Sheep for the Small Southern Farms -- May I Help Ewe?

Sheep are an oft overlooked small farm livestock enterprise in the South where beef cattle seem to dominate the pasture landscape.   A couple of weeks ago I participated in the University of Kentucky’s Sheep Profit school and the keynote speaker of the evening, Warren Beeler,  noted in his presentation that sheep are really just like little beef cows.    Of course he wasn’t speaking in terms of the final product that ends up on your supper plate, but in terms of managing and raising them.   However, even though management is similar, many more farmers raise beef cattle than sheep.   Another thing Beeler noted in his address was that he had never lost money with sheep and he had been raising them for many years.   Not many cattle producers will make that claim.

As Southern SAWG and so many others are working to help young and beginning farmers find their way in the crazy world of farming, I think sheep should be back on the table for consideration.   Consider a few other traits of these noble creatures. 

·         Sheep are the best forage converters of all domestic livestock.  They are the most efficient at taking the resource of grass and forbs and converting it into meat and fiber.  You really don’t have to feed them grain at all if you set your management system up the right way.

·         Sheep are just right for the small farms of many new farmers.  Beef cattle require a lot of land.   You pretty much need at least a couple of acres of good rotated forage per beef cow in most of the Southeast to make a go of it and it really isn’t worth getting into the cow-calf business unless you get enough cows to justify the expense of getting a good bull.   Basically you are talking about 40 acres or so, just dedicated to the beef cows, to realistically start the business.   With sheep you can have flock of 50 ewes and still have plenty of room for a market garden,  hoophouse, a woodlot, fishing pond, etc. and do it all on 30 acres.

·         Sheep are great for families with young children.  They are generally pretty docile and while you need to be careful around the rams during breeding season, they will generally leave you alone otherwise.   You don’t have to have any special handling facilities to get started.  

·         There are both wool breeds and hair breeds depending on your interests and management ability.   Hair breeds are better for people who don’t want to deal with the management aspects of sheep shearing and finding a shearer.   Wool is great particularly if you want to pursue the value-added aspect of sheep by spinning and weaving.  Not all wool is the same either.   Some like Merino, Rambouillet and Targhee is very fine and can be worn next to the skin while other wools are much coarser and not valued as highly. 

·         Sheep help keep pastures clear of many weeds.   While sheep are generally not browsers, like goats, who like to eat tree leaves, brambles and briars, sheep do like a variety of tasty young weeds along with most of the standard fare eaten by cattle.   Some beef cattle producers add sheep to their operations to get their “weed control” benefit along with the extra income.

·         Sheep have a high percentage of multiple births.  The ideal lambing rate for most sheep producers would be 200% (2 live lambs per ewe).    This varies some by breed but nearly all sheep producers hope for at least 150%. 

·         The initial capital cost to purchase sheep is relatively low and due to their high percentage of multiple births you can grow your flock internally pretty quickly.

·         No need for a dually and 20 foot livestock trailer.  You will most likely need at least a small pickup truck for hauling.

·         For the meat eaters out there, lamb is very tasty!

Wow! So why doesn’t every farmer raise sheep?  The two primary challenges to raising sheep are predators and internal parasites.  If you decide to raise sheep you will need to make sure you have a way to protect them from coyotes and dog packs.   This is usually accomplished with a combination of one or more of the following tools:  guard animals (dogs, llamas, donkeys), facilities (locking the sheep in the barn at night), or electric fencing in a variety of methods. 

The other issue of internal parasites is addressed through a combination of dewormers and genetics.  Of course with dewormers there is always the challenge of the worms developing resistance to the dewormer so developing strong genetics in your flock is a wise strategy.  Some breeds are inherently more resistant to internal parasites than others.    Parasites are much less of a problem in drier climates such as Texas which is partially why Texas has the largest number of sheep in the country.

The other start-up issue with sheep that needs to be considered is fencing.   While sheep can and will respect electric fencing, it is generally recommended that the farm’s perimeter fence be a woven wire fence of some type.  Multi-strand, high-tensile, electric fence can work as a perimeter as long as it is well monitored.

So do you think sheep might be right for your farm or for the farm of someone you work with?  Before going all wooly, do a little homework.  Find out who else is raising sheep in your area and visit with them.  Like most farmers they will usually be glad to tell you about what they are doing.   Of course check in with the cooperative extension service and get their thoughts on the sheep picture in your area.  If your homework checks out maybe you can be the one to diversify the pasture landscape in your neighborhood.

-Steve Muntz, Executive Director, SSAWG

Amanda Hodges