Question of the Week
Answer: When considering going into the sheep business, decide first what type of product you wish to market. If you wish to primarily sell wool, Rambouillet, Targhee, and Icelandic would be a few breeds to consider. There are more than 200 breeds of sheep to choose from. You can check around with neighbors and people you meet at grazing conferences, farmers markets, sheep conferences, etc.
If you would like to market both wool and meat, Rambouillet, Targhee and Polypay ewes bred to Texel, Hampshire or Suffolk rams would be a good start. This gives you a terminal crossbred lamb that grows well and is thick and meaty. The nice thing about Polypay ewes or with ewes that have one-quarter Finn in them is that you will get close to a 200% lambing percentage. This is very important for a farm flock. You need to be able to sell as many lambs as you can. The downside is that you will have to raise some bum lambs, since some of your ewes will give you triplets and even quads. In general, a ewe will only be able to raise twins successfully. However, there are labor-savings ways to raise bums.
When buying ewes, there are a few options. First, you can purchase ewe lambs that have not lambed yet. This has the least amount of risk associated with it. However, as with everything, there are some negative aspects. You will have to lamb out sheep that have never lambed before and there can be problems with new, inexperienced mothers that you will have to overcome. Additionally, some ewe lambs may not conceive. It is best to have them undergo an ultrasound before you buy. Ewe lambs will usually give you singles, especially if they lamb out at one year of age. You must adjust your budget accordingly. However, ewe lambs should give you five to six years of production.
You can also buy young ewes that have lambed before. They can be two to six years of age. You can buy young two- to three-year old ewes and be reasonably sure of a lamb crop that is relatively free of production problems. Alternatively, you can purchase five- and six-year old ewes at a less expensive price. Some of these older ewes will have problems with insufficient milk, mastitis, ketosis, etc. You will also not get as many productive years out of these ewes compared to two- and three-year-olds. However, in today's market, these older ewes will be significantly less costly. Ask the seller for production records of the ewes for sale. Beginning sheep producers do best when initially buying ewes that have a production history of 175% or better lambing percentage.
Regardless of the age of ewes that you buy, make sure you or some other experienced sheep person goes through the sale animals checking for udder soundness. This is often referred to as "bagging" the ewes. Check for any udder abnormality, such as hard lumps, heaviness, swelling, or pendulous udders. Ewes with questionable udders should not be purchased. Ewes that lamb with mastitis are not worth paying for no matter how good they have been in the past.
You should also check for common sheep diseases when examining the prospective ewes. Is there coughing? Is there foot rot or has there been in the past? Sheep foot rot is a very contagious and expensive disease to cure. Is there any bottle jaw in the flock?
ATTRA offers many resources related to sheep production that can provide you with further guidance. See the list at https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/livestock/livestock.html#sheep_goat.
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