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Raising sheep can be fun and rewarding if you live on a small farm or even in a rural home with a bit of available pasture space. They are docile, gentle animals for hobby farms, and they serve many purposes, such as providing meat, wool and even milk. For many rural families, sheep are virtual pets. 

If you are considering raising sheep on your small farm or homestead, here are some basics to consider before you start assembling your flock.

Sheep—Perfect for Small Farms and Rural Homesteads

People have raised sheep for milk, meat, and wool for thousands of years, and for good reason.  Sheep have some distinct advantages over other types of livestock:​​

  • Sheep are relatively small and easy to handle, compared with cows, horses, and pigs.
  • Sheep don't need perfect pasture land; they happily eat brush, grasses, and weeds that grow in poor soil.
  • Sheep manure will fertilize the soil. Sheep pastures can be rotated with crop planting. A former sheep pasture is a marvelously fertile spot for growing crops.  
  • Sheep are gentle and docile (although rams can be aggressive at times), and they are trainable. Sheep can be taught to come when called, to follow you, and to stand when ordered to).
  • Sheep don't need much space. Even one acre can support a small flock—three or four ewes and their lambs.

Choosing a Breed

When selecting the right sheep breed, the first thing to consider is the purpose of the sheep. Are you raising them for meat or wool, or just as pet lawnmowers? Or are you taking the less common route and raising them for milk? Although sheep don't yield nearly as much milk as cows or goats, some people do enjoy the taste of sheep's milk, and it can be used to make delicious cheeses and yogurts. 

You will also need to consider your local climate, so ask around locally as to what breeds are being raised by other farmers in the area 

There are hundreds of breeds of sheep, but the list of those most commonly raised is fairly small. 

Dual-Purpose (Meat and Wool) Sheep:

  • Corriedale (large species, with plentiful meat and lustrous wool)
  • Dorset (medium size, with dense white wool)
  • Polypay (lambs are produced frequently and grow quickly)
  • Tunis (medium sized with creamy wool)
  • Columbia (large breed with dense off-white wool)
  • Romney (has long, lustrous fleece)

Meat-Only Sheep:

  • Hampshire (one of the largest breeds)
  • Katahdin (very low maintenance)
  • Suffolk (the most popular breed in the U.S.)

Dairy Sheep:

  • East Friesian (good milk producer, but somewhat difficult to raise)
  • Lacaune (excellent breed for cheese)
  • Awassi(gentle breed with shaggy wool)

Buying Sheep

After deciding on a breed, careful selection of individual animals is critical. Make sure that you purchase sheep directly from the person who raised them. Look at the flock the sheep comes from, talk with the farmer about the history of the animal and its parents. 

Check the sheep's physical condition, especially the following details:

  • Eyes should be clear and bright.
  • Teeth should not be worn or missing. The lower jaw must not be undershot or overshot.
  • Check the head and neck for lumps or swelling, which may mean an untreated worm infestation or abscess.
  • The sheep's hooves should be trimmed properly and the sheep should not be limping (make sure other sheep in the flock are not limping either, because this may mean they have foot rot, which can infect your sheep).
  • The sheep should have a wide back and deep body and not be too thin or too fat. Potbellies can indicate worm infestation.
  • If buying an adult ewe, make sure the udder is healthy and not lumpy—this can indicate mastitis and can damage her milk production for future lambs.

Having a vet inspect any sheep you want to purchase can help you choose the best sheep.

Care and Feeding of Sheep

Sheep are ruminant animals, which means they eat predominantly plants such fresh grass and hay. They can thrive quite nicely if they are fed nothing but good pasture grasses, salt, a vitamin and mineral supplement, and fresh water. Pastures for sheep can include a mixture of grasses, brush, and trees. In general, one acre of good quality pasture can support four sheep. 

While the pasture grass is growing, sheep can feed themselves without supplements, but in the winter or if there is a drought, you will need to supplement their diet with hay and/or grain. Make sure to use a raised feeder rather than putting the hay on the ground, where it will get wet and dirty. Ewes who are about to lamb, or sheep you are raising for market, will benefit from supplements of grain. 

A good supplemental grain mixture recommended by the University of Minnesota is 50 lbs. of shelled corn, 20 lbs. of oats, 20 lbs. of wheat bran, and 10 lbs. of linseed meal. Sheep require more protein than other grazing animals, and where pasture grasses are poor or not plentiful enough to provide this, grain supplements provide necessary nutrients.

Vitamins and mineral supplements should be formulated especially for sheep. Mineral mixtures for other animals may contain heavy levels of copper, which can be toxic to sheep. 

Like other ruminants, sheep need salt to prevent bloating. Salt can be offered in granulated or loose form. Never use a salt block.

Fencing and Shelter for Sheep

The best type of fence for sheep is a smooth-wire electric or woven wire non-electric fencing. You use electric net fencing for temporary paddocks. Rotating sheep into different paddocks keeps them on fresh pasture.

In hot climates and in warm summer months, sheep require some shade, either from trees or an open roof structure. Make sure they have plenty of fresh, cool water (preferably not more than 50 degrees F.) during these times.

Sheep don't need much protection; they prefer to have a simple, south-facing, three-sided shed to protect them from the worst of the rain, cold, snow and wind. Using a light, portable shed allows you to move it to their current paddock. The shed size should allow for 15 to 20 square feet per adult sheep.

One exception is if your sheep give birth to lambs during the winter. If so, a small barn or sturdy enclosed shed is necessary to protect the young animals. 

Even with small flocks, individual sheep will need attention sometimes, so some kind of handling facility is needed to confine individual animals for shearing or for medical treatment. This can be a fairly simple chute or forcing pen. This will be much safer than trying to chase and catch animals to handle them.

Handling Sheep

Sheep are rather easy to handle if you understand some basics of how they instinctively move and behave: 

  • Sheep always tend to move toward other sheep and follow others in the flock.
  • Sheep prefer to move uphill and toward open areas, away from confinement and buildings.
  • Sheep can be herded better around gentle corners or curves where they cannot see what lies ahead. 
  • Sheep always move away from things that frighten them.

As is true of most animals, offering food is the best way to train sheep. Sheep love grain, peanuts, and apples. Lure them in with their favorite treats and coax them into following you, but be careful not to make them think you are chasing them. Sheep have only one defense against predators or danger: to bunch together and run to escape. 

You must learn how to get the sheep to come to you voluntarily because if you try to drive them into a barn or other enclosure, they will feel trapped and refuse to enter. Sheep naturally want to flock, which means once you get one sheep to come to you, the others will likely follow.

Guarding Against Problems

Sheep can be susceptible to parasites, especially when too many sheep are confined too closely together. You can prevent this by rotating pastures every two to three weeks. Should your sheep become infected, controlling parasites may require deworming treatments. 

Across the country, hundreds of thousands of sheep are lost each year to coyotes and wolves. While you may not have these predators in your area, be aware that dogs are also a main predator of sheep. Foxes and even eagles and other birds of prey can harm your sheep, as well.

Some ways to deal with predators include: 

  • Maintain some guardian animals, such as trained dogs, donkeys, or llamas in your pasture. 
  • Light corrals and pens at night, and use high, tight fencing.
  • Keep sheep in an open field within your field of sight, so you can respond if predators appear.  
  • Use “live traps” or cages for trapping marauding dogs, rather than traps. With live traps, harmless animals can be released. 
  • Put bells on your sheep.


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