The Ups and Downs of Raising Sheep as Livestock and Pets

Raising Sheep for Pets and Livestock
By Alyce Repko
In our state, in order to be allowed to farm, the property must be Farmland Assessed Acreage. A determined amount of money must be earned every year to be considered a farm, and paperwork must be submitted to the state every year. My husband decided we would raise sheep for our farm livestock and we also wanted them for their milk, wool and meat.

We Tried Raising Icelandic Sheep

Always ready to research information, I took the challenge to find the “right” sheep breed. After much consideration, we chose Icelandic sheep. There is a lot to like about them. One of the world’s purest breeds, it is a triple-purpose animal loved for its meat, fiber, and milk.

We located a farm that raised Icelandic sheep, and brought home our two bred ewes. The ewes lambed effortlessly. Unfortunately, one by one, the ewes and lambs died. We were immediately in touch with a vet, but to no avail. All hubby could do was preserve the carcass of the last one until he could bring it to the state capital in two days as per the vet’s recommendation. While he was sweating outside in a record heat wave, I was entertaining fifty relatives in our home for my daughter’s wedding.

With our first foray into raising sheep we learned, “If you have livestock, you will have dead stock.” It happens, but not as dramatically as our first attempt at being sheep farmers. Neither the state, nor the vet, was able to determine the cause of death.

Then We Successfully Raised Dorset Sheep

Still determined to raise sheep, we purchased Dorset ewes and a ram. Dorset is a nice sheep. They lamb easily and are good mothers. They have their challenges, but all sheep can be challenging. By default, sheep are looking for a place to die. As far as sheep think and act, they are happy animals. At an early age the head goes down to graze. They run when fresh hay is put out or the feed bin rattles. They are not survivalists, however. They can expire easily by eating the wrong plant, being attacked by dogs, and parasites. In addition, they easily get into trouble.

There is a long list of poisonous plants that kill sheep. We must check the pastures for potential problems on a regular basis. If there are wild cherry trees on the edge row of the pasture, they must be inspected after a storm to check for fallen branches; it’s poisonous to them.

What to Consider When Raising Sheep

  • Sheep are defenseless against attack. We have never had an attack by a pet dog, but we have seen the results. The sheep have no self-defense skills and are easy targets. The neighbor had to put down a number of sheep; it wasn’t a pretty sight. Many people keep dogs with the flock to protect them. This is something we are considering.
  • Sheep are a parasite magnet. During hot weather, lambs must be wormed once a month for parasites to prevent death. The adults’ eyes must be checked for anemia and medicated accordingly. Parasites can also crop up in tears in the skin, sores, or broken horns.
  • There are a number of ways that sheep can get into trouble. Dorsal recumbancy, or a sheep on its back, is a problem and can be deadly. They are unable to get up on all fours and, left unattended, will die within five to thirty minutes or so. Any sheep that gets stuck in an upside down position is unable to maneuver into a standing position. We have lost very few due to this problem over the years, but through constant head counts, we have saved a number of them.
  • Some sheep like to get into trouble by jumping over the fences. While jumping over a fence may be lamb’s play to some, other instigators like to rush through the fence, and the rest will follow. If you have a renegade on your hands, a decision must be made to keep the ewe or get rid of her; she influences the rest of the flock. Sometimes the girls can “revolt” and cause worry and work. We had more than one person knock on our door about our sheep being where they shouldn’t be due to one memorable renegade!
  • Sheep can also get into trouble with their horns. Their head can get stuck in curious places and, at times, manage to break a horn—a bloody and painful event for the animal. Sometimes the damaged area needs attention. It is not a difficult problem to solve, but because of this challenge, we decided to change to polled (hornless) Border Leicester.

What to Feed Lambs in the Winter

Getting sheep to survive through winter can be difficult and the winter of 2013/2014 was a challenge. The extended low temperatures resulted in a first for us. We had six hand-fed lambs in two large dog cages in our home. We have had lambs in the house—usually one or two—on and off over the years, but we never had that many at once or for so long. Diligent cage maintenance was used. We fed them lamb replacer—a lamb baby formula—and as they got older, we introduced hay, first to play with, then to eat. I never realized how noisy their digestion was. Gurgle and pop sounds would reverberate from their innards, and when they wanted to chew on their cud they would noisily burp it up! Unfortunately, we had a large lamb loss. This season we are changing the rams’ access to the ewes from September to November, for an April lambing instead of January or February. No more cold lambing nights in the barn!

Despite the ups and downs, we keep on going because of the cast of characters. There was Brownie the ram, my husband’s favorite; he saved the ram’s horns after he had a natural death. Tina was born just before Christmas. She celebrated the holiday in the house to the absolute joy of the grandchildren. Violet, named after the color of her feeding bottle, still comes up to me to get a scratch after all these years, and lastly, The Renegade will always have a soft spot in my husband’s heart, despite the many times he repaired the fence because of her. She also stubbornly refused to come into the barn and preferred to lamb on ice. Soon, we are going to welcome Cloud and Lily as part of our flock. We cannot wait!
Alyce is the wife of a hard-working husband, and the mother to six adult children who live in five different states. On their six-acre farm they raise rabbits, chickens, and sheep. She puts up food, does freelance artwork, plays with a local orchestra, knits, sews, and buys too many books.

2 thoughts on “The Ups and Downs of Raising Sheep as Livestock and Pets”

  1. If you do not depend on the fiber. consider dairy goats. They are smart, resilient and sweet, friendly animals each with their own personality. You can still use or sell extra male kids for meat. Make sure the kids are friendly by bottle feedings entirely or just giving an occasional bottle while dam raising them. If you rasie them with sheep be aware of the different requirements for copper in their mineral. Goats require copper and it can kill sheep.

  2. Enjoyed reading about your up an downs with your sheep. I kinda laughed some hence my husband an I went thru a lot of the same things our first winter with our sheep. Live learn an raise sheep!

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