Keeping Sheep... are sheep a good choice for your lifestyle?
What kind of a committment does it take to keep sheep?
How much of an investment in time can I expect to make?
What would I need to buy before the sheep arrive?
We started out with 4 sheep: 1 ram and 3 ewes. And wasn't that simple to manage! We fenced in a bit of a mature pine woodlot behind our house, a space a little smaller than an acre. We used the back of the garage as one side to our fence, to make things easier, got the posts used from the people who manage the Interstates, and strung up field fencing over a couple of weekends. The fence wasn't very tight and it wasn't very straight. The sheep didn't care, so we didn't care.
We also built them a little shelter, a lean-to for them to get out of the wind and weather in, put up a hay rack, a mineral feeder we bought at the feed store... and away we went.
Our sheep arrived just before winter set in. We filled a garage bay with hay for them and swapped out buckets every day because the buckets froze. During the winter the daily chores took up about 15 minutes in the morning, and again at night.
Would you be surprised to learn that even with a much larger flock our chores are still about a half hour a day? Sheep don't require much daily maintance.
You will need to budget a day every other month or so to trim hooves and dose the sheep with any necessary medications. We usually budget most of a day for our flock of 20.. and usually have them done in a few hours. But as you learn skills, budgeting more time so you don't feel rushed is a good idea.
As our flock grew so did our need for space. We invested in portable electric mesh fencing and a good charger the first year. We bought another 5 rolls of semi-perminant electric fencing the second year, giving us the flexibility of 10 rolls of moveable fencing. If we valued our time more than we value cash we'd probably invest in another 5 rolls so we could put fencing up once in the spring... and not fuss with it all summer. As it is, we move fencing from our upper field to our lower field to rotate the sheep as grass gets grazed... and grass grows!
In the winter there isn't much to do to the sheep. We feed and water them, trim their feet, and make sure they have fresh water. But as spring approaches we need to make sure they're healthy and ready for lambing. We capture everyone and give them CDC injections, trim hooves, and trim wool away from their udders so lambs can find what they need.
As lambing season approaches in mid-April we watch the ewes carefully for signs of labor. Regardless of our care they usually drop twins outside, unassisted, and present them to us in the morning. Icelandics are remarkably good mothers and usually don't appreciate help when it comes to lambing. Since there are exceptions to every rule we do inform employers that we may not be coming in if an ewe is in trouble. But so far we've made it to work on time, every time!
In May it is time to shear the older sheep. I use a pair of Fiskars shears, to cut the fleece off by hand. This isn't easy on the back, but it is the cheapest way to get wool off. It takes me about an hour to do one sheep, and I usually do two a day, picking my way through the flock, so as to save my back.
At the end of May we clean out the pens and sheds. The old waste hay and sheep poop needs to be taken up and composted. When we had four sheep this was less than a morning's labor. With a much larger flock, this is a weekend's worth of fairly heavy work with a fork. A better designed set of sheds would mean we could use a tractor and bucket loader. Next time... better shed design!
June and July are given over to simply keeping water buckets full and throwing extra hay if the pastures aren't keeping up with the lactating ewes. The ewes do all the work of keeping up with the lambs at this point, but in August it is time to wean the babies. As long as we're going to separate the ewes from the lambs we capture everyone, do a worming and trim hooves, all at the same time.
Once the lambs have been weaned... roughly two weeks of separation from their mothers, we bring the flock back together again through September. In the beginning of October it is time to decide who is staying, who is going for sale, and who is going for meat. We separate the rams from the ewes so there isn't an accidental breeding if one of the ewes comes into season early... and shear off the summer fleeces.
At the end of November, Thanksgiving weekend usually, we put the rams in with the ewes we want them to breed. Again, since we have to catch and handle them anyway, we take this opportunity to check feet, and make sure everyone is healthy.
Our total time commitment to our sheep is roughly a half hour a day, plus a one full day every other month. This accounts for hoof trimming, shearing, and (let's not forget!) bringing in and putting up hay for the winter.
Our investments in infrastructure include a couple of sheds for the sheep, 10 rolls of portable electrified mesh fencing, a charger, and the metal field fenced area we use for winter. We do have a truck for transporting hay (and sheep) but hay can be delivered. A truck is not strictly necessary.
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