Last updated: January, 2021
Dreaming of sheep on your farm but curious how to handle them? Or already have some and want to know some information on how to take better care of them? This page will cover some basics of sheep care from feed, to shelter, to lambing! Know that the information provided on this page is for informational purposes only. This page will be updated from time-to-time as we continue our learning experience.
Consult a veterinarian for any professional opinions and advice about your sheep!
Sheep Shelter, Feeding and Watering
Sheep need shelter, especially from shivering cold and sweltering heat and raging thunderstorms. Sheep are quite smart believe it or not! They can handle some rain, some chill, some heat, but once it gets too much, they’ll be looking for shelter to get under. In the field while out and about eating grass, the only shelter you may need is trees for shade or even a small, portable shade shelter if you can build one. For us in Texas and the South, the heat is the biggest concern; but, having a permanent shelter can be beneficial in a few ways:
- Sheep secured at night to help prevent predator attacks
- Secure area to round up sheep for giving medicine, feeding, etc.
- A “sacrifice” area if the field needs time to regrow grass especially in spring
We bring our sheep out of the barn area every morning and bring them in every night. It’s where we keep them to give them grain, hay in the winter, shade in the hottest days, and also to keep mothers safe with their lambs.
We were fortunate to have a barn on the property when we bought it. However we also built a shelter to go into the second pen. We are not carpenters by much of the imagination, but this helps keep the sheep dry when we get a rolling thunderstorm and can stuff it high with bedding to keep them warm in a chilly winter day. A small shelter combined with a fenced-in area can serve as your base of operations! The permanent fencing does not have to be huge to begin with, especially with a small number of sheep. You can always expand later, start small with a sound budget.
We also have a side pen, the previous owners built it for their donkey. The shelter can hold about 3 to 4 adult sheep comfortably to sit down in. The fenced-area is enough to hold that many adults plus a few babies overnight before they would be let out to eat grass. If you aim for at least 20 square feet per adult sheep you’ll be doing good with spacing. More is always better as more space is less crowded, but has to be balanced with cost, size of your land, space available, etc.
Once you have your sheep and a secure shelter and fence area what will you do to get them in and out every day? If there’s one thing sheep love, it’s grains! The types of grain sheep like will be covered later on in the article, but you can use corn or oats or sorghum (also called milo). Have a sturdy metal bucket with a small amount of grain and lure them to where you want them to go in the field. Eventually they’ll make the connection, and you’ll only have to use the bucket if they’re being particularly ornery. More on sheep training will be covered at the bottom of the article.
Feeding and Watering
Sheep are grass-eaters, but will also eat other things. Our sheep here like to eat giant ragweed, dandelion-like plants, wild cabbage, and many other things. Sheep are not as wide-selecting as goats generally, but aren’t too fussy about picking plants besides grass. And just like us, sheep have a variety of nutritional requirements, such as proteins, minerals, fats, salt, fiber, vitamins etc.
Sheep will be quite content eating pasture grass and, during the winter, hay. Our sheep are out in the field eating most of the year given our warmer climate. During the winter though, we let the field rest and give them hay. Hay can be many types as well, depending on your area. There’s Bermuda/coastal grass hay, native grass hay, ryegrass hay, wheat hay, and many more! There’s also legume hay such as alfalfa, clovers, soybeans, peanuts, etc. Legume hays are generally more expensive, save that hay for feeding to pregnant and lactating ewes.
To make sure your pasture and hay are suffice though you’ll likely need to get a forage analysis. Consult your local agricultural extension for more information. In Texas, you can get forage and soil analysis done here (for a fee).
So if you did a forage analysis, or already know you’re deficient what can you do? You’ll have to supplement your sheep’s feed to keep their health adequate and thriving. This may mean supplementing grains and legumes for energy and proteins. For pregnant ewes especially, adequate nutrition is a must if you want them to have a healthy pregnancy and lambs!
There’s a wide variety of grains and legumes sheep are able to eat including (but not limited to):
- Sorghum (milo)
- Sunflower seeds
Each one has a different nutritional profile with differing energy, protein, minerals, etc. We started with feeding a combination of oats and soybean meal, but have moved to regionally grown sorghum as our grain of choice and soybean meal. A sheep ration spreadsheet is very helpful in calculating a basic ration, but always consult a veterinarian for professional nutritional advice.
Lastly we’ll touch on water and minerals. It’s easy to say, sheep should have access to clean water in the barn and field or where ever they are and in as much as they need. We have to haul our water to the barn by lawnmower with a trailer. And we haul water to the field by hand. Water needs increase in hotter weather so be wary!
For minerals, a sheep mineral block provided for them to lick gives them what they need for extra salt and minerals the pasture doesn’t. Do not get a goat block as it may contain copper that in excess amounts can be toxic to sheep.
Sheep Health and Lambing
So far our experience has been that Barbados Blackbelly are a hardy sheep variety. We have had some health scares with our older ewes, but they have recovered with adequate treatment and care. The potential health problems you may encounter are numerous. You not only have to deal with old age, disease, but also with parasites and other general health issues such as accidents or wounds from a dog attack.
We’ll touch on parasites a bit. No sheep is 100% parasite-resistant! Sheep have parasites and are likely to pick up parasites from just living and grazing in a field. The question is when do you intervene? A lot anti-parasitical medicines don’t work as well as they used to due to over-use in the past. So a lot of work now must be preventative. We practice pasture rotation (moving ideally every 2-3 days), keep grasses at least 4-6 inches tall when they graze, pasture rest as much as possible, and clean out their barn area frequently. The manure and bedding is then composted away from the barn to help prevent accidental re-contamination. Above all though, good nutrition is required to fight off any infection!
However if your sheep do fall ill, it can be tricky to know when to intervene. For something like barber pole worm the FAMACHA scoring (PDF warning) provide a guide for when to seek medicines for this specific issue. For other concerns, developing a business relationship with a local livestock veterinarian is a good choice. They’ll be able to tell you what parasites are frequent in your area, what to look out for, and how to treat them if necessary.
We’ve been very fortunate so far in the lambing experience. Barbados Blackbelly sheep are known for having an easier time to lamb, lamb multiples, and be good mothers to their babies. We’ve only been able to witness a few births in real time, and once the mama ewe is ready to push, it’s over quick!
Generally when the ewe is getting close to birth, her big belly will start to sag, her hip bones may be more prominent and stick out a bit, and over a couple days (or even overnight) the milk drops into the udders. It’ll be sudden if its a big drop. You may see she’ll be eating, drinking as normal, continue to offer her rations and water. If you choose to separate her from the flock, set her up in her own stall with food and water and fresh bedding. We’ve mistimed our sheep’s births and have had field-births after we let them out to eat. So long as both the ewe and baby are fine and brought in later, there shouldn’t be too much fuss.
It’s a good idea to have some lambing supplies on hand though just in case anything goes wrong. You can create your own lamb supply that has: a milk bottle with nipple, lamb colostrum and milk replacer, lamb stomach-tube, disposable gloves, iodine (disinfectant), flashlight, paper towels, old blankets, garbage bags for any trash, afterbirth etc. Heat-lamps are generally not advised due to fire risk. You can instead have a small blanket to wrap around the lamp or a lamb coat. Have it all ready and available along with your veterinarians’ after-hours number in your phone too!
Post-lambing, do a clip, dip, strip. This phrase means, with sanitary scissors, clip long umbilical cords (to 1-2 inches long), dip the cord into an iodine solution for sanitation, and “strip” the ewe’s teats. Though it’s never been a problem for us, sometimes wax can clog a teat, preventing milk from coming out. This strip allows you to see that some colostrum is being made.
Over the next several hours keep an eye on the lamb and ewe. Are the babies content and showing appropriate behavior such as: strong suckle instinct, getting up with ease, stretching their limbs when they stand? Other common healthy behaviors include alert ears, curiosity (keep in mind anything that might be a danger to a baby lamb!), warm mouth, and even some running or jumping. Are ewes paying attention to their lambs? Are they allowing them to drink? Frequently lambs will only take a short drink before running off. Lambs who cry a lot, have a hunched back, cold mouth, weak or no suckle-reflex are lambs where something may be wrong. There’s a few things that can go wrong with lambs post-birth, be sure to read up on them and remedies so you can be prepared.
Sheep 201 has an excellent article on the lambing process; as you handle more births, you’ll be able to utilize your experience for your flock and be better able to intervene to help aid both the ewe and lamb. Some experiences are hard to cover over text and even picture or video. Keep your notes on both good and bad experiences and review them when the need arises.
Popular culture tells us “Sheep are dumb!” But once you work with sheep, get to know your herd, and they get to know you, you’ll find they are quite smart and full of curiosity! However, that also means having to deal with sheep that test you.
Rams are dangerous. No matter how friendly they may seem, never turn your back on a ram. Even without horns, they have the advantage in headbutting and if they headbutt your knees, you can be looking a trip to the hospital with busted shins and other injuries from falling down. Keep your handling of your rams to the minimum needed for husbandry and care such as administering medicine. He should know you’re in charge when he’s haltered for care and that you’ll leave him be once he’s free from it.
Never enact violence such as hitting or taking down a ram when he has done nothing. Doing so makes a mean ram and why wouldn’t he be? It’s like if you hit another person, expect to be hit back. If however he tests you by making charging motions, charging behavior like turn his ears behind him, or has actually gone and headbutted you, that is the only time it is okay to show his actions are wrong. Some people use the metal feed pan to bob them on the head (they are hard-headed, so it won’t cause brain damage), some use a take down method. Whichever method you do, be consistent, be fair, and only do what is necessary to get the point across in the immediate moment. Do not go after your ram for headbutting you when he did it 15 minutes ago; he won’t connect the dots. Again, never assume your ram won’t try to test you or other people. Don’t turn your back on him, don’t leave children unsupervised around him. Show him respect.
Our training for our sheep mostly consists of them getting in and out of the barn, in and out of the electric fence, and moving them to the side pen if need be. For that we start young, start early, and are consistent. Herd behaviors are cultural, lambs will learn from their parents on what behaviors are expected. If you let your sheep out every day to eat, the lambs will learn your routine by following mama ewe.
For those who need to learn, use a grain bucket. First is setting the stage. Get inside the barn, give them a small amount of grain a few times a week for a couple weeks. This will get them used to you, wanting to eat grain, and recognizing the bucket as something to follow. You can also set up a command like “Sheep, come” as you shake it.
Next, set up your area first very close by, such as an electric fence, leave it open, and place a feed pan inside. Get a scoop of grain in your bucket and shake it. The sheep should come running to the barn door or be excited to see it. When you open the barn, shake it in the direction they should go. Go into your fence area and put the rest of the grain in. They should mostly go running to it. Stragglers can be coaxed gently to go and follow everyone else. Once they’re all in, turn on the electric fence. Then you’ll need to keep an eye on them for a while and make sure they’re good to go. For the first few times you do this, leave them in there only part of the day and expand it such as: Day One for 1 hour; Day Two for 2 hours; Day Three 6 hours, etc.
Over time you can move your fence further and further away, but those first few times, keep it really close so they know where to go, how to get back, and are less likely to get distracted. Most of our sheep are at the point now where they’ll actively seek out the electric fence netting and rush right in to go eat grass. Others still need to be coaxed. We still give everyone some grain as a supplement once a week to help reinforce the overall behavior and as part of their nutrition. They aren’t all perfect and some still wander around, but it gets better with patience and time.
Informational sources we like:
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