Frequently Asked Sheep Questions
I've never raised farm animals before. Are Shetland sheep a good "starter" breed? - - Shetland sheep are a very easy care breed, so they might be a good breed with which to learn the art of shepherding. However, there are zillions of little things to learn and experience. We suggest that new shepherds learn on a small flock of "grade" sheep so a mistake won't be a financial big deal. It is kind of like trying to decide whether you should let your 16-year-old learn to drive in your brand-new BMW or your old Chevy. Probably nothing bad would happen, but our sons learned to drive in an old pick-up.
Im new to sheep, what books do you think I should read? - - The primmer is "Raising Sheep the Modern Way" by Paula Simmons and a more in-depth book is "Sheep Raisers Manual" by Bill Kruesi.
Is Shetland wool good for anything? - - Shetland wool is very soft and is produced in a wide range of colors. It is great for making garments to be worn next to your skin, and the color range encourages using creative and exciting knitting patterns. If clean, it will command a premium price.
Does a Shetlands fleece stay the same from year to year? - - Lambs fleeces are smaller, quite fine and frequently quite long. Marking patterns are sometimes very exciting only to disappear after the first shearing. Some colors are not fully apparent until a Shetland is a year old and some of the darker colors will develop light fibers as the sheep ages, not unlike us. When a Shetland lamb is only several weeks old, look at the fleece color down close to the skin. Light colors will start showing.
Why are your fleeces finer/softer than other Shetlands? - - It has been our experience that the fineness of the fleeces is inversely proportional to the quality of the feed. Shetlands fed grain, in any form, as a substantial portion of their diet have coarser fleeces that seem dry and rough to the touch. We feel that Shetlands were designed to eat grass so that is what we feed them. Genetics are also a strong influence on the fineness and softness of wool.
What are "primitive" fleeces and are they good or bad? - - As we understand it, the "original" sheep had primary and secondary fibers. The primary fibers were more like coarse, straight hair for protection against the weather and the secondary fibers were soft, fine and downy for warmth. As the centuries rolled by, the primary and secondary fibers became more and more similar to each other through selective breeding. Primitive fleeces are fleeces where there is a noticeable difference between the primary and secondary fibers. The primary fibers may be or may appear to be coarser than the secondary fibers. There are many folks who feel that Shetlands with primitive fleeces are closer in breeding to the "original" Shetland sheep although we know of no documentation to substantiate this claim.
In our opinion, primitive fleeces are neither good nor bad - just different. Some breeders want primitive fleeces and some don't. Some spinners want primitive fleeces and some don't. This is something everyone must decide for themselves. There is considerable controversy about the desirability of primitive fleeces in the UK.
What do you think about coating the sheep to keep their fleeces clean? - - We don't suggest coating Shetlands. Keeping fleeces clean is a big management problem, but we feel it is part of the job of being a shepherd. We feel that coating the sheep increases the chances of matting fleeces. Also, you may find all kinds of organisms growing in the moist, dark environment. We have also heard of Shetlands getting the coat hung up on a stick or branch and dying. We feel aggressive management practices are more effective. For more information on fleeces, please refer to our Frequently Asked Fleece Questions section.
When and how many times per year do you shear your sheep? - - We shear once a year, near the end of February. We experimented with shearing long fleeces in the fall as well as our regular February clip. They did not grow long enough before our regular shearing. We are considering slipping our regular annual shearing to November so the fleeces will be cleaner. We don't know the impact this change will have on everything else but feel it is worth a try.
Isn't it too cold in February in Vermont for recently shorn sheep? - - Temperatures are seldom above freezing for very long at the end of February and during March in Vermont. After shearing, we pack the sheep into smaller spaces at night, so that they keep each other warm. Their metabolism and appetite increase dramatically and we feed them all they will eat. In a matter of a couple weeks, they have grown quite a bit of new wool and their food intake stabilizes. We feel that we worry more about how warm they are than they worry about how warm they are.
Why do you shear in February? - - Many Shetlands have a shedding break in their fleece during the late winter or early spring. Each sheep is slightly different but we have found that, here in Vermont, the average time for this shedding break is late February. Sheep shorn after their shedding break have what appears to many hand spinners as second cuts in their fleece. Sheep shorn before their shedding break have the break grow out and they look like they have a bad case of mange until the tips wear off. Shearing in November should eliminate the shedding break problem.
Why don't you wait until after lambing to shear? - - There are five reasons why we shear before lambing:
How do I find and keep a good shearer? - - Shearers are very independent. This is not meant as a criticism; it is just a fact. Most shearers are self-employed. They all would like to set up their equipment, shear your sheep, take their money and go home. Frequently, when they arrive on a farm, they find a dark, dirty, wet area with no sheep handling facilities. Folks expect them to chase sheep around a pasture, shear dirty sheep and smile the whole time. If you have never sheared sheep, try it some time; it isn't all that much fun. Most shearers are quite good. Ask neighbors and members of the sheep association in your area whom they would recommend. Shetland sheep are small and the fleeces are more valuable than most, so a more careful, but possibly slower shearer might be your best bet. Sometimes several friends will all bring their few sheep to one central location so the shearer doesn't have to travel and set up many times. Put yourself in the shearer's position. Think about all the things that will be going on and what can be done to make them happen most efficiently. Expect to pay extra if the shearer must perform nonshearing tasks. Consider having something to drink and maybe a snack or lunch for her/him. Have yourself and a couple of friends available to handle the sheep and the fleeces. Let your shearer pace the conversation and don't gasp every time a sheep gets a nick. Heavy conversation may distract a shearer and an ear or tail may inadvertently get cut -- a very messy situation.
Do you have any predator problems? - - Yes and no. There are lots of predators but our 8-strand electric fence, with a continuous four thousand volts, and our guardian llama keep our Shetlands safe. We have lots of coyotes, some dogs, and a few moose and bear. They all respect four thousand volts, each in their own way. Predators check the fence regularly so it must always be "HOT".
What type of fencing do you use? - - We rotationally graze through about four dozen pastures. We use an eight-strand permanent perimeter electric fence with a few eight-strand permanent electric subdivision fences. The majority of our internal fences are portable sections of electrified Electronet, removed and rolled up for the winter. Removable internal fencing makes manure spreading and other pasture maintenance tasks much easier. This method also permits changing our layout based on experience, pasture maturity levels and other variables. We make alternate wires of our permanent fencing hot and ground, starting with the lowest wire being a ground. This method assures that even during very dry periods of the summer, varmints will find real reasons to stay away from our sheep. We have very shallow soil so we use aluminum wire with only 40-pounds tension, hung on stainless steel clips fastened to fiberglass posts that don't have to be pounded very far into the soil. We have an alarm at the far end of the fence to tell us if the voltage dips below fifteen hundred volts and a battery back-up with an inverter that automatically comes on line to keep the fencer working if we have one of our frequent power outages.
Do you ever have trouble with deer or moose knocking down your aluminum wire fence? - - The answer is yes, and those are two very different questions. It has been our observation that deer can jump over our fence with no problem, if they can see it. Most frequently they will break the second wire down from the top. We speculate that, as they are about to jump, they dont see how high the fence was until it was too late to gain more altitude. We have a fence alarm and it goes off mostly at dusk, when the fence is hardest to see. When we go to repair the fence, it looks like the deer got its hoof between the top wire and the second from the top wire, fell to the ground (probably cursing us the whole way down) and broke the second wire. We would prefer to fix a broken wire than find a dead deer hanging on our fence. Thats why we use the easy to break & repair aluminum wire. Making the wire more visible by using electrotape or something reflective, in high travel areas, would surely help.
Moose are too big and too dumb to really deal with. We dont have much trouble with them but when we do, the repair job will take all morning. They generally enter our pasture in one place and exit in another place so we have two moose-sized holes to fix. Knotting the aluminum wire to repair isnt too bad a job, but sometimes they take out some posts and battens.
Do you have trouble with rams getting their horns caught in your flexible electric fence? - - Yes and no. We have more trouble with ear tags and feet getting tangled than horns. Usually the horns that get tangled are the shorter ones that are close to the rams head; we have no explanation for this. At first, we thought sheep lost to the fence were electrocuted, but have had several instances where a sheep got an ear tag or a foot caught in a fence when the power was off. The only explanation that we can think of is stress. During the grazing season, we will have nearly 300 Shetlands including the lambs, and we lose one, sometimes two to the fence per year. We are not pleased with that number but rationalize that we also have never lost a sheep to a predator.
What do you feed your Shetlands? - - From mid-May until early November, they are on pasture and eat grass. We carefully go over each new pasture to be sure there are no poisonous plants. Shetlands like grass but they also like some variety. Weeds are nice, tree bark is great (especially if you wanted to keep that tree), raspberries and other brush are wonderful, and your flower garden is the best. From early November until mid-May they are in the barnyard. Up until 1996 we fed a leafy, second cut grass hay with a TDN of at least 60% and an average of 16% Available Crude Protein figured on a dry matter basis. We have switched to haylage that tests as high as the hay. There are less dust and chaff particles to get into fleeces and the sheep like it better. We feed no grain except to lambs, and that is only about a half a pound per lamb per day. A great resource for feed and mineral supplement information is:
"Nutrient Requirements of Sheep" by the Nation Research Council available for around $20 from:
What kind of barn do I need to house my Shetlands? - - If your farm is located where the wind chill/feels like temperature is frequently below zero°F, you should consider a four-sided building, otherwise a three-sided shelter is great. They like a place to get in out of the sun, rain and cold wind; however, snow doesnt bother them at all. Locking them into a nice tight barn to keep them warm is a MAJOR mistake. Whatever shelter you use must have terrific ventilation with openings at the top and openings at the bottom so convection will keep everything dry. Sheep dont worry about cold half as much as dampness. They have great wool coats so they will always be warm but if you dont provide a well ventilated, dry place for them to sleep, you are asking for all kinds of health troubles! We provide about four square feet of shelter for each sheep, a little more for adult rams with big horns. On a cold night, they all snuggle together.
What kind of housing do you have for your Shetland sheep? - - We have twelve 10'x16' buildings on skids. They are arranged in clusters of two buildings with an exercise pen, one building for up to forty sheep and the other for breeding and lambing. We have a total of fourteen buildings, seven on each side of a center access road. Several of the buildings are used for shearing, wood chip bedding, fence storage, etc. Each building has plenty of ventilation. Sheep are put inside every night for security and to make feed distribution in the morning easier and cleaner. During the summer, the buildings are towed away and the manure pack is bucket-loaded out to the composting area. In late August, we spread it on the pastures as fertilizer.
What do you use for bedding inside your buildings? - - We have tried many things with some good results and some not so good results. There are short-term results and long term results.
1. Wood chips - We were clearing a lot of land so we had plenty of junk trees and branches available. We chipped everything. The chips were pretty good, solid and about ¾" thick. They worked well for bedding by providing good drainage and we were sure we had found a good solution. However, there were some drawbacks:
3. Mulch hay - Farmers sell hay that was cut too late, cut in parts of the field that has low nutrition or was cut last year but never sold. They call it "Mulch Hay".
Living on a mountaintop in Vermont, you must have to deal with some pretty severe weather. Where to you buy your foul weather gear? In alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of preference:
How do you handle such a large number of sheep? - - We don't. We break the flock up into groups of no more than 75 sheep per group. Shetland sheep are very smart. We rotationally graze and move the groups every two or three days. After several moves, even the lambs pick up the routine and moving becomes a nonevent. We weigh the adults twice per year and we weigh the lambs every three weeks. We have a circular corral with a sweep gate and a scale in the center. Weighing and drenching the lambs is a fun project!
Aren't you concerned about the negative impact you are making on the planet by removing all those trees? We always wondered how much of those concerns were based on solid research and how much based on someone's personal opinion that was repeated enough so that it became "fact". The following is the text of an article in the July 2004 "Stockman Grass Farmer" that helped us put our minds to rest:
Plants take carbon dioxide out of the air and "fix" it into the soil as organic matter. The more carbon dioxide that's taken out of the air, the lower the rate of global warming.
Until recently, forested land and ungrazed grasslands were thought to be the best carbon "sinks".
The Iowa research found that the more intensively the pasture was managed and utilized the more soil carbon it sequestered.
How do you worm your Shetlands? - - You should discuss worming with your veterinarian. Internal parasite control is a complicated subject. Problems vary radically from area to area and even from farm to farm. Too little or too much worming has serious drawbacks. Just the right amount of worming takes considerable effort to determine and monitor. We use a mix of phenothiazine powder with the salt. This keeps a low but continuous level of phenothiazine in the sheep's' system and parasite eggs don't develop into larvae. Unfortunately, phenothiazine powder is no longer available. Although it has been used for many years to successfully control internal parasites, the USDA, in an effort to protect us from "who knows what", imposed new restrictions on the manufacturer making the continued production impossible. We bought a large supply before production was closed down; however, we will have to find our own replacement soon.
What are you doing about rabies? - - Rabies is a great concern in the northeastern US. Our electric fence is quite effective keeping all varmints out. However, we are so concerned that we started inoculating all sheep in 1992. Every year they all get booster shots.
Other than worming and rabies boosters, what other medication do you give your Shetlands? - - Every spring, as part of our "spring maintenance" of the flock, done during lambing, all sheep get a CD/T shot. CD/T stands for Clostridium Perfringens Types C & D-Tetanus Toxoid (aren't you glad you asked). These are areas of concern we have and we feel that we must take preventive measures. There are immunization serums available for a larger number of purposes, the "8-in-1" shots, that we DO NOT use. We feel that too much medication is a bad thing. We feel problems that never existed in our flock can be introduced and natural immunities can be reduced.
How much pasture do I need for Shetland sheep? - - Really good pasture, rotationally grazed will support ten Shetlands per acre with no problems. Poor pasture, set stocked (not good for the sheep or the pasture) may support five Shetlands per acre.
Can I eat the meat from a Shetland sheep? - - Emphatically YES! The meat is not only very tasty but it is very good for you. Slowly roasted in a covered pan with some seasoning or marinade, it makes a meal you will not forget! Shetland meat is very low in fat, almost too low to hold together for a burger. It is also very easy to digest, recommended for senior citizens with digestive concerns. Of course, there isn't much meat because Shetlands are quite small and grow slowly.
I have had a good lamb crop this year but, like most folks, I have more rams than I need. I have more people wanting locker lambs than breeding stock but I'm not sure how to market the lamb since it is much smaller than the Suffolk lambs they are used to in this area. - - The key is to not try to compete with Suffolks. Shetlands are a unique product, and require a unique selling plan - not because they are inferior, but because they are different. They are small; We find it uneconomical to have them processed at less than 60# live weight (that makes them almost yearlings, but the meat is still very tender, and doesn't get "rammy"). They are lean, which requires a slightly different cooking technique (slower, moist cooking) than a big slab of Suffolk. The smaller, leaner cuts appeal to smaller families, to folks who are very health conscious, to borderline vegetarians, and to "ethnic" groups. Our best successes are selling through a local natural food cooperative, and to restaurants that feature "Specialty" menus. You might also try contacting your state Agricultural Department. Many have a Development Division designed to help folks with specialty products. You may find a state chapter of an organization called "The Chef's 2000 Collaborative", which is dedicated to connecting chefs and farmers without middlemen (our Vermont chapter is called the "Vermont Fresh Network"). Selling meat is not difficult, but it helps to be creative. Keep in mind that, because they are so small, the net meat yield from a Shetland will be very small but the slaughtering costs are generally the same as for larger breeds.
Is lambing a lot of work? - - Lambing is certainly the high point of the year. We have had well over a thousand Shetland lambs born on our farm and several hundred lambs of other breeds during our early days of sheep farming. Shetland sheep are, by far, the easiest lambers. We believe Shetlands, a primitive breed, have had to survive on their own for centuries. The survivors are the ones who worked out any lambing problems themselves. We admire this quality and marvel at the precision displayed by the ewes during lambing. It is a rare time that they require any help. The biggest problem new shepherds have is being sure not to interfere with the natural process. We had a 60-pound ewe deliver twins at 8 pounds each with no help and no problems.
Shetland ewes make GREAT moms. They instinctively know what to do. If a first time mom seems a little confused about what is going on, one of the old timers will "talk" her through the situation. Grafting a lamb onto a ewe is usually quite easy. Sometimes a first timer will have twins and be so involved with the second lamb that she ignores the first one. Frequently one of the older ewes will just take on the lamb as one of her own. It becomes a challenge to be sure to document who gave birth to whom in order to keep the breeding records straight.
Should newborn lambs and dams be separated from the others? - - Yes, ASAP!!! We keep all of the bred ewes together until each lambs and then we put each new mom and her lambs together in a 4 x 4 "jug" as soon as possible after lambing, maybe before lambing if you think the dam will be lambing within a few hours. It is critical to establish that initial bond between the mom and the lamb without interference, especially for first time moms and especially for twins. Frequently a ewe will have a lamb and start cleaning it off. Then she will have a second lamb and start cleaning it off meanwhile another ewe will finish cleaning off the first lamb and claim it as her own. This becomes a problem when trying to establish who the parents are for every lamb you want to register. Of course, if the second ewe hasnt lambed yet, she wont have any milk for the lamb she stole and the rightful mother will push the lamb away because she thinks it belongs to another ewe, so you have a big problem.
Is it possible to graft a rejected lamb onto another ewe? - - Yes and it is especially easy with Shetlands. Sometimes a first time mom will reject her lamb because she doesnt understand what is going on. Not all people make good parents and not all sheep make good parents. Usually the other ewes in the barn will talk the new mom through the process. You may have to hold the new mom down and hold the lamb on her nipple to be sure the lamb gets a good drink of colostrum and milk. If it has been a couple of hours and the new mom is still pushing the lamb away, it is time to consider grafting. There are lots of grafting techniques in sheep raising books, but none work all the time. Our best shot is to bottle-feed the lamb until an older, experienced ewe lambs with only one lamb. Quickly, while there is still a lot of confusion, put the graftee in a pen, add the natural lamb, rub some of the new moms birthing fluid onto the lamb to be grafted, then move mom in. Try to get the graftee to nurse. This usually works and mom thinks she had twins. Timing and sequence are critical!
We had a lamb born that didnt want its mother, is that possible? - - Yes, every-so-often a lamb will reject its mother. We call that a bottle lamb and you become the mother with round-the-clock feedings. It will usually not want to graft onto another ewe. It is certainly a fun experience for at least the first few times. It is always wise to have a bag of Lamb Milk Replacer and some frozen colostrum around during lambing, just in case.
How dangerous is it for lambs to get into the pen with adult rams? - - Our experience is that it is just the opposite of dangerous. The rams are usually quite curious and protective of the lambs. For many years we put the weaned lambs in the pasture with the rams. Each year, the rams would choose a different baby sitter who would spend all his time with the lambs while the other rams went on about their business. The lambs climbed all over him and there was definitely a lot of communication and learning going on even though we didnt hear anything.
How can you tell when a Shetland is going to lamb? - - There is no sure way, in fact, frequently you can look at a ewe and figure she didnt get pregnant only to have her deliver twins three days later. Usually, if a ewe that is supposed to be pregnant and due to lamb very shortly, isnt interested in the hay you put out in the morning, she will probably lamb within a few hours. If the weather turns cold and raw or rainy, usually the ewes will wait a day or two until the weather improves. Interesting how sheep can do this and people cant. Almost always our ewes go into a shed to lamb rather than outside in the corral. About 3/4 lamb during daylight hours and 1/4 during night.
Do Shetlands ever twin? - - Yes, our lambing percentage is around 150%. We think Shetlands living in a less harsh environment would twin more often. First time moms seldom twin and some of the more senior ewes single.
What is the length of a Shetland sheeps gestation period? - - On our farm we use 146 days. Older ewes may go as long as 156 days.
If I buy a bred ewe, what recourse do I have if she does not have a lamb? - - Breeding sheep is a very iffy thing. There are so many factors that impact the results. Hormones control much of the development of the fetus, especially in the early stages of pregnancy. Hormone balances are influenced by stress and sheep are particularly sensitive to stress. Stress caused by weather, feed changes, relocation, predators, etc. negatively impact early gestation, more so in some individuals than others and more so in first time lambers than older, more experienced ewes. Our overall flock lambing rate varies from 130% to 170% from year to year with a below 100% lambing rate for first timers. The percentages are calculated by dividing the number of live lambs produced by the number of ewes put in with a ram. If a ewe is put with a ram here on our farm, we are quite confident that she will be bred. However, there are numerous situations a ewe will find herself in during the five-month gestation that may cause stress and may cause her to abort a fetus with no outward appearance of anything having happened. There is no blood, no fetus, no change in appearance but the fetus is gone, absorbed into the ewe's system, and there will be one less lamb born. Here at our farm, we have good controls of feed consistency and predators but very poor control of weather and no control of the conditions when a ewe is relocated. Because we have no control of many critical conditions a ewe will be exposed to when sold as a bred ewe, we can't guarantee anything. Because we can't guarantee that a bred ewe will lamb, we don't charge a fee for the breeding service. If you get a lamb or two, you have a bonus; if not, you still have a healthy ewe that you can breed on your farm the next year with a greater likelihood of her lambing.
When choosing a dam and sire, how can I predict what color my lambs will be? - - That depends on a whole bunch of things, most of which wont fit into a short answer; sheep color genetics is complex and people spend lifetimes trying to answer that questions. There are a few general rules that work most of the time. A color bred to the same color will generally produce the same color. Because brown in recessive, brown bred to brown will always produce brown but brown bred to black or gray will usually produce black. Marking patterns are a whole different subject.
I put my Shetland ram in with the ewes this fall and never saw him doing anything. Is he a dud? - - Probably not. Shetlands don't like an audience when breeding. We seldom see any breeding happening but the job gets done because the settling rate is very high. Although it has probably happened elsewhere, we have never had a ram that didn't breed any of his ewes.
Do you breed Shetland ewes as lambs? - - We have bred Shetland ewe lambs to lamb as yearlings but we don't anymore. There is an increased chance for lambing problems and the ewe's growth rate drops off dramatically. Carrying the ewe for that first year with no income is a concern but more than offset, in our opinion, by the reduced stress on the ewe. Analogous to people, a 13-year-old human can give birth, but it isn't necessarily a good idea.
How close do you breed your sheep? - - When we brought the first Shetlands into the US, we line bred separately in five colors. The line breeding was grandfather to granddaughter. The line breeding was done for around five years to see if there were any hidden bad traits in the genetics. The first year, we found one problem and two rams were culled. Nothing noteworthy happened from then on. Close breeding can expose negative traits and can suppress growth rates and twinning. Close breeding, even brother to sister, may bring out some extraordinary positive traits that would otherwise take many generations to produce. Among those traits are color and marking patterns. Although we only bred that close a couple of times, there are many studies predicting the results one may expect. We found that all of our customers were unconcerned about the trueness of color reproducibility; in fact they seemed to like the thought of the color of the lamb being a surprise. So, when we stopped line breeding, we also stopped breeding same color to same color. Our twinning rate and growth rate increased predictably. Close breeding seems to be more of a moral issue than an animal well-being issue. There is an excellent chapter in Bill Kruesi's book, "The Sheep Raisers Manual" on the subject of line breeding. We urge you to read it.
What do you think about the Shetland semen importation from the UK? - - Many Shetland breeders have heralded the semen importation as the best thing that has happened since the Shetlands arrived in 1980. They cite all sorts of reasons from limited genetics available to perceived negative traits. We disagree, on all counts! We oppose the semen importation and AI for rare breeds in general. Many people seem to forever be looking for the silver bullet that will solve all of their problems and make life good again. There are no silver bullets, in sheep raising or anything else. The only thing that will improve the quality of a flock is a quality breeding program and making a lot of difficult decisions. The Brits do NOT claim to have solved all problems and do NOT claim to produce only top quality, flawless Shetland sheep. But, somehow some US breeders feel that if they bring in UK genetics, only good things will happen. We think this is very unlikely. We believe UK breeders have as many "genetic" problems as US breeders do. Some breeders critique photos, fleece samples, horn conformation and genetic background with very narrow parameters, when looking for a new flock ram. A ram is half of most breeding flocks so it is very important to do a careful investigation. However, those very same people will buy semen giving nary a thought to characteristics they were so critical of with a live animal.
How are the Shetland's hooves? - - We check and trim hooves regularly during our spring maintenance checkup for all sheep. Rarely do hooves need any attention in addition to the annual trim. They seem to deal with moisture well and self trim on our rocky farm.
We separated our ram from the ewes and he is getting very nasty. What can we do? - - Sheep, especially Shetland sheep, are very social animals. A large portion of the time we spend with our Shetlands is giving them attention. They come over to us for scratch under the chin or a hug regularly. We feel that if you put one of these very social animals into a pen, all by himself, he very likely will get nasty; you probably would too. Our experience has been that rams need to have a couple of buddies to hang out with. Usually other rams are best. We keep between a dozen and two dozen rams together and seldom have any problems. Sometimes goats, donkeys, horses or cattle work well. Each ram has his own personality. Be sure that he continues to get lots of your affection! Rams are the friendliest; ewes have more of a tendency to be shy, spooky or aloof.
How do I introduce a new ram? - - Anyone feels a little intimidated when introduced to new surroundings and new people. Rams are much the same. Some consider this no big event and check out where the food and water are located. Others have to make some kind of an entrance and knock heads a little. The best time to introduce a new ram to your existing rams is in the morning, when everyone is hungry, the hungrier the better. Put the feed out and let the new ram into the pen first. Let him start eating and getting comfortable with the surroundings. When he seems to be content let the first old ram out. He will probably go right for breakfast. When you are sure everything is calm let your second old ram out. Continue this until they are all together in the pen. After everyone has chowed-down, there may be a little rough housing so keep your eye on things for a day or two.
Why do the rams knock heads when I put them back together after being separated for breeding? - - We really dont know for sure but it seems like they are really happy to see each other again. It can be quite dangerous however because in their exuberance, they can really hurt themselves. It is best to keep them in a very confined area for a while, until they settle down, to reduce the chances of them doing real damage to themselves.
Tell me about rams' horns. - - Horns are always a surprise. With lambs, we look for nice height and curve, like the adults but miniature. Really bad horns are obvious very early. You can't get much of an idea about many horns until the sheep are six months old. Flat horns or very tight curled horns (like cup handles) generally cause problems later as the ram matures. Try to project where the horns will grow if the spiral that has started continues for several years. If the spiral looks like it will curve into their neck or cheek, let them mature, but it may be time for the freezer. If they look at all questionable, we don't sell them. If the sheep have great characteristics and we think that the horns are close, we keep then around and cross our fingers until we are sure. We would like to be able to say that acceptable horn conformation is very predictable and that, after having so many Shetlands born on our farm, we have figured out what to look for. There are always surprises. We can be reasonably sure on most but there is a huge gray area where they could turn out to be good or bad.
Horns are under continual review. Probably no meaningful evaluation can be made at one month, sometimes not until one year old. We're still learning about horn dynamics! It seems logical that, if horn conformation had a high heritability, culling bad horns would eventually eliminate the problem. We have had some rams, whose horns looked great as lambs, eventually become too close within three years. When they are adult rams, if we can fit my hand between their horn and their face, we're satisfied; however, we're much more critical of lambs' and yearlings' horns. We have a yearling that broke about 1" off the tip of one horn. That horn is now growing in a tighter curl than the other horn. We can give our "best guess" by weaning, but it is not 100% accurate.
Is horn growth more a function of genetics or nutrition and environment? - - We see horn growth patterns that are consistent from generation to generation. We sometimes have three or four generations of horns that are virtually identical so we could conclude that horn growth pattern is mainly a genetic trait. That said, we have had many people visit our farm from all over the US, Canada and the UK. Frequently the magnificent racks on our adult rams blow them away so environment may play a large role in actual horn growth. Horn is protein and mineral so a rich diet will effect horn growth and size.
How big do Shetland sheep get? - - Our adult ewes weigh 60-90 pounds and adult rams weigh 90-120 pounds. There are exceptions. Some take two to three years to reach their adult weight.
Why are your Shetlands so small? - - Our Shetlands are the same average weight and size as the Shetlands we first imported. This is consistent with most Shetland animals that are generally small. We dont cross our Shetlands with other breeds, or selectively breed to increase their size. We like them the way they were and see no need to tinker with things. Overfeeding can produce a larger sheep as well as an overweight sheep; we all know that overweight is not good for anyone, including sheep.
How old do Shetland sheep get? - - On our farm, an average life span is eight to ten years. We have had Shetlands live to be twelve years old and other breeders have had Shetlands live 13-15 years. We have a harsher climate than most and we breed almost all our sheep almost every year.
Do you show your sheep? - - To show or not to show - - - that is the question! Certainly if you take sheep to a show, you expose them to more potential customers and you may collect awards that are useful for promotion and ego inflation. You may also expose them to stress and disease. What is a shepherd to do? The majority of Shetland shepherds have Shetlands for their own personal enjoyment and fleece supply. They use most or all of their fleeces themselves and do limited breeding. They couldn't care less about the potential customers, the awards or their egos.
There are many who show dogs, sheep, goats and all kinds of other animals. For them, the show is the reason to have the animals. They enjoy the challenge of competition and the adrenaline rush of the moment. They are on the road a lot during the show season. Their animals get used to the stress of being in different places every week and they build up an immunity to "shipping fever", to a degree. Probably most shows are relatively safe places for those sheep. Show sheep are handled a lot and checked regularly by a veterinarian for Health Certificates for each show and for interstate travel.
Then there are folks in the middle. They want to take their sheep to their local county fair, maybe a 4H show, maybe a local fiber-animal gathering or even the State Fair. Maybe their animals haven't been to a fair before. They get a little stressed when the vet comes to check them over. Then, they go for a long ride in some kind of a box. Then, a day or two in a strange pen with other animals all around and lots of people very close. All of that followed by another long ride home in that box. For some sheep, all this is a no-brainer. For others, this is a major trauma. Their nervous systems are wound tight and their immune systems are all but dysfunctional. Whatever diseases may be floating around will find a welcome incubation site in the stressed sheep.
As the shepherd, you must weigh the advantages against the disadvantages. You know your sheep. Which ones will have a problem and which ones won't? Some shepherds worry about every sheep and react to their needs and wants as individuals on a daily basis as if they were family members. Other shepherds figure farm animals require food and water but they are on their own for anything else. There are many choices and variables; the tradeoffs are yours to make. There are no obvious answers that apply to everyone.
What is a CLOSED FLOCK and why are you so adamant about having one? - - A closed flock is a flock that does not bring in any new animals, embryos or semen. Once a sheep leaves, it never comes back. No sheep go to shows, no rams are loaned-out or swapped with another farm, no sheep are returned because you changed your mind, etc. Sheep are very susceptible to the effects of stress. The stress of new surroundings, different routines, new pen mates and other major changes may weaken their immune systems. There are zillions of diseases out there just waiting to infect your sheep. We feel that taking our sheep to a place, where there are many sheep from farms with unknown health criteria, is sort of like kissing the doorknob of a public toilet; not something we want to do.
What is OPP? - - OPP stands for Ovine Progressive Pneumonia. The name tells the story. We're told that it is analogous to an ovine form of AIDS. OPP is very contagious and treatment is questionable; discuss this subject, at length, with your veterinarian.
Do you have to dock the Shetland lambs' tails? - - If you have to, they are not Shetland lambs. True Shetland sheep have a fluked shaped tail that is four to six inches long at maturity.
What salt and mineral mix should I feed my Shetland sheep? - - We have free choice salt and a high selenium mineral mix (our area is quite selenium deficient) in separate, weather protected trays available for all sheep at all times. The proportions consumed vary from sheep to sheep and from season to season. Salt blocks are not good for sheep teeth, may have compounds toxic to sheep and are difficult for sheep to get the quantity of salt they require.
Why do you send some of your sheep to market and sell others for very high prices - - - why not sell all of them at lower prices? - - That would be counterproductive to the breed. Some just dont measure up and should not be reproduced. Maintaining the quality of the breed is far more important than the bucks!
How come your sheep are so expensive? - - As a breeder, we have an obligation to only sell prime breeding stock; if it isn't good enough to keep, it isn't good enough to sell. All registerable lambs are not perfect. Our less than optimum Shetlands go into the freezer. In order to sell only the best, we have to charge more than breeders who sell every lamb that lives do.
Selling breeding stock has many ramifications. We keep and sell only prime animals because our primary goal is to preserve the breed. However, we hope that when you sell breeding stock, you do more than just pay for their maintenance. Many people sell beautiful breeding stock for just enough to pay for their feed and vet bills. They assume that they already own the land and the buildings. They do not consider the cost of the fencing and equipment. Frequently they don't even figure in the cost of their original breeding stock. Their prices are considerably lower than ours. We hope that you stick to your guns and sell Shetlands for prices similar to those that you would have to pay a reputable Shetland breeder. Marketing becomes more difficult but the Shetland breed will benefit in the long run.
Yes, the fast buck folks have been drinking from the Shetland sheep trough. Some have come and gone. Others are still with us. Probably more will show up. Some of the horror stories we hear from new breeders who shopped around to get the "best deal" are scary. New shepherds sometimes believe that all Shetlands are the same, sort of a homogenized animal; they shop for them much like they shop for gasoline, cheapest is best. Six months or a year later, they call with a few questions. They start with a few of the questions mentioned above. They usually don't mention from whom they bought their Shetlands, but the types of questions they ask make it clear that they have bought a bundle of trouble. Some breeders even guarantee their stock but, when buyers have trouble, the breeder backs down on the guarantee. We have heard of legal action in the works against some. The fast buck guys are everywhere. As always, it is "buyer beware".
Do you permit farm visits? - - Yes, we and the sheep enjoy visitors. If you are thinking about buying some Shetlands someday, we suggest that you visit several farms and ask all your questions. Each breeder does the same thing a different way. The more answers you get the better able you will be to make the best selection for your farm.
We like your sheep but we live too far away to come and get them. - - We regularly ship Shetlands by air. We ship out of Burlington International Airport here in Vermont or Logan Airport in Boston. It is important to make connections so that there is no more than one change and we try to have a direct flight, if possible. We ship the sheep in airline-approved kennels. We ask you for full payment of $100 for each kennel in addition to the cost of the sheep, the flight and the trip to the airport at this end before we ship your sheep. The kennels are really nice and many folks decide to keep them around for taking an animal to the veterinarian or whatever. If you would like to return the kennel, we will refund $90 once we get the kennel back in good condition. Airfare would probably be in the $150-200 range for a single animal to the Midwest and $250-350 to the West Coast. The per animal charge decreases if there are several in the shipment. The prices seem to vary from airline to airline and from one time to another. When shipping by air, there are two windows of opportunity that must coincide. The airlines have weather-holds where they won't ship any animals because the weather is either too hot or too cold. Sometimes they have other considerations based on previous reservations. Most planes have limited space large enough to take the kennels; reservations are on a first come/first serve basis. The second window of concern is that the required Interstate Health Certificate is good for only ten days for air shipments (30 days for ground shipments). So shipping sheep is an interesting challenge. We do it all the time but it isn't as straightforward as it seems it should be.
Should I be concerned about moving sheep in an open truck or extreme weather conditions? - - We will not let sheep leave our farm in an open truck or trailer. Airlines will not accept sheep during extreme hot or cold weather conditions anywhere the plane will be landing. Sheep are very sensitive to stress. Extreme stress can kill a sheep but even prolonged stress can weaken their resistance to diseases that would normally be of no concern. An open truck with the air and scenery going by very fast creates stress, however riding inside your van with you, seems to work fine.