Sheep

Foreword

Please note that there is a glossary of sheeplike terms at the end… Sheep, like all of our animal friends, have acquired a rather large selection of colloquial terms. To avoid any confusion, I have tried to define them for you here.

General Husbandry

Feeding and Nutrition

Good nutrition is important in all sheep, but especially important for the pregnant and nursing ewe . Without proper nutrition, we can frequently see stunted lambs or ewes who cannot produce enough milk for their lambs, or who have a poor maternal instinct.

Sheep do quite well on fresh grass pasture, when this is available. They can even get most of their required water from the fresh grass and the dew. Clover mixed in with the pasture grass provides the best possible forage for the sheep.

A notable exception to this is the pregnant ewe. Although she can survive on pasture forage, her lamb will be born larger and healthier if she can be fed a supplement of oats daily during the last 4-6 weeks of her gestation period.

Lactating or nursing ewes require a greater amount of water and should have free access to fresh clean water. Lambs also grow better when they have free access to fresh clean water.

Lambs should nurse until they are at least 4-5 weeks, and can be left to nurse until they are 10 weeks of age. At 2-3 weeks a supplement should be made available to the lambs to aid in slowly changing their digestive system from milk to the forage they will be eating. This supplement can be made from corn, wheat, or barley, mixed with fishmeal and molasses.

All sheep are clean eaters and require fresh, clean unspoiled feed.

Reproduction and Breeding

Sheep are seasonal breeders; although the ram will show interest in the ewes year round, the ewe will only stand for him when she is in heat . The ewe generally cycles in the fall, although some breeds of sheep may cycle in the spring as well.

Rams

* Rams become fertile beteween 4 1/2 and 5 months of age. The onset of fertility is more closely related to growth and body size than actual age. The ram is at 40-50% of his full adult body weight by the time he reaches sexual maturity.
* The heaviest most active ram in a group will be the dominant one.
* For pasture breeding , one ram to ten ewes is considered ideal, altough up to 40 ewes to a ram should work as well.

Ewes

* Ewes come into heat and are bred by the ram in the autumn. If pasture breeding is used, it is important to use a marker harness on the ram. The older, more dominant ewes may not allow the younger ewe lambs to mate. The marker will identify which ewes have been bred. The younger ewes can be separated from the flock and kept with the ram until they are bred if this becomes necessary.
* Ewes reach sexual maturity at 40-80% adult body weight, roughly 6 months old.
* The duration of the heat cycle is about 30 hours; if they are not bred, they will then cycle again 16-18 days later.
* Having suckling lambs still nursing will delay the cycling of the ewe, and set back the breeding season.
* A ewe that is not receiving adequate nutrition will not cycle.
* The gestation period for a ewe is 150 days.
* Ewes generally have 1-4 lambs each time, although twins are the most common. Ewes that have multiple lambs tend to have multiple lambs each time. They generally have no delivery problems, altough with 3-4 lambs some ewes may need assistance at birthing. The larger the litter, the lower the individual lambs' birthweights are, although this seems to even out as the lambs mature.
* The ewe's reproductive performance peaks at about 3-5 years and declines after 8-10 years.

General Signs of Ill-Health in the Sheep

A healthy sheep should have bright eyes, pricked (upright) ears, clean hair, and fine, mobile skin on the face over the cheekbones. A sheep with dull eyes, dull coat, drooping ears or puffy cheeks should be separated from the flock and evaluated carefully for disease.

Footrot is a common disorder in sheep and any time the sheep are being examined individually ( shearing , crutching etc.), the feet should be examined for cracks, punctures or infection. The hoof wall should be trimmed back so that it does not overgrow and allow cracking or splitting of the hoof. If an infection is noted, then the hoof should be thoroughly cleaned and checked by a beasthealer.

Flystrike is caused whenever flies lay their eggs in or on the skin of the sheep. The flies are attracted to accumulations of manure and other filth in the wool, so by trimming the wool under the sheep's tail and on the underside and keeping the sheep clean, we can prevent this. If flystrike is found on a sheep, that animal should be thoroughly cleaned and all the fly larvae and soiled wool removed. The animal will need to be monitored closely until it is completely healed.

Abortion in ewes can be caused by poor nutrition or diseases like footrot, poor conditions (extreme cold or wet) or rough handling during her pregnancy.

Sheep Products

Wool / Hair

Wool is probably the best known of the textile products obtained from sheep. In many of the hot, arid climates wool sheep do not thrive. In these climates hair sheep are raised.

There are three basic classifications for wool. These classifications are based upon the quality of the individual wool fiber.

  1. Merino is the finest of the wools and is most often used for the finer woven fabrics.
  2. Crossbred is a wool of medium fineness and is used in woolens and is knitted.
  3. Carpet Wool is the coarsest wool and has the thickest fibers, this is suitable only for rugs. (As its name implies.) To understand the classification of wool one must have a basic understanding of how wool is judged. As well, one must be aware of the types of things which affect the overall quality of the wool. Annual cyclic changes in wool growth are affected by the general health of the animal.

* As always good nutrition is very important to the health of the sheep. Nutritional deficits can cause weak spots or breaks in the length of the wool fibers, decreasing its value.
* The physical state of the sheep at times will affect the wool fibers. A lactating ewe may be putting more of her nutritional energy into producing milk than into growing wool, again causing weaker or shorter fibers.
* Severe weather or climate changes can decrease wool growth. A sheep moved from a colder climate to a warmer will have a shorter fleece .

Shearing is generally done once yearly, usually in the winter before lambing. A very fine wool can be obtained if the lambs are sheared at six months.

The quality of the wool is defined by three definitive characteristics of the wool; fineness, length and strength, and color.

1. Fineness is the average diameter of the individual wool fiber.
* Fineness is tested by spinning the wool out into a long strand. Weight for weight fine wool will spin out longer than coarse wool. This is one of the qualities that makes this a desirable characteristic for woven wool product.
* Rams tend to have coarser wool than ewes or wethers.
* Animals on poor pasture tend to have finer wool, although they have a shorter fleece.
2. The length and strength of the individual fibers is the next category.
* The length and strength is tested by pulling the fibers repeatedly between the fingers until they break. Weak spots from poor nutrition or ill health will cause the fibers to break into shorter lengths.
* Combing the wool separates out the short fibers leaving a parallel arrangement of of the longest fibers. This is very valuable for woven woolen products like worsteds.
* Woolen products do not require long fibers. The short fibers left from the combing process and fibers short from health or nutrition problems are still valuable in the production of these.
3. Color measures the degree of whiteness or brightness of the wool.
* Dingy, stained, discolored, or pigmented wool will not take a light dye.
* An unscoured fleece is newly shorn and not yet cleaned of dirt, dried sweat or grease. These are worth less than a scoured fleece.
* Scoured wool is considered the yield. This is the cleaned fleece the burrs have been picked out by hand and the grease removed and used for lanolin. Some of the soiled areas need to be trimmed off. (see skirting )

Meat

Sheep are also raised for meat. Lamb is often considered a delicacy, and the meat from older sheep is referred to as mutton .

The head, horns and internal organs are generally considered inedible.

The best meat sheep breeds tend to have a long blocky body set close to the ground. They have a finely shaped head which is set well into the shoulders. These sheep have a broad even back, well-developed haunches and well-fleshed thighs.

Lambs are generally slaughtered at roughly 100 days of age when they reach 50-75% of their adult body weight. (16-17 kg)

Milk

Last but not least milk. Yes, there are milk sheep. Sheep milk is most often used to make cheeses (ricotta, romano, feta, roquefort, stilton). Sheep milk is paler than that of the bovine herdbeast, and the taste and odor is less pleasant, nor is butter made from sheep milk very pleasant.

A lactating ewe gives about 1-1.5 liters/day of milk until 13 weeks following lambing. After 15 weeks post lambing the yield drops to less then half a liter.

When lactating the ewe requires a higher level of nutrition. Her appetite will increase 20-50%.

Poor nutrition can cause a delay in lactation, poor maternal instinct and continued lack of milk production.

Sheep Behavior

Sheep behavior can be broken into four basic categories. These categories include: communication, seasonal rythyms, social interaction and reproductive behavior. All four of these combine to form the obvious behavioral characteristics we as Herders see when we watch the sheep.

Communication

Sheep use both auditory (sound) and visual methods of communication, and identification. Sheep actually rely more on their vision than on their sense of smell.

Auditory Communication

Auditory communication is most important for communication between a ewe and her lamb. Sheep also use auditory communication to contact other members of the flock if they become separated.

During the first 48 hours post lambing, when the ewe seeks out her lamb, she gives a deep gutteral baah (or bleat) until she makes contact with her lamb. After the first 48 hours the ewe will baah and it is up to the lamb to find her and recognize her.

A higher pitched baah is used amongst the adults for recognition. This baah is heard frequently when the flock is disrupted as when moving the flock. This is a contact and identification call, used to find the members of their own flock.

Frantic bleating is a sign of stress in sheep. This is a higher pitched call than either of the other types of calls. This bleating is heard in situations like ewes trying to find their lambs, a stuck or lost lamb, a single sheep separated from the flock, or a sheep in pain.

Visual Communication

In sheep visual communication is very important. Most sheep actually recognize each other by sight before auditory or scent recognition kicks in. Characteristically a newly shorn flock will bleat frantically for some time, becuse they don't recognize their flockmates.

Flicked-back ears are a sign of annoyance and often a challenge. Stepping back and foot stamping is also a challenge. A sheep will flick its ears back, step back and stamp its foot before charging. Sheep, rams in particular, can be dangerous when they charge. A sheep will run towards its victim and in the last few strides leap up to make contact about 3-4 feet off of the ground. That is around chest height for most humans. When working around sheep you should avoid stamping ar stepping back as this can be interpreted as a challenge by an aggressive sheep.

Seasonal / Life Rhythyms

Sheep are what we call short day breeders. Ewes come into heat as the days become shorter in the winter. This is less true near the equator although ewes still cycle 1-2 times per year.

On a daily basis sheep are most active at dawn and at dusk. They tend to be awake about 16 hours per day. Sheep spend about half of their time grazing, and 1/4 of their time sleeping.

Social Interactions

In a pasture situation sheep have a structured social interaction. The rams flock together away from the ewes until breeding season. During breeding season they battle for breeding rights. The strongest earning the right to breed ewes. The winning rams surround the flock and fend off other rams, taking turns breeding the ewes within the flock.

A ewe will not cycle or come into heat unless a ram is present; this is called the 'ram effect.' This can be used to synchronize the cycling of the ewes if you wish to have all the lambs born at the same time. By separating the ewes from the ram until you wish the ewes to cycle, you can trigger the cycle of all the ewes at the same time when you reintroduce the ram.

Each flock has a lead ewe. The lead ewe decides which direction the flock will travel and what they will all eat. The lead ewe heads the flock for about 4 Turns before she is unseated by a mutiny of the next rank of ewes. Then one of these ewes will take over.

Reproductive Behavior

Reproductive or breeding behavior is fairly ritualized in sheep. Following is a description of the sequence of events you can expect to see when the ram is reintroduced to the cycling ewes.
* The ram sniffs the ewe to identify whether or not she is in heat.
* If the ewe is in heat she will stand where she is, squat and urinate.
* The ram stretches his neck out and peels back his upper lip. He then nudges the ewe with his nose, and kicks her with his front legs.
* If the ewe stands he then mounts her and breeds her at this stage.
* After breeding the ewe will wander off and begins to graze again.

Glossary

4. colostrum: Formed in the sheep's udder prior to milk production, it is essential that all lambs nurse on colostrum within the first 6-10 hours of life to prevent sickness and disease.
5. crossbred: A sheep bred from two distinct breeds; also a classification for wool of medium fineness.
6. crutching: The practice of shearing the wool under the tail and on the underside of the sheep to prevent collection of manure and flystrike.
7. cudding (rumination): Regurgitation of rough feed, forage or fodder from the first compartment of the stomach to be thoroughly rechewed.
8. dam: The mother of the sheep in question.
9. ewe: A breeding female sheep.
10. ewe lamb: A breeding female who is less than one turn old.
11. fleece: The wool from a sheep.
12. flystrike: A disease caused by flies laying their eggs in or on the skin of the animal.
13. forage/fodder: Rough feed, like hay or straw, can also include richer feed like fresh grass.
14. footrot: An infection of the hoof often caused by a penetrating injury of the sole.
15. **grains: Grains apropriate for sheep are oats for ewes, and corn, wheat, and barley for weanling lambs.
16. **heat:
The period of fertile cycle in a ewe; this is when she will stand to be bred by the ram, and usually occurs in the autumn.
17. lactation: The formation of milk in the sheep's udder.
18. lamb: A baby sheep, less than one turn of age.
19. marker harness: A harness for a breeding ram, with a chalk marker to identify the ewes that he has bred, used in pasture breeding situations.
20. merino: A breed of sheep with very fine wool; also a classification for the finest of wool fleeces.
21. mutton: Meat from sheep over one turn of age.
22. pasture breeding: When the ram is turned out in the pasture with the ewes and allowed to breed unsupervised.
23. ram: A breeding male sheep.
24. romney: A breed of sheep with coarse carpet quality wool.
25. sire: The ram who fathered the sheep in question.
26. scoured: A scoured fleece is one that has the grease and dirt cleaned from it after shearing.
27. skirting: Cutting the undesirable portions of the fleece off, the belly piece, stained pieces, and soiled wool.
28. shearing: Cutting or shaving the wool fleece from a live sheep, usually done once every turn.
29. weanling: A young lamb just weaned from its dam, about 4-5 weeks (may be up to 10 weeks).
30. wether (wedder): A castrated male sheep often raised for wool or mutton when there are already sufficient rams.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License