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How to Breed Sheep and Care for Pregnant Ewes

Rachel worked as a farm manager for three years in Pennsylvania and now has her own farmstead in Minnesota.

The first lamb I ever "delivered" - that's right, I'm taking all the credit! By the way, both the ewe and the lamb pictured are Hog Island Sheep

The first lamb I ever "delivered" - that's right, I'm taking all the credit! By the way, both the ewe and the lamb pictured are Hog Island Sheep

Why Breed Sheep?

Breeding sheep can be a fun, personally rewarding, and profitable endeavor. But like with anything else, there are lots of factors to consider and some risks involved.

First, you should know how to care for sheep. To cut it down to the bare bones, sheep need proper feed, access to pasture, access to free-choice clean water, shelter, and/or protection from predators, and may need a mineral supplement. They also need to be given medications for worms.

Whether you're planning on breeding your pet sheep, the sheep on your hobby farm, or you're interested in trying to earn some extra money getting into the market for lamb, mutton, or wool, this article will provide you with the information that you'll need to get started breeding sheep.

Useful Sheep Terminology

  • Ewe: A female sheep
  • Ram: A male sheep
  • Baby lamb: A newborn lamb
  • Lamb: A lamb that's still nursing
  • Fat lamb: A lamb that's been weaned but is under one-year-old (ideal for market, in my humble opinion)
  • Small ruminant: What sheep are—animals who have a rumen as part of their digestive system
  • Lambing: The birthing of lambs
  • Lambing Season: The most stressful time of the year for those who breed sheep
  • Re-Ramming: Obtaining a new ram because you can't have your current ram breeding his granddaughters!
  • Grain: For the purpose of this article, any feed given to sheep other than hay.

Breed Selection: Meat Sheep

Lamb prices in the US remain steadily good, so breeding sheep for the purpose of selling lambs can be profitable; selling lambs should at least offset the costs of your hobby farm sheep flock. (Selling lambs is a good choice if you can manage to actually haul them off somewhere – let’s face it, they’re adorable!)

There are many popular breeds of sheep for lamb production in the US. Some of these include the Dorset, the Suffolk, the Hampshire, the Cheviot, and the Southdown. These breeds grow rapidly and tend to become large, as far as sheep go, topping out around 150 pounds for ewes.

It’s fairly common practice to cross, or mix, breeds of sheep in commercial flocks. Hobby farms, or those interested in showing sheep, may choose to keep and preserve just one breed of sheep. This is especially true for people interested in preserving rare or heritage breed sheep, like the Hog Island or Leicester Longwool.

For a flock intended for lamb production, I would recommend cross-breeds. Mixing breeds of any type of livestock animal helps encourage genetic diversity and discourage genetic problems, including propensity to certain diseases.

In my area, one of the most popular crosses for meat production is the Suffolk sheep bred to a Dorset ram. These Dorset rams tend to throw large lambs, and the Suffolks often have twins or even triplets, so the cross is a pretty perfect combination of large size and prolific production.

Breed Selection: Fiber (Wool) Sheep

If you're interested in raising and breeding sheep for the purpose of wool production, you'll want to select a breed of sheep that is particularly good at producing an excellent fleece.

Heritage breeds aren't generally great at fiber production, so you'll want to keep sheep of one of the following breeds (or, cross them up - livestock animals need all the genetic diversity they can get!)

  • Fine Wool Sheep: Merino and Rambouillet
  • Long Wool Sheep: Romney and Lincoln (long-wool fibers are great for hand-spinning)
  • Carpet Wool Sheep: Icelandic and Scottish Blackface (carpet wool is the lowest-grade wool)

For the best chance of really making money selling wool, you should select one of the fine wool breeds. If you have a niche market of hand-spinners or other people who want to purchase locally-produced wool for homespun clothing, long wool sheep will do just fine. You can probably find a market for the carpet wool quality sheep's wool, too, so don't necessarily discount it.

Breeding Sheep

Before we get started on any specific information, let me just make a couple of points.

Breeding Sheep Is Not for the Faint of Heart

Your sheep may get sick. They may need very personal care from you, like a vaginal exam to determine if they are in the process of lambing. You may need to call in the aid of an experienced herds-person, farmer, or veterinarian—getting help might cost you money. A lamb might die. A ewe might die. Remember that where there's livestock there's dead-stock.

Breed Young, Healthy Animals

If you've never bred sheep before, don't start with yearling ewes that have never bred. Don't start with a bunch of old ewes, either. Sheep can continue to breed until they are 10 (I know because I bred a 10-year-old sheep last year, but I don't recommend it!). Ideally, your ewes should be between 2 and 6 years old and should have lambed at least once before. They should also be healthy animals without deformities and should be up-to-date with deworming medications.

If You Expose Your Ewes to a Ram, You Are Now Responsible for Them

Sheep are a very domesticated animal and are really dependent on their human keepers. Ewes need extra feed during pregnancy and can become mineral-deficient if not cared for properly. If you allow your ewes to get pregnant, you are now responsible for their good health and successful lambing. Things can go wrong that are out of your control, but there's lots that you can do to prepare and to make sure that your sheep are healthy.

On that note, do not expose your ewes to a ram unless you are prepared to deal with pregnant ewes and ewes that are going to have lambs. Don't think for a minute that it's okay to allow your ewes to get pregnant while you just stand back, doing nothing and waiting for the lambs to appear.

All that being said, breeding sheep really can be a lot of fun, and a wonderful learning experience. It's my hope that this article will set you up for success.

How Many Rams Do I Need?

Generally, one healthy, mature ram should be enough for 30 ewes. If more than 30 ewes are to be bred, it's best to separate the ewes into groups of 30 or less and run one ram in each group.

Rams allowed to run together in the same group will usually just waste their time and energy dominating one another.

Getting Started Breeding Sheep

First thing's first: If you want lambs, you'll need to expose your ewes to a ram. The obvious point of this "exposure" is to allow the ram to mount the ewes and breed them. Unless the ram is a dud or the ewes are too old or are unhealthy, these couplings should result in pregnant ewes.

When to Expose the Ewes to the Ram

This kind of depends on when you want to be lambing, which depends somewhat on how hard your winters are. If you want a controlled lambing season, which I would recommend, then your ram should only be hanging out with the ewes for one portion of the year; the rest of the time he's in solitary confinement, where he can't impregnate ewes out-of-season.

Most breeds of sheep will naturally be more inclined to breed when the days are shortening. This means that fall is the time to allow the ewes exposure to the ram.

The gestation period for sheep is about five (5) months. Unless your winters are mild, you don't want lambs coming in January - it's too cold, and the grass growth is too far off. The dates October 15th - December 15th are probably the best times to expose your ewes to your ram, if you want lambs in the spring. Spring lambs have the benefit of a full summer of grass to eat; this is good for you because you save on feed. These breeding dates should result in lambs being born March through June.

Is that the "best time" to expose the ewes to the ram? Well, for me it is. But it really does depend on when you want the lambs to be born. Remember that a ewe should have a lamb or lambs five months after she is bred by the ram. To determine when to expose ewes to a ram, simply decide when you want the lambs to be born and count back five months.

Must I Vaccinate?

No, vaccination is a form of risk management, and it's up to you. Consult with your vet or an experienced herds-person about your flock if you're not sure.

You can purchase commonly-used vaccines for sheep from livestock product suppliers like Jeffers or from your vet.

A Good Schedule for Breeding Sheep

Here's the schedule that we use for breeding the sheep here at the farm.

October 15- December 15: Ewes are exposed to the ram and breeding takes place. Breeding is recorded.

January - February: We have ultrasounds performed by the vet to determine pregnancy. If all of your ewes are maidens (have never lambed) then ultrasounds are a good idea. Also, if all of your ewes are old (6 years or older), it's also a good idea. Otherwise, you can skip this step and assume pregnancy at basically no risk to the animals.

January: Administer pre-lambing vaccinations. We give CD-T Toxoid, which is a multi-purpose vaccine that protects against enterotoxemia and tetanus. Vaccines administered to the ewe during pregnancy will protect the lamb(s) as well. CD-T Toxoid will be administered again 4 weeks before lambing to help ensure that the lambs are protected.

February: Begin feeding ewes one pound of grain per head per day. This means that each ewe gets one-half pound of grain in the morning and another one-half in the evening. This extra grain is important in helping with the extra nutritional and energy requirements of gestation. Failing to properly feed pregnant ewes can lead to complications such as pregnancy toxemia and/or severe weight loss in the ewe. Under-feeding or over-feeding pregnant ewes can also cause miscarriage.

March- April: Lambing! Lambs are born. Most of the time, this means that when we come out in the morning to feed and check on the ewes, there are suddenly little lambs bouncing around! Lambing can also mean that ewes have issues and require assistance in delivering their lambs. This is especially true in old ewes, and in ewes carrying twins for the first time.

Lambing: What to Expect

In general, if you started with healthy ewes that have lambed at least once before, and you fed them properly during their pregnancy, you probably won't have any problems during lambing. 99% of the time, the ewes will have their lambs without your help.

However, there is the potential for complications during the birthing process, and you should be aware of that if you are going to breed sheep.

Some complications with lambing include:

  • A breech birth, or other situation where the lamb is turned the wrong way in the birth canal - this situation almost always requires your assistance, which means that you must physically help to deliver the lamb by putting a gloved and lubricated hand into the birth canal of the ewe
  • Dystochia: The death of the lamb as a result of the birth process, which requires removal of the dead lamb and special care given to the ewe, including antibiotics
  • Ewe cannot milk - there are several factors that could contribute to a ewe being unable to produce milk for her lamb(s); whatever the reason, if the ewe cannot feed her offspring, you will have to do it for her

Getting ready to lamb: When a ewe's time to lamb is approaching, she will most likely refuse to eat her grain. She may also exhibit signs of discomfort or agitation, such as pawing at the ground, laying down and getting back up frequently, or being disinterested in the rest of the flock.

What does lambing look like? Labor in sheep doesn't look much different than in other mammals. The ewe may strain, push, breathe heavily, get up and lay down frequently; you might even get to see the water break.

What do the lambs look like when they come out? Ideally, the lambs should come out in the "Superman" position - nose and two front legs forward. The ewe will take care of cleaning them up, so don't step in to help when you're not needed.

Supplies for Lambing

  • Milk replacer
  • Bottle and nipple for lambs
  • Gloves for vaginal exams
  • J-Jelly or another water-based lubricant in abundance (you can’t use too much)
  • Syringes and needles
  • Aluminum spray or Blue-Kote
  • Fly spray appropriate for sheep such as Catron IV
  • Rubbing alcohol
  • Iodine antiseptic
  • Bactericide and virucide soap
  • String or baling twine
  • Penicillin antibiotic appropriate for sheep if you can get it
  • Entrolyte H.E.
  • Pepto-Bismol
  • Large syringes for oral medications

Assisting With Lambing

The best advice I can give about assisting with lambing is this: If you've never done it before, have an experienced person like a farmer, herds-person or vet show you what to do.

That being said, the first time I helped to remove a lamb from a ewe happened to also be the first time I'd done a vaginal exam on a sheep. I didn't have any experienced person with me; I had my vet on the phone, which was helpful but not quite the same as having him there in person. So despite my advice, it's not impossible to learn to do something complicated without having someone there to show you.

Don't try to help a ewe deliver her lamb until you are sure that she needs help. This would mean that obvious labor has been taking place for more than 30 minutes with no progress, i.e., no lamb(s) coming out.

In the event that you decide that you must help a ewe to deliver her lamb, you should wear elbow-length gloves, apply lots and lots of lubrication to the gloves, and clean the ewes back-end and vulva, and your gloves, with anti-bacterial and anti-fungal soap. Gently and slowly insert your gloved hand into the ewe, and try to locate the lamb. You must determine the lamb's position by finding the head and feet. Lambs that are not coming out "Superman-style" need to be adjusted; you will have to manipulate the lamb's positioning so that it can pass through the birth canal safely. Work quickly, work intelligently, try not to get upset or flustered, and remember that sheep are the oldest domesticated animal - so people have been doing this for thousands of years, and one person can do what another can do.

See how it can start to get pretty complicated, even scary?

That's why I recommend enlisting the help of an experienced person if you can. I know that large animal vets can sometimes be hard to come by. If you can't find one, you can contact me personally, preferably before your ewes are giving birth, and I'll do what I can for you.

When all's said and done, you should end up with something like this :)

When all's said and done, you should end up with something like this :)

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2012 Rachel Koski Nielsen


Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on March 07, 2015:

This is an excellent hub! Congratulations on the well deserved HOTD. Your hub contains a lot of great advice and should be very helpful for people interested in breeding sheep.

Faith Reaper from southern USA on March 07, 2015:

What an interesting hub here full of great information and insight into breeding sheep. Congratulations on the HOTD! Well-deserved. I love all of the photos here, especially the one of you at the top.

Up ++++ tweeting, pinning, G+ sharing

poetryman6969 on March 07, 2015:

In the words of the great bard, Clint Eastwood, a man's got to know his limitations. This would not be for me but I admire the hardy souls who shear the sheep or make sheep cheese or whatever.

Ann Carr from SW England on March 07, 2015:

Fascinating and comprehensive guide to sheep rearing. It makes me want to try even though I now live in a town!

I was brought up around the South Downs in Sussex, England, an area which has a breed named after it.

Congrats on your HOTD!

Off to look at your profile.


Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania to Minnesota on July 23, 2013:

Thanks Raitu!

Raitu Disong on July 22, 2013:

Wow Rchel!

You are very fortunate to be a farmer!

I love sheep because they are so cool and innocent:)

Interesting hub!

Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania to Minnesota on February 24, 2013:

Hi Suhail, thanks for reading and commenting! I'm not sure that meat sheep would be any easier to handle than wool sheep. They still need to be shorn, are generally heavier, and will be lambing of course. But I see your point in the emotional difficulty of selling lambs. We don't sell any that aren't weaned.

As to your questions about selling raw wool - it really depends. You need to have some sort of a buyer. This might be a group of spinners, or a small or large business that wants the wool. You may be able to send the wool to be processed somewhere and receive wool blankets in return. We've done that, and I suppose you could sell the products you receive. If I were you I would search the internet for your buyers. That's the most comprehensive and up to date source of info on the subject I can think of!

Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania to Minnesota on February 24, 2013:

Hi Michael, thanks for your comment and sorry for my delay in responding! I really appreciate your kind words, and i'm glad you enjoyedthe article.

Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent from Mississauga, ON on December 20, 2012:

I stumbled upon this hub just in time hahaha. I have been thinking of owning a farm of layer chickens and sheep for wool purposes. I grew up with my parents having a herd of sheep. Although I believe sheep for meat purposes could be easier to handle, but I am not sure if I would be able to live with the guilt of selling my lambs for slaughtering lol.

One thing I would like to know is once we shear the sheep, how easy or difficult is it to actually sell raw fine wool. Will the demand for natural fiber continue in future or will it be replaced by artificial fiber? One thing I know is that the winter inner layer of clothing for extreme travel and sports made of wool is recommended heavily over artificial fabric.

Can you please refer me to a source for this information? I will appreciate.

Michael Tully on October 03, 2012:

Wow, Rachel! Such a solid and comprehensive article. I knew nothing about sheep before reading this, but I come away thinking I know everything about the subject. Very well written and illustrated. You really should consider writing a book some day. Voted up, useful, interesting, awesome.

Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania to Minnesota on October 01, 2012:

Midget - Thanks for the comment! Yes, humane and ethical treatment of animals is essential, especially if the animals are intended for human use such as food or other products. It's only fair. And who wants to eat something that was abused?? Eww... no thanks...

Michelle Liew from Singapore on October 01, 2012:

A great take on the care of animals, Rachel!! We'd never see these in Singapore, where I come from....but no matter the animal, treating it humanely and knowing the purposes for its care is essential,and I see these solid points here. Thanks for the great write, which I share.

Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania to Minnesota on October 01, 2012:

Radcliff - Wow, never gave much thought to writing a book, but I guess it's not a bad idea! Maybe in 15 years or so :) And if I do it, I'll be sure to mail you a free and signed copy, lol! Thanks for the comment, it's always nice to hear from you :)

Liz Davis from Hudson, FL on October 01, 2012:

Wow! I can't wait until you write a book on farming. I'll be expecting a signed copy. Lol!

Seriously, reserve one for me.

Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania to Minnesota on October 01, 2012:

Nettlemere - Thanks! It's nice to have an endorsement from someone who's been there.

Nettlemere from Burnley, Lancashire, UK on October 01, 2012:

This brings back memories, I spent my easter holidays lambing when I was a student. This is a good guide for potential sheep owners.

Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania to Minnesota on October 01, 2012:

Natasha - They are a little more complicated than chickens, LOL, but despite my incessant warnings it's really not so difficult :) I'm sure you could handle it!! Thanks for the comment.

Natasha from Hawaii on October 01, 2012:

I love the photo of that lamb just happening in the field! Too funny. I hope to own a farm, one day. I like sheep, but breeding them might be more than I can handle! I think I'll stick to chickens, at least for a while.