Let me say right off that I am not an expert on sheep and my experience is limited to dairy sheep at this point in time. If you are thinking about getting livestock and considering sheep, especially if your thinking of dairy sheep, hopefully this is a good simple introduction.
If I had to pick one specie of livestock to keep, I would be torn between dairy cows and sheep. Goats are great and kids are the best babies. However, there's something about sheep I really like. However, it's about finding the right fit for you.
Wool, Horns & Tails
My sheep all produce wool as opposed to hair breeds, which mean they need shearing once a year. I usually do this in late winter or early fall right before lambing begins. If wool sheep are not shorn, the wool becomes overly long and impairs their movement and ability to cool off. They produce a mid-grade wool, which you very likely will not sell. It is not a really soft wool, but not coarse, either. It can be made into rugs and clothing. I also use mine for felting. Shearing is a lot of work and I have never shorn sheep by hand and hope to never have that experience. I have done it with electric shears and that was enough work!
Sheep will grow wool over different parts of their body. Mine have short hair (not wool) on their faces, ears, poll, legs, and tail. Just their torso and neck are wooled.
East Friesian sheep are naturally polled, which means they are hornless. Sometimes rams will grow scurs, which are little tiny horns that are sometimes misshapen and may fall off, especially if they tussle with other rams. The polled sheep still have a very hard skull and will head-butt each other. No need to disbud, though. I have only had one ram with scurs so far, and they did not ingrow back into his head, which sometimes happens with misshapen horns.
Some of my sheep have short tails, but they all come from outside dairies. I do not dock my sheep tails at all. East Friesians do not have woolly tails, but rather are "rat tail" sheep. Tails are docked with other breeds because as the wool grows, it weighs down the tail which then gets soiled and heavier and more soiled and heavier. It becomes a hygienic issue and can encourage fly strike, which is when flies lay eggs and maggots feed on areas of dirty wool or sores (and eat the living tissue, too). I don't have to worry about this. I leave their tails long because it's one less physical modification or mutilation that doesn't have a purpose with my flock.
If you decide to dock their tails, be sure not to dock them overly short. There are tendons that are connected to the rectum and anus that travel up both sides of the tail for several vertebrae. If docked too short, these tendons can be damaged and your sheep are more likely to develop a rectal prolapse. That is when the rectum portion of the intensities protrudes from the animal. If you need to dock, err on the side of a little long.
Male sheep are rams (intact) or wethers (castrated). The rams come into season every fall and are girl crazy. This is usually the only season where mine will fight. Other than when they are in rut, I keep them together and they work out a pecking order that keeps them all happy. My rams seem to never stop growing. They may, but they continue to get heavier - their nose gets broader and their body wider and thicker.
Most all of my boys get a little tight green band around their testicles when they are a day or two old. I try to get both in the band, but my understanding is that some producers only band the scrotum so the hormones are still present to promote heavier growth while causing them to become sterile because the testicle is too warm. I've tried that this year with two of my wethers who are brothers. Mine all have some variation in size, but these two boys are both at the larger end, but there are some fully castrated wethers right there with them in size.
Be sure to exercise caution when working around or handling rams. Mine have all been fine, but keep an exit or two in mind. If they back up from you, they may be getting ready to ram. They can break bones. They drop their head down and I don't think they have much ability to change paths, so dodging to the side is better than running away in a straight line. I haven't had them hurt me. In fact, my rams are all quite easy to handle because they are macho even though not really tamed as lambs (for the most part). We mostly watch out to make sure they don't take us for a ewe and hop up on ... it probably won't injury us, but would scar the victim!
My rams like running with our horses. I don't always have them together, but I think my oldest ram has the hots for them. When there is a rogue horse that comes by our place, our horses will run back and forth along the fence to play with the escapist. The sheep like to run along with them in a funny herd of rams and horses. The rams occasionally try to fight with a horse, but the horse is usually oblivious and are too tall for the ram to hit. Shaun (pictured above) repeated backed up and ran at a mare's rear, but when he got to her, he gave a little hop to try to hit her in the butt. He couldn't do it and she didn't seem to notice.
Avoid feeding boys high-phosphorus feed regularly, such as alfalfa, because they can develop bladder stones. This is first noticeable by weak and frequent urine streams or bloody urine discharge from their penis. If left untreated, it can plug up their bladder, cause them to engorge (water belly), and result in a horrible death. Many rams are stoic and will not complain about the pain enough to alarm you unless you watch. You'll need to treat aggressively by acidifying their urine (give them ammonium sulfate) and possibly consulting a vet. It is not something they can just remove easily. It's best to avoid problematic feed.
Female sheep are ewes. Until their first birthday, they are ewe lambs. Mine are usually seasonal breeders, which means they breed in the fall and lamb in the spring. If ran with a ram year-round, I believe they could breed whenever. However, I don't want babies in the middle of winter and I don't want my ewes overbred. I want to make sure they have time to physically recuperate after lambing and lactating.
Ewes tend to be smaller than rams. Mine seem to hit their full size by the time they are two years old, so their first lambing they are usually still just juveniles. For this reason, I do not breed late season lambs until the following year. I have found more problems with frail or rejected lambs if I don't wait.
All ewes have udders and they usually begin to fill with colostrum before lambing. This is a special milk for the lamb for the first day or two filled with antibodies and other nutrients than normal milk. Sheep milk is high in fat and protein, and our lambs put on the most weight of any babies.
Ewe udders have two compartments or sides, each with usually one working teat. It is not uncommon (or bad) for there to be superfluous (extra) teats. These usually don't produce anything, but I have seen some that produce a little fluid or watery milk. It doesn't seem to affect the main milking. Like goats and cows, they need to be milked twice a day and many sheep diaries milk three times a day in attempt to increase milk production. A good dairy sheep produces considerably less than a good dairy goat, but it will have more cream and protein.
Ewes are physically designed to twin as their uterus as two horns and their udder two teats. Ewe lambs often single, and after that they usually twin. Some breeds are prone to triplets or quads. My preference is twins. The lambs are usually a little smaller for easier delivery, but large enough to not be overly fragile. I haven't had quads before, but it seems they would be so tiny and frail. Maybe not.
It is best to shear ewes before lambing as their wool often undergoes a change that can make it a bit brittle or something. I usually do it in February and they lamb starting in March. I give them prenatal care, too, of vaccines and deworming. Having them shorn makes them more sensitive to the weather so mothers who aren't quite as attentive will seek shelter with their lambs if weather is poor. Experienced good mothers have this figured out, but it seems to be something a lot of them need to learn.
My sheep are moderately good at flocking, but not fabulous. This refers to how well they stay in a group, which is nice when turning them out to pasture as they are easier to tend in a group. Mine will split into smaller groups, often related females or friends who regularly group up. Some will also herd with goats, but these are sheep I got from someone who acquired lambs she grafted onto her show goats.
Some of my sheep are more vocal than others. They get chatty when they are eager for something, such as grain or new hay (even if it's the same as they already have). They talk when they go out on pasture and definitely get noisy if I take a phone call while with them.
Sheep that disapprove of something, such as greetings from one of the farm dogs, will stomp a front foot. Certain ewes and their daughters are much more likely to do this than others. It lets me know something is concerning to them. Dogs seem to understand it, which is good for the tame ones.
Moving sheep can be tricky. I've tried collars and halters, but they will fight them if they aren't halter broke. I've been told to lead them by the nose and back of the head as they do in the show ring, but the sheep do need to be trained to that to some degree. We sometimes take their front legs and walk them on their back legs. Grabbing them by the wool seems pretty handy and they don't complain, but the butcher informed me he can tell if that has happened because it bruises their meat. I'm not interested in handling them in a way to bruise their muscles. We usually use collars and leads or walk them by their front legs. They end up learning to walk by collar okay. Some will jump around or lay down.
Lambs are fun to watch. If you have experience with goat kids, they don't really compare. They aren't as busy or playful, but they will still have their games. Ours will form up into similarly aged groups and race in circles with leaps and kicks worked in. They seem to like a few obstacles they can maneuver around. I haven't had them do a lot of climbing and jumping off things, but there is an occasional adventurer. The lambs form bonds with each other and have regular little groups of friends. Sometimes the friends will even nurse off each others' dams.
Getting Sheep - Expectations
My sheep love to go out on pasture and favor fresh grass over hay. This isn't the case with all livestock. It seems that they favor short grasses with a few herbs - often areas that they've already grazed and are re-growing. They will nibble on some brush, too, but they are mostly grass-eaters. Ewes, especially those in milk, are more tolerant of high phosphorus diets than rams.
The sheep absolutely need shelter except in mild dry weather. They need shade from the sun and mine seem to do pretty well in the cold as they have thick fleeces during that part of the year. New lambs do well with some shelter unless born in warm weather.
I have not had a lot of problems with fencing sheep in. One thing I have noticed is that their wool does insulated them from the electric fence. They have bare faces, but they should be trained to the fence before relying on it to be sure they don't learn to pass through it. Mine have been good, easier to keep in than goats.
Plan on vaccinating sheep regularly (I use an 8-way with tetanus in it) and shearing them yearly. I also give my sheep selenium supplements and Bo-se to lambs. Do not give Bo-se (a vitamin E & selenium injection) to pregnant sheep as it can cause you to lose lambs. They will also need to be watched for parasites. Sheep will graze closer to manure and are more prone to picking up parasites. If milking, be sure to choose dewormers that won't affect the milk, or set aside the milk to make soap or other non-food items.
Sheep need hay, clean water, and minerals. If you grain your sheep or have grain around, be sure to not let them gorge. My experience has been that sheep are more sensitive to grain than other livestock and grain poisoning can be fatal for them.
When you bring sheep home, they will probably need some time to warm up to you. Part of their friendliness will depend on how they were handled before. Bottle babies will be more comfortable. East Friesians are relatively to tame, but some of mine that have a little Lacaune are more skittish. They respond well to calm steady handling. They get accustomed and comfortable with routine.
If you hope to milk your sheep, it is different than milking goats. I am not an expert at milking them by hand, though I have done it many times. Their teats are to the side and small, so you sort of milk them by their udder, not just the teat. I find it trickier to aim the stream of milk, but I'm sure practice could overcome this.
I have been pleasantly surprised by how much I like sheep. I enjoy working with them and they are excellent multipurpose livestock. Their babies are adorable and they are productive animals. If you have adequate shelter, quality feed, water, and minerals, they will likely be content. Be sure if you get sheep to get more than just one so they aren't lonely. (Or, you can get a goat, but we found younger goats are better as older goats will bully the sheep.)
Wife to Brandon, mother to Tess and Liam, farmer, entrepreneur, cook & baker, nurse, and accountant who loves to try new things, travel, and work toward greater self-reliance.