There are many great reasons to add sheep to your homestead. Whether you’re interested in wool, meat, dairy, help with weeds, showing, or all the above, sheep make useful additions to farms and homesteads of any size. Yet the choice between breeds can be tough. The American Sheep Industry Association recognizes over 60 different sheep breeds in North America alone. Here are a few factors to consider as you decide on what sheep breed might be right for you.
It’s important first to understand the difference between hair sheep and wool sheep. Every sheep has both hair and wool fibers, but the ratio of hair to wool is different depending on the breed.
Hair sheep have a higher hair-to-wool ratio and are referred to as shedding sheep, categorized for their ability to shed their own coats. Hair sheep often look a little like goats and are becoming more popular with farmers and ranchers raising sheep specifically for meat or dairy rather than wool. Hair sheep can be better at temperature regulation and are overall lower maintenance since they don’t need shearing once or twice a year.
Wool sheep have a higher proportion of wool to hair fibers, thus their coats are thicker and more stereotypical of what you probably imagine when you picture a sheep. Most wool sheep are raised for their wool as well as meat, dairy, weed management, and everything else, so they might be a more rounded choice for homesteaders. They do, however, absolutely need to be sheared, most once a year, some even twice, annually.
A wool sheep that doesn’t get sheared regularly will overheat and in extreme cases, can even die. Shearing done well is an undertaking and many choose to hire a professional to get it accomplished neatly, quickly, and to maintain the quality of the fleece. However, depending on where you live and the size of your flock, it might be challenging to find a shearer. With a little patience and some help, it’s certainly possible to learn to shear sheep yourself. This is what we’ve done on our farm.
You might also consider the difference between a purebred herd and crossbred sheep. Since industrialized agriculture picked up and many heritage animal breeds started disappearing, there’s been a resurgence of commitment among some small farmers and homesteaders to maintain breeds that might have otherwise been lost.
Beyond the preservation value, purebred animals might maintain specific desirable characteristics, depending on the breed, and they might also fetch higher prices in the commercial market for their wool, meat, or other products. Purebred sheep could also be more desirable as show animals. Crossbred animals, alternatively, have the potential for hybrid vigor, which means they may be less susceptible to genetic disorders and disease, as well as have potential for more vigorous growth. The choice is ultimately up to you.
All sheep breeds can be raised for meat, but there are specific breeds that will put on weight faster, grow bigger, and are known to be better breeders. Hair breeds are increasing in popularity due to the simplification of not needing to shear, but it should be noted that some commercial markets prefer lambs from wool sheep over hair breeds. All of these factors might play into your decision of what breed to choose.
Sheep raised for meat is either mutton (a sheep over one year) or lamb (a sheep under one year). In commercial meat production in the United States, lamb meat is generally more profitable and popular for its tenderness and taste. If you’re raising meat without commercial purposes in mind, you can be more flexible.
There are many popular meat sheep breeds in the United States, and a number of them are often crossed for faster weight gain or high productivity. Some of the more popular wool breeds raised for meat include Suffolk, Dorset, Hampshire, Cheviot, and Texel. Some of the more popular hair breeds raised for meat include Dorper, Katahdin, and Barbados Blackbelly.
While some people prefer the familiar taste of cow milk to sheep, there’s an increasing commercial market for sheep cheese and potentially milk, depending on where you live. Sheep milk has a higher fat, solids, and protein content than cow or goat milk, which makes it an especially good option for cheese.
If you’re interested in supplying milk, yogurt, and cheese for your own family, sheep make an excellent alternative to cows, especially on a small homestead. Sheep are lighter on the land than cows: an estimated five to seven ewes and their lambs need about as much space as one cow and her calf.
When raising sheep for dairy, you’ll want to choose sheep with good temperaments and high milk production. Since dairy production necessitates breeding sheep, good mothering instincts are also useful. Three of the most popular breeds for dairy sheep today are East Friesian, Lacaune, and Awassi. All three breeds need shearing, though Lacaune will shed their undercoat in the summer. Assaf, British Milk, Chios, and Katahdin sheep are also good choices.
If you’re interested in raising sheep for wool, you’ll want to first consider what type of wool you’re looking for. Wool can be a tough way to make a profit since prices aren’t currently high in the commodity market. Fleeces from various breeds will fit into a range of coarseness and length and these factors as well as the skill of the shearer and the quality and cleanliness of the fleece will all influence how much you can sell a fleece for. Still, there’s plenty to be gained by raising sheep for wool, regardless of how much money you can make on the endeavor.
The finest fleeces, such as those from Merino, Delaine Merino, Booroola Merino, Rambouillet, and Cormo sheep will fetch the highest prices in the commercial market. Fine wool is prized for its softness and is often used for close-to-body clothes and other high-end garments. Merino sheep require some extra attention in shearing, as their skin can be quite wrinkled.
If you’re interested in wool for your own spinning, crafts, and perhaps to sell direct to customers, your range of possible breeds widens significantly. Medium wool fleeces will not sell for much in the commodity market but are popular with handcrafters. Some great options for medium wool sheep breeds are Finn, Suffolk, Dorset, Corriedale, and Hampshire.
Long wool breeds will fetch even less money in the commodity market, but they’re many homesteaders’ favorite types of wool to work with. Long wool fleeces can also be popular in direct sales to other handcrafters. Long wool fleeces are the easiest of all the types of wool to handspin and are well suited for felting projects, rugs, weaving, and other crafts. This wool, if you have a lot of it, can also be used as insulation. The trimmings from a fleece make great fertilizer for your garden. Some popular long wool breeds are Romney, Lincoln, Border Leicester, Coopworth, Cotswold, and Wensleydale.
Icelandic sheep are incredibly cold-hardy, which is important for us in Montana, and they’re efficient foragers that do well on a grass-based diet. We rotate them through our pastures and they help significantly with weed pressure. Icelandic sheep can be sheared once or twice a year and they’re dual-coated, which means they have a shorter, softer inner coat and longer outer coat. Their wool is great for handspinners.
They mature young, are prolific breeders and their meat has a fine texture and good flavor. Icelandic sheep produce less milk than some of the most popular dairy sheep, but for a small farm or small cheese producer, they’re still a pretty good choice. Some other popular all-purpose breeds include Southdown, Shetland, Cheviot, and Dorset.
Whatever sheep breed you choose, you’re sure to enjoy the addition to your homestead or farm. As long as you keep your environment and your top reasons for raising sheep in mind, you really can’t go wrong.