New to Sheep? Read this.
You finally did it. Your bucolic dream is coming true. You bought the farm, fixed up the house, installed fencing and a new well. Now it's time to buy some sheep and have your morning coffee listening to blissful bleats in the front pasture. Maybe you bought 6 sheep. Maybe you bought or inherited 100 ewes. You read some books and some articles about what to do next. You just put them out in the field right? No, not really. But follow these tips to be a better shepherd.
1. Buy the right breed - Do you want wool sheep or meat sheep or dual purpose? I live in a climate that is too hot for wool sheep unless I let them sleep on the couch. We raise hair sheep because they're heat adapted and can survive on grass. I highly recommend them for anyone starting out. Our flock is a mix of St. Croix, Katahdin, and Black Bellied Barbados sheep. Many other meat sheep are available, but we've found them to be less adapted to being 100% grass fed. Buy quality, grass fed genetics if you can. Grain-fed sheep don’t transition very well to an exclusive diet of grass. It’s possible, but they often fall victim to parasite infections and dramatic weight loss.
2. Prepare for losses - Sheep are very sensitive creatures. You're going to make mistakes and lose sheep. It could be at lambing. They could contract a respiratory infection. They might get parasites. They might eat rich spring grass, bloat and die. Coyotes, wolves, wild dogs, pumas are all hungry for baby lambs and weak ewes. It happens to everyone who has sheep. Strong, healthy and intelligent sheep survive and will be valuable assets to your farm. Weak, sick and stupid sheep only cause the rest of the flock to suffer. Nature is brutal. If you don't already have one, you need to buy a gun. (And learn how to skin and butcher a sheep properly!)
3. Check Daily - In order to prevent your sheep from dying, you need to know them. Spend time with them, check on them, make sure you're present to fix any problems that might pop up. Look at their poop. Change their water everyday. Check the electric fence. Make sure they are all walking and mobile. If you notice a sheep lagging behind, that's a sign that you need to intervene. Are they looking thin? Maybe you need to throw them some hay or do a deworming. Are they crying all the time? Figure out why. Make sure they have a salt block. Make sure the lambs can drink out of the water trough.
4. Learn About Parasites - I hope you like biology, because you need to read everything you can about worms. In order to properly manage parasites in your flock, you need to know how to identify them. Learn what kind of parasites are common in your area. The majority of parasites that affect sheep are liver flukes, roundworms, tapeworms and barber-pole worms. Check for swollen jaws (bottle-jaw from barber-pole worm.) Check poop daily. A healthy sheep poop is solid and brown and can be easily broken into pellets. Keep an eye out for poopy, messy butts. Diarrhea is very bad!
*Note: I'm very passionate about organic, all-natural agriculture... BUT... don't dismiss a chemical deworming regimen if your sheep are showing signs of infection. Our sheep are parasite resistant, grass fed and naturally dewormed but it took us years to get here. Even still, we do broad spectrum dewormers every 2-3 years for the flock to make sure everyone stays healthy. Don't make your animals suffer from parasites because you want to be organic.
5. Get a Dog - But not just any dog. You need to buy a female, purebred Great Pyrenees puppy, ideally born to working parents. Why a female? Because they're easier. Female Great Pyr puppies are perfect for beginners because they’re docile, gentle, non-aggressive and have excellent instincts. Males can be a little testy and domineering when they go through their teenage years, so I don't recommend them to inexperienced dog owners. Are there other livestock guardian dogs out there that are amazing? Sure. But they generally require more space, more training, more supervision. Your female great pyr puppy isn't going to murder a lamb for fun when she's 9 months old. But an Anatolian Shepherd might. I've reared a lot of LGDs and the purebred Great Pyr girls are angels, whereas the males are more likely to steal ducks, chase cows, lacerate pig vulvas and be very, very naughty.
6. Make sure you have enough grass - If you're 100% grass fed, you need to make sure you have enough acreage. But you also need to inspect the quality of the forage. Sheep like grass that isn't too long and isn't too short. They like to graze bushes and low tree branches. They like to nibble on various wild weeds that will pop up in your pastures. You don't need a perfect pasture, but you need to make sure that you have enough grass. Rotating animals is key to managing parasites in sheep. Even if you don't commit to rotating daily/weekly/monthly, you need at least 3 paddocks so the grass can rest, regrow and break up parasite cycles.
7. Check your fence - If you're using electric fencing, you need to check it for shorts everyday. You may get away with your fence shorting out for a couple days, but eventually those sheep will figure out that it's a cold fence. Say bye-bye to the cabbage plants in your garden. You MUST have a permanent perimeter fence. Don't go thinking that your solar Premier One fence netting is going to be enough. Your sheep WILL go in the road. And your neighbors will hate you. You can use the netting to break up larger fenced-in pastures.
8. Respect your Mama - Your Mama Ewe is the queen of your flock. She is their glorious leader and they will follow her anywhere. Spend time with her and become good friends with her. Put her up in the barn for a few days and give her some fancy hay and treats. Pet her, talk to her, tame her. I know it sounds crazy, but having your leader ewe as your friend will make herding, vetting, loading much easier and less stressful. She'll be calm and relaxed during any "scary" activities and it will keep the rest of the flock more at ease. As your flock grows, Mama Ewe will teach the babies how to find medicinal plants in the woods, how to avoid "dirty" grass, and how to beckon the farmer when the water tub is dry.
If you find yourself in a dilemma, let us know! We love helping new farmers.