Raising Sheep Right: Modern Farmer’s Sheep Breeding Primer

Rich and Katy Harjes of Willow Spring Ranch cross-breed their flock to encourage large, fast-growing lambs from ewes with strong maternal instincts and ample milk.

Brown W. Cannon III

With the help of two Rough Collies and two Border Collies, Rich and Katy Harjes of Willow Spring Ranch (read more about the Harjeses' story in this feature from our Winter 2017 issue) rotate their mixed-breed flock among a series of paddocks from spring through fall. In the winter months, the herd eats organic hay, much of it grown and cut on-site. Access to fresh water and a salt-mineral supplement is provided year-round.

Though some ranchers offer supplemental soy- and grain-based feeds to pregnant or lactating ewes and their newborn lambs, Willow Spring Ranch adheres to the strict no-grain certification standards of the American Grassfed Association. The Harjeses do open the barn to moms, babies, and moms-to-be during the early-spring lambing season. Otherwise, these hardy ruminants live outside under the watch of Maremma guardian dogs.

The Harjeses prevent tetanus and the intestinal disease enterotoxemia with regular CDT vaccines and boosters. Another common health issue—foot rot—can stem from wet conditions; avoid it by maintaining dry straw bedding in barns, keeping sheep out of wet pastures, and trimming hooves regularly. Sheep should be sheared, for comfort, come spring, whether or not you have a market for the wool.

If you’re planning to raise lambs this spring, be prepared to start with at least three ewes—the minimum herd size for these highly social critters—and plan for one to five sheep per acre; the lusher and more fertile the pasture, the more animals it can accommodate. Like most pros, the Harjeses have hybridized their sheep over time to bring out various traits, breeding Texel or Dorper rams to ewes that are themselves crosses of Bluefaced Leicester rams with Border Leicester, North Country Cheviot, and Icelandic ewes. Smaller-scale operations often pay for the services of a sire with the desired genetic characteristics. Regardless, seek out expert advice on establishing a breeding program. Choose breeds (see chart below) based on your primary product (meat or wool), while taking into account climate, disease resistance, litter size, maternal instincts, and ability to thrive on pasture without supplemental feed.

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Chart listing sheep breeds and their fiber, climate, origin, traits, and sub-breeds

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Raising Sheep Right: Modern Farmer’s Sheep Breeding Primer