Looking to raise a handful of sheep on your farm or homestead? Whether it is a handful or a herd, Philip Hasheider has the basics of raising sheep laid out in How to Raise Sheep (Voyageur Press, 2011). This excerpt, which provides basic tips for starting out with your first sheep, is from Chapter 2, “Getting Started.”
Raising Sheep: Getting Started
If you own a farm, regardless of its size, you already have one of the most important assets required for raising sheep: land. If you are new to the farm real estate market, there are several issues to consider when purchasing farmland, including the location of the farm, soil type, house or dwelling, buildings available, and a number of other intrinsic factors, such as schools, social outlets, and a sense of community.
How you handle these options may depend upon your financial situation, inclinations toward farming, and level of involvement in the prospective farm. If you already live on a farm but do not have any animals, you may decide that raising sheep is a viable option.
Farm ownership is not the only avenue for living on a farm. Renting a farm may be sufficient to achieve your goals. Whichever route you decide to take, there are many sources of information and advice available that can help you sort through all your considerations to arrive at a decision that is financially and emotionally satisfying. Advice for purchasing or renting an available farm can come from an agriculture lending group or bank, a county agricultural extension office, or private professional services that specialize in farm purchases and setting up farming enterprises. You can do much of the initial research on your own by contacting real estate agents about the availability of farms for sale or rent or by visiting properties on your own in locales where you may want to live.
Purchasing a farm is not the same as renting. If you purchase a farm, you are generally purchasing a business, because there are financial considerations whether you work the land, rent it to another party, or leave it lie fallow. The financial obligations that come with purchased land, such as real estate taxes, make it almost necessary that you initiate a usage plan for your acreage. If you have off-farm employment, raising sheep is an excellent alternative for your farm because of the limited time involvement necessary to provide good management.
Raising Sheep: Location and Social Considerations
Property location and the services available may be important factors when deciding where to buy. Living in a rural area is not the end of the world; however, there are some significant geographic differences between rural and urban settings. Living on a farm does not necessarily exclude you and your family from the conveniences or services available in urban areas. There just happens to be a greater distance to access them.
In most cases, it is likely your farm will also be your home. It is important to assess whether the house or dwelling meets your family’s requirements, both now and in the future. If you have a young family, it may be important to be located close to schools, doctors, or transportation systems. The availability of professional veterinary services may be important if your experience with managing animals is limited. If community activities are important, you can visit the area’s chamber of commerce, which provides information about local events and activities held throughout the year. You may also want to look at the opportunity for alternative or off-farm income or employment.
Raising Sheep: Physical Considerations
You do not need a large farm to raise sheep. The goals you set will determine the size of the farm you will need. How much land you will need to feed your sheep throughout the year will be a direct result of how many sheep you plan to raise, as well as the climate in which you choose to live. In many parts of the upper tier of the United States, grass grows abundantly if given a chance. Drier, more arid areas of the country, such as the Southwest and many parts of Texas, cannot produce vegetation comparable to their northern counterparts without extensive use of irrigation.
A general rule for determining the number of sheep you can have on any given land area is to figure that three ewes and their lambs require roughly 1 acre per year. This figure will need to increase if you live in a drier climate, but it generally does not get reduced, even if you live in a more temperate climate. If you choose to raise ten ewes and their lambs, then you would need an available land base for feed of about 4 acres or more.
If you already own or rent a farm, take the number of ewes available for grazing, pasture, or haymaking and divide that by the 3 acres to arrive at the number of ewes your farm can sustain. For example, 50 acres available for grass production would allow you to raise roughly 150 ewes with their lambs.
Your ability to raise sheep on farmland will also be influenced by other factors, such as soil type and fertility. These may be important considerations to you because they also may be tied to property values. Soil type influences the crops raised and their durability in extremely wet conditions or during a drought or extended dry spell. Heavy soils sustain crops better in dry conditions, while lighter, sandier soils do not. On the other hand, sandier or lighter soils warm more quickly in the spring and provide better drainage in very wet conditions.
Another determining factor in your purchase may be the quality of the buildings and the number of improvements needed. Extensive building renovations require finances that could be directed toward farm operating expenses. Yet the need for improvements may lower the purchase price and be an attractive option.
Whether you purchase or rent a farm, it is necessary to fully understand its boundaries. Walking the fences provides you with an idea of how much land there is, as well as information about the condition of the fences, buildings, soil, and other aspects of the property, such as the suitability to pasture-raise sheep.
Prior to signing a purchase agreement, it is important to determine the presence of contaminants or residues that could affect the health of your family or livestock. Conducting a water test is a good idea and may be included in the purchase agreement. Underground fuel storage on farms has been banned in most states. Old storage tanks may still be present and will need to be dug up and removed. Be sure to address the issue of underground storage tanks prior to signing a purchase agreement.
Buying Your First Sheep
There are several ways to purchase sheep. Have a plan before you start. No matter which livestock species you’re going to purchase, buying animals always contains a certain amount of risk. You can lower this risk by considering several factors when purchasing animals, including their overall physical condition, health, mobility, and knowing their source. These may not be the only criteria you use in your considerations, but they will provide a foundation for selection.
One of the first questions you should ask yourself before buying any sheep is what are your plans for them? Do you want to fatten them for food on your table or for marketing purposes? Do you want to use their wool for spinning or knitting? Do you wish to make sheep milk cheese? Or do you want them for scenery and as pets? It is best to answer these questions prior to making any purchase.
Regardless of your plans or the breed you choose, there are basic considerations regarding the health of the animals you select that will impact your long-term success. Although they are closely linked, physical condition and overall health are separate issues when selecting sheep. A healthy animal typically is an aggressive eater and alert to its surroundings. The quickest way to determine the health of a sheep is simply to look at it. Does the animal appear to be alert? Does it have clear, dry eyes? Is it breathing normally? Does it move around easily?
Sheep that appear thin or emaciated should be avoided entirely, no matter the price, because this may indicate serious health problems. Avoid sheep with a dull appearance, discharges from their eyes or nose, breathing abnormalities, listlessness, or anything else that strikes you as abnormal.
Mobility is one health issue that can be visually observed. Any sheep, regardless of age, should have the ability to move about freely with no leg, joint, or feet problems. Avoid animals that have swollen joints, long toes, or malformed feet. Sheep exhibiting these conditions will not last long on your farm. If possible, try to observe the feces or manure droppings of the animals being considered. A normal, healthy sheep will have feces that resemble rabbit droppings, like small balls that are not stuck together in large sausage shapes or in a runny consistency. Anything other than a normal size and shape could indicate an internal worm infestation.
You can get an approximate age range of ewes by examining their teeth. At birth, lambs have eight milk teeth, or temporary incisors, arranged in four pairs on the lower jaw. At approximately one year of age, the central pair of temporary incisor teeth is shed and is replaced by permanent teeth. At two years, the second pair of milk teeth is replaced by another pair of permanent incisors. At three and four years, the third and fourth pairs of permanent teeth appear, and at four years of age the sheep has a full set of adult teeth. A mature ewe of four years of age should have a full set of eight permanent front teeth (incisors) along its lower jaw. Sheep have no teeth along the front of their top jaw—only a hard dental pad. Teeth may be well worn, but they should all be there, firmly fitted and even. Lack of a suitable number of teeth may be a hindrance for the animal to eat enough to stay healthy, as well as indicative of being much older than claimed. Look for square jaws. A sheep’s lower jaw should meet squarely with the upper pad. Animals with either overshot (short lower jaw, known as “parrot mouthed”) or undershot (long lower jaw, known as “monkey mouthed”) jaws should be avoided.
If you are not sure of your own expertise at identifying problems, hire a veterinarian or someone with sheep experience to go along to look at the animals you are considering for purchase. This will be money well spent and will help avoid problems.
Knowing the source of your sheep may alleviate many worries about their health. If you purchase sheep from a private owner, take a look around the farmstead. If it is well kept and clean, it is likely the farmer pays attention to the details of his or her sheep. Observing the attitude of the person selling the animals can often provide clues as to their treatment and care. Having the satisfaction of buying in a pleasant surrounding from a caring farmer can ease your concerns about the sheep you buy.
If you have little or no experience with raising farm animals, you may want to start with a pair of ewes. This minimizes your initial investment, requires less labor, and allows you to familiarize yourself with the sheep-raising process. As you gain experience, confidence, and expertise, it will be easier to plan for more sheep.
Starting Up a Sheep Operation on Your Farm
You can calculate potential starting costs by using certain criteria and assumptions that would be valid for the area in which you live. For example, buying pregnant ewes is a quick way to increase your flock numbers. At this writing, pregnant ewes can be purchased for $100 to $250 each. Breeding-age ewes will cost about $80 to $90 each. Weaned lambs old enough to be considered for raising to maturity will cost roughly $1 per pound. Rams may cost $250 to $450 each. These prices reflect strictly commercial sheep and not registered animals or heritage breeds, which may cost more because of their value as breeding stock or their diminished availability.
The largest expense you will incur while raising and keeping sheep is feed. This expense will be greatly affected by whether you grow your own feed or purchase all or most of it. Because sheep are ruminants, you will have several options in developing feed rations; including a mixture of grasses, pastures, and grains in formulations can keep feed costs to a minimum. Lambs require more specialized growing rations, which may be of your own design or purchased as a premixed supplement.
A mature ewe will typically consume 1 to 2 pounds of grain, along with 2 to 4 pounds of hay per day for maintenance and early gestation. During late gestation and lactation this can increase to 4 to 7 pounds of hay per day. On a yearly basis, one ewe can consume between 400 and 800 pounds of grain and between 1,000 and 2,000 pounds of hay. Costs for raising lambs to market weight (115 to 140 pounds) can also be calculated. Feeder lambs will eat between 2 and 3 pounds of grain per day and up to 4 pounds of hay. Using available market values for grain and hay in your area will allow you to quickly calculate potential costs for each animal.
Where to Buy Sheep
Sheep can be purchased privately from another farmer or at public sales that include feeder lamb sales, auction barns, or sales on the Internet. Each venue has its advantages and disadvantages. A public auction is where anyone can bid on animals to purchase. The winner pays the highest bid price. You will be expected to present a good check after the sale. A number of sheep breeders hold public auctions, sometimes in conjunction with state, regional, or national shows. These are good venues for purchasing animals, because the quality is generally higher than at a typical auction barn sale, and established breeders typically offer stock from their better animals.
One advantage of buying at a public auction is the established conditions under which the sheep are sold. Sometimes guarantees regarding the animals are stated at the beginning of the sale.
Buying animals at a breeder auction has an advantage in that the price for those animals is determined by other bidders. This can provide a reasonable assessment of the worth of those animals by other, more experienced sheep growers and affirm your judgment of the animals. The price may be more than you want to pay, however, and you may go home empty-handed. If you have chosen a particular breed, attending a breeder sale can introduce you to many other farmers who may have animals available for sale. Public sales can be good social events where you can meet other like-minded people, and the contacts you establish can help you develop long-term friendships and business acquaintances.
Private sales allow you to acquire all your sheep at one place. This will generally reduce the risk of exposure to other sheep from different farms, which is a health consideration. Although you may pay a price determined by the owner, you also may be able to negotiate a better price if you purchase several animals at one time. An established sheep producer’s reputation is important, and most will try to accommodate a buyer’s concerns if something should go wrong later.
Buying a Ram
Buying a ram is different from buying feeder lambs or ewes for breeding. The growth rate of your lambs will be determined by two things: your feeding program and the genetic inheritance from their sire and dam. The fastest way to bring in new genetics without replacing the entire female population is to use a superior ram. Whether you buy a ram for breeding purposes or raise one from your own flock depends on your situation. Some crossbreeding programs use a rotational plan that produces replacement females so only rams need to be brought into the flock. This also keeps the flock exposure to outside health concerns to a minimum.
Growth rates and carcass traits may be a consideration whether you are selecting for the general market or for a niche market. Try to select a ram to improve both. This may not be possible in some heritage breeds where the genetic pool is limited and genetic advances for carcass and growth traits may be slower.
If you choose to purchase a ram for breeding your flock, it is important that this purchase be made several months prior to the breeding season. Rams need time to get acclimated to their new surroundings and the feed rations they will be consuming during the breeding season.
There are several physical considerations to keep in mind when purchasing a ram. Many are similar to the general considerations for purchasing females: healthy feet and legs for mobility, clear eyes and lungs, lack of internal parasites, and good teeth. Other considerations for rams include well-developed sex organs, no hernias, full hindquarters that suggest a good meat-producing ability, and a good fleece, if that is your market.
Well-grown males that achieve a fast market weight will generally help accelerate the growth rates of their offspring. Rams that achieve target weights earlier than others will most likely have a positive effect on your flock and will be best positioned for sexual maturity.
Proper ram management will positively affect the reproductive efficiency of your flock, because the ram must be healthy to effectively impregnate the females. Failure to do so will result in lost pregnancy time and fewer lambs born on schedule, which will ultimately affect the total number of lambs born and flock profitability. The libido or willingness of the ram to breed ewes is highly variable among rams and can have a major impact on sheep production, particularly if a single sire is used in the flock. Libido is affected by underfeeding or overfeeding where the ram is underweight or too fat to become interested. Age and disease conditions such as arthritis may affect a ram’s performance. The easiest way to determine a ram’s mating behavior is to observe its performance as it is exposed to ewes. If it fails to show any interest in ewes in heat, it should be replaced as soon as possible.
A good healthy ram can breed twenty-five to thirty ewes and can usually mate three to four ewes per day without any noticeable negative effects. During the breeding season, a ram may lose up to 15 percent of its body weight. It’s important that it is in top condition prior to use. A good feed ration will keep your ram in good physical condition during the breeding season and help ensure good conception rates.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from How to Raise Sheep: Everything You Need to Know, by Philip Hasheider, and published by Voyageur Press, 2013.