I am part of a couple of sheep discussion groups on Facebook and on other social networks. One of the most common general questions is “What Breed Should I Raise?” Answers to this question can be trite or complex. “Whatever you think seems neat” “The Breed I Raise” and “Here’s a newly-available breed that people are talking about” are common responses, but these are not always the best way to find the sheep that are right for you.
Here is a rubric that might be helpful:
Are you a first time shepherd?
If yes, I wholeheartedly recommend just getting some mixed-breed ewes to start out with. They will teach you what you do and don’t want in a purebred, and you’ll be much happier if and when you do start raising a pure breed.
*Of note- a good friend corrected me that I shouldn’t appear to be recommending that new shepherds find random sheep from Craigslist. Your crossbred sheep should nevertheless come from a healthy flock, have good records and some ongoing assistance and mentorship from the seller.
What do you want to do with your sheep?
Just wool:If you just want a pet flock for wool, collecting wethers (neutered males) from a variety of breeds is the least expensive, lowest-maintenance way to have a fun spinner’s flock. Why wethers and not ewes? If you plan to breed your animals and have a variety of breeds on hand, you may find it challenging to keep large breeds fed without making small breeds obese, or to make sure that more dominant animals don’t “own” the feeder.
Just meat: If you plan to raise sheep for meat and don’t care about wool, hairsheep are a good choice. I am not knowledgeable about the different breeds of hairsheep and their characteristics, but I know that hairsheep and their crosses are growing in popularity among large- and small-scale sheep growers alike. I am sure that some breeds and strains are more or less suited to different climates and levels of grass quality.
What I am best prepared to address: Sheep for Meat and Wool for people who want their sheep as an enterprise more than a hobby.
If you plan to breed sheep and raise meat, but you want to enjoy wool too, things will get a little complex. It’s time to consider some economic and logistical matters.
What breed of sheep you raise should follow what climate and grass you have. I will describe the situation with an example: Shetlands were developed on Shetland island, eating sparse, rough foliage and seaweed. Suffolks and Hampshires were named for the rich, grassy, bountiful bottomlands where they originate. If you put a Suffolk on Shetland Island, it would probably starve fairly rapidly because it simply cannot gather enough nutrition to survive. A Shetland in Hampshire, allowed to graze as much as it pleases, will grow chubby and its famously soft wool will coarsen if it is able to eat lots of excess protein. Yet, in the US, many small-scale sheepraisers don’t take the suitability of the breed to their land very seriously. We have breeds adapted to the Western Range, to the Humid Southeast, to intensive grazing in the rich lands of Ohio and Indiana, and to the mediocre pastures of Northern New England. While exotic breeds may seem nice, you could wind up fighting an uphill battle against climate, diet or parasites.
So how can you tell how good your grass is? Your extension service can help, because every climate has different species with different levels of nutrition available to them. Talking about grass is beyond the scope of this quick post about breed selection, but I have some information about grass management and about rotational grazing.
It is my inexpert, personal opinion that many beginner Vermont shepherds underestimate their ability to raise sheep off the bat and choose something advertised as “hardy.” Hardy is great, unless it also means that they produce mediocre wool or single lambs instead of twins. I had this experience on a farm that had good land, but raised a breed associated with the barren highlands of Scotland. The sheep were fat and happy, but the lamb only covered the cost of keeping the sheep and nothing more. In most Northeastern flocks, the value of one lamb covers the mother’s room and board, while the second lamb represents the profits. This isn’t as firm a rule in other parts of the country where land is less expensive.
Another area of my again inexpert personal opinion: when slaughter cost is high on a per-animal basis, farmers aiming to raise sheep profitably need to raise the largest-finishing animals they can. Some breeds of sheep are small, especially ones developed in regions where food is scarce. Breeds like this will grow to full size and maturity rapidly and often fatten easily, but they may not have a heavy enough carcass to make lamb profitably. If your breed of sheep makes lambs that weigh 120 lbs at 7 months of age, you should get 50 lb carcasses worth $400-500 dollars. Cost of slaughter will be about $100 in my area, leaving $300-400 to cover costs and provide income. Now imagine your lambs weigh 80 lbs at age 7 months. You may get a 35 lbs carcass from such a sheep. You are still paying $100 for inspected slaughter, but will only get $250-350 from the carcass, leaving only $150 to 250 to cover costs and provide income.
I was incorrect about a couple of the considerations I now mention when I initially wanted to raise Cormos. Here are some things I didn’t consider or know:
- It is not possible to “upbreed” mutt sheep into registerable Cormos by using Cormo rams for multiple generations. So you either have registered stock, or you don’t.
- Pure Cormo wool doesn’t tolerate the moisture in our climate if the sheep don’t have complete shelter from rain available at all times. Mine all had algae in their wool.
- Finding Cormo rams was going to involve driving across the country now and then.
This final point is worth addressing, as I’ve repeated my error with the Bluefaced Leicesters: Finding the right genetics to complement your efforts when you are raising an unusual breed and you may find yourself traveling long distances at great expense to manage your gene pool. Do not underestimate this expense, and also make sure that within the breed you are considering there are like-minded shepherds with the same goals as you. All of the literature I had read about Cormos suggested that they should regularly twin, but it didn’t seem that other shepherds raising the breed were actively working towards maintaining their lambing rate. I was finding that the more Cormo breeding my sheep had, the fewer lambs tended to have. With the Bluefaced Leicester, there is a group of breeders within the breed working to maintain the high lambing rate while improving the vigor and thrift of the breed. I am happy to drive to Ohio for sheep that I know align with my flock goals.
And if you would rather not drive so much, why not raise a breed that is common and successful in your area? My Border Leicester flock fits that description. Border Leicesters do well in our climate and are popular. They grow large enough on grass alone to carry a grass-based farm plan, and while their wool isn’t the softest, it is still useful and valuable.
Certainly, this post isn’t comprehensive, but I hope that it prompts some thoughts as you consider raising sheep.