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Thinking of raising sheep?

Many farmers and rural residents with land or other available resources are thinking of raising sheep. A lot of things need to be considered before you invest in a sheep enterprise.

To run a successful sheep enterprise, you'll want to efficiently produce high-quality lamb and wool that can be profitably marketed. The first step is to evaluate the resources you have available. Then you'll need to design a sheep production system that will use those resources most efficiently. The resources that you need to evaluate are:

Land: How much land is available and what is its productivity? If all the forage produced on an acre of land could be harvested as hay and measured in tons (or hay equivalent per acre), you would have an estimate of your land's productive capacity. Some rough hill lands in New England only produce up to one ton of hay equivalent (H.E.) per acre per year. This would probably be harvested and consumed by the sheep as pasture. "Average" pasture and hay land may produce two or more tons of H.E. per acre. Good land might produce four or five tons if properly managed.

Suppose you have 100 acres, of which 30 acres are rough poor pasture and will produce about one ton H.E., 30 are average and will produce two or more tons of H.E. and 30 are good to excellent and should produce four tons of H.E. per acre. Your total production would be 30 x 1 = 30, plus 30 x 2 = 60, plus 30 x 4 = 120. This equals a total estimated H.E. of 210 tons. An average ewe requires 3/4 ton of hay per year (half of this comes from pasture). So in this example, you should have enough forage for about 280 ewes (210 divided by .75).

This method is, of course, only an estimate. But it is a quick, easy and reasonably accurate method to evaluate your land resources for sheep. On most farms, improvements in pasture management and forage culture can result in big increases in production. Just remember that about half of the forage production would be consumed as pasture and the rest as harvested forage in the winter. You must be prepared to provide hay or silage for winter feed.

Buildings: Do you have buildings to house the number of ewes you want in the winter, along with their lambs? You will need about 15 square feet for each ewe. So in the example of a 280-ewe flock, you would need about 15 x 280, or 4,200 square feet for the sheep. (The exact amount will depend on your production system.)

Dry (non-lactating) ewes need only modest protection, even in winter, if they are well fed, while ewes with January baby lambs need more. Most older dairy barns, machine sheds and outbuildings can be converted to excellent quarters for sheep. But remember, sheep should have an open, cold, dry barn rather than a tight, warm, humid barn. They wear sheepskin coats and do well in the cold, except for when baby lambs are born.

Machinery and Equipment: Do you have the equipment and machinery to harvest hay, clip pastures, clean barns, etc.? Or can you arrange with a neighbor to do this? Or should you plan on purchasing hay? If you only need about 100 tons of hay, it may be cheaper and easier to buy the hay than to make it. This might also allow you to increase your ewe numbers.

What about sheep equipment? You will need proper fences (high-tensile electric), corrals, sorting pens, lambing pens, etc. You will also need small pieces of equipment for foot trimming, tail docking, ear tagging, and possibly for shearing.

Markets: How will you market your products? Are you planning to sell hot-house lambs, feeder lambs, freezer lambs, market lambs, breeding stock, wool or all of the above? Are you planning to sell on a seasonal basis or have an even cash flow with the lambs for sale throughout the year? Your market is a valuable resource that must be studied and cultivated.

Labor: Do you have the time to properly care for the sheep? Sheep probably respond more to proper care and attention than any other farm animal. For the most part, the labor is not hard, but they require quality time and quality labor. Timeliness of sheep management tasks is very important. You must have time to do the jobs when required and not put them off until next week or next month. You must have time to observe the animals and recognize their needs.

Capital: Do you have the capital or money available to get started, hold you until the sheep are in full production and maybe see you through some dips? Finances are individual, so we cannot give much information here. You need to carefully evaluate your financial resources before starting a sheep enterprise. Compare sheep with other alternatives.

Attitude: What is your attitude toward sheep? Do you like them? Would you be willing to brave cold rains or snowstorms to feed and care for them? Would you be willing to miss a ball game or a social event to be sure the sheep were protected from marauding dogs or coyotes? Do you enjoy late night checks in the lambing barn? If not, sheep may not be for you.

Production and management

Once you evaluate your resources, you can set up an overall management system that will use them efficiently and be profitable. Sheep are amazingly adaptable. Using different breeds and systems, you can set and meet your production goals. The goals you set will depend on your resources, abilities, the ability of the sheep and the products you hope to produce.

Product choices:

  • Lamb for meat

    -- Market lamb (100 to 110 pounds)
    -- Feeder lamb (40 to 70 pounds)
    * Sell to lamb feeder
    * Keep and feed to 100 to 110 pounds
    * Custom-feed in feedlot
    -- Hot-house lamb (30 to 40 pounds)
    * Sold at Easter or other celebration time

  • Breeding stock
    -- Both registered and commercial

  • Wool
    -- Probably sold at wool pool or developed as a specialty market for spinning or felting

  • Milk
    -- Sheep's milk for cheese is popular in some areas of the world, but milk breeds aren't very common in the United States

The level of production, especially of lamb, can vary from less than one lamb per ewe per year to more than three lambs per ewe per year. Choosing the product to be produced and a production goal depends on the breed of sheep and your management system. Each breed represents a given genotype that is best in some situations and not in others. For example, if you want to produce only fine wool, Merino or Rambouillet might be the breed of choice.

Breed characteristics:

  • For medium wool and reasonable levels of lamb production, the Corriedale and Columbia breeds are possible choices.

  • For rapid growth, the large blackface breeds such as Suffolk, Hampshire, Shropshire and Oxford are hard to beat.

  • For out-of-season lamb production, the Dorset is popular.

  • For fecundity or large litters, the Finnsheep excels.

Many production systems use combinations of breeds to meet specific goals. Of course, your success will ultimately depend on good management, nutrition, technology, disease control and marketing.

Management systems:

In most areas, three basic management systems (with variations) are used.

  • Early-lambing: Lamb in January or February and sell hot-house lambs on the Easter market, or sell 100- to 110-pound lambs by early summer.

  • Late-lambing: Lamb in April or May to maximize summer and fall pasture use and sell feeder or market lambs in the fall. Production costs may be lower, but lambs are sold on a lower market. Summer parasites and predators are also more of a problem.

  • Accelerated lambing: Lamb several times a year, with each ewe lambing three to five times in two to three years. You will increase production with frequent lambing, but require the right sheep and careful management.

Sheep management tasks:

Any successful sheep producer keeps up with day-to-day management tasks, and does them properly.

  • Lambing: Can you handle a ewe properly before and after lambing? Can you assist her as needed or recognize more serious problems? What do you do with a newborn lamb?

  • Docking: How do you remove a tail from a young lamb?

  • Vaccination: Can you recognize the important diseases? Do you have a vaccination schedule?

  • Ram care: Can you care for rams even during the non-breeding season?

  • Weaning: Do you know about the weaning process?

  • Baby lamb care: Do you know the basics of baby lamb care?

  • Shearing: Can you learn to do it yourself, hire a custom shearer or do both?

  • Internal and external parasite control: Every sheep has parasites. Can you set up an effective control program?

  • Foot trimming: Do you know how to do this? (It can be hard on your back.)

Markets for lamb and wool:

Most wool is marketed through one of the wool marketing cooperatives, although some is sold to other buyers or, hand-spinners, and small quantities are custom made into yarn, cloth or blankets.

Lamb markets need further development and require a larger and more consistent supply. Lamb can be marketed through local auctions, the spring hot-house lamb market, the freezer trade, producer cooperatives or directly to large slaughterhouses.

Where do you get sheep?

If you decide to start a sheep enterprise, where you get your starter flock is critical. It can be difficult to get exactly the breed you want and number you want at reasonable cost.

Breeds or types should either lamb out-of-season, have large lamb crops or both. Some beginning producers simply started with whatever sheep are available and set up a breeding program to create the preferred genotypes by proper ram selection and careful culling. Obtaining the proper sheep is difficult, but exceedingly important.

Feeding sheep

Sheep are efficient users of forage. In fact, they can get a larger portion of their nutrients from pasture and hay than most other animals. They eat and control most weeds and, with proper pasture management, can significantly boost production of many native pastures.

The forage must, at certain times, be supplemented with grains or other concentrated feeds to meet nutritional requirements, especially for ewes during late pregnancy or lactation and for rapidly growing lambs. Most dairy feeds are suitable for lactating ewes.

Mineral or salt combinations are also available. The trace elements iodine, cobalt and selenium are deficient in many forages, so supplements are needed. Copper is toxic to sheep at lower concentrations than it is for other livestock. So read labels to be sure copper levels will not harm sheep.

One big question is what harvested forage or method of harvesting you should use. Many dairy farms have silos and silage-making equipment available, and can use hay crop silage as winter feed. Smaller farms usually use small square bales, although big round bales are common. The small square bales are easier to handle and can be transported, purchased or sold. They can be produced with readily available equipment and offer more flexibility than other types.

The big round bales are popular and require little labor if you have the right handling equipment. Some producers successfully self-feed these in specially designed feeders to reduce labor and feed wastage.

A beginning sheep producer must also decide whether harvested forage should be purchased or produced. Farmers who are adding on a sheep enterprise probably already have the production capability needed, but others may be wise to purchase hay. If you start with 50 or fewer ewes and only 15 or 20 tons of hay are required, purchasing hay seems reasonable. Whatever feed system you decide on, remember that any investment in harvesting equipment must be paid for by the sheep. A small flock cannot cover the costs of large tractors, forage harvesters, silos, and other major equipment.

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