With summer on our heels, I have had many inquiries from people wanting to add sheep to their farms or homesteads. I thought I would bring this blog post, written a couple of years ago, to the forefront on tips for starting your first flock of sheep. Here are some of the typical questions people new to sheep ask me.
How many sheep should I purchase?
Sheep are a flock animal. This means that they need to live with other sheep. I recommend a flock no smaller than five sheep, but have seen flocks of 4 do well. Sheep feel secure and happy when living with other sheep. Sheep can be a companion animal to other livestock, like horses, alpacas, and goats, BUT sheep need other sheep and so you will need to bring more than one sheep onto your property to keep your goat company.
You also need to consider how much land you have available for your new flock of sheep. I have been told that one acre of land can support 3-5 sheep. This, however, depends upon the quality of the grass, and the parasite risk factors in your area. You may find it helpful to talk with other shepherds in your area and compare the number of sheep they have with their total pasture acreage.
What kind of sheep should I get?
Before deciding upon what breed of sheep you want to buy, you first need to determine your purpose in owning sheep and consider who will be caring for them. Do you want sheep simply to keep your field mowed down? Do you want to raise them for meat or for fiber or both? Will young children help care for your flock of sheep?
There are numerous breeds of sheep and each breed has its own unique characteristics. Some breeds are more calm and gentle than others, some make excellent dual purpose flocks allowing you to raise them for wool and meat, and others have no wool at all. Once you narrow your focus and vision for sheep, you can begin looking discernibly at the different breeds.
What about guard animals?
You have several options for guard animals, should you need one. I would first find out what the predator problem is like in your area before bringing home your first flock. Do other farms have trouble with neighbor dogs or stray dogs harassing their livestock? Are there coyotes in your area? Here are a few blog posts about different kinds of livestock guardians.
Should I get a ram?
Whether or not you bring home an intact ram is based upon your purpose in owning sheep. Breeding is the only reason to have a resident ram. If you have a ram, then you also need to have a wether, a castrated ram whose sole purpose is to live with the ram. Rams need other rams and do not thrive when they must live alone. Some people leave their ram in with their ewes year round, We do not do that here on our farm. Our ram lives with a wether year round in different quarters from the ewes. The only time the ram goes in with the ewes is for breeding season in the fall.
Rams can become aggressive and difficult to handle. Are all rams aggressive? Certainly not, rams may be gentle as well, but I never turn my back on a ram. If caught off guard, they can do serious damage to you if they butt you. You may want to read my “Living with Rams” post for more information on how we raise our rams.
What do I need to feed my new flock of sheep?
Our sheep eat grass in the summer and a high quality second cut hay in the winter. The only time they get grain is for about three to four weeks after lambing. I do this to ensure the mom has adequate nutrition for lactation. I would find a hay source before purchasing your sheep. If you are concerned about the quality and nutritional value of the hay, you can also have the hay analyzed by a lab. We use Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service for testing.
Your sheep will also need fresh water daily. You also need to consult with your local vet, local feed store, and other farms to determine if your soils have sufficient minerals to meet the needs of your new flock. Most areas of the United States are deficient in selenium, a critical mineral to sheep health, and so it must be supplemented. We give a mineral mix supplement and kelp year round on our farm.
Do my sheep need a barn?
Sheep need shelter from sun in the summer and from winter winds. In the summer, a grove of trees may be sufficient protection from the summer heat. In the winter, you will want at least a three sided shelter. Sheep do not need, nor do they want to be closed up in a barn for any length of time. When closed in a barn, sheep can develop respiratory problems from excessive moisture buildup. The only time my sheep seek the shelter of the barn is when we have extreme wind and subzero degree temperatures. My sheep may choose to be in the barn or outside in the snow all winter. You will also need to think about some kind of shelter for storing hay.
What kind of fence do I need?
Fencing keeps your sheep where you want them to graze. Your choices are to use woven wire or electric fencing. We opted for electric fencing because it was the most economical and easy to set up. We use a permanent 5 strand electric fence that runs around the perimeter of our large field. Then, we subdivide that large area with electric flexible netting so that we can rotational graze. We also have outer fields that we use semi-permanent three strand fencing.
What can I do to learn more about raising sheep?
- Read…read…read- Living with Sheep by Chuck Wooster, provides light entertaining reading, and a general overview of shepherding.
- Visit local farms. The information you gain from seeing many different farms, and management systems is invaluable. Each breed of sheep has its own characteristics and by visiting different farms, you will quickly learn which breeds you like and which you do not like.
- Attend local sheep festivals. Many festivals offer free workshops on animal husbandry, fencing, and border collie training. There you will connect with the amazing fiber community from knitters to spinners to farmers. Knitter’s Review has an extensive events calendar where you can find festivals in your area.
- Find a local mentor to answer your questions.
- Take a farmstay vacation to a sheep farm and experience life on a working farm. At VT Grand View Farm, as with many other farms across the United States, we welcome farmstay guests to join us in caring for our sheep.
Please contact me if you are interested in raising Gotland sheep. Please leave any further questions in the comment sections and I am happy to answer them for you!
More Resources on Breeds of Sheep:
- Clara Parkes’ The Knitter’s Book of Wool
- The Fleece & Fiber Source Book by Carol Ekarius and Deborah Robson
- The Field Guide to Fleece: 100 Sheep Breeds and How to Use Their Fibers by Carol Ekarius and Deborah Robson
- Beautiful Sheep: Portraits of Champion Breeds by Kathryn Dun
- Pure Wool: A Guide to Using Single Breed Yarns by Sue Blacker
Festivals where you will find VT Grand View Farm and a couple of our sheep: