12 lessons for a new sheep farmer

A flock of sheep grazing cornstalks. Photo credit: Lyndsey Smith, 2017

There’s a reason young and beginning farmers often choose to start a sheep enterprise — local demand for lamb is double what we produce, you can keep quite a few sheep on a limited land base, and they’re affordable livestock that reproduce quickly.

There’s also a reason that many new sheep farmers don’t last more than a few years — sheep, while productive, are the very opposite of easy-to-manage and raise. Let’s just say there’s a reason that any time someone needs an example of something needing continual care, they use sheep and lambs as an example, i.e. shepherding.

For me, I’m fulfilling a life-long dream of finally running my own livestock business. I’m in to year two, and cautiously optimistic that at the end of this year I may have more sheep than when I started (it’s the little things, people). A newbie in so many ways, I consider myself very lucky to have zero ego when it comes to sheep rearing, and thus ask a million questions. I also have the benefit of a partner who is NOT new to sheep. The two together mean that I’ve learned heaps in this last while, and, in the interest of those who may be thinking about diversifying into sheep raising, here’s a very long list of things you may or may not have considered. Enjoy.

  • Sheep are not stupid in all ways, they’re just super selective in applying their brain power. Case in point, I’m fascinated by the things they DON’T tangle themselves in. They will also always show you where the hole in the fence is…because when you round them up to walk them back in, they head straight for it. Weird, but handy.
  • Lambs can surprise you in their vigour and bounce, even in a tiny package, but the opposite also holds true. (Spoiler alert: prepare for heartbreak, made so much worse if you lamb in the winter. See the next point)
  • Be ready: A well-stocked lambing kit, medicine chest, and well-bedded, ventilated barn are your friends if you’re lambing in the cold months. When the lambing starts it happens fast and furious and even just two sets of triplets in a row can add a tonne to the workload. Pneumonia can hit hard and fast in the right conditions.
  • Soak it in: While a tonne of work, lambing is also my favourite part of sheep farming (second only to watching the flock move to a new section of pasture and then listening to them eat). On hard days, I take the five minutes to sit and watch the lambs. This is medicine for what ails ya. Trust me.
  • Online groups are amazing…until they’re not. Like any online interaction, tone and intent can be hard to convey. Tread carefully. Oh, and prepare for some woo. Not nearly like the horse or goat industry, but there’s just enough out there to have me shaking my head. When in doubt or if you need an answer ASAP, call your vet. Seriously.
  • Buy sheep that are already being managed under a similar management system to your own. As Steve Ernewein says, sheep are excellent at self-culling. Save yourself the loss, and don’t try and put barn sheep on pasture and expect them to thrive.
  • Keep good notes (more on this in an upcoming article). They have ear tags for a reason (beyond the rules, again, watch for an upcoming article). Whether you use a fancy-dancy electronic reader or not doesn’t matter — any tag means you can track an animal. From when she last had a lamb, to how many, to whether or not you marketed that lamb, to who she was bred to and so on and so forth, this is good info. Breeding groups, lambing percentage, age, death loss, performance, profitability…you can’t keep a handle on any of it without concrete numbers. Perception will always skew the numbers to the good.
  • Get to know your vet. This is going to be all but required soon (see more here), but herd health equals profitability.
  • On that note, do yourself a huge favour and study up on different parasite infection symptoms and major ailments of sheep and lambs. Look up/discuss: coccidiosis and white muscle disease, listeria, polio (of sheep), and acidosis.
  • A vaccination protocol is necessary. Full stop. Again, talk to your vet and experienced sheep farmers. Missing the Tasvax booster on pregnant ewes is very likely going to result in high mortality of lambs long past the first two weeks.
  • Lessons are expensive. Some of what I’ve written here, I’ve learned the expensive way (read: dead sheep) I am lucky to have a partner with years of experience with sheep farming, which has likely shielded me from many of the first-timers sins, but we’re also evolving this farm and its management. Every change requires learning. *sigh*
  • Sheep farmers are amazing people. I’ve met so many down-to-earth, helpful, fun, knowledgeable people in this industry so far, many of whom I now consider great friends, too. They’ve welcomed me and my newbie-ness, and rarely make fun of my dumb questions. Thanks for being my village, sheep farmers.

I could keep writing for a very long time, but it’s actually far better to have these discussions as discussions. Zip me a note, or comment here (or online) with your best advice for new sheep farmers, please. It’s always better when we learn together.

 

Lyndsey Smith

Lyndsey Smith is a field editor for RealAgriculture. A self-proclaimed agnerd, Lyndsey is passionate about all things farming but is especially thrilled by agronomy and livestock production.

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