Sheep were one of the first animals to be domesticated by man. Over time, selection for wool type, hair, flocking instinct and other economically important traits has resulted in numerous distinct breeds of sheep occurring worldwide. Modern breeding schemes have also resulted in an increasing number of composite or synthetic breeds which are the result of a crossing of two or more established breeds.
FACTORS THAT AFFECT THE CHOICE OF BREED
Sheep are widely adaptable to different conditions and are found in a range of climates from cool moist areas to hot desert areas. Nevertheless there are areas where sheep are not economical. For example, wool sheep are generally not adapted to hot humid areas. Fat-tailed, hair producing sheep adapt well to hot, arid regions of the world.
The type of vegetation plays an important part in the successful breeding or farming of sheep. Different breeds have different foraging or grazing preferences that can be exploited to suit the vegetation type in your area. For example, differences in body size and digestive anatomy can allow some breeds to browse and thrive on woody plants, as opposed to other breeds that may only thrive on temperate grass pastures.
Sheep carry a number of different species of internal parasites. Internal parasite management, especially of Haemonchus contortus (barbers pole worm, stomach worm), is a primary concern for the majority of sheep producers. These parasites have become more difficult to manage because of developed resistance to nearly all available de-worming chemicals. Resistance to de-wormers is now seen worldwide and producers can no longer rely on drugs alone to control internal parasites. An integrated approach that relies on sustainable methods to manage internal parasites should be employed. Part of this management strategy is the identification and selection of resistant animals.
Within any breed, certain animals are more tolerant of parasite loads than others. Producers should cull animals that are always "wormy," and select for animals that have a natural resistance or tolerance to a slight parasite burden. There are several breeds of sheep and goats that exhibit a genetic resistance to parasites. These breeds include: Gulf Coast Native, St. Croix, Katahdin, and Barbados Blackbelly (If you are not familiar with these breeds, undertake research to broaden your knowledge).
Parasites present are dependent on whether the area is a summer rainfall region or is a winter rainfall area. Again, research your own locality for this information. One worm attack can reduce the sheep's appetite significantly, and stop weight gains for many months. Even moderate worm burdens can cut wool production by as much as 40%, as well as downgrading the wool quality.
The blood sucking "barbers pole worm" can multiply so rapidly that many sheep die without even losing condition. Egg-laying is prolific: in some cases 5000 daily. Worms will not survive in sustained heat of a heat wave. Young worm larvae will also die within 3 weeks, unless they can find a host (ie. be swallowed by sheep).
Rearing and Management System
In some countries, sheep may be housed in barns over winter (to avoid the extreme cold), or farmed in an intensive system, where the production of meat, milk or wool can be better controlled. Under intensive and semi-intensive conditions, wool sheep may in some countries provide a higher income than pure mutton breeds. Intensive systems require a much higher standard of management than other rearing methods. Many wool and meat producing sheep worldwide are raised in more extensive grazing systems and in some countries, migratory (nomadic) grazing practices are used.
Sheep enterprises can encompass a breeder flock, wool, a sheep/feeder lamb, a sheep/finished lamb or a lamb feedlot operation. Market options include on farm sales or freezer sales, auction sales, and direct to a feedlot or processing plant.
SEVEN SHEEP BREEDS THAT SUIT SMALLER PROPERTIES
Dorper, Suffolk and Wiltshire Poll are suggested for hobby farms - or smaller breeds known as mini-sheep.
Dorpers are very tough and adaptable sheep they survive in less than perfect grazing conditions and a variety of climates. It is one of the largest meat producers in some countries.
There are dorper sheep that are all white (White Dorper) and those with black heads and faces (Dorper). They have a range of great characteristics:
- Adaptable to a range of conditions.
- Highly fertile and consistently reproductive.
- Put on growth and muscle with minimal feed inputs and produce.
- Low fat meat.
- Thick skinned that protects them in harsh climates.
- They shed their wool as weather warms up so no shearing, crutching, mulesing (tail cropping) needed - they don’t fall victim to flystrike, parasites and disease.
Suffolk sheep are large framed and have black faces and legs with a white body and is one we all recognise; its origins go back thousands of years. It is a tough sheep that thrives in all environments, hot or cold. Their hard black feet mean that they don’t have problems with foot rot or other foot diseases. They are parasite resistant and have minimal fly strike problems. The rams are very active and long lived. The ewes lamb easily mainly due to their narrow heads and shoulders minimising lamb losses and problems with ewes post lambing. Lambs are early to mature in fact as soon as 9 to 12 months, the meat is lean. They are often crossed with merino sheep to produce strong durable wool that is much loved by spinners.
Wiltshire Poll is another wool shedding sheep; the term ‘poll’ indicates that it is hornless.
They are a large, low maintenance, docile, healthy breed, with no wool on the face, belly or crutch (which means flystrike isn’t an issue). They live about 10 years and are prolific breeders – although they only produce lambs once a year, twins and triplets are common. These are a great, easy care, choice for the hobby farmer.
There are also several breed of ‘mini sheep’, about half the size of a ‘normal’ sheep, perfect for the hobby farmer. They are easy to handle with strong mothering skills and shed their wool in spring so they don’t need shearing or crutching.
Mini breeds grow to around 45 – 60cm tall at shoulder height. They have strong flocking instincts (love to live in flocks). You can run more of these sheep per hectare too so end up being as productive (per paddock) as larger sheep.
Examples of mini breeds include:
‘Harlequin’, as the name suggests, come in a range of colours white, speckled, brown and white, black and white etc., they are a very attractive (meat) animal and fun to have on a hobby farm or as a grass mower.
‘Chequers’ is a small milking breed and a recent introduction – it varies in colour but is much the same size and has the same easy temperament as other mini-sheep.
‘Babydoll Southdown’ bred from Southdown sheep (UK Breed) is one of the oldest UK ‘Downs’ breeds (meat and wool). These are friendly, docile and easy to handle and often used in vineyards and orchards to keep down grass and weeds, without damaging vines or trees. These are a great choice for the hobby farmer (or as a pet i.e. grass mower).
‘Soay’ is an ancient, tiny, fleece shedding, short tailed breed from the island of Soay (in the St Kilda archipelago Scotland). Mature ewes weigh in at just 24kgs, rams somewhat larger at 38kgs. They are quite variable in appearance - with high amount of brown coat patterning with a pale rump and belly. The meat is very low in cholesterol and because they are a ‘wild’ breed is a lot more gamey in flavour when compared to lamb.
AFTER YOUR STUDIES
Some graduates may use what they learn to do a better job caring for sheep they already work with, while for others, this course will be the first step toward getting and keeping your own sheep.
Sheep farms can be small intensive operations, or large farms of hundreds or even thousands of acres.
Sheep can be kept on properties as small as even half an acre or less.
Thew breed you choose and the way in which your raise one or many sheep, will depend upon both how much land you have and what your purpose is in keeping sheep.
Whatever your situation though; this course is an excellent learning experience.