Friday, December 14, 2007

Sheep on the Mind...

Lately I have had sheep on my mind and I've been trying to read and research a little bit about them. I don't know if my sudden interest has to do with my lack of knowledge on the subject or if it is because I have been reading "The Contrary Farmer" by Gene Logsdon who happens to raise sheep. But, whatever the reason is they have been on my mind as I think about ways to expand the farm, clean up some areas around fences, and control parasites in the cattle. My basic knowledge of sheep tells me that they can lend a hand in all of those areas.

The other day I went over to the ATTRA website to see if I could find some basic introductory information on sheep. What I found was an article titled, "Sustainable Sheep Production" (you can access and html version of the article by clicking on the title). As I said I was looking for a very basic overview and this short article is just that, but it did give me a few things to think about and process.

The first paragraph holds a couple of sentences that really support my current interest in sheep. The authors write, "Integrating sheep into a farming operation can contribute to the economic and environmental sustainability of the whole farm." And they continue a couple of sentences later, "The relatively small investment required, and the gradually increasing size of the flock, make sheep production a good choice for the beginning small-scale or part-time farmer." This really got my attention because I keep reading about the environmental impact that sheep can have on the farm, whether it is by helping to break parasite cycles or by managing pastures. But, the second sentence was pretty interesting also ... after buying our Dexters (and soon a bull, but more on that later) I'm ready for something that is less expensive and perfect for the "beginning small-scale" farmer. One think that I would really like to learn more about is the market for sheep, whether it be the conventional or niche market. I have been told my family and neighbors that the sheep market is pretty good now, but what exactly does pretty good mean?

On the subject of grazing sheep and cattle together the article through out this tasty nugget of information, "...multi-species grazing with sheep, cattle, and goats is useful in increasing pasture efficiency. It has been demonstrated that grazing sheep with cattle can increase meat production by 24% compared to cattle alone, and by 9% compared to sheep alone." Those are pretty drastic increases when you also factor in the possibility of more income with the added livestock. Also, I remember reading recently in Mr. Logsdon's book that you can keep one you and her lamb(s) for each cow/steer/bull you currently have without increasing your acreage. If you can sell for a profit I don't see why you wouldn't add sheep? Or, if you can sell and break even it may even be worth it when you combine the pasture management and parasite control benefits...

The rest of the article is pretty informational also from the basic, "I don't know anything about sheep," point of view. It briefly mentions the use of three strands of electric wire for fencing and the benefits and possibilities of pasture lambing and culling for good lambing ewes. One thing that I would like to research more deeply is breed/cross selection (besides how to raise them of course). The article has a short section on breeds and the authors state that in the U.S. four breeds make up two-thirds of the sheep. But, are those sheep well suited to pasture lambing and pasture living? I don't really know ... I do know that a large amount of the sheep raised in the U.S. come from rangelands in the West, so maybe those would have traits that are more adapted to living in the regions with less precipitation. That being said, as I have mentioned before I'm not ready to add any other purebred livestock as much as I would love to have heritage breeds. One breed association is enough to deal with!

I would love to hear from anyone with experience raising sheep ... especially if you are in the Midwest. Also, below are a couple of links to threads on Homesteading Today dealing with books about sheep and shepherding.

Good Sheep Books For a Beginner

Sheep Book Recommendations and Reviews


Yeoman said...

Let me note that, while I come from a region that once had many times more sheep than people, I've never raised sheep. I'm familiar with sheep ranching, but I've never done it myself. So my statement is more or less in ignorance. My experience with sheep ranching is limited to participating in the final gathering of the sheep on my in laws place, as the last of them were sold.

I like sheep a lot. There's some really good things about them. While they were and are condemned by some people for grazing things down to dirt, if you watch them carefully, they're an efficient grazer. They'll eat weeds that cattle will not, and they'll keep pastures free of some nasty weeds (as will goats).

The bad things about sheep, at least in this region, are that they are very labor intensive and they're born looking for a way to die. My wife, who did raise sheep, hates them. She won't even eat lamb (which I really like), just because it brings back sheep raising memories. Cattle do not require anywhere near the investment in time that sheep do.

At least out here, in the West, sheep really have to be watched also. Some do not, but it's asking for trouble. Predators can kill them easily, and they do.

Moreover, there's a lot of things that do sheep in, that are surprising. They're not too hard to stress and accidentally kill. In the last roundup of the sheep we did, an old ewe died simply from stress. It was a hot day, and apparently we were driving them somewhat too quickly, although it certainly wasn't apparent. The ewe simply stopped and died. I've never seen anything else die like that. Ticks will kill them, if they get too many. Spring storms in this region will kill them, and they have some bad instincts in regards to storms that work against them.

All that being said, if I could get a herd of sheep to go with the cows, I'd do so today. I can't, as I don't have the time to watch them.

Steven said...

I was just talking with a guy at work this morning about raising sheep. His family has a Christmas tree farm and also raise sheep, rabbits, and belgian horses (which they use to give rides out to get your tree) He's a young (24 year old) welder in the shop here who raises sheep on his parents farm as a little side business. I kind of figured he did things organic, but I was wrong. He said that he had looked into it but just thought it was too hard to do. He said that sheep were basically hard to keep alive without medicated foods and stuff.
What I was wondering is... can you do "grass fed sheep"?

John said...


May want to take a look at this blog. Archives have quite a bit on sheep farming.


Christy said...

I don't raise sheep yet but have done a lot of research and talked to many people who do raise sheep. I think the comments others left can be true but it depends on the breed. Some breeds are much hardier than others. No real suprise the heritage breeds do better as do the crosses as opposed to purebreed. Shetlands are supposed to be very hardy and easy to raise. I've talked to a few people who have them on pasture and even let them lamb out on pasture and they've had no problems with them. I think you just have to research your breeds very carefully.

Ethan Book said...

Yeoman - Some of the "bad things" that you mention about sheep are things that I have heard also and are the things that make me think twice about them. I wonder if through breeding selection you can create an easy (relative term) flock much like Water Jefferies at Sugar Mountain farm has with his pigs. He farrows sows on pasture year round without losses. Or, I guess we could build that flock like some in New Zealand do ... leave during lambing time...

Steven - Sure you can grassfed sheep. They are ruminants just like cattle and really can thrive on pasture if you have the right breeding and quality pastures. I think there are a few people doing it out there pretty successfully.

John - Thanks for brining that link to my attention. I have visited that blog before, but hadn't searched that far back ... now I'm making my way through it.

Christy - Shetlands are a breed that I have actually looked at. In fact I received pictures from and talked with a guy who was selling 5 ewes and a lamb, but I just wasn't quite ready to jump in yet. I guess I still need to figure out what my market for these is going to be???

Yeoman said...

On grass fed sheep, I've had it.

I like lamb, and in spite of what people will sometimes claim about the taste being too strong, I like mutton too. Locally, it's quite expensive, so we very rarely buy it. And my wife doesn't like it.

However, in our final sheep drive, we had one die, and we butchered it. This was an old ewe, and it had not been fed out. It was fine, quite frankly.

Mellifera said...

I've heard some really good things about Icelandic sheep. They seem to be very hardy, don't need grain, easy lambing, etc. They also have a premium-quality wool, taste good, and apparently give enough milk that you can make some cheese too.

(And no, I'm not on the breed registry's payroll. : )

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