Sheep

I raise two Katahdin sheep. So far my adventure has only begun and I can only tell you what I have learned up until now. They are a meat breed but I am keeping them for milk as sheep dairy breeds are hard to come by and they are wool breeds which means they need to be shorn once or twice a year.

Katahdins are hair sheep and shed the short wool they grow for winter. So they are more carefree than other breeds of sheep and ideal for the smallholder who does not have the skill to shear and without the hassle of finding someone who will only shear one or two sheep.

I started out with one sheep. She was kept with my goats for companionship. Sheep and goats are herd animals and so they need other animals of their kind around them. I have recently acquired a second sheep and seeing them together leads me to the conculsions that if one were to keep sheep, they would require a minimum of two. Although my sheep did bond with my goats, it’s nothing like the bond she has with her sheepmate. So if you plan on getting sheep and you have limited space please consider this. This year (2010) was my first year breeding sheep, I got around the inability to keep a ram but using someone else’s ram as a stud for my sheep. Having to move your sheep off your property to be bred can be inconvenient but it may be the only option if your space is limited.

Sheep Care

Fergie Eating

Caring for sheep is almost identical to caring for goats. In fact I keep my goats and sheep together. There are a few things a new owner must consider when keeping goats and sheep together but the main thing to consider is that copper is a required mineral when it comes to goat health while copper is toxic to sheep. This main comes into play during feeding time. I discuss how to get around this in the goat section but I will also briefly discuss it here. When one is keeping/feeding sheep and goats together they have 2 options:

  1. Buy species specific feed and feed separately with copper free mineral added.
  2. Buy one feed made for both goats and sheep with copper free mineral added.

In either situation copper bolusing of goats is recommended.

Breeding:

Sheep are what are called “short-day breeders” and so they will only come into heat during the shortest days of the year in the fall and winter. Sheep are only in heat approximately one day a month so it’s best to keep a ram with your sheep. The presence of the ram will also make the ewe come into heat.

A little word on rams vs bucks. From what I understand, rams can do quite a be more damage than bucks, so they are a bit more dangerous. If you have only about an acre to work with and you are already keeping goats, there isn’t reat chance that you could also keep a ram. One could keep a ram or a small flock on an acre if that was the only form of livestock they had but a sheep flock requires more space than other forms of livestock, rams require the most space or a fortified pen to minimize damage to fencing. Rams and bucks can not be kept together because in many cases a ram will kill a buck.

In my case, the owners of the ram(s) kept my sheep for 6 weeks. This covered 2 heat cycles. By the second estimated heat cycles, the sheep showed no evidence they were in heat so breeding was presumed successful.

Lambing

On March 4th and April 2nd of this year(2011), both of my ewes lambed for the first time. It was also my first lambing so I did not know what to expect. I had heard that sheep occasionally have problems lambing and when a sheep has a problem lambing, it can be really bad news. Fortunately, both of my ewes lambed with no problems whatsoever, which is more than I can say for a couple of my goat does.

Like Goats, when you see signs of labor in a ewe, it is best to keep a close eye on them. Signs of labor include a white or amber discharge, a lot of standing and ‘thinking’ or even pushing. If you suspect a ewe may lamb overnight, it is best to confine her to a lambing pen. Somewhere, where she can have her lamb in peace and somewhere that is free from drafts. I lost a goat kid this year because I did not follow this advice because I never had a problem before. The goat did not bond with her kdis and they ended of all over the shelter, one died of the cold as it was a cold night. This can also happen with lambs.

Many people will just allow their ewes to lamb in the pasture. This is it appears she will lamb during the day and as long as it is not too cold out but there are too many variables at night that can lead to you losing the lamb. As I already mentioned, weather and the ewe not bonding could seal a lamb’s fate but also predators will be drawn by the smell of blood. So it is best that ewes are penned at night while the herd is in it’s ‘lambing phase’

Fergie was the first to lamb this year, she had her’s overnight inside her pen. He was all dry and clean when I found him.

Mary had her lambs in the early afternoon. She was showing signs of labor the evening before, like discharge,  and I was certain she would have her’s overnight as well but she held on to them with no further signs of labor until she actually began to push them out the following afternoon. Mary had twins, which I was not expecting. It only took her about 10 minutes to push the first one out from the point I noticed she was acting funny, then another five to 10 minutes to get the second lamb out. Once the first was out she was only focused on cleaning that one, so I had to move the second one, out of what because mud from all the fluids, and put it in front of her for her to clean that one as well.

Also both my ewes shows a very tight udder the day before they lambed. The same happens with goats right before they lamb. With sheep the udder will grow slowly and may look rather unimpressive up until a day or two before lambing when it will look like a basketball.

Once the ewe has lambed, you should make certain that the lambs find the udder and start nursing fairly quickly. Now this doesn’t mean seconds after birth. Once my lambs were able to stand and walk, they began searching for the udder but that was only half the problem, in Mary’s case anyway, because she was more concerned with cleaning them off than allowing them to eat so she would run away from them if they tried to nurse and come back to lick them. After about a half hour they were both nursing just fine. As with all mammals, it’s important for lambs to nurse for those first few days to get the colostrum from their moms which is vital for getting the newborn lamb’s immune system off to a good start.

Weaning:

The earliest sheep should be weaned is at 8 weeks old but many prefer 12 weeks. This is my first year with lambs and so I have not weaned them yet but I have been giving the mom’s and lambs access to graze in the evenings and feeding the lambs grain at night when I separate them from the moms to prepare for morning milking. The lambs have taken to eating grass, hay and grain pretty quickly. In this case, lambs that are taken away from their moms at this point, should be able to feed themselves.
When lambs are kept with the herd, say if you were planning to add ewe lambs to your permanent flock, the moms will wean the kids on their own.