CARING FOR YOUR SHEEP

 

        The following are my suggestions for caring for your sheep.  I am not a vet, or a scientist, or any kind of specialist – this information is based on my experience and research.  Every situation is different so you should always do your own research and absolutely consult a competent veterinarian concerning health issues.

          Also, just like people, every sheep is different.  Every farm is different.  Every sheep owner's personality is different.  There are no cookie cutter approches.   

SHELTER

           You don’t need a full size barn although it sure is nice.  A three-sided shelter is fine.   If you have a regular barn with stalls then you should also have an area outside that’s shaded.  An overhang off the barn works great (see pictures below).  

ewe stall
This is a picture of the ewe stalls - I say stalls because I have two 10 x 12 stalls connected with a door that can be opened and secured to all them free access to both sides or close it off if I need a sick room or an extra lambing jug.


ewe overhang

This is a picture of the overhang we built across the back of the main barn.  You can see the stalls open up and allow the sheep to go in and out.         

          In hot climates (is there anywhere in the US that doesn’t get hot at least once in a while? Okay Alaska maybe) it is a good idea to have a fan in each stall and cross ventilation fans in the barn (see pictures).  A fan not only gets the air moving but it keeps flies at bay.  On very hot days my sheep all line up in front of the fans – it’s a hoot!

stall fanbarn fan

The top picture if of the type of fan we put in each stall.  The bottom picture is the barn fan we use.  There is one mounted on each side.      

          I use pine shavings in my stalls.  Way better than straw.  Yes it does stick to their wool a little but so what?  I muck out all the stalls 2x a year and replace all bedding.  Once a month I sprinkle PDZ in each stall and under the overhang outside.  This neutralizes urine.  (www.sweetpdz.com.)   Hopefully your feed store carries it or can get it for you.  Occasionally State Line Tack has free shipping and they sell PDZ at a great price. 

          I do not lock my sheep up at night.  

PASTURE

          Mostly sheep eat grass, clover, forbs, and other pasture plants. They especially love forbs. It is usually their first choice of food in a pasture. A forb is a broad-leaf plant other than grass. Sheep are very selective in their grazing habits. Sheep have a split in their upper lip; with this they are able to pick the preferred leaves off the plant.

          Sheep will graze for an average of seven hours per day, mostly in the hours around dawn and in the late afternoon, near sunset.

          The amount of pasture or range land that it takes to feed a sheep depends upon the quality of the land (soil), the amount and distribution of rainfall, and the management of the pasture. In dry climates, an acre of pasture or rangeland cannot feed as many sheep as an acre of pasture in a moist climate. An acre of pasture in the wet season (spring and fall) can obviously feed more sheep than an acre in the dry season (usually summer)

          There are many published guidelines for how many sheep one acre of pasture can support.   The real answer is: “it depends.”  If you want to maintain good grass growth you will have to rotate pastures by either dividing up one larger pasture or creating 2 or more adjacent pastures.    Pasture Management is a big topic – too big for this little article.  Check out The Stockman Grass Farmer (www.stockmangrassfarmer.net).  It’s a great place to start educating yourself on the various pasture management theories.   

FENCING

          Fences serve two purposes – keep animals in and keep predators out.  Coyotes and dogs are smart  - they can dig under, jump over and risk getting shocked by climbing between wires.   The type of fence you choose can make the difference between raising your sheep successfully or losing them all to predators.  Never say it can’t happen to me.  

          Any pasture where you will have lambs will require a woven wire fence.  Check them out at either Premier1 (www.premier1supplies.com) or Stay-Tuff (www.staytuff.com.)

woven wire fence

This is a picture of the woven wire fence for the ewes and lambs.  It's a little hard to see I'm afraid.

          If you do not plan to have lambs in a particular pasture you can use a high tensile wire fence that you electrify.  I use a 7 wire fence as I found anything less allows escapes.  You only need to electrify every other wire.  

7 wire fence

This is our 7 wire high tensile fence for the rams and we use the same thing for our horse and donkeys.

          It is a good idea to have portable panels that can be configured into pens for sick animals, new animals, or for use as lambing jugs.  I use panels from North East Gate Mfg (www.northeastgatemfg.com.)  Check out Lazy J Ranch web site for pictures and ideas using these panels (www.lazyjranch.com.)   I purchased extra wall brackets and put them up where I might need temporary pens.  I put the brackets on the outside of the stalls under the overhang area and I put 2 sets of brackets in my hay stall.  During lambing season I clear out the hay on one side and set up two lambing jugs.  

PREDATORS

          In 2004, it was estimated that 224,200 sheep and lambs were killed by predators in the United States (USDA, 2007). Predation accounted for 37.3 percent of sheep and lamb death losses for the year. Coyotes were responsible for 51.7 percent of the total losses.  However, in terms of number of sheep operations affected, free-ranging or wild dogs may be the most common predator problem.

          Each predator species has traits peculiar to it. Coyotes typically attack sheep at the throat. Dogs are usually indiscriminate in how and where they attack.   Regardless of the predator or the method of attack, your any attacked sheep will be dead.   Most predators go for lambs (for obvious reasons).  

          A livestock guardian dog (LGD) will pay for itself 10x over.  Some of the more common breeds used in the U.S. include Great Pyrenees (France), Akbash and Anatolian Shepherd (Turkey), Komondor and Kuvasz (Hungary), Maremma (Italy), Polish Tatra (Poland), and Tibetan Mastiff (Tibet). Many of the breeds are related. 

          Unless you can wait for protection and have lots of time to devote to training –do not get a pup.  An LGD is born with its guarding instincts but it doesn’t become fully effective until about 2 years old.  It’s easy to find LGD’s who need new homes.  One group to join to learn more or look for a dog is the Yahoo Group WorkingLGDs.   

          I found that having one dog is not sufficient.  A coyote could easily use a decoy to distract the dog while another coyote circles around and attacks.  
Other animals are sometimes used as guardians, i.e. llamas, and donkeys.  Donkeys and llamas have an inherent dislike for dogs. In fact, any animal that displays aggressive behavior to intruding predators may be a deterrent.

Golda and bongo On Duty

This is Bongo and Golda.  They live with the ewes and lambs.

elka on duty

 This is Elka.  She lives with the rams.

          Running sheep and cattle together has been shown to reduce predator losses, but in order for mixed species grazing to be an effective deterrent to predators, the sheep and cattle must "bond" together. Young lambs can be bonded with cattle by penning them in confinement close to the cattle.   When bonded lambs and cattle are turned out to pasture, the lambs will follow the cattle. When they are threatened by a predator, the lambs will run and huddle among the cattle. A mixed group of cattle and sheep is called a "flerd."    

FOOD

          Hay

          If you’ve got a good stand of grass – there is no need to supplement with hay.  In summer and in cases where the pasture is not sufficient – you’ll need a good source for hay.  I prefer grass hay – alfalfa is too rich (and too expensive).   We are lucky here in Virginia – the hay season has been great.  We pay about $4 for a 50# bale.  That’s a far cry from the $22 for a 100# bale we paid in California.  

            Again, opinions vary, but I use the guideline of 1.5# of hay per 100# of body weight.  I estimate the weight of each sheep – add it up and divide by 100# then multiply by 1.5.  I split that into two feedings – am/pm.  You may already be wondering how you ensure that each sheep gets its share of the hay – short answer – you don’t.   Unless you were to feed each sheep separately there is no way to make sure that a 100# ewe gets 1.5# and a 50# ewe only gets .75#.  You just put it out and hope for the best.  

          Hay racks that have something underneath to catch the droppings are best.  Less waste.  Otherwise hay racks that hang on a fence are great.  Throwing hay on the ground is not a good idea because sheep are not too bright and they will urinate and poop on the hay.  Sheep have the wonderful ability to eat and pee or poop at the same time.

          Grains

          Grain is often fed to sheep with higher nutritional needs, such as pregnant ewes during late gestation, and nursing ewes.  Sheep love the taste of grain and can get sick if they eat too much grain too fast.  They can die if the bloat is severe.  Grain consumption needs to be regulated, introduced slowly and gradually increased.    

          Grains are unnecessary during normal conditions.  Hay, water and minerals are all your sheep need.
 
           Minerals

           There are a wide variety of minerals on the market.  Many minerals are especially for goats or sheep or horses etc.  Since I have horses, donkeys, goats and sheep, I buy a general-purpose loose mineral from Tractor Supply.  In order to use a mineral for sheep it must say on the bag that it is safe for sheep.  Sheep need copper but too much will kill them.  Goats can tolerate much higher degrees of copper.  

          I keep a mineral feeder in every stall.  The animals take what they want.  I do not use mineral blocks because they don’t last very long and they don’t get enough of what they need each day by just licking a solid block.   You will save money by using the loose minerals.  

          I also provide free choice baking soda.  When they get an upset stomach (all 4 of them and 3 are actually rumens) – they will automatically go to the baking soda.

           Water

          Fresh water is a must.    A typical sheep will consumer a couple of gallons of water each day.  For that reason, and because I hate schlepping buckets of water – I use automatic waterers.  I bought the heavy black tubs from Tractor Supply and separate float valves that are attached to the tub and a water source.   The tub automatically fills itself as the animals drink.  Once a week I scrub the tub as it tends to grow algae and I keep a small strainer with a handle nearby to scoop out leaves and bugs.  

water bowel

This is one of the automatic waterers we have set up.  Below is a picture of the kind of water outlets we had installed all over the place.

 

water

           Winter is a bit tricky.  The water does freeze – so we have to shut off the water when we know the temp will drop below freezing lest you have burst pipes.   So each morning I remove the layer of ice and then schlep buckets of warm water to each water tub.  I have a hot water heater in my barn office so if I’m lucky and the lines are not frozen I can get my hot water from the barn.  If they are frozen – you guessed it – schlepping buckets from the house to the barn.  I carry two 3 gallon buckets at a time and make about 3 trips (I have 5 water tubs.)  I repeat the process in the evening.  If you are lucky and only have one or two water tubs you can buy a heating device which will keep the water from freezing – I don’t think it actually heats the water though and ice cold water – just like hot water is not high on a sheep’s list of favorites.   You will also need an electrical source.  

         Treats

          Sheep seem to love most all fruit as well as carrots.  I also keep a large container of animal crackers around – yup – animal crackers.  They love them.  So do the horses, donkeys, goats and dogs.   They are easy to use for training.    I use grain sparingly as a treat.  Mainly to herd them from one place to another.

GROOMING

         Shearing

          Sheep are usually sheared once per year, usually before lambing or in the spring before the onset of warm weather. Sheep with long fleeces are sometimes sheared twice a year.

          Sheep grow wool continuously. If they are not sheared at least once a year, they become very stressed and uncomfortable, especially when it is hot and humid. Eventually, the wool will become matted and more difficult to remove.
Hair sheep do not require shearing because they lack sufficient wool fibers or because their coats naturally shed. However, crosses between hair sheep and wooled breeds need to be sheared.  Therefore the Barbado Dolls do need to be sheared.  Their fleece is not good for spinning.

         A professional shearer can shear a sheep in less than 2 minutes and will remove the fleece in one piece. The world record for shearing sheep is 839 lambs in 9 hours by Rodney Sutton of New Zealand (2000) and 720 ewes in 9 hours by Darin Forde of New Zealand. The most sheep shorn in an 8 hour period using hand blades is 50 by Janos Marton of Hungary (2003).

          Most shearers travel around.  A good source for finding a shearer by state is at www.nebraskasheep.com. You’ll pay around $8 or so per sheep just for shearing.  It’s well worth the price.
Shearing Zach         

This is a picture of Zach being sheared this year.

Nail Trimming

          Hoof growth is affected by the breed and genetics of the sheep, soil moisture and soil characteristics. Sheep grazed on rocky, dry soil may not require the extent of hoof care needed for sheep on soil that is free of rocks and higher in moisture content. Sheep in high rainfall areas will need to have their hooves inspected more regularly than those on dry ground. How often will depend on the specific conditions.

          A good pair of shears is important.  You can find them on line at almost all livestock supply stores.

          I have the shearer trim hooves at the same time he shears.  He charges a couple of dollars per animal.  Again – well worth the price.  I keep an eye on their feet and if I notice overgrowth I trim.  Any time I have to handle a sheep for any reason I use the opportunity to check feet.  The rate at which hooves will grow out varies with the type of ground they are on and genetics.    I know breeders who trim monthly.  I think that the more you trim the more the hooves grow – just my own philosophy.  Twice a year has been sufficient for my flock and I have not any foot problems.

          Crutching

          Crutching is a process of shearing or trimming only the area around the anus and also the teats.  It is a good idea to do this before lambing starts.   I generally have my sheep sheared in Mid-March which is prior to lambing so I don’ t need to trim them again.  But if I see their fleece getting dirty around the butt – I trim it down.    I also sometimes trim the fleece around the eyes on my Babydolls in order to prevent wool blindness.

HEALTH ISSUES

          Parasites

          Gastro-intestinal parasites (i.e. worms) are usually the primary disease affecting sheep and lambs. Sheep are more susceptible to internal parasites than most other types of farm livestock for several reasons. Their small fecal pellets disintegrate very easily thus releasing the worm larvae onto pastures.  There’s a lot to learn about the different worms.  The best place to learn all you need to know is www.wormboss.com.  It’s an Australian site.  The Aussies have been at the bleeding edge of all sorts of research involving sheep.  I would take their recommendations without any reservations.   

           Sheep graze close to the soil surface and to their feces. They are slow to acquire immunity. It takes 10 to 12 months for most lambs to develop immunity to parasites. Sheep also suffer a loss of immunity at the time of lambing, which does not restore itself until approximately four weeks after lambing.

            Heavy stocking rates and insufficient pasture rest periods further contribute to the incidence of parasitic disease in sheep and lambs. Internal parasites tend to be much less of a problem under range-type conditions where sheep do not graze the same pasture twice in the same grazing season. They are also less of a problem in arid regions, because parasites require moisture for their development.

            In the past, most breeders relied heavily on anti-parasitic drugs, called "anthelmintics" to control internal parasites in their flocks. But the long-time use and in some cases misuse of these drugs has resulted in parasites that have become increasingly resistant to anthelmintics. Drug resistance has been documented in all three-drug families and is most commonly reported with ivermectin and the benzimidazoles.

            In the U.S., few anthelmintics are FDA-approved for use in sheep and lambs, and no new drugs are likely to be developed. As a result, we all must develop more integrated programs for controlling parasites, which do not rely exclusively on drug therapy.

          The current recommendations are to only use drugs when worms are found at a sufficient load to be harmful to the animal.  How do you know that – you have to have a fecal egg count done.  No getting around it.  

          You can either do your own test or send out samples to a local lab which you can find through your extension office.  The labs charge around $8 per sample.  To do your own fecal analysis, you need a microscope, flotation solution, mixing vials, strainer, stirring rod, slides, and cover slips. You do not need an elaborate microscope. 100X power is sufficient. You can purchase flotation solution from veterinary supply companies or make your own by mixing a saturated salt or sugar solution. Your mixing vials can be jars, pill bottles, film canisters, test tubes, or something similar. You can use a tea strainer or cheesecloth to strain the feces. The stirring rod can be a pencil or popsicle stick.

            If you want to count eggs, you want to get a McMaster Egg Counting slide available HERE. The McMaster slide has chambers that making egg counting easier. The Paracount-EPG™ Fecal Analysis Kit with McMaster-Type Counting Slides is available for $40 from the Chalex Corporation.

           Since fecal counts only estimate the parasite load, there is no clear-cut level at which worming is indicated. As a general guide, a level of about 500 eggs per gram of feces would indicate that worming is needed for sheep. A more effective way of deciding when to treat would be to monitor fecals every 4-8 weeks and deworm when there is a dramatic rise in egg counts.

          The FAMACHA© system was developed in South Africa due to the emergence of drug-resistant worms. The system utilizes an eye anemia guide to evaluate the eyelid color of a sheep (or goat) to determine the severity of parasite infection (as evidenced by anemia) and the need for deworming.  The test is only valid for Barber Pole worms and you cannot get a chart unless you take one of the classes on how to use it.

          The best way to manage parasites is to remove the breeding ground which is animal manure.  That’s why I clean my pastures every day.  I have a great compost pile going.  Should be able to provide compost for the entire state of Virginia in another year….

          One note here about cleaning pastures.  The 2 hours I spend cleaning the sheep pasture and “lounging area,” allows me to observe a lot of things.  First, I can observe the overall health of the sheep and the LGDs.  I take time to scratch and feel both dogs – looking for lumps etc.  I also observe how the sheep walk – does anyone need a pedicure.  I check out the manure of the sheep and the dogs looking for anything unusual.  I also check out the condition of the fence – looking for breaks or holes.  And finally I look for anything in the pasture that the sheep could hurt themselves on.  I’m always amazed at what seems to bubble up from under the earth.  Glass, pieces of metal, a hairbrush.  So I like to walk the pastures regularly.

          Tail Docking

          Tails are a natural part of sheep. Almost all lambs are born with tails. The length of a lamb's tail is halfway between the length of its mother's tail and its father's tail. In fact, tail length is a highly heritable trait. Eighty-four percent of the differences in sheep tail length are due to genetics.

          The purpose of the sheep's tail is to protect the anus, vulva, and udder from weather extremes. Sheep lift their tails when they defecate and use their tails, to some extent, to scatter their feces. The tail does not interfere with breeding or lambing.

          Under modern sheep production systems, tails are usually docked (shortened) to prevent fecal matter from accumulating on the backside of the sheep, which can result in fly strike (wool maggots).

          I DO NOT DOCK TAILS.  FLY STRIKE IS NOT A MAJOR PROBLEM IN THE U.S.  – IT IS A PROBLEM IS THE U.K., IRELAND AND SCOTLAND.

Cheviot Doll wethers2

This is what a real tail looks like - not docked.  You can see it comes to about the hocks which is within the recommendations I have read on Australian web sites. 

          Scours

          Scours is the sheep version of diarrhea.  Lots of things can cause it – from what they eat to disease.  A good self-help book on how to diagnose and treat is important.  Most times the problem clears itself but sometimes there is something more serious going on.  Pepto Bismal works in sheep as well as people.   

          You will know your sheep has scours two ways.  First by looking at its poop!  It’s one of the reasons I clean the pasture – so I can get a good look at what’s coming out the other end of my sheep.  The other way to look at their butts which you should do regularly.  If they have “poopy butt” (if you have a dog you’ll understand what that is) – then you have a problem.  In addition to dealing with the scours you need to get the butt cleaned off because the mess will attract green bottle flies (fly strike).  

          Vaccines

          This is another area of great controversy.  There are a number of recommended vaccines for a variety of problems.  I don’t do it.  I have a closed flock and I don’t take them to shows or petting zoos or to Starbucks.   Second, they don’t come in contact with rabid critters unless it’s my LGDs and they are only rabid at dinnertime…..

          There is no vaccine for the really deadly diseases like Scrapies.  Every sheep owner must do what they feel is best after doing their own research.   Most vets will tell you that your sheep need all the vaccines.    

          Flies

          If you have any animal, you have flies.  Flies love animals and they love animal poop.  As you might already suspect, I do not use any chemicals to deal with flies.  There are several good alternatives however – some less painful than others (to you that is.)  First, I use fly predators.  These are tiny little creatures that love fly larvae.  There are several companies that sell these.  I use Spaldings (www.spalding-labs.com) but there are others.  The principal is the same.  You spread them around before fly season gets started and then monthly thereafter through the summer.  They do work somewhat.

          The other product I’ve found is called Cedarcide (www.cedarcide.com.)  It’s a cedar oil product and you can use it to spray the barn stalls and the sheep in fact.  I do not go out to the pastures without first spraying myself.  You will smell like a cedar closet but there are worse things to smell like…. It seems to work reasonably well – not a miracle product as touted on its web site but good enough.  I spray the stalls once a month.

          The real trick to getting rid of most of the flies is to get rid of the manure.  I have a small enough area (1.5 acres for the sheep plus their veranda) that I can and do clean it every day.  I get a muck bucket full of manure each day and I know I don’t get it all.  I also clean my horse and donkey pasture every day.  Call me crazy but it helps and I’ve lost 15 pounds since moving to the farm.  

          Teeth

          This really isn’t an issue.  But its helpful to know how to estimate the age of your sheep if it is one you did not breed yourself. 

         Telling Age With Teeth    

            Lamb      4 pair of Incisors    
            1 year      middle pair of Incisors    
            2 years      2nd pair of permanent Incisors    
            3 years      3rd pair of permanent Incisors    
            4 years      4th pair of permanent Incisors    
            5 years      all permanent Incisors close together    
            6 years      Incisors begin spreading apart    
            7-8 years      some Incisors broken    
            10-12 years      all Incisors missing


 LAMBING

          So you think you want to breed your own lambs?  Okay but be prepared because in spite of what is often said about Babydolls being “easy lambers” – problems do, and will, come up.  You may have to deliver the lamb.   Babydolls usually mate in the fall and after a 5-month pregnancy (lucky girls) – they deliver in the Spring.  

          Ewes usually give birth to 1 to 3 lambs.  Twins are common in well-fed flocks and with most breeds of sheep. First-time moms, especially yearlings, are more likely to have single births.  Ewes produce their largest litters of lambs when they are between the ages of 3 and 6.  Having more than 2 lambs is not a good idea since the mother is only capable of easily feeding 2 and any others may have to be bottle fed (think feedings every 2-4 hours round the clock).  In Babydolls, the lambs can weigh anywhere from 4 to 10 pounds.  Large lambs are not a good idea.

          Under ideal circumstances, the lamb is perfectly positioned and the ewe can easily deliver with no problem.  Often you will find the mom and lamb(s) when you go down to feed in the morning.  However, if the lamb is not positioned right you may have to assist.  I strongly recommend that if you plan to breed you make arrangements to assist a goat or sheep breeder during lambing/kidding season to get some hands on experience.

HELPFUL INFO

          Definitions

          Ruminant :    An animal with a multiple-compartment stomach containing microbes (bugs) that are able to digest forages

          Ram:               male of breeding age
          Wether:          castrated male
          Ram lamb:     immature male
          Ewe lamb:      immature female
          Lamb:             newborn
          Flock :            group (3 or more)
          Tupping :       act of breeding
          Lambing:       act of parturition (giving birth)

          Biological Traits

        Birth weight                                      5 - 8 lb.
        Weaning age                                     2 - 3 months
        Life span                                            6 -14 years (well kept sheep have lived more   than 20 years)
        Chromosome number                      54
        Average Temperature                      102.5
        Average Respiration Rate                16 breaths per minute
        Average Pulse Rate                           75 beats per minute
        Urine                                                   10 - 40 ml/kg body weight
        Teeth                                                   Mature sheep have 32 teeth, including 4   pairs of lower incisors, but none in their upper front jaws; a hard dental paid replaces the absent upper incisors

RESOURCES

          The key to being successful is knowing where to look for information and get help quickly.  There was a time when I knew nothing about sheep other than you got lamb chops from them (which I no longer eat…)

          There are a number of good books to help you muddle through the learning curve and help you in an emergency.  Here are my favorites:

          Storey’s Barn Guide To Sheep:  This is my favorite.  It has step-by-step instructions with pictures for doing such things as giving injections, hoof trimming and catching a sheep.  I keep this at the barn at all times.  If you get nothing else – get this.

          Natural Sheep Care by Pat Coleby:  If you don’t think much of homeopathic remedies – don’t buy this book.  Hers is a common sense and natural approach to caring for sheep.  

          Storey’s Guide to Raising Sheep:  A basic book that should be on the shelf of anyone raising sheep.

          Hobby Farms Sheep – Small-Scale Sheep Keeping for Pleasure and Profit by Sue Weaver:  A great introduction – easy to read, gives a good overview of what sheep are and how to care for them.

          Sheep – A Complete Owners Manual by Hans Alfred Muller:  This is far from a complete owners manual but brief and to the point.  It was actually originally written in German.  

          Homeopathy in Veterinary Practice by K.J. Biddis MRCVS :  I love this very small pocket book.  The author is British – and the Brits know sheep.  It’s an easy to read and understand quick reference for the most common illnesses.  I keep a homeopathy kit with all the basic remedies on hand.

          The Pocket Manual of Homeopathic Veterinary Medicine by Edwd. H. Ruddock, M.D. :  Another Brit – and this little gem was published in New Dehli of all places.  I guess they have sheep there.  Anyway – I use this in conjunction with one by Dr. Biddis.  

 

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS:  Many thanks to Susan Schoenian Sheep & Goat Specialist at the University of Maryland's Western Maryland Research & Education Center in Keedysville, Maryland.   Much of the information here came from her web sites.  I encourage you to visit the web sites and sign up for her regular emails.  

www.sheepandgoat.com

www.sheep101.info

www.sheep101.info/201/