Sheep Talk

Lets talk sheep, y’all!

My family’s journey into the sheep industry began when we bought our first Suffolk ewe for my brother and me to show. Haha, that didn’t go as planned. Our “show sheep”, Clover, quickly turned into a pet. I think Clover quickly turned into something my Dad didn’t see (or want) happening…a flock of sheep! My Mom fell in love with sheep and their personalities and wanted to continue to grow our flock. 12 years later, we now have 16 ewes, 2 rams, and at the moment, 10 lambs. We have only bought two ewes, and the rest are replacements from our ewes that have lambed over the years! On our operation, we name all of our sheep. We have a “flower” line with descendants of Clover, a “cocktail” line of descendants of Julep, and a “state” line, of descendants of Georgia. At first they were really just for fun, but we are finally starting to grow our flock where we can generate a profit and have an impact on the sheep industry!

Now lets talk management…

Sheep are not for everyone, by far. They really aren’t my Dad’s cup of tea, but he puts up with them because my mom, my brother, and I love them. One thing that is ESSENTIAL for raising sheep is good fencing. A few strings of electrical wire doesn’t cut it when you’re dealing with animals who have 5-10 pounds of wool on them. You have to have good fencing that goes loooww to the ground, because they will go under. Additionally, it is beneficial to have a barn with lambing jugs, which are pens that ewes can go in during lambing and a couple days postpartum. The good thing about sheep is they do not require as much grass as cattle (obviously), so you can put more animals on a smaller piece of land, but it is still necessary that you manage your sheep-to-pasture ratio. Usually, you can get about 3 sheep per acre!

Wool. Wooly sheep are cute right? And naked sheep are ugly? Well, when the summer months come around, I will take “ugly”, naked sheep over hot sheep everyday! As the weather gets warmer, it is very important to shear wool sheep to keep their body temperature down; however, you want to make sure they have a good layer of wool going into the winter to make sure they can stay warm! When our power goes off in the winter, I often say I am going to go sleep in the barn between a couple of our ewes…I swear I’d stay warmer!

But what do we do with our wool?

We raise Suffolk sheep, which is a wool breed. There are also hair sheep, which are a meat breed, that grow/shed their hair naturally. Well, since we raise a wool breed, you would think we would sell the wool, right? I mean, wool is very important for clothing! Well, that isn’t necessarily the case. Producers only get 10-20 cents per pound of wool. You may think this could add up to be profitable, but it really isn’t by the time you either pay a shearer or shear them yourselves, pack the wool, transport the wool, etc. Now, I am not saying its not a good idea to even try to sell the wool, it is still great for the industry; however, it is not that profitable! We make our profit by selling our sheep for meat. Interestingly enough, Suffolk sheep are very efficient on putting on pounds even though they are a wool breed! Often, we ship our sheep to New Holland, Pennsylvania. There is a big market for sheep there, especially a big ethnic market. I’ve often wondered how sheep can still be such a large industry when lamb and mutton is not popular in the United States, but they are demanding market for citizens of different ethnicities!

Now everyone’s favorite topic…lambs!

Lambs are THE CUTEST, there is no doubt about that. Let me walk you all through some baby lamb processing that we do on our farm.

Ewes can have either 1 (singlet), 2 (twins), or 3 (triplets) lambs at a time. Twins are desirable because a ewe has 2 teats, so having triplets can cause an issue of dominance for milk. Another important fact to note is that, unlike cattle, if a sheep has a ewe and ram, both will be fertile! If cattle were to have a heifer and a bull, the heifer, and potentially the bull, would be considered a “free martin” and would not be fertile. Once the ewes are put in the lambing jugs and have given birth, it is important to keep an eye on the lambs after the first 12-24 hours of life. It is ESSENTIAL that the lambs get colostrum, which is the mother’s first milk that is filled with antibodies to build immunity, soon after birth. This colostrum jump-starts the lamb’s immune system, and if we feel like they have not received enough colostrum, we will strip the teats of the ewe, collect the colostrum, and tube the lamb.

When lambs are about 1 or 2 days old, we dock their tails. On our operation, we do not dock ram tails unless we are going to keep them for replacement because we learned we get more money for keep the tails on ram lambs. Tail docking can often be a sensitive subject regarding animal welfare; however, it causes VERY little pain to the lamb. The sooner you dock the tail, the less pain it will bring the lamb because the nerves have not developed down their spinal cord. So, we take a green rubber band, stretch it around their tail. This rubberband will cut the circulation off to their tail and within a week or two, the tail will fall off. This is extremely important for sanitary reasons. Docking tails prevents fly-strike, manure from gathering up on the tail, and other bacteria from building up. Below I have posted pictures of one of our ewes with a tail, one without, and lambs that are in the processing of losing their tail. You will easily notice the sanitary difference between the two ewes!

This is how lambs’ tails are docked. These lambs should lose the bottom half of their tail soon!

Quite honestly, I get very upset when I hear people say farmers do not care for their animals. During lambing season, my Mom will lose sleep worrying about her ewes lambing, and many farmers will do the same. In fact, my Mom has installed cameras in her sheep barn to keep an eye on her sheep during lambing season and when she is gone. Farmers love what we do. If we didn’t why would we do it? Because I can assure you we are not getting rich from it!

Although many people dislike sheep, I hope I have provided some insight on why I love them! They are funny and, contrary to what others think, smart creatures. When I spend time with them, I feel closer to God and gain an understanding of why sheep and lambs are often used as a symbol in The Bible. If you ever get the chance to go on a sheep operation, I highly recommend it! Spending a couple of hours with them will open your eyes to the beauty of sheep!

Sunflower, a descendant of our first ewe, Clover.

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