says. Sheep easily pick up worms because they graze so close to the ground. To combat this, the Colliers rotate their sheep to fresh pasture every four to five days allowing them to keep the grass to about 4 to 5 inches in height.
Year-Round & Seasonal Markets
The Colliers’ entire operation is primarily geared toward a year-round market. It’s a niche market that they have created, and it includes restaurants and retail stores that sell their products. They produce fresh lamb for those markets year-round.
To meet the demand, they separate their lambs according to weights and ages and grow, hold or push to meet those weights.
The American Pride and Produce market in Dayton, the Hummingbird Pastaria Restaurant in Signal Mountain and Edgefield Prime Meat Co. in Dunlap are just a few of the local companies the Colliers have done or currently do business with. They also produce custom meat orders.
In the event they have an abundance of lambs, those are raised to hit the ethnic markets.
Pricing the Meat
The Colliers base the price of meat on current market price but, due to the year-round nature of their business, strive to keep their prices on an even keel.
The market does get high on a seasonal basis. But rather than catering to multiple markets, the couple tries to alleviate that for their customers by keeping their prices consistent.
As for wool, until recent years Bobby served as the farm’s sole shearer. However, hired shearers now fill this role.
“We try to make sure that all of our wool is processed in the U.S.,” Debby says. “The mills we use are run by small families that have been running their mills for three to five generations. [Our products] go to two different mills for socks or mittens.”
The byproducts are also year-round. “We would tell you to buy wool socks in the summer,” Debby says. “Wool keeps your feet dry. We always advise wearing [the socks] year-round.”
Soap & Sundries
Soap is another year-round product. “We try to run sales on the soap year-round,” she says. “The nesting balls and the dryer balls that we do are year-round for us.”
A unique item, the nesting balls are made from belly wool that is traditionally scrap wool. However, Debby stuffs the nesting balls into grapevine balls that can be hung from trees. Birds, attracted to the nesting material, pick it out to line their nests.
Soap is a specialty of Debby’s. Rather than using milk as only an additive, she uses pure sheep’s milk and relies on extensive research to produce it. Soap, lip balm, mittens, yarn, toboggans, ear warmers and batting are just a few of the other year-round items the Colliers produce.
In addition to an on-site store, the Colliers partner with the e-commerce site Barn2Door.com that helps the couple set up their newsletters, online shopping, etc. Their daughter, Sarah Hogan, serves as the farm’s photographer and does all of the marketing.
Soap from the Collier farm is currently sold in 18 stores and can be found locally as well as in Ohio. This year it was even available at the North American International Livestock Exposition in Louisville, Kentucky.
The Colliers also occasionally sell their byproducts at local events and festivals.
The retail price for the byproducts is based on the couple’s expenses. They also consult with the mills on current wholesale pricing to help determine what fees they should assign to their products.
The Colliers give credit to God for what they do and consider themselves fortunate enough to be chosen to be stewards of this land and these animals.
For those just getting started or planning to revamp their current operation, Bobby and Debby have these recommendations:
A general rule of thumb is that 1 acre of land can support approximately four to six sheep. This can vary by the breed of sheep as well as soil and vegetation. Unlike goats, sheep are grazers and will need adequate acreage to support them.
This Many Sheep
Because you will spend as much time raising two as you will with 10, Bobby recommends eight to 10 sheep when starting out.
Plants that may not be poisonous to other animals are poisonous to sheep. Consult with your county’s extension office to help determine if your pastures contain poisonous plants.
Don’t Sweat Purebred
Because they sometimes sell breeding stock, the Collier’s sheep are primarily registered animals. However, using purebred, registered stock isn’t necessary. Hybrid vigor is produced from crossbreeding, and there is something to be said for its inclusion in a given sheep operation.
On the other hand, if there is a desire for purebred stock, there are breeds of sheep that are uniquely suited for your specific needs.
Producing high-quality meat and by-products requires significant investment into veterinary care, equipment, facilities, and even shearing if this is hired out. Barns, while not required purely for shelter, are necessary for ewes to lamb in the dry.
Lambing Season Is Serious
Plan to devote a considerable amount of time to your sheep during the lambing season. From January to May, Bobby gets up three to four times a night so as not to miss a drop.
Do Sweat Predators
Predators such as coyotes and neighborhood dogs are a weighty concern. A perimeter fence, neutered guard dogs and guard animals—such as donkeys and llamas—can help alleviate this concern. Closely monitoring guard dogs for aggressiveness toward people and good public relations between the shepherd and the neighbor all play a role.
Keep Feed Seperate
If you are raising sheep and goats, don’t mix sheep and goat feed. Sheep can’t tolerate the copper found in goat feed.
Perspective on Goats
While sheep and goats have plenty of similarities in the areas of fencing, facilities, veterinary care, parasite and predator control, and, to some extent, feed, there are some key differences. Goats, for example, prefer a coarser stem to graze than sheep, love to browse and enjoy vegetation that grows higher off the ground such as vines.
As a hobby, Jess Wilson raises a small number of Alpine and Nubian cross dairy goats on her farm in Monteagle, Tennessee. “I’m currently considering crossbreeding with some meat breeds that are a little more resistant to parasites,” she says.
While her goats are primarily used to produce milk and cheese for her family, she also sells goat kids at auction. “The prices are pretty high,” she says.
Wilson offers opportunities for the public to share labor in exchange for products from her farm that aids in educating the public about high-quality agriculture products available in the local community.
Like the Collier’s sheep, Wilson’s goats produce kids in the spring, usually in April. Her goats are fed a commercial feed and are rotationally grazed.
“I usually let my babies nurse for two months or so,” she says. “Then, while the babies are still nursing, I start milking. After the babies are about a month old, I will sometimes separate them at night and milk in the mornings.”
After weaning, Wilson is usually able to obtain about a quart to a 1⁄2 gallon of milk per day.
On- & Off-Farm Value
While not a steady income stream to her farm, Wilson’s goats do allow her to supply her family with nutritious milk and cheese. She also raises grass-fed purebred and crossbred Gulf Coast Native sheep. Her goal is to raise sheep based on the national organic standards.
Along with breeding stock, she sells meat, available through an online farmers market, and raw wool. To help her price the meat cuts, she uses tools available on the National Center for Appropriate Technology website.
Her wool is available on her Etsy store, SummerFieldsFibers.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.