Things to think about before you buy sheep

Sheep on small farms must make money

Maybe a good time for small farmers to start thinking about more sheep.  But let's be clear about one thing.  If you are going into sheep, they've got to leave a clear profit.  You must include in your expenses all those little things like deaths, agent's commission and animal health, that are often forgotten.

So let's look at the decisions you'll have to make assuming you start a sheep flock in autumn.

What sort of sheep?

There is plenty of choice.  I don't think the breed you choose is all that important.   Age is probably the most important factor.  What's available?

Five-year-old ewes
  • These are ewes that should have had at least four lamb crops on a hill country farm and are ready for an easier life.  They are sometimes called “cast-for-age” or CFA ewes.
  • They should have a full set of eight permanent front teeth (incisors) in their lower jaw.  Sheep have no top front teeth- only a hard dental pad. These front teeth may be well-worn down but they should all be there, firmly fitted, even and working.   The vendor should guarantee that they are sound in mouth and udder - but just beware and check. 
  • Mate them to a "meat-breed" ram or a “Down breed” and sell all the lambs.  You may hear the term “terminal sire breed.”  This describes a meat sire breed where all the lambs are slaughtered.
  • If you have the feed, sell these lambs for slaughter to the meat works or local butcher at 4-6 months of age.  This usually gives the best returns.  You can sell them as “weaners” or “stores” off their mothers for someone else to finish, but you'll make less money.  It depends on the feed supply and your stocking levels.
  • These old 5-year-olds should last you at least one if not two seasons if well looked after, and they themselves will then be sold for meat.  Don't ask who eats them - pies are their normal resting-place.  But, I repeat, they need looking after.  They don't earn profit down an offal hole.
Two-tooth ewes 
  • These ewes usually haven't had a lamb and are about 14-18 months old.  They should have two permanent teeth (two big teeth in the middle of their set of eight lower incisors).  They'll be mated for the first time in the autumn you buy them. 
  •  Two-tooths are generally about twice the price of 5-year-olds but obviously they are good value as they have their productive life ahead of them. 
Mixed-age ewes 
  • These can be a mixed bag and there may be little guarantee of teeth and udders.  The concern here is that they may be "culls", otherwise, why would someone want to sell young ewes that still had a lot life left in them?  There is no such word as "culls" in some vendor's and agent's books - they're all "surplus to requirements"!
  • Your question should be, "Is there a genuine reason for selling them?"  If you buy through an agent you'll have some comeback if there are problems.  Not so if you buy privately.
  • It’s up to you to check teeth and udders.  If the udder is not very obvious, they probably have never had a lamb and they'd be a poor buy.   There are two types of "dry" ewes, ie ewes that have not milked.  "Wet/Drys" are sheep that have lambed and not reared a lamb to weaning, and "Dry/Dry" ewes have never had a lamb at all.   Keep away from both if you can, but certainly the latter!  If you have someone buying for you - tell them you want ewes that have reared lambs last season - and the best evidence is a developed udder with two good teats free from shearing cuts.
In-lamb ewes
  • If you can't buy in time for mating, you may be able to buy so-called in-lamb ewes.  Now here you can have problems with guarantees.  All you may get is that they've been running with a ram over certain dates, or they've not returned to the ram - so are assumed to be pregnant.   They could have aborted after the ram went home.  If you can get a pregnancy scan done then that would be ideal. 
  • And of course, you don't know what kind of ram they were with.  It could be from a named breed but goodness knows how good an individual he was.  Money is made from quick-growing lambs and the ram has a good share of this responsibility.
Ewe lambs/hoggets
  • These are last year's lambs born in July-August.  When a lamb becomes a hogget is a bit hard to define.   If they're well grown (round about 25-30kg), they are well worth mating, to lamb later than the main flock say in September.  But these little ladies need a lot of tender loving care.  They make great mothers and of course having lambed as hoggets go on to make very productive and profitable ewes. 
  • Traditionally ewe hoggets are not mated in New Zealand, and it's a great shame as they add greatly to the profitability of the flock.  Maybe there will be a change in this practice as we try to get the flock numbers up again.  Any ewe hoggets born to ewe hoggets are real gold, as they will invariably be highly productive sheep over their lifetime.
Rams
  • The way the market is at present it would be wise for small block owners to consider a ram from one of the main meat breeds such as Polled Dorset, Southdown, Texel or Suffolk.  There are many other types of these "Down" breeds that also do a good job.  It's not the breed but rather the individual ram that you should pay attention to.
Autumn & winter feeding

Aim to feed sheep well at all times.  If sheep get down in condition (ie. get skinny), then internal parasites will get at them, they'll go through the veterinary text books of sheep diseases and not see Spring.  If they do, they'll do their damnest to commit suicide and take their lambs with them!

The younger the sheep (especially ewe hoggets), then the better they must be fed.  If you cannot tell a skinny sheep from a decent one, weigh some with a sling and a spring balance at regular intervals and see how their weights are going.  Aim at 50kg as a minimal target for your ewes.  If they get down to 40kg on good land then you have too many and you aren't feeding them enough.   Remember that the lamb makes most growth in the last 4-6 weeks of pregnancy so ewes really need to be well fed over that time.

A lot of folk panic thinking that if sheep are too well fed they'll end up with lambs that are too big and they'll have lambing trouble.  This was the case with the 1950-60 type of sheep, but things are vastly different now.

Now that scanning sheep is commercially available you can find out which ewes have singles, and which ewes are carrying twins so you can feed them accordingly.  Scanning operators are talking about doing it for well under a dollar a sheep

Plan some concentrate feeding (meal) for twin-carrying sheep in the 2-3 weeks before lambing.  Apart from meeting their nutrient needs - they'll become your lifetime friends. 

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