Best Breeds of Sheep for a Small Farm
Selecting Sheep Breeds for Your Small Farm
There are an estimated 50 breeds of sheep in the United States alone and more than 1,000 worldwide. If you're trying to decide which type of sheep best suits your small or hobby farm, the information can get a little overwhelming!
Perhaps the first thing to consider when selecting sheep is also the simplest: hair or wool? Most breeds of wool sheep need to be shorn (their wool cut away) at least once per year, while hair sheep do not require shearing. Some breeds of wool sheep will shed their own wool, while others will absolutely require a helping hand. So, if you're not willing to learn to shear or to spend the money to have someone do it for you, then a breed of hair sheep will be your obvious choice!
- Do you want to raise lambs for market or home-use?
- Do you want to sell (or spin your own) wool?
- Do you want to raise lambs that will be grown into ewes for breeding purposes?
- Do you want dairy sheep for the purpose of producing milk, or cheeses such as Feta or Romano?
- Do you want to show sheep in competition?
- Are you interested in breeding a rare breed of sheep for preservation purposes?
- Do you just want some pet sheep that will help mow the grass?
You should answer all of these questions, and then begin your research into sheep breeds. Hopefully, this guide will help shed some light on the topic, as I introduce to you my top five picks of sheep breeds for various uses on the small farm.
Are you interested in keeping sheep?
Barbados Blackbelly: The Endangered Hair Breed
- Fiber type: Hair
- Purpose: Meat and genetic preservation/rare breed conservation
- Size: Small/Medium
- Prolific(?): Yes
- Hardiness: Extremely hardy
The Barbados Blackbelly sheep evolved on the island of Barbados, as the name suggests. They descend from crosses of African hair sheep and European wool sheep, dating back as far as the 17th century. These hair sheep are not seasonal breeders, unlike most types of sheep, meaning that the ewes will have heat cycles throughout the year. Non-seasonal breeding can allow for more than one lamb crop per year, and the ewes are prolific, usually producing twins or even triplets.
Being a somewhat obscure hair sheep breed, with small adult body weight, the Barbados hasn't seen much attention from commercial breeders and is therefore in danger of being placed on the threatened livestock species list. I'm pleased to report, however, that there is an increased demand for hair sheep in the U.S. as of late, so these guys are slowly making a comeback.
Notable and desirable traits of the Barbados include resistance to disease, tolerance for different climates (especially hot and humid, and including cold climates), ability to tolerate a higher worm load than other types of sheep, and low-maintenance foraging skills.
This breed is certainly useful to the small farmer or homesteader as an easy-keeper and meat producer, and their unique genetics make them valuable both for cross-breeding and breed preservation purposes.
East Friesian: The Dairy Variety
- Fiber type: Medium grade wool
- Purpose: Dairy
- Size: Large
- Prolific(?): Very
- Hardiness: Not hardy
Though I have no personal experience with East Friesian sheep, I wanted to include them on this list because they are the choice for dairy sheep. Commercial dairy sheep operations generally use a 50% cross of the Friesian, because they are not a very hardy breed and adapt poorly to environments that differ from that which they evolved in.
That being said, it's reported that in smaller flocks purebred Friesians do very well. They aren't easy keepers, but that's okay for us small farmers and homesteaders because we have the time and energy to give individual care to our animals.
Friesians produce upwards of three times as much milk per lactation as other breeds of sheep, a trait for which they have been bred. Their milk is excellent for producing many types of cheeses, and as raw and organic milk gains popularity in the U.S., so will sheep's milk. In fact, the Friesians didn't come to the U.S. until as late as the 1990s, but have been gaining in popularity and production ever since. They can be found in farms across the Midwest and along the East Coast into New England.
The small farmer or homesteader interested in raising dairy sheep would be wise to look into purchasing a Friesian or two, even if the plan is to cross the sheep with another breed. Just be aware that in order to produce all that extra milk, this breed of sheep requires extra nutrition during lactation. Personally, I wouldn't keep East Friesian sheep on my farm due to there general lack of hardiness; then again, I'm not interested in milk production. If I were, I would want a Friesian. To preserve the dairy quality of the Friesian while side-stepping the animal's lack of hardiness, I would probably cross it with a hardier breed such as the Lacaune or Cheviot.
Merino: A Proven Wool Sheep
- Fiber type: Fine, high-grade wool
- Purpose: Wool, show competition
- Size: Medium/Small
- Prolific(?): Yes
- Hardiness: Good
The Merino is famous around the world for producing soft, fine, high-grade wool. If you've ever purchased athletic clothing or any high-end wool clothing, it's likely woven from Merino wool.
Docile in nature, most Merino are polled (no horns), make good mothers, and are fairly hardy and adaptable animals. They're bred for wool production and don't reach market weight as quickly as sheep that are bred for meat. This author happens to think they have one of the cutest faces of any sheep, but that's beside the point.
Merino sheep are also a popular breed to use in competition sheep showing, and a specific breed standard can be located through a simple Google search. For the small farmer or homesteader, Merino sheep would be a good choice for home meat production because they are easy keepers. Although the lambs won't reach standard market rate as quickly as those of other breeds, small-scale operations can certainly afford to forgive this tidbit.
Aside from needing to be shorn (as almost all wool sheep do, no matter the grade), they don't require much special care or considerations. And if you can find a vendor to sell the wool to, or process the wool yourself into marketable products, I'd wager you can produce enough income from wool alone to at least have the Merinos paying their own keep.
Polypay: The Multi-Purpose Type
- Fiber type: Good grade wool
- Purpose: Meat, wool
- Size: Large (ewes easily over 150 lbs)
- Prolific(?): Very, multiple lamb crops per year possible
- Hardiness: Good
The Polypay isn't so much a "breed" of sheep as it is a hybrid type. It's actually a four-way cross between Finnsheep/Rambouillet and Dorset/Targhee. That seems kind of confusing, but basically the story behind the Polypay is that some producers got together in the 1970s and decided they wanted to create a new type of sheep that would meet specific demands. These included two lamb crops per year, one good wool crop per year, hardiness, good mothering skills, and a heavy carcass weight. The participating in the experiment found these various traits in the four breeds of sheep mentioned above and set about combining different variations and crosses of these animals to create the "perfect" sheep.
I'm in favor of the Polypay (in fact, I own three of them) because they represent a wonderful phenomenon known as hybrid vigor. Hybrid vigor occurs when different, specialized breeds with different, specialized traits are bred with one another. Oftentimes, the best and most desirable traits of each breed involved in the cross will show up in the offspring.
The interesting thing is that it's often the case that when breeding hybrids to hybrids, they don't "breed true"—that is, the traits that were present in the parents stop showing up in the offspring, or show up to a lesser degree, at a certain point. This is a result of less dominant traits that may have been "hidden" in the DNA beginning to show through as more dominant traits are bred out. Cool stuff, wouldn't you say?
You've probably noted that I value genetic diversity in livestock animals, even over production efficiency, so I'm a proud owner of the large-sized, hardy, highly prolific Polypay. And I can't wait to see what kind of interesting crosses and genetic throw-backs I get out of my girls.
For the small farmer, Polypays are an excellent choice of sheep. They can breed year-round, throw two lamb crops per year, their wool is good enough to sell, and yearling ewes are able to breed and successfully produce twins or more. They're easy to obtain, easy to keep healthy, easy to breed, and easy to sell.
Suffolk: The Popular Meat Sheep
- Fiber type: Medium wool
- Purpose: Meat, breeding stock, show competition
- Size: Very large
- Prolific(?): Very
- Hardiness: Good
The Suffolk is easily one of the most popular breeds of sheep for meat production. Created prior to the 19th century by crossing the meaty and muscular Southdown with the hardy and semi-wild Norfolk Horned sheep, the Suffolk developed qualities taken from both its parent breeds and combined them well.
Suffolks are easily distinguishable from other breeds of sheep by their white wool, black faces, and long, black legs. They are almost always polled, and mature ewes can weigh up to 250 pounds. Large and hearty, good mothers, and prolific to boot, it's no wonder the Suffolk is many a farmer's breed of choice for meat sheep. Like the Merino, the Suffolk is also a popular sheep for showing in competition.
Whether for home-use lamb or mutton or for producing lambs to sell to customers or to market, the Suffolk sheep would be a good addition to a small farmer's or homesteader's flock. Producers of Suffolk must remember to use a de-wormer for their sheep on a regular schedule, as these animals don't perform well with a high worm load. Another consideration is that, while adult Suffolks generally do very well on pasture and forage, the lambs may need supplemental grain in order to reach ideal market weight quickly. This problem can be sidestepped by lambing earlier in the season, or can simply be ignored.
Additionally, though it has been said that Suffolk are easy-lambers, I have it on good authority that this is not always the case; therefore, you should monitor your Suffolk ewes carefully as lambing approaches to avoid losses.
First Honorable Mention: The Hog Island Sheep
- Fiber type: Medium grade wool
- Purpose: Genetic preservation/breed conservation, meat, wool
- Size: Small/Average
- Prolific(?): Moderately; full-grown ewes usually produce twins
- Hardiness: Extremely hardy
The Hog Island Sheep takes its name from a small island off the coast of Virginia. The ancestors of the Hog Island Sheep were brought to the island in the 18th century, and abandoned sometime in the early twentieth century. The thousands of sheep went "feral," and were later removed from the island in the mid-twentieth century when conservation groups deemed that their presence on the island was destructive to the native habitat.
Because of the nearly-two centuries of isolation, the Hog Island Sheep is genetically unique, especially among American sheep breeds. In fact, this is one of the few (if not the only) breed of sheep that prefers to browse rather than graze, much like a goat.
What makes this breed of sheep so interesting to me is its ability to forage, and thrive on very little when compared to more commercial and modern breeds of sheep. Here is an animal that has not been selectively bred by man to exhibit certain qualities, such as excellent wool, fast growth rate, multiple births, increased lactation, or heavy finished weight. While all of these modern traits may seem superior, the fact of the matter is that other aspects of the animal suffer when only one is emphasized in breeding practices.
The Hog Island Sheep is a veritable treasure trove of untapped genetic diversity, which, if bred into our more popular, commercial sheep breeds, would create advanced hybrid vigor and simultaneously help to "breed out" some of the health issues we have unintentionally created.
My experience with Hog Island Sheep involved crossing a ram with Dorset ewes (a heavy meat breed). The offspring exhibited increased growth rate without supplemental grain, and not one lamb of this cross suffered from scours, pinkeye, or any other debilitation. These offspring were again bred to a Hog Island ram, and the next generation exhibited similar improvements in growth rate and general hardiness.
My little experiment isn't enough to convince large sheep producers to consider the hog island, but as a farm-owner and sheep producer, you can bet I'll be going to great lengths (and probably costs) to procure a couple of Hog Island Sheep to increase and strengthen the genetic diversity of my flock.
Considering that the Hog Island is one of the most critically endangered sheep in the world, and with only a few thousand specimens in the United States, I can only hope that my efforts will pay off and help to preserve this genetic cache... before it's lost forever.
Second Honorable Mention: The Crossed-Up Mutt Sheep
- Fiber type: Varies
- Purpose: Varies, genetic diversification
- Size: Varies
- Prolific(?): Usually
- Hardiness: Usually hardy
I'd like to close this article with a shout out to the "mutt sheep," which is a catch-all term I'm going to use to describe any nondescript, non-distinct type of sheep that might be grazing the pastures of small farms across the world. These sheep don't belong to any particular breed, and while some of their characteristics might be recognizable as originating from (or being the originators of) popular, commercial breeds, they are successfully helping small farmers like me to make a living.
I understand why huge operations rely on just one or two specific breeds of sheep to turn a profit. With so many animals, the producer doesn't have time to closely monitor each individual of the flock. So commercial operations consist of a limited gene pool, and must be careful not to breed too closely over too many generations.
But the flock of mutt sheep has less to worry about. With greater genetic diversity comes greater potential for desirable traits, as well as undesirable ones. Luckily, the small farmer has few enough animals to be able to keep an eye on things, and make sure that less-than-desirable animals aren't kept as breeding stock.
The mutt sheep are less likely to have damaging traits bred into their flock, such as blindness, lameness, a propensity for cancers or cysts, deafness, or a low tolerance for disease or worms. And since variety is, as they say, the spice of life, isn't a monosyllabic flock of sheep with their matching colors, identical heights and weights, and utterly predictable offspring just kind of boring? I'll take my chances with the crossbreeds and mutts, and be sure to let you all know how it goes.