We have a whole passel of bottle lambs in 2020. We have the two remaining ewe lambs from the quadruplet situation. We have a BFL ram lamb who never caught on to nursing his mother. We have a Border ram lamb who was rejected due to having sharp teeth (we fixed the teeth but couldn’t repair the relationship. Then, we have triplet BFLs whose mother just can’t keep up with their needs.
Almost all bottle lambs start out in the house. Because we can’t feed them as frequently as a real sheep mom, we choose to keep them indoors where they will be warm enough to not suffer chilling and hypothermia. Hypothermia causes most needless deaths of young lambs – lambs who are too cold won’t nurse or digest milk, resulting in a downward metabolic spiral. We try to give the lambs motherly attentions that they would receive from a real mom – ewes don’t hold their lambs, but they mutter to them and nuzzle and groom them. Petting and stroking the lambs meets their need for attention.
Of course, bottle lambs in the house are adorable. We show you the cute pictures of a lamb snoozing in a corner, but we don’t show you the mess they make. Lambs do not potty-train, so we do upwards of two large laundry loads of towels each day just trying to prevent indoor lambs from destroying our floors and furniture. Diapers aren’t really in the lamb’s best interest as we don’t want to leave manure in contact with their wool for any length of time. Finally, scampering lambs need space which is best found outdoors in the barn. They need playmates and guidance from ewes, too, so they learn to be good flockmembers and not frustrated wannabe-humans.
We gradually introduce houselambs to life outdoors by sending them out to the barn for short periods and then not bringing them back into the house eventually. We then must train these lambs to use the nursing bucket instead of the bottle. We use a Pritchard teat initially to facilitate nursing initially to facilitate nursing. Once the lambs are larger, however, they are too strong for small rubber teats. At that point, teat-bucket feeding becomes more practical.
The bucket is a competitive space, but we work to ensure that all lambs get the milk they need without overfeeding the aggressive ones.
We have set up a lamb creep as well. A creep is an area of the barn only accessible to lambs through a gate that admits only small sheep. In the creep, we offer grain, nice hay to nibble on and a sunny, dry floor. It takes the lambs a few days to discover the space, but once they do they really take to having a clubhouse just for them. We do feed some grain at this stage to help out the many triplets we have. Not all ewes can provide enough milk for fast-growing triplets, so this is our most practical option to grow them out effectively without overtaxing Mom.
So that’s the news from the lamb barn. We have 71 lambs bouncing about and only a few more ewes expecting. We are tired but finally beginning to catch up on sleep.
I often meet folks who are considering getting sheep. Many bashfully tell me that they only want a small flock and some seem to worry that they are wasting my time asking questions.
Questions are never a waste of time! Judging from the kinds of questions that I see in sheep groups on Facebook, more people should ask all of their questions first and obtain their sheep second!
So I thought I’d throw together a post about how to figure out if you are ready to become a shepherd. Naturally, it is my opinion that sheep are wonderful animals that will bring you years of joy. Care for 3-5 sheep is roughly equivalent to care for 2 dogs. The chores are different but the time and commitment are comparable. Like dogs, sheep are not a great choice for people who travel for long periods of time or who don’t like to spend time outdoors.
What will you feed your sheep? Sheep require fresh grass or hay daily. I am often asked how much land a sheep needs. Sources will tell you that you can have 2-5 sheep per acre. People think “perfect, I’ll start with 5!” and soon, their acre is denuded, their sheep are hopping the fence. Once the grass is gone, the sheep must eat hay year-round in a drylot. Probably not the bucolic life the shepherd imagined! So start small. If you have two acres, start with three sheep only. And remember, if you plan to breed, those lambs count towards your totals as they age.
Before you click away because you only have a half-acre of open land, consider this: We rented farms for 6 years before purchasing a property. You might have neighbors who would love to have the sheep come visit and do some mowing. As long as they don’t have loose dogs, sheep would be a benefit to them and their grass a resource for you.
Water is a similar consideration. Hauling buckets get tiring, but loading them in a vehicle or ATV works well. Sheep do need fresh water each day, about one gallon per sheep. This water is returned to the soil as urine, which promotes grass growth and health.
Sheep don’t need an elaborate structure to live in. A 3-sided barn or shed that shields the sheep from the prevailing wind and weather is plenty for most breeds, even in Northern climates. In fact, heated or insulated barn facilities can cause pneumonia. Sheep acclimate to outdoor temperatures readily. We used to use a Garage-In-A-Box plastic-canvas structures as sheep sheds – they worked very well and the sheep were always cozy. Winter feed storage is likely more of a concern, but that can go in a Garage-in-a-Box as well! Two good-sized structures, one for feed and one for animals will probably set you back $1000.
Non-farm folks picture sheep behind a classic wooden fence. Erase that idea from your mind – sheep are clever fence-evaders and that picturesque fence will be defeated in no time. We recommend a solid wire fence or an electric fence (or a combination thereof). Portable electric fences with solar chargers have advanced significantly in effectiveness in recent years. About $1000 will get you plenty of fencing for a small flock and a good charger that will keep that fence working. Consider that your fence needs to keep predators out as well as keeping sheep in – that is part of the impetus to consider electric fencing.
Sheep are pretty quiet and should not be noxious or odorous if correctly managed. Most neighbors should welcome picturesque and pleasant sheep. Trouble comes if your fencing isn’t sufficient and the sheep get into gardens. Likewise, dogs who wander over from the neighbors presents a serious threat to your sheep. Non-working dogs worry sheep and should not be permitted to access them. Similarly, sheep forums are full of stories of farm-owners own dogs turning on sheep and causing harm. Your sheep deserve safety – if you have dogs who don’t obey commands and who show prey drive, consider owning less-vulnerable livestock.
A friend pointed out that I should note that The Internet is not a veterinarian. Neither is a Facebook group, nor someone you know who used to have some sheep. Set yourself up with a knowledgeable veterinarian before your sheep arrive.
Here comes the awkward part: Based on seeing hobby-scale farms come and go and struggle, it is my opinion that if you intend to breed your sheep, you need to have a plan for your excess rams and low-quality ewes that involves the freezer. Too many hobbyists want to breed but do not want to slaughter any sheep. Such hobbyists soon find that once all of their friends have a few pet wethers, there’s nowhere else to send the results of their breeding activity. Too many neglected livestock in backyards are not well-fed or well-managed as pets. I would sincerely discourage anyone from thinking that offering their animals on Craigslist or Facebook as “Free to a Good Home” will get them a good home of any kind. So that’s my advice to you- either breed and eat or don’t breed and have some fiber pets. Your mileage may vary, of course.
Managing your animals for wool takes more effort and dedication than a layperson expects. If only it were as simple as buying sheep, feeding them, and getting perfect wool each spring. Wool is susceptible to many ills. The most common one is hay damage. Any wool with hay on it or in it will make poor yarn and fabric. Any hay feeder that is above the height of the back of the sheep will cause some amount of hay to be deposited on sheep backs. The best feeders direct sheep to eat from a low height (which is natural for them anyway, as that’s where grass grows). Designs for feeders that keep wool clean aren’t hard to find. Consider that plants in pasture, like thistle and burdock, can also cause damage to your sheep’s wool.
Poor nutrition is the next cause of damage in wool, followed by shearing at incorrect times. If you are breeding your sheep, shearing should occur ahead of or just after lambing to avoid a break in the wool that occurs from maternal stress during birth. If you have no interest in wool from your sheep and want to reduce maintenance effort, hair breeds are great.
Which breed you choose is probably the least important thing about your new sheep. It’s natural, though, to be excited as you go to a fair or read online about the wide variety of sheep breeds available. If you have already decided not to breed, there’s probably no reason not to get one or two sheep from a variety of breeds so you can enjoy all kinds of sheep and fiber. If you do plan to breed and keep sheep, a single, purebred breed will get you the most consistent lambing results. We raise two pure breeds so that we can plan on how much feed they’ll need, what kind of behavior to expect and what kind of wool we will see. Here’s a bit more about breeds, for those interested.
So you think you might want sheep after all this? Great!
If you have more questions, here are some great resources:
Me – get in touch and I’ll answer any burning questions you have. I enjoy helping, so don’t be shy.
We had the sheep shorn today. Though it feels early in the year, we know we need to have the sheep shorn before lambs are due. The forecasts calls for continuing mild weather, so we aren’t concerned about cold or wind for now. The ewes were eager to itch all of the itchy places they couldn’t reach beneath their fleece. We watched each of them craning their necks around to reach that One Spot and then shaking in relief.
Mary Lake at CanDoShearing shears our sheep. Mary and I have parallel sheep journeys. We were housemates back in 2012 and 2013. She had just finished an internship on a sheep farm when I was in the middle of my goat-milking years. We were both struggling doing hard jobs under challenging circumstances. Mary has always been helpful and deeply honest about my sheepraising, so it felt wonderful to be able to show her a flock of healthy, chubby ewes with great wool. I am endlessly grateful to Mary’s patience and wisdom through all of these years.
Enjoy these naked ladies prancing around on our farm! We were thrilled to see how plump and ready for lambs our flock is. 51 sheep shorn today – the only ones still wearing wool are the Two Old Ladies – we think they’ll do better with a bit more wool on.
We have arrived successfully at the quietest time of year. The ewes are eating and gestating, quietly growing and waiting. The rams have calmed down and decided to get along again.
Every morning, I put on my coat, hat and gloves and head to the barn. The ewes are eager to see me. They have picked at the caged round bales all night and need me to remove some of the wasted stems so they can get to the good stuff again. We have three feeders so that everyone can have a fair shake at eating without waiting for more dominant ewes to fill up. With three 600 lb bales in the barn at a time, we don’t even have to feed the sheep daily.
Sometimes, Louise the Kitty decides to explore the barn. In the summer, it’s one of her favorite places to hang out because there is shade but no sheep. Though I have seen many photos of cats and sheep cohabitating happily, my cats and my sheep are more adversarial. Louise attracts sheep attention and gets assaulted by noses within moments of arriving. I had to rescue her, much to her chagrin because she hates being picked up and carried. I bet she would hate being sniffled to death more.
In sunny weather, the ewes use their loafing area to sunbathe and to scheme about how to bust the fencing apart so they can go eat fallen apples. They were out under the apple tree when we came home from our Christmas visit to my sister and her family. It’s embarrassing to admit that we are somewhat losing this intellectual arms-race with the sheep. If the land beneath the loafing area were permiable, we would put in some posts and be done with it. Since the land is quite hard and compacted, we have to make some alternate plans. The ewes know that the green alpaca panels can be rubbed until one lifts out of the linkage with the other. We solved that temporarily by pinning the linkages together, but the ewes have found that they can reorient the fencing and defeat the pins. Frustrating.
This is the unglamorous time of year. The two big Sheep and Wool festivals we do are over, and it’s time to get back to routine farmwork,
All but the most stubborn leaves have blown off the trees and hit the ground. Frost has ceased the growth of the grass, so all grazing now is merely a victory-lap of somewhat palatable but less-nutritious grass. Even breeding season has abated – the rams have settled most of the ewes for March lambs, as best I can tell. Unlike goats, rams woo ewes quietly and subtly. They grumble gently and nudge ewes while sniffing to determine who might be in heat.
One major job awaiting me was the ram barn. We clean the bedded manure pack out of the main barn with a tractor, but because the rams live in a converted horse stall, removing their bedding is a hand-shoveling job. If we bedded them with shavings, shoveling would be easy, but we mostly bed them with waste hay. Waste hay plus manure creates a substance that I term “Crap-thatch”. Crapthatch is challenging to shovel because the long strands of hay do not want to disengage, while the moisture in the pack makes every scoop you can move very heavy.
It took three long days to complete the shoveling job. We added most of the manure to the manure pile, but we brought one down to the village of Albany to share with some folks who let us rent their land for hay. Matt deposited the scoop of poop straight on their garden for use next year.
At least we have a nice stack of hay bales to see us through until spring. It’s hard not to get anxious about my hay math – it’s expensive to be 20 bales short in April! That said, I think we are in the clear.
I recently read a conversation on the Vermont Sheep and Goat Association listserv on the topic of calculating a profitable lamb production enterprise. Some producers hadn’t calculated their production costs, while others weren’t sure what market prices looked like.
For our lamb enterprise, I calculated our cost of production and then did a bit of research on comparable products. Comparable products are lamb produced by other enterprise farms (farms where vegetable and animal enterprises make money, whether or not the farmer farms full-time or not). Local lamb in grocery stores counts, but not imported lamb. A quick google effort is all that is needed to see what other farmers are charging. I then deducted my cost of raising lamb from the prevailing price, and calculated how many lambs I would need to raise to make the amount of money I would like to from my lamb efforts. Lamb needs to pay about 2/3 of my annual income.
Predictably, I would need to charge much more for my lamb than the market would support to make something close to the median US income, but farm life has other benefits. We breathe fresh air, eat local food, do enough work to avoid needing a gym membership, and we get to spend our time together. It all comes down to what kind of lifestyle is enough.
I have a spreadsheet to share with any sheep raiser who needs a little help calculating the cost of raising their lamb. This calculator is only as good as the accuracy of the numbers you have, so be honest with yourself about how much the lambs cost to keep. If you are trying to calculate what it would cost to start a sheep operation, there are lots of resources online to help you estimate how much hay your sheep will eat and how much fencing might cost.
Please feel free to customize your copy with additional info pertinent to your farm and to share this resource. I love writing a good spreadsheet, so this is my gift to you. If the sheet that downloads has format problems for you, I am happy to send you a copy of the form in Google Drive – just get in touch with the form below:
Summer arrives to find the bobolinks have fledged from our neighbor’s hayfield. Three streaky brown birds making little plink calls were flitting and bouncing around the pasture I set up for the sheep. I’m grateful for the opportunity to provide habitat to this struggling species.
We are so close to weaning time. I know the ewes are ready to send their lambs off on their own for a while. Some have probably already weaned their babies without my help. For others, it’s adorable yet concerning to see lambs who are nearly the same size as their mothers still nursing. The ewes need pedicures and a spa treatment (or hoof trimming and some Selenium supplementation, depending on your perspective).
We have two especially naughty lambs who have figured out how to slip under the electric fence. They taunt the other lambs by eating the grass I am saving for later meals. Sadly, one is a ewe lamb that I would have considered keeping, but I don’t really need troublemakers. Worse, in the process of slipping out, the lambs have occasionally knocked down the fence and allowed other sheep to escape. We do not want loose sheep in roads and on neighbor’s land.
Our haying efforts have produced 75 round bales so far. We have several more fields waiting for first-cutting, but Matt is struggling with equipment breaking down. First, the round baler wasn’t operating smoothly, so he needed to adjust the tension on the belts that roll the hay into a snowball. Then, one of the bearings on the new mower seized, causing extensive damage to a part that is no longer made. Good thing Matt is a decent welder. He’ll need to replace the gnawed-off metal with in-fill, and then use a lathe to make it smooth and round again. Yeesh.
I have learned how to rake the hay into windrows that the baler then scoops up and rolls. There is a satisfying rhythm to it, like mowing the lawn. Would you like to know more about how hay is made? I’ve been debating whether or not to write a post explaining hay, so let me know if an explainer would be useful for you.
First, my most sincere condolences for the loss of the other Mrs. Goose and one gosling on 5/27 at the hands of Mr. Fox. We are truly sorry for the loss of your dear sister/wife/mother/son/daughter.
We would like to express our absolute joy at the growth of your brood of seven. Your parenting would shame even the most anxious Manhattan mom or dad, as your helicoptering and minding ceases neither day nor night.
To the task at hand: As laudable as your efforts are, we are writing to remind you that the landowners, Katie and Matt, do reserve the right to utilize and occupy shared spaces including, but not limited to: 1) the driveway 2) the front yard 3) the entrance to their house 4) the garage and environs. It has come to their attention that you wish to dispute this ownership, and that you have in fact chased them and several guests in the driveway at numerous times, employing threatening gestures while disturbing the peace. In his affidavit, the UPS man reports “they are not the worst geese on my route but they chase my truck every time.”
Your landlords would like to remind you that you inhabit this farm at their pleasure, and the threatening words and gestures that you employ are unwelcome and could be grounds for termination at a later date. The terms of your lease are non-negotiable because you are birds and birds cannot sign legal contracts, even upon reaching the age of majority.
Please cease and desist your aggressive behavior, or our actions will escalate.
Katie’s pretend-lawyer, conveniently also named Katie.
Matt had a hard task ahead of him: Ten hours of labor taking the front of the tractor off, replacing a $12 gasket, then ten hours of labor putting the gasket back on.
I thought that the best way to thank Matt for a really grungy, fiddly job would be to finally make a big pork belly from the freezer into bacon. The belly weighed ten pounds, so I cut it into thirds for easier handling and to adhere to the recipe suggestions.
I tried a recipe from The Spruce, which has generally been a decent source of recipes for me that aren’t to fussy or involved. I read the bacon recipe over three times and decided it seemed about right.
I rinsed the bacon and applied the pepper/salt/pink salt/sugar mixture. Dutifully turning the bacon daily helped ensure a complete cure. After ten days, I was ready to try some bacon.
This is where things went a bit awry: I washed the first third of the bacon but didn’t soak it. I smoked it on the grill, sliced off a few bits and tried it.
BLECHCH. It was far too salty and some of the fat had a weird fishy flavor. I spent a bit of time troubleshooting, and came to find that I had not rinsed away enough of the original cure. So I rinsed the rest of that chunk and soon we had much more edible bacon.
The second two chunks were more thoroughly rinsed, and I am happy to report that they were delicious. The meat is tighter and a little tougher than grocery store bacon. The smokey flavor tastes stronger and more authentic. The bacon is overall less “canned” seeming. It’s less perfectly uniform. The only downside? I can’t achieve the thin slices that a machine will do. Oh well.
My eyes open. Matt says, “Someone is at the door, I think?”
My phone says it’s 5am. It can’t be anything good.
*bang bang* Definitely someone here.
I’m bleary-eyed and quasi-dressed when my neighbor at the door tells me that our sheep are out and she’s worried they’ll be hit in the road. I thank her and she’s off on her commute again.
Time to get up!
I had set up most of the fencing for a starting pasture. The ewes noticed the fencing coming out and baaed incessantly as I worked. It was probably seeing the fencing that prompted them to somehow unchain their gate (I am still not sure how this was accomplished without thumbs – I am baffled). Matt gathered the ewes farthest afield, and soon we had them all in the fenced area.
But the lambs had never left the barn before and had no experience with electronet fence or following their mother outside of an enclosed space. Many were still in the barn, calling for Mom but afraid to go out. We realized many years ago that acting as a herd is a skill sheep learn. They have a basic instinct for it, but still have to learn the particulars. So as we chased the lambs, they scattered.
We lured the lambs into the creep and then shut them in. One by one, we caught the stragglers and then hand-carried each lamb from the creep in the barn to the pasture in front of the house. Carrying heavy, struggling lambs exhausted us both. An hour after the knock on the door, though, all of our sheep were neatly in pasture, eating up a storm.