Nearly one-half of all lamb consumed in the United States is imported, mostly from Australia (65 percent) and New Zealand (35 percent). According to a 2014 report from Meat & Livestock Australia, per capita lamb consumption in the Northeast is almost double the U.S. average, and the agency forecasted continued Australian high-value lamb imports to the Northeast. While wool and milk are smaller markets for U.S. growers than meat, they are specialty markets that are growing. Most sheep can provide all meat, wool and milk, but various breeds are best suited to one or two purposes. A few breeds, like the Katahdins developed in northern Maine, are known as hair sheep. Hair sheep shed naturally and are not sheared.
If you are considering raising sheep, your first consideration should be purpose. Are you most interested in wool, milk or meat? Among the 50 or so most common breeds raised in the United States, which will best fulfill your purpose? What other characteristics are desirable? Are fertility, multiple births, mothering ability and flocking habits important? What about parasite resistance, feed efficiency and lamb growth rate? Which breeds are best adapted to conditions in to your farm?
Dot Perkins of the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, a field specialist in livestock and lifelong resident and small farmer in the region, recommends some basics you should know about selecting and raising sheep in the Northeast.
Who to Choose
Northeast farmers generally select from among approximately five breeds best suited to commercial production in the region: Cheviot, Hampshire, Suffolk, Dorset (a productive breed for meat and wool) and Romney. Selecting from among breeds available regionally is generally more economical than importing a breed from afar. More expensive but important sources of genetics are the heritage breeds usually found in isolated, endangered groups. Heritage breeds tend to retain characteristics that favor production and survival with minimal human inputs. Select a breed to match your purpose.
Your farm’s resources
What do you have and what will you need to raise sheep?
- A source of water
- Sheep drink one-half to four gallons of water per animal and day, depending on the weather and their production state – whether they’re breeding, pregnant or growing.
- Storage space for feed
- A three-sided 12- by 15-foot shed can hold about 250 two-string bales (18 in. x 36 in. x 14 in.).
- A tractor to move feed, manure, and other materials
- Fences or terrain that can be fenced
No one fence type suits all terrain and financial situations. Consult with an expert, such as David Kennard of Wellscroft Fence Systems, in Harrisville, New Hampshire, (http://www.Wellscroft.com)for advice on the best fence to keep sheep in and predators out in your situation.
- Winter housing, typically an open-sided structure having a sloping roof that sheds snow
- Time, especially time for lambing season, which often involves late nights and holidays
- Financial resources to purchase animals, equipment and feed
So You’ve Decided to Purchase Sheep
“Avoid buying at auctions,” Perkins said. Auctions can be the disposal outlet for problem animals. Purchase your animals from a farmer who comes recommended or from one you know and trust. Never feel you are obligated to buy. Ask questions, and pay close attention to answers. Look for good feet and a good udder or scrotum. Does the sheep appear healthy, or does it appear unthrifty? Touch the sheep and score its body condition. Is it emaciated, thin, average, fat or obese?
Managing sheep for milk
Dairy ewes, whose rich milk is used in cheese-making, are managed differently from ewes that are not being raised for this purpose. While they are getting colostrum, lambs are kept with their mothers. After day three of life, lambs are separated from ewes. They are then bottle fed milk replacer while their mothers’ valuable milk is reserved for cheese-making. Ewes are milked twice a day.
While lactating ewes of any breed can be milked and will give about 100 to 200 pounds (11 to 23 gallons) per lactation, two breeds are outstanding producers. East Friesian and Lacaune, both available in the United States, produce 400 to 1,000 pounds (45 to 114 gallons) per lactation.
The inner sheep
Sheep are ruminants. This means they have a fermentation chamber from which they get most of their energy.
“The fermentation chamber (rumen) is the most important part of a sheep’s body,” Perkins said. “If a sheep’s rumen is not healthy, the sheep is not healthy.”
The rumen, one of the four compartments of a sheep’s stomach, is a fermentation vat that breaks down material and produces volatile fatty acids. (The other three compartments are the reticulum, omasum and abomasum.) Volatile fatty acids – 70 percent of the energy needs of a sheep – diffuse through the rumen wall into the sheep’s blood stream.
“Learning how the digestive system of a ruminant animal works is the best knowledge you can have. If you understand how the digestive system works, your animals will be healthy and will thrive,” Perkins said. “Sheep are not goats and they are not chickens.”
Feed and nutrition
Sheep consume forage, hay and grain in differing ratios related to their production stage. Approximately 40 to 50 double-string 40-pound bales of hay are needed to feed one ewe for nine months. At certain times of the production cycle, notably during late pregnancy, lactation and when lambs are growing rapidly, forage must be supplemented with grains or other concentrated feeds. Do not supplement with livestock feed formulated for other livestock. The concentration of copper in other livestock feed is toxic to sheep.
Feeds grown in the Northeast tend to be deficient in the trace elements iodine, cobalt and selenium. Selenium deficiency tends to occur in wet years. Selenium, available from your veterinarian, may be given to ewes in the form of a BoSe injection four weeks before they give birth. Energy, protein, calcium, selenium and vitamin E are important during late gestation and are particularly important to ewes’ mammary development in this period. Underfeeding will reduce milk quality and yield.
Flushing – increasing the amount of feed offered breeding ewes – will result in weight gain. Weight gain signals the ewe’s body that she is capable of raising more than one lamb and hence her ovulation rate will increase. The result is more lambs born per ewe. Flushing is generally begun one month prior to the introduction of the ram and should continue throughout the breeding season and until a few weeks after the ram is removed. However, a ewe in good body condition should not need to be flushed.
During the last month of gestation, the diet of winter-lambing ewes is usually supplemented with about 0.5 pounds of grain or complete feed per ewe per day. This is done because ewes in this phase of production cannot consume enough forage to meet their energy needs. This ration should be increased to approximately 1 pound per ewe per offspring during the first 60 days of lactation.
“Ideally, ewes should be separated into production groups and fed accordingly,” Perkins said.
Immediately after weaning, nutrients that promote milk production should not be offered to ewes. Good pasture with young grass high in protein promotes milk production and should be avoided. Also avoid grazing sheep below 2 inches because they will pick up worms from short grass.
Right amount of feed
“A grain scoop is not a standard unit of measure,” Perkins said. A scoop may contain 1.75 to 3.25 pounds more or less of sweet feed and 2.25 to 4 pounds of pelleted feed.
“Whatever size scoop you are using, weigh your grain so you know how much you are feeding. Then compare that to what your creature should be getting for their production level.”
Body condition scoring
Your animal may or may not be getting the optimum amount of feed. Looks aren’t everything. A hands-on approach is necessary in order to determine whether or not your sheep are in condition (too thin, too fat or just right) for their stage of production (breeding, pregnancy, lactation, etc.).
To learn about body condition scoring of sheep, see
Kathleen Hatt is a freelance writer and editor and has been a frequent contributor to Farming since 1998. She lives in Henniker, New Hampshire.