Chances are you’ve heard the old saying…anything worth doing is worth doing right. Keeping sheep on your farm and deciding to become a sheep producer is one of those things. Raising sheep can be a profitable and rewarding experience … if YOU allow it to be. No matter how big or how small your operation, if managed properly, you will profit. And guess what? You can do it as long as you prepare, select, manage and market.
In this article I’ll introduce you to the basics of keeping sheep and explore the different preparations you’ll need to make on your farm to get ready to own sheep and care for them.
This article will be broken down to cover the following topics:
- Preparing to Keep Sheep on Your Farm
- Selecting and Buying Your Sheep
- Managing Your Flock and Farm
- Marketing Your Sheep Products
Let’s start by talking about how to prepare for your first sheep.
Preparing to Keep Sheep on Your Farm
One of the biggest mistakes people make when keeping sheep is going into it unprepared.
I’ve seen it happen more times than I want to think about. People come to a farm expo, fiber festival, or fair, walk through the barns, see the sheep, talk to the producers about the benefits of raising sheep and decide they cannot wait another few months to get started.
By that same time the following year, they either return to the farm expo to tell ‘those sheep people’ how much they did NOT appreciate being ‘lied to’ about raising sheep, or they don’t even bother coming because they never want to have anything to do with agricultural production ever again.
While I have to admit I have witnessed a few producers taking advantage of new shepherds over the years, by and large the responsibility of going into sheep production without taking the time to fully prepare yourself falls on the unprepared farmer.
Don’t let this be you. Once you have determined that you are going into the business of raising sheep, you need to consider some of the following responsibilities and work that all sheep require of their shepherds.
Build Adequate Fencing
You should not even consider bringing animals onto your property until you have adequate fencing for your sheep.
Welded-wire fencing or five strands of single-wire electric fencing are best for sheep.
Most people choose woven-wire for their perimeter fencing and either woven-wire or electric mesh fencing to sub-divide their pasture for pasture rotation purposes. Many farmers add a single strand of barbed wire at ground-level to their woven-wire fence to deter curious lambs from getting out or predators from getting in.
Plan How You’ll Manage Your Pasture
No matter how many (or how few) sheep you keep on your property, it is important that you rotate them through your pasture and establish an effective grazing system.
Ideally you will set up your pasture to allow you to rotate your flock from one pasture to the next by simply opening a gate and leading the sheep through.
Each paddock (section of pasture) needs to be easily accessible and should lead to the next one.
When constructing your fence and setting this up, think of it like moving the sheep around from one paddock to the next in the same way the hands of a clock rotate around the center point.
While this may seem like a lot of up-front work, it’s important and planning your pasture management system now will allow your sheep to thrive, and will help you enjoy keeping sheep more than you otherwise would.
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How Will You Provide Water to Your Flock?
You need to make sure you have EASY access to filling water tanks in each paddock of your pasture. You could have a hydrant in each paddock, be able to run a hose to each one, or install one or two frost-proof hydrants and water lines in the center of your pasture and have each paddock meet there.
Where Will You Set Up Your Central Working Area?
You will need a place to gather your sheep for flock maintenance – a place where you can easily and quickly sort them for weaning, selling and breeding purposes, veterinary care and other such things.
This could be a barn, a catch-pen made of hog panels or a working pen/chute made specifically for sheep.
I highly recommend the pen/chute if you have more than a half-dozen sheep and if you plan on being in the business for several years.
Understand the Equipment You’ll Need to Keep Sheep
There are some things you really cannot or should not do without when raising sheep. These include: feeders, water tanks, mineral feeders, worming gun, hoof pick and clippers, artificial colostrum (powdered), stomach tube/syringe, syringes, iodine, VETRX, Ear tags and tagger and hay/pasture and feed.
While you may never or rarely need some of these things, you can be sure you will be thankful you always have them on hand just in case.
How Will You House Your Sheep?
In hospitable climates shelter is last on the list of being prepared because it is the least important.
Sheep are not heavily reliant on having a barn. If they have a nice tree line to get them out of the sun when the heat and humidity are excessive they’ll generally be as happy as clams.
A tree line can also provide shelter from the rain (most sheep don’t like being wet) but this isn’t essential.
A barn or lean-to can be nice, especially in northern climates when lambing coincides with sub-zero temperatures but it is not essential and sometimes a small gathering place like this in the middle of a pasture will quickly become a muddy mess for your flock.
Selecting and Buying Your Sheep
Once you have everything ready for your sheep you will need to select your animals. You will most likely have decided which breed of sheep you want to raise while doing the research that led you to the decision to raise sheep. I have an article that can help you get started on that, if you aren’t sure what kind of sheep you want yet.
If you know what type of sheep you want to keep, you are ready to purchase your animals.
Rule number one: do not buy your breeding stock from a sale barn. I’m not saying you will never see a decent breeding ewe or ram at a sale barn. It’s what you don’t see at the sale barn that is the problem.
Sale barns are for selling market animals (those being sent to processors for meat production). The diseases and sicknesses of hundreds and thousands of animals (including parasites, foot rot, johnes and much more) are all alive and well in the sale barn. This is NOT how you want to start out.
Instead, purchase your breeding stock from a producer in your region. You can easily go to a breed’s website and find a producer’s list as well as asking your local farm service agent or checking out the producer information with your state’s agriculture department.
Select your animals based upon their body condition, their appearance (are they healthy and alert?), how well they will meet your needs and the condition of the farm you purchase them from. Ask to see production records if the farmer has them.
Managing Your Flock of Sheep
This is THE one thing that will make or break you in raising sheep.
You can bring top-quality animals to your farm, but if do not manage them properly they will quickly go to poor-quality animals. Katahdins, for instance, are a low-maintenance hair sheep breed, but I cannot tell you how many times I have ‘preached’ the fact that low-maintenance does not mean no-maintenance.
- Managing your flock means you practice pasture rotation to prevent parasite infestation.
- To manage your flock means you have a breeding/lambing plan and that you have everything on hand that you may or may not need for lambing.
- Managing your flock means you are feeding them according to their needs. A ewe that is raising her lambs needs more than a ewe that is weaning her lambs or is in a dry state.
- Caring for your flock means you keep records of breeding, lambing and the health of each animal.
- Managing your flock means you are vigilant about watching for symptoms of health issues long before they become serious and life-threatening.
- Keeping sheep on your property means you don’t neglect the practices of weaning and separating your lambs.
- Managing your flock means you do not over-pasture your animals (have more than your ground can accommodate). Managing your flock means you are hands-on and take your job seriously.
Marketing What’s Produced on Your Sheep New Farm
If you don’t know when, how or where to market your lambs for both meat and breeding purposes, you will never realize your full profit potential. The ‘secret’ of marketing your meat lambs to make the most money is to have your lambs at the optimal weight at peak market times. Peak market times for selling lambs are: Christian Easter, Greek Easter, Ramadan and Festival of the Slaughter. Optimal weights for both Easter holidays falls between 40 and 50 pounds. For other holidays, the optimal weight is 70-80 pounds.
As for the where of marketing your lambs, this will depend on how many you have. Some smaller producers advertise their market lambs through farmer’s market sites for individual sale to ethnic communities. Others take their lambs to a sale barn two weeks before the holiday. Larger producers or groups of small producers sell directly to meat processors or to their buyers. Producers who do this either deliver directly to the processing plant or have the buyer pick their lambs up at their farm.
How you market your lambs is going to depend on where you live and how many you have. What works for some won’ work for others. What DOES matter, however, is that you have two or three options for marketing your lambs before you need to market them.
Raising sheep is a profitable agricultural venture if done correctly. But then, isn’t anything better when done correctly?