Frequently Asked Questions about Sheep Raising
"I have a small farm with chickens, ducks, and milk goats. Would sheep fit in?
And what would I need to keep them?"
Sheep suitability to a small farm depends a lot on the acreage you can utilize for sheep, how much you are willing to spend, and if you have strong helpers or not, depending on the size and number of the sheep.
Acreage: I have 3 acres, which means I will never have enough pasture for grazing. I primarily buy my alfalfa/grass hay and feed it all year long, with a short time allowed in the pasture for my ewes, so they at least know what pasture is. This is expensive. Also, I keep all my rams (most people do not carry so many rams) in large, individual or 2-sheep pens, which are composed of cattle panels. This is also expensive, and means that you have to plan carefully to get all the pens in your acreage, and leave room for other things. My ewes are kept communally in 2 separate pastures, one for higher maintenance sheep and one for lower maintenance. They must be able to be separated out in different pens during breeding times, if you want to maintain registered sheep of several breeds. You also need a place to store hay, an equipment and supplemental food shed, and at least a loafing shelter in each enclosure.
Depending on your weather, a barn is great; not necessarily insulated in all but the most northern states. All of these things can be managed on a budget with a little more planning than if you didn’t have a budget. Also lots of building materials can be salvaged from various sources, and can be used instead of new items, although the operation may not look quite as “spiffy.” However, the only necessity is that the ram pens must be secure.
If you have large sheep (225-350), and especially if you have a number of large sheep, it is best to be young and strong, or employ some young and strong people. Mostly sheep eat, sleep and tend to their business quite happily with no intervention. But when it comes time to catch them and give them medication, or help with a difficult birth, or trim their feet, a 300 pound sheep becomes overwhelming. Many of my sheep are halter trained, or are at least fairly easily handled, but during shearing, medicating, or “train wrecks”, someone much younger and stronger than I am is completely necessary. If you chose medium sized or small sheep, those issues more nor less disappear.
All those things included, in my opinion, sheep are much easier to keep than cattle or horses, which require a lot more initial knowledge, some specialized, rather large equipment (squeeze shutes, etc) and more stout fencing. Obviously, they are smaller and more easily handled, and it is entirely possible to make your ewes “pets”, if that is what you wish. They will come to their names when called, and beg for grain handouts if you go in for those sorts of treats. A ram can never be a pet, although all my rams are particularly civil boys, or they don’t stay here long. Making a pet of a ram is a recipe for disaster, and certainly not the ram’s fault when he becomes so chummy with you that he thinks it is funny and fun to knock you across the sheep pen as a game.
"What do sheep eat?"
Some of this answer depends on what you are going to do with the sheep. If you are going to breed them for lambs as often as you can, they will need a diet higher in nutrition (grain versus grass). Also, if you intend to compete and show your sheep, some breeds will need a higher intake of grain-type foods than just pasture or hay. But all the breeds on Cunnington Farms do very well indeed on dry-land alfalfa hay sometimes mixed with high-quality grass hay, with a little grain during lambing/raising lambs, plenty of salt and mineral supplements, and, although I do not have this luxury, if you are lucky enough to have ample pasture, pasture-feeding as long as the land will sustain it. My sheep must be thrifty and easy keepers, or they move on to more indulgent farms.
"Do I need to keep a ram?"
This is a hard question to answer. For me, chosing to keep rams is easy, because I never have to look for one to lease or borrow, and never want to have to do that. My pens are ultra secure, and the rams can bash them all night and they can’t escape and get out onto the road. I am cautious around my rams, and can still run fast enough to get out of the way of a charging, love-sick ram in breeding season, who near-sightedly might think I am fair game. But if you are determined to have sheep, and you are an 80 year old tiny frail woman, it might not be a good idea to have a ram/rams. There is much less leasing and loaning of rams than there was in the past; we mostly knew our neighbors then, and many farms had the same breed of sheep. Not only is that not true now, but people are more worried about trading diseases between farms. This subject is often very personal in it’s solution, and I work with potential buyers to make sure they are satisfied with their decision to keep a ram or not.
"Do you think I will be able to handle my ewes giving birth?"
I have been a health-care professional for 51 years, and it is still hard for me to see one of my darling ewe girls straining in pain because her lambs are turned around and presenting wrong, and she needs my help to get them out before she gives up and dies or delivers dead babies.
So…….all the sheep on Cunnington farms have a genetic history of being a breed that lambs easily, with very little intervention of the shepherd. That is not to say that I have never assisted in a lamb birth; far from it. But of the many breeds I have, all have a less hard time lambing than all the breeds that I DON’T have, for that very reason. Occasionally, all breeds have difficult births, and a shepherd has to be ready and knowledgeable enough to help, or call the vet, if the ewe is in trouble. But it happens far less frequently in the breeds that I raise than in other breeds. A caviat is, however, that if birthing is too “icky” for you, you probably don’t want to have sheep, because sooner or later, you can count on being out in the barn in your nightgown and snowboots, crooning to a ewe that is a first-time mother and needs some reassurance.
"What other work will I have with my sheep besides feeding?"
While I give the very most minimum medication I can, my sheep still need to have shots, and usually some oral medications. You can either learn to give shots, or pay someone to do it for you. At most, this will be 2 or 3 times a year for each sheep. Giving oral meds, like wormer or a supernutritional supplement, is as easy as filling a syringe (or a turkey baster, if necessary) and squirting the stuff into an open sheep mouth (opening the mouth with your finger, and being careful not to get gummed).
Sheep feet have to be trimmed, sometimes as much as every 3 months, unless your sheep are quartered on very harsh ground that wears down their hoof. This is not a particularly difficult task, but it IS a 2-man (or more) task, and is made infinitely easier by having a sheep hammock, which you can buy at any sheep supply house, that lets you lay them on their back, legs in the air, hoofs ready and accessible to be trimmed.
And of course you have to clean pens, which is always just a grin and bear it job.
Many folks halter-train their sheep, and it does make it easier to handle them, especially if you are going to move them around a lot, or if you are going to show them. This is no more difficult that teaching a dog to “sit” or a horse to “whoa”.
"What kind of housing do I have to have for my sheep?"
This depends a lot on your weather. In this high desert climate of Moab, I have a deep “loafing” shed, where the interior is divided into jugs for lambing, and in front of the jugs, which also can be opened up for holing up way away from the sun, there is a large roofed area where the sheep can get out of the sun/rain/snow. I also have a barn for lambing, although it is not elaborate or large. I usually lamb in the spring, but occasionally we do have a cold spring, and I would rather have a barn as an ace in the hole than not. Baring having a loafing shed, large, shady trees will work, and some shepherds build tall, wall-like braced structures to block the wind, which sheep can shelter behind in a storm.
How much do sheep cost to purchase?
Again, this depends on the breed of sheep, and if you intend to do the show circuit or not.
A champion, ribboned sheep can often cost $2500, and I have known some folks that would be willing to, and have paid $10,000 for a ram. I love my sheep, and I want to produce the best animals for sale that I can. But I also raise sheep in the west, and over the many years I have been in business, I have found that prices for sheep are quite a bit lower in the west than in the eastern US or the west coast. In comparing prices with a large number of breeders that I know, or know of, I have found that quality sheep of most breeds can be purchased for under $600, with many in the $200-350 range. Some breeders charge much less for their lambs, with the premise that there can be lots of lamb accidents before maturity, and you are gambling on those lambs growing up, much less growing up to be excellent sheep. Some breeders have the same price for adult, young or old sheep. Mostly I am talking about either registered animals, or cross-breeds that are not accidental, but are bred with a purpose and goal in mind; excellent wool, extra carcass weight, etc. Many times the crossbreeds are somewhat less expensive than the purebreds. And I know quite a number of breeders that are into barter!
How do I buy a sheep and how do I get it home?
Sometimes you will see a sheep you want on a website, and that is that. Lots of breeders will give farm tours of their ranch, and you can see the animals you want to buy that way.
If it is at all possible for you to do so, it is really good to actually travel to the farm/ranch that is selling you the animals. You can see the conditions the sheep were raised in, and the appearance of the entire flock. You can also ask more questions to help you be a good shepherd than if you have your sheep “delivered” to you. And you might also have a friend who has bought sheep successfully from a breeder, you may even decide to send money for a sheep, sight unseen, to that breeder, and have someone else ship the animal back home to you.
Sometimes a breeder will want a deposit if you will not get your chosen sheep immediately; sometimes not. Some breeders have payment plans; most don’t.
If you are not going to invest in a stock trailer, a truck stock rack, or carrying the sheep in the back of your SUV when you first buy your sheep, you will have to have someone transport the sheep to your place. Generally, it is better to have the breeder do this, although price is usually the deciding factor here. Commercial stock transport outfits do a good job, mostly, but are really expensive. Early in my sheep days I had a few sheep transported from the west coast to Moab, and it cost about $1800; and that was a while ago. Some breeders will be happy if you make the effort to borrow a trailer, and at least meet them half way between their farm and yours. Breeders are more apt to transport the sheep you are buying from them than transporting other sheep you might want to add to the mix, but it never hurts to ask. A few breeders will transport for the price of gas, lodging and food, but if you get a deal like that, you better jump on it!