(Written June 2020, Updated January 2024)
In full disclosure, we are not raising sheep at this point on the homestead. We love lamb, but currently the cost of buying a baby lamb, and raise it isn’t cost effective. To raise and carry a Ram (male) and a few Ewes (females) doesn’t fit into our current pasture management and workload. Another option is to buy an already raised lamb and pay for butchering. The cost of this option isn’t too bad, plus the people are local. We need to find out if they raise their lambs organically or at least with non-GMO feed and don’t spray their farm. The ideal situation would be to find someone to raise the lamb as we would and barter with us for something we are raising.
Sheep have never been a main staple on the homestead, but we always seem to go back to them when the opportunity comes to us.
What are the benefits of raising sheep?
Benefits, Benefits, Benefits. That’s what I look for when raising livestock on the homestead. What’s going to make your life more self-sufficient, add to the homestead, without breaking your wallet or time? Deciding on the right animal is key, regardless if you’re thinking about or already raising other animals. Take into consideration your space, purpose, and desired outcome when adding new livestock or expanding livestock.
Sheep have many benefits and downfalls, but raising sheep might fulfill your homestead’s needs. Sheep are a smaller rumen animal, which grows fast on pasture without a lot of human intervention. If you like lamb, the animal is butchered by before it’s one-year-old. Mutton, which I believe has a stronger flavor than lamb, gets butchered after a year old. Raising sheep for pasture management, milk, meat, and/or fiber, might be just what your homestead needs.
Gaining benefits from raising sheep takes less than a year.
The cycle of breeding a sheep to benefit your homestead can take as little as a year. The gestation cycle of a sheep is between 138 and 159 days or about five months, depending on the breed and animal. Within eight weeks of birth, you’ll start seeing the lambs start to eat your hay and pasture.
- Meat: Meaning you raise a meat sheep breed. All sheep can be used for meat, but the meat breeds give you more meat faster. It takes about 5 to 7 months to reach a market size of 60 to 100+ pounds for a meat lamb.
- Wool, from a sheep that grows wool, takes about a year to gain your first wool crop.
- If you want to milk a sheep, you can start milking a sheep a few weeks after they lamb.
- Breeding sheep can start around 7 to 8 months old for both the ewe (female) and ram (male). You also want to look at the size of the sheep, for if they are growing slower, you don’t want to breed them. And you want to take into consideration when your lambs will be born. If you don’t want them in the middle of a cold winter or a hot summer, plan accordingly.
- Plus, it’s not uncommon for sheep to have twins or triplets each year, adding value to your homestead.
What breed of sheep do you want on your homestead? Deciding the benefits you want from your sheep will determine the type and breed to buy.
There are 2 different typed of sheep regarding their hair or wool coat; hair sheep and wool sheep.
Hair sheep do not have a wool coat. Hair sheep shed their coat on their own. Their coat is like hair and isn’t the type of fiber you want for textiles.
Of course, you can get mixed sheep, which also affects the type of coat the sheep grows.
Wool sheep come in many types of wool from fine coat to a carpet wool. Wool sheep will not lose their coats like a hair sheep. You must shear the coat off the sheep if you’re collecting it for textiles or not. The sheep still needs shearing yearly for their health.Wool sheep’s coat can be different thickness and contain different oil content. Some prolific wool growing sheep need shearing more often than yearly. Wool processors turn the raw wool into felt, yarns, and other textiles. You can process your own fiber if you choose.
Meat sheep are normally a hair sheep or a medium wool sheep breed. Meat sheep are not known for their textile friendly coats. Though, some cross breeds, you can use the coats for textiles.
You can gain milk from either a hair sheep or a wool sheep. All Ewes (females), after having a kid (off-spring of a sheep) can give milk. The type of hair has nothing to do with milking ability.
Getting your first sheep
You can raise 3 to 4 sheep on an acre of land. My suggestion is to start with a trio of lambs. This means 2 ewes (females) lambs and one ram (male) lamb that is not related to the ewes. The reason you should start with lambs is so you can make them friendly. Sheep can be a little skitso. Having docile sheep that come to you is very helpful on the homestead.
If you want to have lambs right away, I suggest you start with 2 bred Ewes, and then look for a docile ram for the following year. This gives you lamb pretty quickly and time to find a ram that fits your herd and price tag.
Pick a breed that fits your needs, and go for it.
Breeding – let nature do its thing.
Naturally, most sheep start cycling to be bred when the days get shorter or in the fall. Some people keep their ram out until they want to breed. Others leave their ram with the herd all year round. Deciding when you want lambs could be a deciding factor of when to breed.
If you decide to old your ram out of the herd until you want them to breed, your ram will bring the ewes into heat. Remember, it’s not always when you want the animals to be red, but when you want lambs hitting the ground. Your weather will determine the best time to be lambing for you and the animals.
When sheep are between 5 and 7 months old or about 60 to 100 pounds, they’ve reached optimal size for the freezer or market. There are different options for butchering and selling off your extra sheep.
You can butcher the sheep yourself fairly easily. They are easy to hang, gut, and cut up. If you’re a deer hunter butchering a lamb is like butchering a deer. We take our sheep to the butcher, for they do several animals at one time for us, and we believe it’s worth it. In the future, we are looking to butcher our own.
If you have extra sheep to sell, you can do it through Craig’s list, word of mouth, the auction, local paper, or talk to your butcher. We’ve found that our butcher has people asking for different animals people are looking to buy already butchered.
We use to raise Dorper-Katahdin mix hair sheep. They’re known for their meat and don’t need shearing, regardless how thick their coat becomes. They grow a thick winter coat necessary for our northeast cold winters, which is very helpful for keeping breeders. If we decide to go back to raising lambs, we will find breeders within this breed again.
Why did we stop raising lambs?
There are many reasons we’ve stopped raising lambs. The main deciding factor was our pastures and hay field need animal power. We raise Dexter Cattle and other animals. Cows and sheep are both browsers, which means they like to eat the same food, thus adding greater stress to the fields.
Over the past 18 years, we’ve used Boer goats to clear and rejuvenate our pastures. Some years we’ve had a couple for pasture management and other years we’ve had an entire herd of over 60. For the next few years, we will use the goats to help us get our pastures and hay field in better shape. It’s not that you can’t run goats and sheep together, we just decided it made more sense for our set up to focus on pasture management with goats and chickens.
Sanity is one of the most important things you can have on the homestead, and that sometimes means something needs to give. For now, it’s the sheep.
Remember, Homesteading is peace of mind, not a piece of land.
Grow Food – Eat Local – Gain Freedom