The idea of sheep farming appeals to a lot of beginner farmers. Sheep are well suited to small-scale farming and are easy for the novice to care for. Children also seem to find the animals more interesting than the vegetable garden.
The two most common ways sheep are raised on a hobby farm are commercial lamb production and finishing lambs. Commercial lamb production involves keeping breeding stock year-round to produce lambs, which are then sold. The farmer who finishes lambs will purchase weaned lambs and feed them to a market weight of about 50 kg or 100 lbs. Finishing lambs on small farms is usually done during the warm months when pasture is available.
Sheep require a cool, dry and draft-free place to live. This does not necessarily mean you will need to build a new barn to house them. I have witnessed many different and innovative means of housing sheep that have worked well.
Year-round housing in cold climates will require some form of enclosed shelter. If you plan on having the sheep during the warm months, an area covered with a tarp for example will keep them dry and shady. It is also recommended that you purchase or make several fence panels. These are used to separate or contain your flock, as needed. Pens will help to keep predators away from your flock.
Sheep have unique nutritional requirements that are critical for successful sheep production. Many people under estimate the quality of food they will need to feed. Often, they compare sheep to cattle. This is a mistake, as sheep require better quality feed than would be sufficient for cattle. Sheep should be given an alfalfa-mix hay rather than a simple grass hay. Mixed hay has a higher nutrient level appropriate for sheep.
Sheep will also need a grain supplement specifically formulated for them. If a ewe is to produce 1, 2 or even 3 lambs per year, she will need the extra nutrients these supplements provide. The usual times to supplement are during gestation, lactation and before breeding. Lambs are fed grain rations to grow faster and finish earlier.
Sheep will also require water, salt and minerals. As sheep are copper-sensitive, sheep specific minerals are available from your local feed supplier.
The use of pasture is an integral part of most sheep farming enterprises. The use of good quality pasture will go a long way towards a successful sheep enterprise. Pasture alone, however, may not provide enough nutrition, particularly in the fall when the feed value of the field drops. It is, therefore, important to monitor your animals and give supplemental hay or grain if needed.
Equipment and Supplies
Sheep will require regular shearing, vaccination, deworming and hoof trimming. In many areas, professional sheep shearers will come to your property and perform these services for a small fee. However, it is possible for anyone to learn how to do these chores.
Shearing sheep is done twice yearly. Anyone who does large numbers of animals will use electric sheep shearers. These shearers are fairly expensive and require skill to operate. It is therefore easier for the small producer to hire someone to shear. If you still want to shear but cannot afford the electric shears, hand shearers are available.
Vaccination and deworming is an important part of any flock’s health program. Your local veterinarian can give you information on what is appropriate for your area.
Hoof care is one area often overlooked by the novice farmer. Although many people trim hooves when they shear, I have found that sheep produce better with more regular hoof attention. I prefer to check feet monthly.
Lame sheep are usually a result of poor feet. These sheep will not graze or feed properly. It can also be an indication of a more serious problem, such as foot rot.
Getting into sheep is not difficult or expensive. This makes it an ideal project for the novice farmer. There are many books and sources of information on sheep farming.