SO YOU WANT TO RAISE A FEW SHEEP
What Are The Questions And Where Are The Answers?

Kevin R. Pond, Department of Animal Science
North Carolina State University
Presented at the American Minor Breeds Conservancy Annual Meeting
June 14, 1992


Maybe you have a few acres that are overgrown or that you are tired of mowing. Maybe
you want sheep as a novelty or to maintain a minor breed. Maybe you like to eat lamb and are tired of
paying more than $5.00 per pound for a leg of lamb. Maybe you want livestock but do not have the
room, equipment or the finances for cattle. Maybe you want to use sheep to teach your child
responsibility. Maybe you just like sheep. Regardless of your reason, there are several things to
consider before getting sheep. This paper highlights limitations, requirements and uses of sheep. Sources
of information are also identified for those who want to raise sheep regardless of the reason.

WHAT ARE THE CHARACTERISTICS OF SHEEP?

Sheep are ruminants, which means they have a multiple-compartment stomach containing
microbes that are able to digest forages (grasses, legumes, or shrubs). Sheep can survive solely on
forage without grain supplementation, provided there is forage of sufficient quality and quantity. Sheep,
like cattle, can also utilize hay, silage and many by-product feeds. Sheep are gregarious, which means
they like to be around other sheep and move as a group rather that an individuals. This means that having
only one sheep may be a disadvantage and you may need to have four or five at a minimum. There are a
multitude of breeds of sheep available in the United States. These include sheep that are grown primarily
for wool, that are grown primarily for meat production and even sheep without wool. Mature size of
sheep ranges from 50 lbs to 500 lbs depending on breed.

Sheep are known as seasonal breeders. This means the female only cycles and accepts the male
during times of shortening day length. Cycling usually initiates by the end of August to early in
September. If not bred, the ewe will cycle and ovulate every 17 days. Once bred, the gestation length
(the time from breeding to lambing) is five months. Ewes that are bred in late August to early September
lamb in January and February. There are many breeds capable of breeding year round. To have lambs
at other times during the year than just the spring, or to have ewes produce more than one time per year,
you may want to consider one of these breeds.

On average, approximately half of the ewes will have twins therefore the average lamb crop will
be 1.5 lambs/ewe (150% lamb crop). Breeds differ in their prolificacy.

Lambs suckle the ewe for 2 - 3 months naturally, but can be weaned at one (1) month of age.
Lambs are marketed at 90 - 130 lbs at 4 to 8 months of age (depending on breed).

WHAT ARE THE MAJOR LIMITATIONS TO RAISING SHEEP?

There are two natural enemies of sheep: internal parasites and predators. Both can be partially
controlled by the intervention of the sheep owner. Severe infestation by internal parasites can cause
death in young lambs and even adults and is, therefore, one of the major problems in sheep production
worldwide. The sheep owner has several management practices that aid in controlling internal parasite
infestation, drugs called anthelmintics can be given to sheep to kill the parasites and practices such as
pasture rotation can be utilized. These will be further discussed later.

Predators are the other major enemy of sheep. Predators include coyotes, wolves, mountain
lions but most commonly dogs. Unfortunately, (for the sheep owner) often times it is the neighbor's dog
that causes the problem. Usually, the dog will maim or kill the sheep for sport and not consume the kill.
There are two methods to control predators. One is by excluding the predators with proper fencing and
the other is by protecting the sheep with guard animals. Recently, the availability of high voltage or high
power fence chargers for electric fencing has improved our ability to keep sheep in, and more
importantly, to keep predators out. In addition, several breeds of dogs can be used as guard animals and
in fact donkeys are often used as guard animals to protect the sheep.

If the sheep owner can control the parasites and control the predators, sheep will survive.

WHAT ARE THE RESOURCES NEED FOR SHEEP?

Feed/land - To utilize the sheep's natural characteristics of being able to consume pasture, shrubs
and browse, perhaps the first thing to evaluate is the area available for grazing. The feed from pasture is
the most economical and should be the base of the operation. How much land is available and what the
productivity of that land is should be determined. Improved pasture may yield four to five tons per acre
per year if properly managed, whereas hilly or tree covered land may average considerably less.

A general rule of thumb to consider in determining the number of sheep that you can have on a
given land area is to consider that five or six ewes and their lambs are equivalent to one cow and her calf.
Therefore, if land is known to carry one cow per acre then you can safely assume that you can carry five
to six ewes and their lambs on the same area. In some parts of the U.S., 10 - 20 acres are required per
cow/calf, so considerably fewer sheep can be kept on that area.

While pasture should be the base of the feed resource, other feeds can be utilized to supplement
the pasture. Hay can be grown on the farm (but this requires a large investment in equipment) or can be
purchased from other producers. If you can plan ahead, hay can be purchased at the time of harvesting
directly from the field at a reduced cost. However, if purchased during harvest, a place will be needed to
store the hay and you must have the finances to purchase the hay all at one time rather than throughout
the year as you need it.

Sheep can also utilize by-product feeds including materials coming from garden, by-products of
peanuts, corn, cotton, soybeans and even day-old bread. Feed can also be purchased from feed mills or
feed stores. Sheep are capable of eating and readily like most cereal grains including corn, oats, barley
and rye. These grains can be fed directly to sheep without processing.

Some feed stores will have available special mixtures made for sheep and goats. Care should be
taken not to use feed that is advertised for dairy, beef, swine or poultry use. The reason for this is that
these feeds will contain high amounts of copper and are toxic to sheep. Again, care should be taken not
to use feeds that are made for other species of animals!

Sheep are generally offered required minerals in the form of a mineral block or as a free choice
mix. A mineral mix should be purchased that is formulated for sheep to meet their requirements and
prevent copper toxicity.

Buildings and equipment - The building requirements for housing sheep are minimal. Sheep
survive outside without a barn as long as there is some shelter from wind and/or inclement weather.
Shelter can be in the form of a converted machinery shed, and old garage, an old tobacco barn or a farm
building. If sheep are given access to a shelter, they can decide whether to be inside or outside. Putting
sheep into a tight, close fitting barn can be very stressful on the animals because of high temperatures and
high humidity in the barn. The best shelters are dry, open-sided, and well ventilated. Sheep generally will
not utilize the shelter except to get out of very inclement weather or to seek shade. Another time when a
shelter may be necessary is during the lambing season, especially if ewes are lambing during cold, wet or
snowy weather. In this case, sheep are often kept inside or are sheared prior to lambing to make the
ewe seek shelter so that the lamb will be in a protected area.

Unless you are planning to make hay, the machinery necessary for sheep is minimal. A mower
may be used to cut pastures that are overgrown, but with proper pasture management, no mower will be
needed. It is advantageous to have an area or pens in a barn or in the open that can be used as a corral
to sort and manage animals. Tasks such as weighing lambs, trimming feet, docking tails and treating for
internal parasites are facilitated with a corral. These facilities are quite easy to make out of normal
building materials or panels. Plans are available from several sources, as noted below.

A set of clippers for shearing, foot trimmers and equipment for administering anthelmintics will be
needed.

Fencing - The fencing may be one of the most important components of a successful sheep
operation. A properly designed and constructed fence will keep the sheep in and predators out.
Traditionally, woven wire has been used as sheep fence. However, the expense of woven wire is quite
high and it is difficult to justify fencing large areas in woven wire fence. The perimeter fence around the
entire area where the sheep are going to be contained must be of high quality material. If woven wire is
used, posts must be put close enough together so that animals (the sheep and predators) cannot get
through.

The most inexpensive and effective fence now utilizes high power electric chargers (~5000 volts).
These chargers cost between $75 and $250 and can be run from regular 110 current, from a car battery
or from the sun. There are solar chargers available for under $100 that will charge the fence continually
during the day, and store a charge in a battery for night use. Spacing of the wire and grounding of the
fence is extremely important to provide safety from predators. Most fence manufacturing companies will
provide adequate detail on how to construct a sheep fence with their materials. Many have individual
instructional video tapes that are available.

Construction of internal cross fences (to divide the pasture within the perimeter) do not need to
be as secure or permanent as the perimeter fence. There are several types of portable, temporary
fencing material available that are easily moved and can be utilized to cross fence pastures as forage
growth changes or as number of animals changes. These types of fences can be easily moved by one
person and are very useful in keeping sheep where you want to keep them. Several companies have
portable types of fencing appropriate for sheep.

WHAT OTHER THINGS SHOULD I BE CONCERNED ABOUT?

Health care - The major health concern is that of controlling internal parasites. Such control can
be effectively carried out by the use of drugs (anthelmintics) to reduce the worm burden on the sheep.
These anthelmintics should be given on a routine schedule to make sure that parasites do not weaken the
sheep. The cooperative extension service or your veterinarian should be consulted to develop a plan for
appropriate parasite control in your area. Generally, for ewes an anthelmintic should be given prior to
breeding, before or at lambing and one time during the summer. Lambs should be given an anthelmintic
at weaning and at 6 to 8 week intervals depending on level of infestation. Most state veterinary
diagnostic laboratories will check the feces for parasite eggs at no charge. If egg counts exceed
1000/gram then an anthelmintic is needed. There are three major anthelmintics approved for use in
sheep: levamisole, thiabendazole and ivermectin. Fenbendazole (the only one that kills tapeworms) is not
approved for sheep, and before use a veterinarian should be consulted.

Rotating pasture so that sheep do not remain on the same pasture for more than 21 days will help
reduce infestation. Biological control can be helped by utilizing cattle of horses to graze after sheep to
reduce the larval burden on the pasture. Fertilization with liquid nitrogen also kills the larva on the
pasture.

Other management tasks associated with health include hoof trimming at least annually to reduce
the chances of footrot.

Fast growing grain-fed lambs should be vaccinated for clostridial diseases and vaccines are also
available for tetanus. Consult your state extension service or a qualified veterinarian.

Marketing - If successful you will have a product to sell! Marketing these products is probably
where most sheep owners fail in their total operation. In most states there are state pools to market lamb
and wool. These offer one route of selling your products. However, the most successful producers
develop their own market, whether it be to individuals or specialty stores. Much time and effort is
required to develop your own market, but the payoffs can be very high. Consult your state extension
service and state sheep associations for more information. In some states the state department of
agriculture may have someone hired to assist in marketing your products. You have nothing to lose and
the service is free.

SOURCES OF INFORMATION

Cooperative extension - Every state has a Land Grant University and an Extension Service.
There are people in your state and perhaps in your county available to help you when you get started and
with problems when they arise. Utilize these services, you pay for them through taxes!

Magazines - There are many magazines that are written with the sheep enthusiast in mind. Two
that I have found particularly useful are the Shepard Magazine (5696 Johnston Rd.., New Washington,
OH 44854) and Sheep! Magazine (W2997 Market Rd., Helenville, WI 53137). Many of the Breed
Associations also have magazines and newsletters.

Organizations - Most states have associations of sheep owners that will be valuable to you to
join. There will be people with similar interests and these associations are very helpful to the beginner
and experienced person alike. Your extension service should be able to help you make the right contact.

Books - There are many books written about sheep production. Your library should have a few.
If you really want a manual for raising sheep, the Sheep Industry development Program (SID) publishes a
loose-leaf book called the Sheep Production Handbook. It is the most widely circulated, most
informative and provides updates as produced. To purchase a copy, write to: Sheep Industry
Development Program, 6911 South Yosemite St., Englewood, CO 80112-1414 or call 303-771-3500.
How to Raise Sheep
PO Box 216 Wrightstown, NJ 08562
Phone (609)752-0596 Fax (609)723-7536