Sheep are a warm and friendly addition to any homestead. They are easy to care for and for you to manage and they repay their owners with meat and wool harvests. They produce marketable meat in less than half the time that cattle require, and are much easier to hatchet.
Breeds of sheep can be broken down into four main types: fine-wools, medium-wools, wools, and meat-types.
The fine-wools are adaptable to many different environments and are frequently found in the Southwest. Rambouillet is a fine-wool, yielding eight to 12 pounds of fleece. It is an open-faced breed, which means wool does not grow on or near the eyes. Rambouillets will breed any time of the year. Debouillet is another variety of medians which also produces an excellent wool crop. Of the medium-wools, the Columbia, the breed of American origin, is the most popular. Sheep of this breed are large in size and Corriedales, a New Zealand breed, produce heavy fleeces and mature early. Theney and Lincoln are the favored breeds of long-wool variety. They are known for their adaptability to cold, wet climates.
The large, popular Hampshire is recognizable by its black face and narrow muzzle. Suffolk and Shropshire are other large varieties bred for meat production.
Only simple accommodation is needed for a flock of sheep. A three-sided structure is sufficient in regions where winter is not too severe. You should provide approximately 15 square feet per sheep in a closed-off shelter. Indoor and outdoor feeders, provision for free-choice fresh water and salt must be made to maintain a healthy flock. Good bedding of straw on the floor of the shelter will insulate the building during the water and if freshened periodically it will prevent the sheep’s wool from becoming soiled and ratted.
The biggest chore of the spring season is clearing the shelter of the manure and straw bedding which has accumulated over the winter. The manure can be used as fertilizer, or sold to someone else who can make use of it. A thorough cleaning of the shed floor and application of fresh bedding will start the new season.
On the homestead, sheep should not be run with cattle or hogs, although they can be kept near goats. Good meadow fencing is necessary to keep predators out and contain the flock.
Sheep will be quite content to act as meadow lawn mowers by feeding on forage grasses. The best pastureland can support as many as 15 ewes and their lambs per acre. If land is too poor to provide enough food by itself, use a supplement of grain feed. One-third to one-half pound per day per ewe of corn, oats, milo, or barley should be fed. Feedlot sheep (those without access to pasture) should be fed at least two to four pounds of hay and about a pound of grain per head per day. A mixture of 60 percent oats, 25 percent corn or sorghum grains and 15 percent wheat bran is recommended.
Be sure to rotate forage pastures to prevent the ewes from contracting worms. Commercial wormers should be administered to sheep once every six months to insure against internal parasites. An alternative to a commercial product for worming is diatom flour fed free-choice with salt.
Reject all animals with disease symptoms, when purchasing sheep. Foot rot is a bacterial disease which causes the hoof to separate from the underlying tissues. Afoot infected with the disease will carry an odor of decay. Mastitis is another condition to check for when buying sheep. Lumps or hardness in the udder indicate its presence and ewes infected with it will be unable to nurse offspring. Also beware of spreading or missing teeth, an indication of age.
Good nutrition and management will prevent practically all sheep diseases. Liver fluke can be avoided by keeping sheep away from stagnant water. Anthrax, the worst killer, can be prevented by not letting your sheep graze closely on sparse late summer pastures. Anthrax germs live in the soil and on short grass and can be picked up by the animal.
Traditionally, sheep were dipped in a disinfectant to control parasites. Today, however, many sheep men have stopped dipping their sheep. Most dips contain arsenic or DDT, neither of which is safe for animals. Stay away from phenothiazine too – this powerful worm-killer affects the sheep’s body growth and metabolism, and may well be responsible for today’s big lamb losses and the increase in “mystery” diseases. Pasture rotation is a better preventive of worms and parasites.
Breeding activity varies among breeds and even between individuals within a breed. Many types have a restricted season based on day length, temperature, and the age of the ewe. In most cases, the breeding season occurs between late July and early December. Within this season, ewes over nine months old enter heat every 16 to 17 days with each estrus lasting about 72 hours. The duration of pregnancy is approximately 145 days so that late fall breeding will result in lambs arriving in late March or April.
One ram introduced into a flock will service 30 ewes. The rams should be marked at the time of breeding by painting the brisquet (lower chest) of the ram with artists’ oil paint diluted with motor oil. Change the color on the brisquet every 16 days for easy detection of ewes which come into estrus after the initial breeding. The marking of the ewes by the rams during mating allows the shepherd to approximate when lambing will occur and to detect in-fertile rams.
As the time for delivery nears, the demands on the mother’s necessitate a slight increase in feeding. Some shepherds include about a pint (1 pound) of molasses in the ration against lambing paralysis. Lambing paralysis is characterized by stiff limbs in the mother which leads to listless walking, twitching muscles, grinding teeth, and even death. Overly fat ewes are especially susceptible to this condition. For this reason, be careful not to overfeed during the early gestation period.
Wheat in the ewe’s ration prevents limb disease in unborn lambs. Deficiencies in vitamin E and selenium are the causes of disease.
Lambing time is the most demand in all periods in the shepherd’s schedule. It is to prepare for it by stocking up on necessary supplies such as clean towels, iodine (used when cutting the cord), a sharp alcohol, and cotton swabs. These items should be placed in a can or other sealable and kept in the shed where they will be when lambing starts.
Cold drafts and wind can hinder a successful birth and result in the loss of a lamb. The usual labor lasts an hour. Allow the ewe to conduct the delivery unassisted for the first 45 minutes, or slightly longer if things are progressing normally. To assist the ewe, pull on the emerging lamb’s front two legs only when the ewe is contracting. There are frequent complications in birth; many lambs do not emerge hoof first. After disinfecting and lubricating your hands with alcohol and petroleum jelly, try to dislodge any limbs bent within the womb. This insures a comfortable delivery and prevents internal injuries to the mother.
The first few hours of life are critical for the newborn lamb. As soon as the lamb is completely dropped, begin to rub it briskly with clean towels or other cloths to get its circulation going. Lambs can also be immersed in warm water to get their bodies functioning. The anal passage should be wiped and the nose cleaned with cotton swabs to aid breathing. Cut the cord about six inches from the lamb’s body and douse the area with iodine. The cord itself will dry up and fall in a week’s time.
It is very important that the lamb nurse as soon as possible after birth. Try to encourage it to suckle by placing your finger in its mouth and, when it begins to suck, transferring it to the mother’s udder. Give the ewe’s nipple a few determined pulls to start the flow of colostrum. If there is no milk or if the lamb will not cooperate, have a bottle of substitute handy. Three cups milk, one tablespoon sugar, one beaten egg, and one tablespoon cod-liver oil will do the trick.
After one week to ten days it is time to dock the lamb. At birth, it has a long tail resembling a dog’s tail. To prevent feces build-up, the tail is clipped with a special docking instrument. Cut it about two inches from the rump. Apply iodine and, to stop the bleeding, wrap a string tightly around the wound. A walk in cool air will encourage the blood to clot. After 15 minutes, the string can be removed. Lambs will frequently be traumatized by the pain, but they will resume normal activity in a few hours.
Lambs will begin feeding about two weeks after birth. Offer them a creep feeder, fashioned to allow only small-headed animal’s access to the feed. The ewe and lamb should be fed separately for the first few days after birth, or until the lamb is strong enough to ward off the jealous advances of other mothers.
Sheep are shorn in the spring but, in special cases, they may be shorn in early summer, or in autumn, as preparation for breeding.
Shearing the ewes before lambing frees the birth passage and keeps the wool from being soiled. Shearing can best be learned from someone who is an old hand at the art. Sheep will yield approximately ten pounds of wool per animal.
To slaughter your sheep, you need a .22 rifle, a special table or butchering “cradle,” a meat saw, sharp butchering knives, containers for catching the blood, and a large sink in which to wash the carcass.
For about a day prior to slaughtering, withhold feed but not water from the animal. This will prevent the stomach from being too full and will make removal of the gut much simpler. Clean and assemble your equipment, then lead the sheep from its pen to the butchering table. Handle the animal gently, placing one hand under its throat and the other hand under the opposite flank.
Shoot the sheep in the center of the forehead. Lift the body onto the table and, with a sharp, pointed knife, slit the throat. Let the blood drain out into a container beneath the table.
Split the throat and remove the windy and esophagus. Skin hind legs and remove the hooves. Make an incision in these legs bet, the tendons and string cord through it. You can now hang the carcass and continue skin the sides.
The intestines are removed through an incision made in the belly wall. The viscera, removed, the paunch and liver cut out, and diaphragm cut so that the heart and lungs be removed.
Wash the carcass in tepid water. Cover with netting, and hang it in a cool place for a day or two. The pelt should be covered wino salt and hung over a fence to dry before tanned.