Getting started with sheep
A Southdown cross is one of many types of sheep adaptable to a small farm.
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Raising sheep can be a very rewarding experience and a great way to convert grass into food and clothing! The following is general information about getting started with sheep. More specific information is available for keeping ewes, rams, breeding, and lambing and should be found in the resources listed at the end of this publication.
In choosing a breed, it is important to consider the cost, use, and ease of management of each breed. The following is a list of some breeds popular and suitable to Minnesota.
Popular sheep breeds
- One of the largest stature breeds of medium-wool, meat sheep
- British breed first imported in the early 1800s
- Productive, good-milking ewes but do not lamb easily
- Lightweight fleece, dark face and legs, and short, medium wool
- Light-weight fleece
- Fleece appeals to hand-spinners with its medium-fine texture and high luster
- Hair sheep breed that originated in Maine in the 1970s
- An easily handled, low maintenance breed
- Ewes lamb easily and are great mothers
- Lamb carcasses lean and meaty
- Developed at a Sheep Experiment Station in Idaho in 1976
- Ewes lamb twice a year, producing lambs with high quality carcasses
- Cross breed of one quarter each Rambouillet, Targhee, Dorset, and Finnsheep
- Medium to fine fleece
- Most common breed in the United States
- Ewes are good milkers, and produce rapidly growing lambs with meat that is lower in fat than most other breeds
- Known for fast growth rate
- Black face, ears, and legs free of wool
- Most sheep shown for 4-H are Suffolk or Suffolk crosses
The buildings needed for raising sheep are dependent on the size of the flock, the climate, and when lambing happens during the year. A barn is useful for storing feed and supplies and protecting sheep from the elements, especially wind and rain. They are critical if lambing takes place in the winter. However, a small flock that lambs in the spring or summer outdoors may simply need a small shed—a place to hold supplies and shelter sick or lambing animals.
No matter the size of the flock, sheep will always need some individual attention—this is where handling facilities come in. Handling facilities can be used to gather and sort sheep, as well as isolating sheep for shearing, trimming, or medical procedures. Good handling facilities will reduce time spent on procedures and reduce the chance of injury to animals and handlers.
At minimum, a gathering pen should be in place, but a forcing pen, chutes, and sorting pens are also helpful. Gathering pens should be able to hold all the sheep at once, with spare room for water tanks, salt blocks, and feed.
Natural behavior tips to consider in designing handling facilities:
- Sheep move toward other sheep and follow one another
- Sheep prefer to move uphill and toward open spaces
- Sheep move away from buildings
- Sheep move better around slight corners or curves where they cannot see what lies ahead
- Sheep move away from things which frighten them
- Sheep do all these things instinctively
Credit: American Sheep Industry Association's Sheep Production Handbook
Sheep are designed for grazing. Pasture is an important part of raising sheep. It is also a low input component to a sheep operation that can help increase profits. Pastures can include any mixture of grasses, legumes, brush, and trees. Carrying capacity of the land depends on many factors, such as soil, plant species, precipitation, temperature, and lay of the land. A general rule of thumb is four sheep per one acre of high quality pasture.
Hundreds of thousands of sheep are lost each year in the United States to predators. As one of the greatest risks in raising sheep, it is important to know how to deal with and prevent flock loss to predators. Coyotes and dogs are the most common predators of sheep. Coyotes will often attack one sheep in a flock—most often killing a lamb or small sheep. Dogs are less likely to kill sheep when they attack, but are more likely to attack several sheep in one flock, resulting in many injuries. Other predators include wolves, foxes, bears, wildcats, eagles, and other birds of prey.
Tips on dealing with predators:
- Keep guardian animals, like dogs, donkeys, or llamas
- Use lighted night corrals with high, predator-tight fences
- Have sheep in an open field that is in sight
- Use “live traps” or cages for trapping dogs, which allows harmless animals to be set free
- Put bells on sheep
- Remove the carcasses of animals that have died from the area where living animals are kept. This reduces scavenging.
Feed and nutrition
Sheep can obtain the majority of their nutrients from grass and forages in a pasture.
Nutrition is essential to maintaining a thriving flock. Good nutrition means greater wool and milk production, higher fertility, and faster growth. Pasture and hay should be the primary component of a sheep's diet, with vitamin and mineral supplements as needed. However, grain may need to be added in situations when the diet needs some extra help such as pregnant ewes or finishing market lambs.
Whole grains are a supplement to pasture that, when fed with hay, promotes healthy digestion. Hay is an important source of Vitamin A and should be stored in dark places to preserve this nutrient. Salt should be regularly available to sheep. Mineralized salt specifically for sheep is best and helps prevent bloating. The important thing to keep in mind with sheep diets and feed is balance. An example recipe might be: Mix 50 lb of shelled corn, 20 lb of oats, 20 lb wheat bran, and 10 lb of linseed meal. Table 1 shows feed requirements for growing sheep. Nutrients are vital to sheep health because they provide energy, support structural development, and regulate body functions.
Table 1. Feed requirements for growing sheep
|Live weight in lb||50||75||100||125|
|Dry matter lb||2.2||3.5||4.0||4.6|
|Crude protein %||12.0||11.0||9.5||8.0|
|Crude protein lb||.26||.39||.38||.37|
Credit: Storey's Guide to Raising Sheep by Paula Simmons and Carol Ekarlus
Sheep require more protein than other livestock species because protein is used for wool development.
Sheep require more protein than other livestock species because protein is used for wool development. Protein molecules are made up of different combinations of amino acids. There are about twenty essential amino acids that are easily acquired through plants. To supplement protein sheep might not get from legumes or grasses, try legume hay, field peas, soybeans, sunflower seeds, and brewer's yeast or grain.
Vitamins and minerals
These are regulators of the sheep's diet. They control essential functions like processing information and body temperature. Vitamins can be found in green feeds, like pasture and hay. Minerals can be supplemented with a mineral block or mix. Be sure to use a mix made specifically to sheep. Blocks for other animals may contain high levels of copper, which can be toxic to sheep in large doses.
The most important nutrient, water is necessary to control body temperature, transport nutrients and waste through the body, and hydrates cells and chemical reactions in the body. Water should be available to sheep at all times. The water should be clean and ideally around 50 degrees. Especially in the summer months, sheep lose moisture through their skin and panting. Providing ample shade for the sheep can help maintain the moisture in their bodies.
Carbohydrates are the most abundant nutrients in plants, and therefore a huge part of the sheep diet. Fiber, sugar and starch are all classes of carbohydrates. Easily obtained in grass and hay forages, carbohydrates are easily used by the body to provide energy.
Although not required as greatly as carbohydrates, fats provide almost twice the energy. Fats are easily found in plants.
The easiest way to prevent illness in sheep is to keep them in good health. One important way to do that is through a dependable veterinarian. When starting to raise sheep it is important to find a quality vet and develop a working relationship with him or her. It is the owner's responsibility, however, to provide a safe environment for the sheep.
Poor sanitation is one of the main causes of disease in sheep. Be sure to practice good sanitation by keeping bedding, water, and feed healthy. Keep potentially harmful objects, such as herbicides, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, and cleaning products away from sheep. Diet and nutrition are also essential to sheep health. Sheep should have adequate space and clean pastures.
Sheep are also very susceptible to parasites. Their small fecal pellets disintegrate easily which releases larvae into pastures. Sheep also tend to graze close to the ground and their flock mentality causes them to graze close together. A good way to prevent parasite infection is to rotate pastures every 2–3 weeks and keep low stocking rates. If sheep become infected, an integrated parasite control plan should be used, which may include dewormers to some extent.
|Annual routine sheep care|
|Hoof trimming||As needed|
|Vaccines||Spring; before lambing|
|Deworming||Midsummer; after a hard frost|
Be sure to observe healthy sheep in order to know when something is wrong. Healthy sheep are attentive, responsive, and have a good appetite. Their manure should be solid and pelleted and they should keep up with the rest of the flock. It is especially important to find healthy, attentive sheep when purchasing new animals.
When a sheep does appear sick, isolate them from the flock. One animal can quickly spread disease to the entire flock. Isolating the animal makes it easier to observe the individual and will help the veterinarian if necessary.
- University of Minnesota Extension Small Farms program
- Storey's Guide to Raising Sheep by Paula Simmons and Carol Ekarius
- Minnesota Lamb and Wool Producers Association
- Maryland Cooperative Extension
- The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service
- Pipstone Vet Clinic
Questions or comments?
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