How to keep sheep

Sheep are some of the loveliest animals to watch grazing on your land. They are usually calm, gentle and docile – except for the rams – and are a good source of meat, wool and manure.

Housing your sheep
Before you go about buying sheep, prepare your property to contain them safely. They are very attractive to predators as they have no defence mechanisms so you will need to make sure that they are safe on your property at all times. They are also prone to wondering off in search of better grazing so make sure your fence is strong and that they are not able to escape – as happened to ours the first day we got them. Also, make sure they will be in a safe place at night to sleep when predators come out. We lock our sheep in the farm yard area at night so they are all together in a safe place. Make sure predators cannot dig under this fence, push it down or jump over it as your sheep will be sitting ducks if a predator does get in (another lesson we learnt the hard way).

Also, you will need to provide a sheltered place for them to sleep at night, especially in cold climates and during lambing time. Our sheep sleep in a little shed laid with straw at night where they are warm and dry.

Choosing your sheep
Before choosing sheep, give some thought to the reasons that you want to keep them. Do you just want a cute lamb as a family pet? Or are you buying breeding stock to develop a flock? Do you want them for meat and wool or just one or the other. The answers to these questions will help you to decide on the breed and age of the sheep you want to buy.

You will also need to find a local supplier of the breed that you want. It is a good idea to choose a breed that is bred for your area and climate conditions so that its rate of survival will be high.

If you just want a cute family pet then consider buying an abandoned lamb that you and your family can bottle feed. If you are looking for breeding stock then you will need at least a ram and about 4 young ewes from a known breed that can breed to enlarge your flock. We purchased a ram and 4 year-old ewes from a local Dorper farmer in our area which has been the start of our flock. The Dorper is a local South African sheep breed with a black head and white body. It is a hardy sheep prone to multiple births and good mothers. However, they do not produce as much wool or meat when compared with other meat and wool breeds.

Feeding your sheep
There is lots of discrepancy on what to feed sheep and it all depends on the breed you are working with and your reason for keeping sheep. Our flock only eat grass in the day, and get a cup of grain (we give whole mielies) each in the evenings as they enter the farm yard to rest. You will need to make sure that your property has enough grazing for the size of your flock. Our flock can never get too big as we do not have the land to support a big flock all year round and would have to buy in grass if we had too many sheep for our land.

In the summer the grazing is much more nutritious and richer, but as winter comes the grass dries and there is not as much nutrition in it. So you might consider increasing the amount of grain you feed your sheep in winter.

Also, if you have pregnant ewes or lambing mothers you will need to supplement their diets to ensure that they and their lambs get enough nutrition. About 2 weeks before your lambs are due to be born – that is 5 months after breeding – start giving your ewe some lamb and ewe pellets that can be bought from your local animal feed store. You can gradually increase this amount when the lamb is born and continue to give it while the mother provides milk for the lamb (between 2-3 months after birth).

In addition to grass and grain, sheep also need a salt lick that provides them with all the salts and minerals they need to stay healthy. These can also be bought at your local feed store and kept in the farm yard or where your sheep sleep so they can have continuous access to it. This is especially important in winter and during pregnancy and lambing time.

If possible source sheep food from a supplier whose feed is not made from genetically modified ingredients. The current levels of genetically modified ingredients, especially in animal feed, is very high in South Africa and the US so if you can find a supplier whose feed is not genetically modified then buy from them. The reason being that then your meat will not be contaminated with genetically modified DNA from the sheep feed you fed your animals. In addition, as you use sheep manure as a source of manure and compost for your garden you won’t be infecting your organic vegetable garden with genetically modified DNA.

Always provide clean fresh drinking water for your sheep as sheep do not like drinking dirty water and this will negatively affect their health and milk production.

Any dramatic change in a sheep’s diet will make it sick. They are ruminants that need to constantly be grazing so any shock to their digestive systems will make them ill. Therefore, never change a sheep’s diet in a short space of time; rather introduce things gradually together with their usual grazing.

Vaccinating your sheep
Sheep are the most pest infested of all farm animals and so you need to vaccinate them frequently to keep internal pests at bay. Most sheep will need to be dewormed every 3 months. Dewormers come in vaccinations injected under the skin or oral solutions given to the sheep in the mouth. It is often a good idea to vary the type of dewormer to avoid the pests developing immunity to the drugs and them not working anymore.

In addition, as I mentioned before, any dramatic change to a sheep’s diet will make them sick – including the change between winter to summer which brings with it a change in the richness and nutrient content of their grazing. As soon as sheep change over from eating dry brown grass from winter to eating the green lush grass of spring they need to be vaccinated against a condition known as pulpy-kidney. This is also given by sub-coetaneous injection in spring time of each year.

Rams can be some of the most dangerous farm animals, often even challenging bulls. You want your ram to be a strong feisty fellow who will look after your ewes and keep them away from danger. However, the best way for you to treat your ram is to not let them get to close to humans and to keep a healthy level of fear and respect for humans. Try not to hand feed or pet your rams which only teaches them to become too familiar with humans and to push you around.

Keep children away from grown rams who can harm them if they push them over or ram them against fences. I always keep a stick with me in the farm yard in case I need to teach our ram a lesson – a good tap on the head does the trick.

If your ewes give birth to ram lambs you will need to decide what to do with them as one flock does not need too many dangerous rams and these rams must not be allowed to mate with their mothers. You could sell them or slaughter them for your consumption. If you choose to slaughter them then you might want to castrate them at about 1-2 months old to keep them from mating with the ewes and from becoming dangerous to be around. That way you can slaughter them whenever they are the right size.

Ewe lambs should also not be allowed to breed with their fathers and so you might consider selling your ram and getting another one that can mate with the whole flock or separate your flock and only let them breed when you want them to.

Lambing Time
Most of the lambs born on our property are born in winter when the least amount of pests are around. By spring they are the jumping leaping images that you know as young lambs which were born in late winter.

Although some ewes do require additional help during lambing, most ewes are able to manage on their own, unless there is a medical complication. Lambing usually occurs at night. You will notice your pregnant ewe acting restless and sitting down a lot on the day before the birth. They often want to be alone and away from the flock to labour. Nature normally takes its course and the lambs are born on their own.

Make sure there is water and food for the mother after labour and that she has adequate time alone with her lamb in order to be able to bond and for milk feeding to start. Lambs should latch onto their mothers from the first day and wag their little tails in delight as they drink. A lamb that is getting adequate milk will be content and not cry a lot.

You can dock a lamb’s tail off if you choose to at about 3 days old. Most lambs tails are taken off for hygiene reasons so that grass, faeces and weed seed don’t get tangled up in them, but you don’t need to take them off if you choose not to. There are a number of ways to take the tails off. We use a special pliers to place an elastic band around the tail, cutting off circulation to the tail and in time it falls off on its own. We use the same technique to castrate young rams bred for slaughter.

Most breeds of sheep are sheared once a year in spring. If you have a shearing breed you will need to either take them to shearers who can do it for you or learn how to do it yourself. The same goes for castrating young rams and docking lambs tails off. Dorpers don’t necessarily need to be sheered but we sheer them to look better in summer and to feel cooler.