Starting A Sheep Farm – The Basics

sheep image

So, you want to raise sheep? Starting a sheep farm can be as simple or complex as one chooses to make it. Two years ago when I was getting started with my farm I explored many management styles, as well as species before deciding pasture raised sheep was my future.

In this article I will share with you the basics of starting a sheep farm using the simple grazing system that I used to get started. There are many management styles, some more complex than others. Complex, or intensive management styles, are not necessarily bad and I encourage you to learn about those systems as well. There are benefits to the more complex systems, but do require more time commitment. As a beginner, let’s just look at the basic needs for now.

Consider your location and containment needs.

barbed wire fence

In my experience one of the most important components to keeping sheep is fencing. The little buggers will travel if they find a hole in the fence. Not only that, but predators can be a major issue. Take a look around your area, get to know it. Do you have quality pasture? How much space is available? Is there existing fence that will hold in your flock?

If you do not already have fencing, an easy low cost option is electric sheep netting. Premier1 puts out a great option for temporary electric net fencing. It is easy to put up, as well as to move which makes rotational grazing a breeze!

While getting to know your area, also find out if there are predator concerns. Not just wildlife, but stray or loose dogs are also a threat. The Premier1 fencing mentioned above serves well to protect against dogs and coyotes. However, if you’re in an area with larger predators or extreme pressure from coyotes you will want to consider a guard dog or donkey.

Now that your flock is contained and protected from predators, consider the elements. Sheep are very hardy when it comes to weather. I mean, they are wearing wool coats after all. Even hair breeds will grow a winter coat, which they shed in the spring. If you live in an area with mild seasonal weather, all they need is shelter from any precipitation and shade on hot days. A simple three sided run-in shelter will do just fine for both needs.

Know your market and choose a specialty.

sheep on snowy landscapeTo what end are you keeping sheep? Are you keeping a flock for wool? Raising breeding livestock or meat? Are you starting a sheep dairy? I started with Katahdin sheep for the purpose of raising meat for my family. Katahdin’s’s are a hair breed and don’t need to be sheared. Starting this way gave me time to learn to care for sheep, while practicing fiber crafts with wool purchased from other small farmers. Now that I have had practice with both caring for sheep and processing wool, I’m transitioning to a multi-purpose breed.

Take some time thinking about what you want out of your sheep and research breeds. You will find that each breed has unique characteristics and I’m sure you will find several that fits your goals. Some breeds produce twins and triplets at higher rates, others are better foragers, each has unique fiber traits, varying sizes and so on. Once you narrow down your favorites, do a comparison of the identifying traits to make your final choice.

Develop shepherding skills.

Once you get your flock home, you will need to be able to care for them. Wool breeds will need to be sheared once or twice per year. Hooves need occasional trimming, frequency depends on walking surface as well the individual animal. Moving animals between pastures or separating rams is also a common occurrence.

Understanding sheep behavior goes a long way in knowing how to move and handle them without stressing. Ask local sheep farmers, if you can spend some time with them observing or assisting as a learning experience. If hands on experience is not an option, watch videos.

The farmer you purchase your animals from should be willing to show you some basic care. Let them know that you are new to sheep and ask for them to show you how to trim hooves, how to give dewormers or medications, and how to flip or cradle sheep for proper restraint.

Purchase your starter flock.

I cannot stress enough the importance of purchasing your first flock from a reputable farmer. When you are just getting started, you want to make sure you’re getting healthy animals. Plus the farmer can serve as mentor if you have any questions.

Do not buy animals from a sale barn. Many of the animals there will be culls. You don’t want to start your breeding stock with poor genetics or existing health issues. Even healthy animals that are taken to the sale will be at high risk of exposure to pest and disease, which can then be brought back to your farm. Once these issues are introduced to your land, they can be extremely hard to overcome. As a new shepherd it is very discouraging to deal with illness.

Learning and networking is key to success.

The last tip I leave you with is to never stop learning. Becoming a shepherd is a wonderful adventure full of opportunity. Make connections where you can to share knowledge and experiences. There are many management systems, as you learn and grow you will likely change your systems to best fit your unique situations and needs.

I wish you the best of luck with your new sheep farm. If you have questions please don’t hesitate to leave a comment.

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