Looking for the best sheep breeds for the farm? You’ve come to the right place. Of course, you probably already know that I’m a fan of Icelandic sheep – that’s what we raise on our farm.
However, in today’s guest post by Samantha Rainwater, you’ll learn about a few other options.
Here at J&R Pierce Family Farm, I think it’s important to connect my readers with valuable insight from other experts. Today’s post is a guest post brought to you by Samantha Rainwater.
Sheep are versatile farm animals with several different traits that make them appealing to raise. Keeping sheep is not only common among large and commercial farms, but small farms and homesteads also.
There are dozens of different breeds that are readily available within the United States, and there is a lot to consider if you want to start narrowing that list down to find your ideal breed or breeds.
**J&R Pierce Family Farm is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to allow sites to earn advertising fees by linking to products on Amazon. I often link to Amazon when recommending certain products, and if you choose to purchase, I may earn a small percentage of the sale. It costs you nothing extra, and all recommended products are ones that I personally vouch for. **
Why Add Sheep to Your Farm?
The primary reasons why sheep are kept are for their meat, dairy, and wool; although they are also kept for grazing and as show animals among small farms and homesteads. The first step in narrowing down your search is determining what your goals are for keeping sheep. Different breeds will be better for certain goals—many breeds are even suited for multipurpose goals.
Not all milk is created equal—sheep milk has different properties than cow or even goat milk, and it is used for different things. When compared to cow milk—which most of us have probably had before—sheep milk is thicker, creamier, and is more rich in certain nutrients. Calcium; vitamins A, B, and E; phosphorus; magnesium; and conjugated linoleic acid are all nutrients that sheep milk has more of when compared to cow milk.
Sheep milk is also used for making various types of cheese. Some cheeses that can be made from sheep milk include feta, Roquefort, pecorino, Manchego, and sometimes ricotta. You can also use sheep milk to make extra creamy yogurt; it can be used to replace almost anything you would normally make with cow milk.
A majority of sheep breeds have wool that continuously grows, meaning they will need help removing their thick coats once they become too fluffy.
Many breeds of sheep have been bred so that their wool will grow faster than it would have otherwise because we have many commercial uses for wool. Most breeds of wooly sheep that have wool will need to be sheared—the process of removing the wool coat—at least once a year. Many farmers choose to shear their sheep in the spring so that the sheep can stay cooler in the summer.
Once wool is collected from the sheep, it is usually spun into yarn. This process can either be don’t by hand or processed with the use of a spinning machine—a much faster process and a worthwhile investment if large quantities of wool are going to be processed. Once the wool is spun into yarn, we can use it for articles of clothing, blankets, and even furniture upholstery.
Another reason for raising sheep is to process them for meat. Many farmers who raise sheep for meat keep dual-purpose breeds so they can also collect wool and/or milk from the animals before slaughter. Any breed of sheep can be kept for meat, but some breeds are more ideal due to size and meat quality.
Sheep meat is often called mutton if the animals are over a year old before slaughter; if younger, the meat is called lamb. Sheep meat is considered a high-quality protein that is rich in iron, zinc, vitamin B12, and other nutrients. Sheep meat is often praised as one of the healthiest meats and is also said to be more flavorful than many other meat varieties.
Show or Sale
In addition to the uses mentioned above, many keep sheep for show, such as local and state 4-H fairs. Sheep are a common choice among the younger show crowd because many breeds are docile and easier to handle than other large animal varieties. These animals may be kept as family farm pets, or they may be sold during a show or at auction.
Some farmers raise sheep solely for the purpose of selling them. The market for sheep is high in some areas and demand is growing. Some individuals have the ability to process sheep, but have no desire to raise them themselves.
Others are willing to raise the sheep and sell them once they are weaned from their mothers, not wanting to do the processing themselves. This exchange of animals is generally done at livestock auctions, but some have working business relationships where a sale is already agreed upon before the sheep are ready.
Best Sheep Breeds for the Farm
Once you’ve decided on your primary motivation for keeping sheep, you can start to explore some of the best breeds available. Not all sheep have only one benefit, many have two or even three potential farming benefits that may work into your farming goals. Here are some breed options that excel in dairy, meat, wool, and in some cases a combination of these things.
1. East Friesian
If you’re looking to keep sheep for dairy purposes, the East Friesian may be one of your best options. These sheep are often claimed to have the highest milk production of any other breed worldwide, making them a popular option for the farmer who wants to harvest sheep milk.
Many commercial sheep farmers will keep sheep that were bred with one East Friesian parent because the offspring are likely to inherit the high milk production trait. However, East Friesians are not a very hardy breed which is why commercial farmers do not often keep full-bred varieties. On the other hand, small farmers have been known to keep East Friesians if they can care for them properly.
While the East Friesian is not often kept for their wool, they are a breed that requires sheering, meaning the wool must be cut off periodically to ensure it does not overgrow and become too heavy or unsanitary for the sheep. For some farmers, wool collection can be an added benefit if they want to harvest the wool—for other farmers, this can be a hassle though.
Lacaune sheep are another breed that is a good choice for the farmer who wants to raise sheep for their milk. This breed almost produces as much milk as the East Friesians, and it’s a very close second in that category.
One benefit that the Lacaune has over the East Friesian is that it’s a hardier breed, meaning the Lacaune will be easier to care for and will generally be less likely to contract disease. The milk that comes from Lacaune sheep tends to contain more fat than other sheep milk, which is a positive aspect for some.
Lacaune are wool sheep, but they have less wool than many other breeds and tend to shed the wool on their own, meaning that shearing will not be needed as often as with many other wool sheep. While they are not a good breed to raise for wool, you may get some wool from them every other season.
3. Delaine Merino
A good breed of sheep to raise if you primarily want to harvest wool is the Delaine Merino. This breed not only produces large quantities of wool quickly, but its wool is considered to be high quality. Aspects that make their wool higher quality are that it stays fairly uniform in length across the body and is soft, strong, and dense. These animals will typically need shearing once a year, but some may require more attention.
The Delaine Merino sheep is considered to be a hardy breed that can be cared for relatively easily. These sheep are also known for their ability to adapt to almost any environment, including extreme climates. Another benefit to this breed is that the females have good mothering instincts and are excellent at caring for their young.
Romney sheep are considered a dual purpose breed that are used for both their wool and their meat. The wool on Romney sheep is uniform across their bodies, making it easier to work with once sheared.
Their wool also hangs in separate locks and these locks don’t intertwine often—this also makes the wool easier to work with and spin once sheared. These sheep yield higher quantities of wool each season when compared to many other breeds, making them ideal for small farms that may not be able to keep many sheep.
Romney are also a good breed for meat because they produce lean cuts of meat which are generally preferable in sheep. These sheep also grow to maturity at a decent rate, meaning they are ready for processing sooner. The males, once mature, will range from 200 to 275 pounds and the females will be closer to 150 to 200 pounds.
Dorset are a multipurpose breed that are raised for their wool, milk, and meat. One reason why the Dorset is popular for its wool is because it is known for being pure white, free of any dark fibers. Their wool is also said to be strong and easily spun once it is sheared. These sheep usually need sheared once a year; two to four inches of wool is common each season.
Although they may not be the best option for milk, Dorset sheep are fairly well ranked in this category and can provide other benefits as well. The decent milking ability of these sheep also aids them in being good mothers—they are generally able to raise their own young without interference.
Dorset are also used for meat, primarily due to their fast-growing nature. These sheep are quick to mature and produce young quickly. This breed is said to be meaty and produce a decent quality meat. The males generally range in size from 225 to 275 pounds and the females stay around 150 and 200 pounds.
For some farmers, wool is a primary reason for raising sheep. For others, however, wool is more of a chore than a benefit if they are not planning on collecting and using the wool—sheep with wool will still need to be sheared. If you are looking for a meat sheep that has hair as opposed to wool, the Dorper may be a good option for you.
The meat that comes from Dorper sheep is considered excellent quality, and this breed also grows to decent weights when mature. Females average between 180 and 210 pounds, while the males generally range from 200 to 250 pounds. These sheep are heavy grazers, and they can grow to decent sizes even with grazing pastures as a primary source of food. Dorper sheep also easily adapt to almost any environment and conditions.
Wool or Hair?
When you picture a sheep, do you see a fluffy white animal covered in wool? Many pictorial interpretations of sheep depict them in this manner, but not all sheep have wool. There are breeds of sheep that have fur instead, which is really just a short version of the wool that only grows to a certain length, not indefinitely. These sheep are often referred to as ‘hair’ sheep, although it’s really more of a fur, like what you might find on a cat or dog.
The benefit to having sheep with short fur is that they will not need to be sheared like most other breeds of sheep to keep the wool from becoming overwhelming for the animal. The breeds of sheep that have hair as opposed to long wool are generally more popular for their meat, because the wool won’t be in the way for butchering—and that’s one less step in the process of caring for sheep.
In a natural setting, a sheep’s coat would not have grown indefinitely like it does today on a farm. In the wild, sheep grew short layers of wool to keep themselves warm in the winter, and many species would shed this coat once temperatures started to climb. Many of the sheep breeds we know today have been bred over time to produce nearly continuous wool which usually needs to be removed at least once a year.
These sheep could no longer live in the wild because the wool would continue to grow to the point where it would weigh them down, making it difficult for the animal to see, and making the animal generally unhealthy resulting in a shorter life span.
What are your favorite breeds of sheep to raise? Let us know in the comments!
Samantha Rainwater is a full-time business owner and recent mom who spends her free time writing. Her degree in Biology gives her a background in science, which she likes to apply on her small hobby farm. Writing about her experiences is one of her passions, and she finds joy in sharing her experiences with others.
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