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.
Kim Goodling at Grand View Farm offers courses in sheepraising and mentorship.
My favorite book for beginning sheepraisers is Storey’s Guide to Sheep.
My preferred equipment suppliers are Agway and Premier 1 Supplies
A good internet resource is Maryland Small Ruminants Sheep 101 page