A eve with two lambs
Photo Credit:
Karl Hoppe

Diversification of livestock: sheep

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A generation or two ago, sheep production was a major source of farm income. The sale of lamb and wool made sheep unique in that these two sale crops were produced from the same ewe, and, at one time, the value in the wool paid for the ewe’s feed for the year and the lambs were the profit.

But times have changed and wool prices are extremely low. Some producers raise ‘hair sheep’ that are not sheared, but lambs continue to be profit-makers for the ewe flock with multiple births common among most breeds.

Prices fluctuate for lambs and ewes but there are auction and private markets for selling lambs.

A unique aspect of sheep production is that the lamb and ewe market share of the meat industry is so small that beef, pork and poultry prices do not greatly affect lamb prices. Even so, lamb prices are seasonal, with better prices when demand is high during religious and ethnic holidays.

An advantage to sheep is their short time to maturity. Ewes have a five-month gestation. Ewe lambs can reach maturity six months after birth. A ewe can lamb in May and the resulting lamb will be ready for slaughter at six to seven months, or be bred to produce another lamb at one year of age.

A good ewe flock could have a 200% lamb crop, although death losses could result in a weaning rate of 170% or less. 

Sheep respond well with careful management by the owner. Attention to better nutrition leads to more bred ewes and more lambs per ewe. Feeding ewes to maintain correct body condition will keep them from being too thin or too fat and prevent ‘downer’ ewes.

Multiple lambs, of course, mean more management effort is required at lambing to prevent dystocia. Mothering can be challenging for a ewe with two or more lambs needing her attention and bonding.

While raising sheep has other challenges such as predators, sheep are a smaller animal that that are easier for youth to handle. For many people, developing a bond with livestock often starts with a bottle lamb.

For rearing bottle lambs, here is a link with management tips:

A guideline for a management calendar for a ewe flock is at:

NDSU sheep specialists provide sheep educational events that are usually advertised in the North Dakota Lamb and Wool Producers Association newsletter.

The NDLWPA also sponsors a starter flock program for youth.

Karl Hoppe, Ph. D.
Extension Livestock Specialist