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Thinking of raising sheep?

Sheep 101

Many farmers and rural residents with land or other available resources are thinking of raising sheep. A lot of things need to be considered before you invest in a sheep enterprise.

To run a successful sheep enterprise, you'll want to efficiently produce high-quality lamb and wool that can be profitably marketed. The first step is to evaluate the resources you have available. Then you'll need to design a sheep production system that will use those resources most efficiently. The resources that you need to evaluate are:

Land: How much land is available and what is its productivity? If all the forage produced on an acre of land could be harvested as hay and measured in tons (or hay equivalent per acre), you would have an estimate of your land's productive capacity. Some rough hill lands in New England only produce up to one ton of hay equivalent (H.E.) per acre per year. This would probably be harvested and consumed by the sheep as pasture. "Average" pasture and hay land may produce two or more tons of H.E. per acre. Good land might produce four or five tons if properly managed.

Suppose you have 100 acres, of which 30 acres are rough poor pasture and will produce about one ton H.E., 30 are average and will produce two or more tons of H.E. and 30 are good to excellent and should produce four tons of H.E. per acre. Your total production would be 30 x 1 = 30, plus 30 x 2 = 60, plus 30 x 4 = 120. This equals a total estimated H.E. of 210 tons. An average ewe requires 3/4 ton of hay per year (half of this comes from pasture). So in this example, you should have enough forage for about 280 ewes (210 divided by .75).

This method is, of course, only an estimate. But it is a quick, easy and reasonably accurate method to evaluate your land resources for sheep. On most farms, improvements in pasture management and forage culture can result in big increases in production. Just remember that about half of the forage production would be consumed as pasture and the rest as harvested forage in the winter. You must be prepared to provide hay or silage for winter feed.

Buildings: Do you have buildings to house the number of ewes you want in the winter, along with their lambs? You will need about 15 square feet for each ewe. So in the example of a 280-ewe flock, you would need about 15 x 280, or 4,200 square feet for the sheep. (The exact amount will depend on your production system.)

Dry (non-lactating) ewes need only modest protection, even in winter, if they are well fed, while ewes with January baby lambs need more. Most older dairy barns, machine sheds and outbuildings can be converted to excellent quarters for sheep. But remember, sheep should have an open, cold, dry barn rather than a tight, warm, humid barn. They wear sheepskin coats and do well in the cold, except for when baby lambs are born.

Machinery and Equipment: Do you have the equipment and machinery to harvest hay, clip pastures, clean barns, etc.? Or can you arrange with a neighbor to do this? Or should you plan on purchasing hay? If you only need about 100 tons of hay, it may be cheaper and easier to buy the hay than to make it. This might also allow you to increase your ewe numbers.

What about sheep equipment? You will need proper fences (high-tensile electric), corrals, sorting pens, lambing pens, etc. You will also need small pieces of equipment for foot trimming, tail docking, ear tagging, and possibly for shearing.

Markets: How will you market your products? Are you planning to sell hot-house lambs, feeder lambs, freezer lambs, market lambs, breeding stock, wool or all of the above? Are you planning to sell on a seasonal basis or have an even cash flow with the lambs for sale throughout the year? Your market is a valuable resource that must be studied and cultivated.

Labor: Do you have the time to properly care for the sheep? Sheep probably respond more to proper care and attention than any other farm animal. For the most part, the labor is not hard, but they require quality time and quality labor. Timeliness of sheep management tasks is very important. You must have time to do the jobs when required and not put them off until next week or next month. You must have time to observe the animals and recognize their needs.

Capital: Do you have the capital or money available to get started, hold you until the sheep are in full production and maybe see you through some dips? Finances are individual, so we cannot give much information here. You need to carefully evaluate your financial resources before starting a sheep enterprise. Compare sheep with other alternatives.

Attitude: What is your attitude toward sheep? Do you like them? Would you be willing to brave cold rains or snowstorms to feed and care for them? Would you be willing to miss a ball game or a social event to be sure the sheep were protected from marauding dogs or coyotes? Do you enjoy late night checks in the lambing barn? If not, sheep may not be for you.

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