Last summer, my husband and I took the leap and decided to invest in our first herbivore for the farm.
We had done a lot of research about our various options, and decided that while cows were too labor intensive for where we were currently at, goats weren’t really our cup of tea, either. Well, they’re my cup of tea. He wasn’t sold.
We decided to invest in a flock of five Icelandic sheep. They are perfect for us on our small farm, as they don’t require a ton of pasture space and are remarkably easy to care for.
These docile creatures have a place on any small farm, if you ask me. They serve so many purposes (many of which we aren’t even taking advantage of) and don’t require a lot of know-how to raise.
So without further ado, here’s why you should raise sheep on your small farm or homestead.
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1. Their Personalities
Sheep are gentle and docile, perhaps more so than any other kind of livestock I’ve encountered. We had heard horror stories about aggressive rams and so at first approached our big boss, Thor, with caution at first.
Contrary to our assumptions, he was the biggest baby of them all. To this day, he will willingly approach us for a head scratch and then simply amble away, looking for another snack.
They also don’t require a ton of space. They make good use of land that would not ordinarily be consider pasture space, like brushy, weedy areas or rough hillsides. Just an acre can support a tiny flock.
2. Plenty of Breeds to Choose From
Depending on your goals in raising sheep, there are multiple breeds you can choose from. Do you want to get sheep as pets, or simply to keep your lawn cleared? Are you interested in raising them for milk, meat, or wool?
Whatever your goals may be, here are some options to choose from. Remember, you’ll want to consider your climate as well as the individual care needs for each of these species before you invest in a flock.
- Black Bellied Barbados
- East Friesian
- Finnish Landrace
- Border Leicester
3. Minimal Health Problems
While sheep, like any other kind of livestock, aren’t immune to health concerns, they are pretty low-maintenance as far as care goes. You’ll want to keep an eye out for potential health problems when you purchase your flock, but usually these are pretty easy to rule out with a quick physical examination and a history of the animal and it’s parents.
Here are some characteristics of a healthy sheep:
- Clear, bright eyes
- Intact, full teeth
- No lumps or swelling in the head
- Trimmed hooves
- Gait that is free from a limp
- Wide back and deep body
- Healthy udders in ewes
4. Easy to Feed
Sheep are ruminants. They mostly eat fresh grass and hay and can thrive if you feed them nothing except this with the occasional addition of a vitamin, salt, and mineral supplement. You’ll also need to provide plenty of fresh water, of course.
5. Minimal Fencing Needing
Sheep aren’t as curious as pigs, so you therefore don’t need any kind of extravagant fencing or housing system to keep them in. Mostly, your fencing system will be for the purpose of keeping predators out. You can rotate sheep throughout multiple paddocks to keep them on fresh pasture at all times.
During the hot months, you’ll want to provide them with some shade, and during the winter, they’ll need a minimum of a three-sided shed to protect them from the elements. The only exception is if your ewes lamb during the winter, which will require you to provide them with a more enclosed shelter.
6. Easy to Handle
Once you get the hang of it and understand the various personality quirks of your sheep, they are quite easy to handle. Sheep have patterns in movement that they like to follow. They prefer to be in open areas and away from confinement.
They’ll follow other sheep and are easiest to herd around curves where they can’t see what’s around the corner. They startle easily, but training sheep with food like grain or fruit is the best way to get them to trust you.
7. The Wool!
Sheep’s wool makes today’s more common synthetic materials look like a sham. Luckily, wool is often still used in fabric construction, and for good reason. It’s not only warm, but it helps absorb toxins, is recyclable and sustainable, and dries exceptionally fast.
Depending on the breed of sheep you decide to raise, the wool can be worth a whole lot of money or a whole not a lot of money.
We raise Icelandics, so while the wool isn’t as marketable as other types, it’s still saleable. Keep in mind that you may need to clean the fleece in order to be able to sell it, but you can often sell raw wool on Etsy or to local customers for use in spinning, insulation, or other purposes.
8. The Meat!
This was our main reason for purchasing sheep. We have moved away from buying all of our meat at the grocery store, and while we always have an ample supply or pork and chicken, our red meat supply was lacking, relying solely on my husband’s ability to shoot a deer each fall.
Lamb (and mutton, too) was our solution. Not only is this meat delicious, but it also sells for a premium – you’re talking a minimum of $8 a pound. If you can find a local market for it, you’ll be rolling in the dough. Plus, it’s a great way to feed your family in a nutritious, organic way, too.
Just remember – if you plan on selling meat or any other edible products from your sheep, you’ll want to adhere to USDA guidelines so you don’t find yourself in hot water.
9. The Milk!
Sheep’s milk is also nutritionally dense. Though often overlooked as a source of dairy, sheep’s milk has a variety of health benefits. Sheep’s milk has:
- Twice the calcium of cow’s milk
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin B
- Vitamin B-12
- Fat and protein
All of these nutrients help support your body’s bone development, nervous system, and overall healthy functioning.
While we don’t often consume sheep’s milk in the United States, it is commonly used to make cheeses like feta, ricotta, and Roquefort. It’s actually better for making cheese and yogurt than cow’s milk is because it has more solids in it.
10. The Money!
Aside from providing a great source of meat, milk, and wool for your family – as well as for your local market – raising sheep can be profitable in another way. You can sell the sheep themselves.
While you will want to keep an eye on your sheep to make sure they have good traits, like milk production, feed efficiency, positive demeanors, and fertility, raising sheep to be sold as pets or livestock is not difficult to do, particularly if you already have an established flock.
11. You Can Stash Your Lawn Mower
If you’re sick of mowing your lawn, just buy a couple of sheep. Seriously.
Sheep are great natural lawn mowers, and in many cases, you may be able to rent your sheep out to companies that want their properties cleared quickly and efficiently – as well as in an environmentally-friendly way. Many golf courses and solar farms have actually invested in sheep flocks to do their landscaping for them.
Sheep are great because they will leave no stone unturned in their quest for things to munch on. They’ll strip entire trees of their vegetation if they’re given the opportunity!
12. Free Fertilizer and Compost
Sheep manure is one of the best fertilizers you can use on your garden. Not only can sheep manure be spread raw (you don’t need to compost it like you might other types of manure, like chicken poop) but it is a great source of nitrogen. You can either spread sheep manure directly on your lawn or allow it to break down a bit in your compost bin.
Another option? By using rotational grazing you can rotate your sheep among pastures. Use a former pasture to grow crops while they till up a new section of land for you.
What You Need to Consider
While sheep are some of the easiest livestock you can raise, there are some factors you will need to keep in mind. Here are some tips for raising sheep that you may not have thought of:
- They need to be kept secure. Sheep are not the most intelligent species of livestock, and therefore need good fencing to protect them from predators like coyotes or wolves. Alternatively, you can consider a livestock guardian animal like a llama or a trained dog.
- They need regular pasture rotation. Failing to rotate the pasture of your sheep can result in parasite problems, which may require chemical deworming.
- They need more grooming than other kinds of livestock. Not only will you need to shear your sheep at least twice a year (yes, even hair breeds like Icelandics), you’ll also need to trim their hooves and sometimes their horns, if they have them.
- They can get stuck in things. Sheep like to follow each other into some pretty tricky situations as a result of their herd mentality. We have had sheep try to climb directly under the tractor while we’re putting out a bale of hay. We’ve also had some get their heads stuck in the chicken coop door, in their fence, and in other odd locations. You’ll want to check on them every now and then to make sure they aren’t up to something goofy!
- They can be challenging to care for in extreme weather. For the most part, sheep are hardy. Our breed of sheep in particular, the Icelandic, is extremely hardy. However, winter can be a bit difficult if you plan on lambs. Our ewes lambed in early April, which luckily, this year, was relatively warm (we have had some Aprils that have been accompanied by a foot of snow).
While we had a barn to herd the lambing ewes into when the time came, we were petrified with fear all winter that we wouldn’t get them inside in time. You’ll want to make sure you have the resources on your farm to help you for situations like these, and that you are supported with the right facilities, like a barn.
Once you have a handle on everything sheep need to be healthy, they are remarkably easy to raise. No livestock is free from challenges, but we have found our Icelandic flock to be one of the most enjoyable groups of animals we’ve ever raised. Although we started with only five sheep, we are now at a flock of eleven animals – within just ten months!
What other reasons (or challenges!) have you heard for raising sheep? Or, tell me – do you raise sheep? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!
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