Breeding Sheep: A Guide for the Task
Why Breed Sheep?
Breeding sheep can be a fun, personally rewarding, and profitable endeavor. But like with anything else, there are lots of factors to consider and some risks involved.
First, you should know how to care for sheep. To cut it down to the bare bones, sheep need proper feed, access to pasture, access to free-choice clean water, shelter and/or protection from predators, and may need a mineral supplement. They also need to be given medications for worms.
Whether you're planning on breeding your pet sheep, the sheep on your hobby farm, or you're interested in trying to earn some extra money getting into the market for lamb, mutton, or wool, this article will provide you with the information that you'll need to get started breeding sheep.
Heads Up: I'm not a veterinarian, and none of my advice should substitute for seeking the help of a vet who specializes in small ruminants (like sheep) if you feel that you need one.
Useful Sheep Terminology
Ewe: A female sheep
Ram: A male sheep
Baby lamb: A newborn lamb
Lamb: A lamb that's still nursing
Fat lamb: A lamb that's been weaned, but is under 1-year-old (ideal for market, in my humble opinion)
Small ruminant: What sheep are - animals who have a rumen as part of their digestive system
Lambing: The birthing of lambs
Lambing Season: The most stressful time of the year for those who breed sheep
Re-Ramming: Obtaining a new ram because you can't have your current ram breeding his grand-daughters!
Grain: For the purpose of this article, any feed given to sheep other than hay
Breed Selection: Meat Sheep
Lamb prices in the US remain steadily good, so breeding sheep for the purpose of selling lambs can be profitable; selling lambs should at least offset the costs of your hobby farm sheep flock. (Selling lambs is a good choice if you can manage to actually haul them off somewhere – let’s face it, they’re adorable!)
There are many popular breeds of sheep for lamb production in the US. Some of these include the Dorset, the Suffolk, the Hampshire, the Cheviot and the Southdown. These breeds grow rapidly and tend to become large, as far as sheep go, topping out around 150 pounds for ewes.
It’s fairly common practice to cross, or mix, breeds of sheep in commercial flocks. Hobby farms, or those interested in showing sheep, may choose to keep and preserve just one breed of sheep. This is especially true for people interested in preserving rare or heritage breed sheep, like the Hog Island or Leicester Longwool.
For a flock intended for lamb production, I would recommend cross-breeds. Mixing breeds of any type of livestock animal helps encourage genetic diversity and discourage genetic problems, including propensity to certain diseases.
In my area, one of the most popular crosses for meat production is the Suffolk sheep bred to a Dorset ram. These Dorset rams tend to throw large lambs, and the Suffolks often have twins or even triplets, so the cross is a pretty perfect combination of large size and prolific production.
Breed Selection: Fiber (Wool) Sheep
If you're interested in raising and breeding sheep for the purpose of wool production, you'll want to select a breed of sheep that is particularly good at producing an excellent fleece.
Heritage breeds aren't generally great at fiber production, so you'll want to keep sheep of one of the following breeds (or, cross them up - livestock animals need all the genetic diversity they can get!)
- Fine Wool Sheep - Merino and Rambouillet
- Long Wool Sheep - Romney and Lincoln (long-wool fibers are great for hand-spinning)
- Carpet Wool Sheep - Icelandic and Scottish Blackface (carpet wool is the lowest-grade wool)
For the best chance of really making money selling wool, you should select one of the fine wool breeds. If you have a niche market of hand-spinners or other people who want to purchase locally-produced wool for homespun clothing, long wool sheep will do just fine. You can probably find a market for the carpet wool quality sheep's wool, too, so don't necessarily discount it.
Before we get started on any specific information, let me just make a couple points.
Breeding sheep is not for the faint of heart. Your sheep may get sick. They may need very personal care from you, like a vaginal exam to determine if they are in the process of lambing. You may need to call in the aid of an experienced herds-person, farmer, or veterinarian - getting help might cost you money. A lamb might die. A ewe might die. Remember that where there's livestock there's dead-stock.
Breed young, healthy animals. If you've never bred sheep before, don't start with yearling ewes that have never bred. Don't start with a bunch of old ewes, either. Sheep can continue to breed until they are 10 (I know because I bred a 10-year-old sheep last year - but I don't recommend it!). Ideally, your ewes should be between 2 and 6 years old, and should have lambed at least once before. They should also be healthy animals without deformities, and should be up-to-date with deworming medications.
If you expose your ewes to a ram, you are now responsible for them. Sheep are a very domesticated animal, and are really dependent on their human keepers. Ewes need extra feed during pregnancy, and can become mineral-deficient if not cared for properly. If you allow your ewes to get pregnant, you are now responsible for their good health and successful lambing. Things can go wrong that are out of your control, but there's lots that you can do to prepare and to make sure that your sheep are healthy.
On that note, do not expose your ewes to a ram unless you are prepared to deal with pregnant ewes and ewes that are going to have lambs. Don't think for a minute that it's okay to allow your ewes to get pregnant while you just stand back, doing nothing and waiting for the lambs to appear.
All that being said, breeding sheep really can be a lot of fun, and a wonderful learning experience. It's my hope that this article will set you up for success.
How many rams do I need?
Generally, one healthy, mature ram should be enough for 30 ewes. If more than 30 ewes are to be bred, it's best to separate the ewes into groups of 30 or less, and run one ram in each group.
Rams allowed to run together in the same group will usually just waste their time and energy dominating one another.
Getting Started Breeding Sheep
First thing's first: If you want lambs, you'll need to expose your ewes to a ram. The obvious point of this "exposure" is to allow the ram to mount the ewes and breed them. Unless the ram is a dud, or the ewes are too old or are unhealthy, these couplings should result in pregnant ewes.
When to expose the ewes to the ram: This kind of depends on when you want to be lambing, which depends somewhat on how hard your winters are. If you want a controlled lambing season, which I would recommend, then your ram should only be hanging out with the ewes for one portion of the year; the rest of the time he's in solitary confinement, where he can't impregnate ewes out-of-season.
Most breeds of sheep will naturally be more inclined to breed when the days are shortening. This means that fall is the time to allow the ewes exposure to the ram.
The gestation period for sheep is about five (5) months. Unless your winters are mild, you don't want lambs coming in January - it's too cold, and the grass growth is too far off. The dates October 15th - December 15th are probably the best times to expose your ewes to your ram, if you want lambs in the spring. Spring lambs have the benefit of a full summer of grass to eat; this is good for you because you save on feed. These breeding dates should result in lambs being born March through June.
Is that the "best time" to expose the ewes to the ram? Well, for me it is. But it really does depend on when you want the lambs to be born. Remember that a ewe should have a lamb or lambs five months after she is bred by the ram. To determine when to expose ewes to a ram, simply decide when you want the lambs to be born and count back five months.
Record the date when you see the ram mount a ewe. Better yet, buy a marking harness and make the ram wear it, if you can. A marking harness has something like a big Sharpie pen affixed to it in such a way that when the ram mounts a ewe, it leaves a mark on her back. This way, you'll know which ewes have been bred, and when.
Must I vaccinate?
No - vaccination is a form of risk management, and it's up to you. Consult with your vet or an experienced herds-person about your flock if you're not sure.
Where to get the vaccines
You can purchase commonly-used vaccines for sheep from livestock product suppliers like Jeffers or from your vet.
A Good Schedule for Breeding Sheep
Here's the schedule that we use for breeding the sheep here at the farm.
October 15- December 15: Ewes are exposed to the ram and breeding takes place. Breeding is recorded.
January - February: We have ultrasounds performed by the vet to determine pregnancy. If all of your ewes are maidens (have never lambed) then ultrasounds are a good idea. Also, if all of your ewes are old (6 years or older), it's also a good idea. Otherwise, you can skip this step and assume pregnancy at basically no risk to the animals.
January: Administer pre-lambing vaccinations. We give CD-T Toxoid, which is a multi-purpose vaccine that protects against enterotoxemia and tetanus. Vaccines administered to the ewe during pregnancy will protect the lamb(s) as well. CD-T Toxoid will be administered again 4 weeks before lambing to help ensure that the lambs are protected.
February: Begin feeding ewes one pound of grain per head per day. This means that each ewe gets one-half pound of grain in the morning, and another one-half in the evening. This extra grain is important in helping with the extra nutritional and energy requirements of gestation. Failing to properly feed pregnant ewes can lead to complications such as pregnancy toxemia and/or severe weight loss in the ewe. Under-feeding or over-feeding pregnant ewes can also cause miscarriage.
March- April: Lambing! Lambs are born. Most of the time, this means that when we come out in the morning to feed and check on the ewes, there are suddenly little lambs bouncing around! Lambing can also mean that ewes have issues and require assistance in delivering their lambs. This is especially true in old ewes, and in ewes carrying twins for the first time.
Lambing - What to Expect
In general, if you started with healthy ewes that have lambed at least once before, and you fed them properly during their pregnancy, you probably won't have any problems during lambing. 99% of the time, the ewes will have their lambs without your help.
However, there is the potential for complications during the birthing process, and you should be aware of that if you are going to breed sheep.
Some complications with lambing include:
- A breech birth, or other situation where the lamb is turned the wrong way in the birth canal - this situation almost always requires your assistance, which means that you must physically help to deliver the lamb by putting a gloved and lubricated hand into the birth canal of the ewe
- Dystochia - the death of the lamb as a result of the birth process, which requires removal of the dead lamb and special care given to the ewe, including antibiotics
- Ewe cannot milk - there are several factors that could contribute to a ewe being unable to produce milk for her lamb(s); whatever the reason, if the ewe cannot feed her offspring, you will have to do it for her
Getting ready to lamb: When a ewe's time to lamb is approaching, she will most likely refuse to eat her grain. She may also exhibit signs of discomfort or agitation, such as pawing at the ground, laying down and getting back up frequently, or being disinterested in the rest of the flock.
What does lambing look like? Labor in sheep doesn't look much different than in other mammals. The ewe may strain, push, breathe heavily, get up and lay down frequently; you might even get to see the water break.
What do the lambs look like when they come out? Ideally, the lambs should come out in the "Superman" position - nose and two front legs forward. The ewe will take care of cleaning them up, so don't step in to help when you're not needed.
Supplies for Lambing
Milk replacer, bottle and nipple for lambs, gloves for vaginal exams, J-Jelly or another water-based lubricant in abundance (you can’t use too much), syringes and needles, aluminum spray or Blue-Kote, fly spray appropriate for sheep such as Catron IV, rubbing alcohol, iodine antiseptic, bactericide and virucide soap, string or baling twine, Penicillin antibiotic appropriate for sheep if you can get it, Entrolyte H.E., Pepto-Bismol, large syringes for oral medications
Assisting with Lambing
The best advice I can give about assisting with lambing is this: If you've never done it before, have an experienced person like a farmer, herds-person or vet show you what to do.
That being said, the first time I helped to remove a lamb from a ewe happened to also be the first time I'd done a vaginal exam on a sheep. I didn't have any experienced person with me; I had my vet on the phone, which was helpful but not quite the same as having him there in person. So despite my advice, it's not impossible to learn to do something complicated without having someone there to show you.
Don't try to help a ewe deliver her lamb until you are sure that she needs help. This would mean that obvious labor has been taking place for more than 30 minutes with no progress, i.e., no lamb(s) coming out.
In the event that you decide that you must help a ewe to deliver her lamb, you should wear elbow-length gloves, apply lots and lots of lubrication to the gloves, and clean the ewes back-end and vulva, and your gloves, with anti-bacterial and anti-fungal soap. Gently and slowly insert your gloved hand into the ewe, and try to locate the lamb. You must determine the lamb's position by finding the head and feet. Lambs that are not coming out "Superman style" need to be adjusted; you will have to manipulate the lamb's positioning so that it can pass through the birth canal safely. Work quickly, work intelligently, try not to get upset or flustered, and remember that sheep are the oldest domesticated animal - so people have been doing this for thousands of years, and one person can do what another can do.
See how it can start to get pretty complicated, even scary?
That's why I recommend enlisting the help of an experienced person, if you can. I know that large animal vets can sometimes be hard to come by. If you can't find one, you can contact me personally, preferably before your ewes are giving birth, and I'll do what I can for you.