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By Jennif Chandler of Shady Brook Farm in Colbert, Ga.

Lamb production can be an excellent method of harvesting some of the abundant forages grown in the Southeastern US. Though processing and marketing options are limited, tender, delicious, locally produced lamb can offer an economically viable alternative to the conventional system of meat production when adequate nutrition, protection from internal parasites and predators are provided. As well, many folks find they enjoy having sheep even beyond their immediate, though substantial, usefulness.

Feeding

Think of sheep as walking compost bins that gather and grind their daily input. It is the rumen and its host of active microbes that are at the heart of the process of converting low quality feedstuffs into high quality products for humans. The successful shepherd is first and foremost a grass farmer. The sheep’s energy, protein, and mineral requirements must be met and balanced for each of the various stages of production – i.e. early gestation, late gestation, lactation, and finishing.  Adult, open (not pregnant), and early stage gestation ewes can maintain their weight on grass hay and pasture, but pregnant ewes in the last 6 weeks of pregnancy have decreasing rumen capacity (ability to process forages) due to their expanding uterus at a time when rapidly growing and often multiple fetuses require good nutrition to be born strong and healthy.

It is lactation, however, that places the greatest demand on ewes providing milk for multiple fast growing lambs (gaining as much as a pound a day on milk alone). Though young lambs soon begin nibbling grass and chewing their cud, rumen capacity will not be sufficient to process enough forage to meet their requirements for growth until they have reached a minimum size of about 40 lbs. Lambs weaned earlier will need to be supplemented with a high protein (18-21%) feed in order to grow out well. Winter born lambs trying to reach finished weight on late summer pastures will grow slowly on low quality forage alone resulting in a less than tender product.

Forage quality and availability varies by season, plant species, soil fertility and weather. The nutritional value of hay can vary from excellent to worthless. Meeting the requirements of sheep in all stages of production can be a challenge even in years of ‘normal’ rainfall. When forages are not adequate, supplementing forages with a locally produced feed can contribute to successful sheep production. Feeding concentrates also contributes to calm, friendly sheep that are easily caught and worked when needed. A strictly grass only regime is a lofty, but difficult goal that is not recommended for the beginning shepherd wanting to produce a quality lamb product.

Fence, shelter and equipment

There are several fencing options including field fence, high tinsel electric and portable electric net. As long as there is ample forage, sheep are not nearly as difficult as goats to keep inside the fence. Barn/shelter: Sheep in the SE need access to shade and water in each lot or pasture. A portable covered hoop shelter can be used for rotational grazing where trees are not available.

Though most sheep do seek shelter from cold rain, except for new born wool sheep lambs, which are usually given 2-3 days of care in a pen or jug with their mom, a barn is not essential. Equipment: Chasing sheep, unless using a trained border collie on ‘dog broke’ sheep is not good for the shepherd or the sheep. A catch pen is essential. It can be as basic as 4 or more wire panels (hog panels) tied at the corners, using one as the gate. The pen should also have a feed trough to entice the sheep to come in.

Sheep are easily trained to eat so an occasional treat now and then will have them running into their pen whenever you want. For only a few sheep, pull the sides in once the gate is closed to crowd the animals so much that they cannot move away when you reach for them. For a larger flock, you will want a working shoot where the sheep can be handled efficiently without stress. Other equipment: Hoof trimming shears, sheep halter and rope. Syringes are handy for measuring dewormers.

Protection from predators

Sheep are vulnerable to deadly attacks by dogs and coyotes. Though donkeys and llamas sometimes provide satisfactory protection, it is the livestock guardian dogs (LGDs) that have centuries of breeding to do the job. They are very intelligent, independent thinkers but they are not ‘plug and play’. The serious shepherd will make no better investment in funds and time, than that required to obtain and maintain a good LGD.

Parasites

Probably the number one killer of sheep in the SE is the internal parasite, Haemonchus contortus (H. c.) or barber pole worm. A heavy load of these parasites can drain 8 ounces of blood a day killing the sheep (or goat) before hardly any sign of disease is evident. A new flock, virtually free of parasites, kept on new, clean pastures (where no sheep or goats have grazed in recent years), will enjoy a few years before parasite loads build up and often mislead the shepherd into thinking there is no danger.  Understanding the current scientific information on parasite control will save animals and heartache in the long run. Internet email lists propagate a great deal of miss-information concerning natural dewormers, usually from northern locations where parasites have a much shorter infective period due to cooler temperatures.

There are several cultural methods of fighting parasites that should be used where feasible. Number one: Breed selection: St. Croix and Katahdin hair sheep and Gulf Coast Native (wool) sheep are breeds most recognized for parasite resistance. Within the flock, parasites can be monitored using fecal egg counts and anemia checks to reduce deworming and select breed stock to be retained. Multi-species grazing: Cows (though calves can sometimes be susceptible) and horses on pasture with or following sheep will consume the infective larvae without harm thus decreasing the potential infection of sheep. Auburn University’s Dr. Jorge Mosjidis developed a variety of Sericea lespedeza that has proved effective against H.c., and is also highly palatable to sheep. A copper supplement sold for cattle can be re-portioned for sheep and has been proven to work to control H.c. especially well in lambs.

CAUTION: Cu is toxic to sheep- get the information on this method from the research done at Fort Valley State University described at www.wormx.org (see resources). Forward creep grazing and management intensive grazing will also help if careful attention is paid to timing. Plowing the field and reseeding every 3 or 4 years will reduce parasite populations as well. Coccidiosis is a problem in crowded, dirty conditions which should be avoided. Ostertagia is another problem parasite. It does not cause anemia but loose stools and loss of weight. It is not nearly as deadly as H.c. but can cause long term damage to the intestine.

To slow the development of resistance by the parasites to the dewormers, individual sheep should be treated as needed rather than routinely treating the whole flock on a schedule. Check eye membranes to determine anemia (see resources- FAMACHA) and deworm accordingly. At this writing, Cydectin Oral for Sheep and Prohibit (levamisole hydrochloride) are the only two dewormers labeled for sheep that work. If the goal is to produce organic or chemical-free lambs, it is only humane to deworm animals that need it; eliminate them from the breeding pool; and sell them as chemically dewormed (follow slaughter withholding times on the product label).

Breeds

Though there are hundreds of breeds of sheep, the beginning shepherd will have their greatest ease of success if they either purchase their first sheep from a near-by farm willing to mentor them through their first sheep years- especially lambing, or start with Katahdin hair sheep.  Katahdins, have good parasite resistance (see resources Hound River Farm), excellent meat, and should not need shearing (some have a bit of hairy wool that will need to come off- they should be avoided if completely shedding sheep- designated type A coat- are available). Katahdins will also do better on lower quality forages than most of the wool breeds. Though wool prices are high at the moment, the cost of shearing will usually exceed the value of the wool unless the wool is very high quality and a big effort is put into marketing.

Some breeds have a strong, gammy flavor that is generally not favored by consumers It is usually associated with older, fatter lambs of certain breeds (generally fine wool breeds). In other breeds, even an old ram will have mild flavor.  Again, Katahdins are recommended for flavor and texture.

Marketing in Georgia

Though sheep and lambs are bringing their highest prices in 25 years, the marketing options for your location and prospective level of production should be explored and well thought out. If you are only interested in producing some high quality food for your family, marketing will not be a concern.  Most deer processing plants are happy to take care of a few sheep- especially in the off season. You will want to find one well ahead of time and get the details: Will they do lambs? All year or when? What is the cost? (probably about $70 per head) Craigs list, the F&C market Bulletin, and word of mouth are also good methods of selling live animals. Your local sale barn may be an alternative but prices vary wildly at different locations and at different times of year. Though allowed in some states, it is illegal in GA for someone to butcher a purchased animal on your property.

For direct marketing cuts of lamb, three requirements must be met: 1) A processor (within reasonable driving distance) that processes ‘under state or federal inspection’ will need to be found. This is currently a limiting factor to lamb production in GA and is NOT the same as a ‘state inspected plant’. (see resources- GDA red meat) 2)The processor will help you design and obtain state approved labels which must be on each package or it will be stamped ‘not for sale’.  3) You will also need to meet the requirements for, be inspected and acquire a state license for storage of meat for retail sales (previously $100).

About the Author

Jennif Chandler has been raising sheep (and dairy goats before that) in the Athens GA area for over 25 years. She was the first to obtain a license and label from the GA Dept of Ag for retail cuts of lamb. She graduated from UGA with a BS in Agronomy and has perused many opportunities for continuing education in sustainable agriculture and small ruminant health and management. Her interest in sheep extends to wool crafts, dairy and prescribed grazing for vegetation management.

Additional Resources:

  • Sericea Lespedeza and Cu for control of H.c. 
  • FAMACHA method of determining anemia
  • Maryland Small Ruminant Page: most information on sheep and goats of any site I know of
  • Katahdin Registry
  • Vet Technicians 
  • Premier 1 Supples:  The most complete sheep supply source with great, info filled catalogs- see working set-up and fencing options and the most economical source for supplies like dewormers:
  • Livestock Guardian Dogs or Livestock Protection Dogs: My favorite breed is the Anatolian but there are several available (and mine are actually half Pyrenees- only consider a crossbreed if both parents are LGDs). There is lots of info on the web. I also recommend subscribing to a group list such as Livestockdogs4sale or Goatslivestockdogs (both are yahoo groups and there are several more). Young dogs (less than 2 yrs) sometimes get into trouble until they understand what they are supposed to do. An experienced  dog is recommended for an inexperienced LGD owner.