If you haven’t read the beginnings of how I ended up with sheep, first go read that story!
I chose hair sheep after long and careful consideration. Being a small farmer, starting with a single ewe and her lambs, it would not have been easy to deal with the yearly or biyearly shearing of a few sheep. Nor would it have been cost efficient. Shearing a trio of sheep could cost $30 and the wool could end up being worth nothing if it wasn’t cared for appropriately while the sheep was wearing it! I knew I wasn’t ready for that, so I found the breed “Katahdin.”
These lovely hair sheep lose their coat every spring. During the summer, their coat is coarse and short to repel rain and keep them cool. In the winter, the grow in a soft, woolly coat up to three inches thick. Like wool sheep, this coat of hair repels moisture through an oil known as “lanolin.” This oil keeps the rain and snow from wetting them down too much, helping to keep them warm. The three inch deep hair then insulates them so well that snow doesn’t even melt off their backs!
Katahdin sheep are easy keepers: They eat grass and a few handfuls of grain and give you beautiful lambs in the spring with nary a single cry other than to ask “Where’s my snack?!” It’s a pretty darn exciting thing to walk up to the pasture on a cold February morning, still dark, with snow covering them ground to find your ewes lambing, unassisted, and cleaning off their newborns with their only worry being to dry off that little lamb and get it standing and eating. They are incredible creatures and wonderfully instinctive.
I provide my sheep with a shelter from the elements, but they aren’t often inclined to bother with it. On hot days, the sheep find a breezy, shady spot to pant for the afternoon. On raining days, they’ll be out eating grass in the pasture. When it’s snowing, they’ll be laying out there chewing their cud, entirely not bothered. Just about the only time they mind the weather is when the wind starts howling on the colder or wetter days. Then they’ll gratefully use the shelter.
They have full run of the pasture right now, but this winter, they will be confined to the front section to help the pasture heal. Once the grass starts growing, I’ll begin rotating them through the pasture, paddock by paddock. Rotating them around the pasture rather than giving them free reign to the entire area encourages them to eat more than just the “candy grass” and makes them eat a more rounded meal. Some grasses taste better than others, but has more sugar, while others have more nutrients and taste less delectable, so the sheep skip that on the first pass if they have access to the whole pasture.
In September, I take off the ram’s silly apron that prevents accidental lambs, and let him get down to business. In the past, Sam would have completed his duties in a few days and in February, I’d have lambs all on the ground in a week or two. This year, Cork is in charge. Being a young fella, we will see how he does with completely his duties. Hopefully, the lambs won’t be born too far into the spring, but again, Katahdins are good at what they do, so I don’t think there will be much of a problem.
During the months the ewes are in milk with their lambs, I feed alfalfa pellets to give them the necessary protein they need to stay in good condition while caring for the hungry babies. Once the lambs are gone or grown and the cold sets in, out comes the real good stuff, the grain! Sheep go crazy for grain! They will trip over each other to get to the grain bucket and potentially take out the food-lady to get their share! The sheep get a few cups of grain per day to help them stay warm through the cold winter nights and give them the extra calories through the duration of their pregnancy.
Once the lambs are born, I give them a few weeks to build up their strength before I manhandle them too much. But once they are found strong and healthy, the boys go from being rams, to being “wethers,” meaning they don’t get to keep their testicles, which lead to meat having quite a bit of flavor. The lambs grow to about 9 months old, and the ewe lambs are kept behind with their mothers and the wethers head to the butcher. Sheep are considered “lambs” until they are one year old. So when you see “lamb” for sale at the store, it’s not a little baby they slaughtered, it’s a sheep who is often 75% full grown, but just under a year.
The sheep on the farm here at WPP get to stay with their mothers until the day they go to the butcher. I allow the ewes to decide when to wean their lambs. For the most part, the ewes get tired of being thrown around when their nearly full grown lambs head butt their udders in an instinctual effort to encourage more milk production. I’ve seen ewes with their back legs up off the ground from getting head butted so hard! The mothers then usually call it a day and stomp off!
While I still might see 9 month old lambs nursing from time to time, it becomes pretty infrequent by that point. Other producers may only let their lambs nurse up to 3 months, sometimes 4 months before they separate the lambs from the ewes. I find Katahdins don’t need the separation and it’s hard to see them go through that process unnecessarily, so I don’t do it. These sheep might lose some condition and be a bit bony by the middle of summer, but they gain it all back before winter so they stay nice and warm with some fat covering.
So there you have it, raising sheep in a nut shell. There’s always so much more to sheep than meets the eye! My sheep are shy at first, but they know a bucket of grain when they see one and will run to even a stranger, though wary at first. My sheep truly know my voice and come when I call out “come on sheep!” They are eager to be near me and see what treat I may have brought them. It’s such a calming experience to spend time with the sheep. They come to nuzzle me and get a gentle scratch behind the ears or under the chin. The best moments are when Cindy, my matriarch ewe, sways back and forth as I scratch her back. Even sheep love a nice back massage!