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Taking the Mystery Out of Owning Sheep
by Lori Herbel

Keeping a flock of sheep for stockdog training is an option that many handlers would love to have, but many feel they don't have the facilities or knowledge to maintain a flock of sheep. A little bit of research into this species of animal can take much of the mystery away and open up great possibilities!

One of the first major decisions to be made is what type of sheep to purchase. Purebred sheep may be more expensive to buy into, but maintain that value if marketed appropriately. This initial investment will also pay off in uniformity in appearance and production. Each breed possesses characteristics that the originators and current breeders select for. Some breeds are known for their fine wool, others for meat, while still others for production characteristics, hardiness or adaptability.

A second option is to use 'grade' or crossbred sheep. This type of sheep can be purchased from commercial sheep operations or through a local livestock market. Using a purebred ram on grade/crossbred ewes will also improve your lamb crop.

When buying sheep, there are several things to look for and take into consideration. Be sure to check the following: eyes, teeth, bite, udder, feet, jaw, condition, wool, age, and stool.

Eyes-Should be clear and free of pinkeye or any sign of damage.

Teeth-The age of a sheep can be determined by the condition of the teeth. Teeth wear as a sheep ages, and the condition of the teeth can affect the sheep's life expectancy.

Bite-Should not be overshot, nor undershot. Missing teeth are a disadvantage, as it makes it difficult for the sheep to grasp and tear grass when eating. A sheep is called a 'solid mouth' when all adult teeth are in place (up to approximately 4 years of age). The next stage is called 'spreaders' and this occurs when the teeth begin to show wear with the under-gum portions. A sheep missing teeth is called a 'broken mouth'. These can be older ewes that may still produce lambs another season or two. 'Gummers' are older sheep that have lost all of their front teeth, and these animals may require special feeding.

Udder-A good, clean udder, with even sides are desirable. Beware of lumps, which could indicate mastitis, an infection and inflammation of the udder, caused by bacteria.

Feet-Should be clean and short. Beware of untrimmed feet that turn up at the toes as these are toes that are overgrown and need attention. Also watch for limping, which could also indicate hoof problems.

Jaw-Lumps or appearance of swelling under the jaw can indicate worms or other parasites.

Condition-Moderate weight, neither too fat nor too thin. Overweight sheep can have trouble breeding, or may have trouble lambing if already bred. Extreme thinness can also indicate sickness or a parasite infection.

Wool-Faces clean of wool are desirable, as wool on the face can block eyesight and cause eye problems such as blindness. Watch for signs of raggedy or uneven wool, as the sheep may have ticks or mites. Look closely down onto the skin to see the conditions that exist. If shearing could pose a problem, then consider purchasing a breed with 'hair' rather than wool, such as a Barbados or Katahdin.

Age-Sheep of all ages can be used for training stockdogs. Older ewes, six to eight years or older may be a better bargain financially than younger ewes, but may not be as profitable in the long run. The decision must be made as to whether the sheep will be expected to pay for themselves with financial return, or whether the training opportunities they provide will justify their expense. Sheep can lamb as long as 10 to 12 years, and commercial growers often cull their ewes around the age of 8.

Stool-As with any animal, the stool should be firm. There are a lot of reasons why a sheep may have a loose stool, including parasites or other sickness. However, it could also be caused by heavy feeding, which happens on occasion when preparing sheep to be sold at market by the pound.

How many sheep can be run per acre? That depends on the type of soil, plant species, yearly rainfall, climate, lay of the land, etc. Extension offices or other agriculture offices can provide this information on a local basis. Rotating pastures correctly can enable more sheep to be run on smaller acreages. It also helps control parasites because larvae are exposed and quickly die.

A health maintenance program is another key to successfully keeping a healthy flock. Remember that sheep used for training will be exposed to more stress than a neighbor's identical flock that is not used for training. Your veterinarian can recommend a regiment of worming and vaccinations and answer any other health questions you may have. Watching for signs of illness should be second nature when caring for your flock every day. Loss of appetite, a sheep standing apart from the rest of the flock, a sheep that spends a lot of time lying down, weakness or staggering, and a loose stool are signs that call for attention. A normal temperature for a sheep is between 100.9 and 103 degrees. Anything over 104 should receive prompt medical attention. Also, make a habit of looking for squinting or runny eyes.

Feeding requirements are different for different areas of the country. Will the sheep be kept in a pasture or will they be dry lotted? Any change in feeding should be done gradually so as to let the sheep's system adjust. Check livestock feed and mineral supplements for ingredients and beware of products containing copper, which can be found in many feeds marketed for cattle. Copper can be fatal to sheep.