There are over a thousand different breeds of sheep in the world so how do you choose which breed you want to raise? That’s a really difficult question to answer and depends on why you want sheep as well as what’s available.
If you want meat, you really should get a meat breed or at least a dual or triple purpose breed. I wouldn’t suggest a wool breed however because the lanolin somehow taints the meat and makes it taste more “sheepy.”
If you want a wool breed, you need to decide what kind of wool. Coarse? Fine? Somewhere in between? What do you want to use it for? Do you want to milk your sheep?
Choosing Breeds of sheep
We didn’t have a clue about breeds of sheep originally. We had some ideas, no experience with them.
We initially thought the babydoll sheep were adorable so that was a good enough reason for a beginning homesteader.
We went through many breeds after them trying to find which breed fit with us best.
Eventually we ended back at babydoll sheep as our absolute favorite. We have kept and bred these sheep for fifteen years and we adore them.
Two other breeds of note which we have bred for a number of years are the Gulf Coast Sheep and Navajo Churro Sheep.
What do you need in a sheep breed?
We preferred breeds on the American Livestock Conservation list. We wanted a good dual or triple purpose breeds and a sheep breed that could handle the heat.
Dual Purpose sheep: A dual purpose sheep provides two products. They may be wool and milk producers or wool and meat producers. Generally you don’t have animals that are great at both milk and meat production. They take too much energy.
Triple Purpose sheep: A triple purpose sheep provides wool, milk and meat. These breeds tend to be decent at all three, but don’t excel at any of them. Jack of all trades, master of none sort of thing. However, for the homesteader this can be just what they need. How much milk or meat does one family need?
Our first two priorities were something endangered, which is our specialty, and something that could handle living in our environment.
After that, we wanted meat and weren’t so concerned about wool although that was a nice step towards self-sufficiency. Plus, we thought if we could make a little extra money off selling a fleece, that could only be helpful.
We had the opportunity to purchase a small flock of Navajo-Churro sheep and at the same time we were given a large flock of Gulf Coast sheep.
*Note: Please don’t go from two sheep to 100. Ever. Even if they’re free.
And so began an adventure of learning everything to know about sheep in about a one month time period.
Everything that could go wrong DID go wrong. We had twin lamb disease, acidosis, predator attack, sheep escaping every single day.
It was horrible.
Most of the problem was that what the owner had told us he fed the sheep was most DEFINITELY NOT as much as they needed to eat.
As soon as we figured out what they actually needed to be fed, the problems started to slowly dwindle until we no longer had problems with them (except they still escaped fairly regularly).
We hated the Gulf Coast Sheep Breed
One thing we did notice though was that most of our problems were with the Gulf Coast sheep. Although we did lose one Navajo to twin lamb disease.
The Gulf Coast sheep suffered more in the heat whereas the Navajo had absolutely no problem in 110 degree weather. Even if they hadn’t been sheared yet.
We also had aggression issues with the Gulf Coast sheep. While they weren’t absolutely awful to people, we had a ram headbutt a little girl visiting the ranch. Not something we can afford when we cater to the public so much.
We enjoyed our Navajo-Churro Sheep much more. This sheep breed has been bred for centuries to survive in the exact desert environment that we live in.
Navajo Churro Sheep are the oldest sheep breed in the United States.
This sheep breed was brought over by the Spaniards in the 1500’s and were used to clothe and feed the Conquistadors. The Navajo Indians decided they loved them. Navajo Churro sheep quickly became the backbone of Navajo Indian culture.
Navajo women were in charge of the sheep. Sheep at this time brought in quite a bit of money for the tribe and was about half the income for a Navajo individual. This helped to create a matriarchal culture where women were powerful and respected.
In the 1930’s, the US government decided that the free ranging Navajo Churro sheep were destroying the rangeland. The country was in a major drought and agricultural scientists were worried.
Sheep can be very hard on the land. They pull plants up fully, roots and all. This is in contrast to just clipping them down to the ground like horses or cows.
Leaving the roots builds soil quality and resilience. Pulling the roots up creates erosion, which is particularly dangerous in a drought.
The carrying capacity of the reservation was 500,000 sheep and the Navajo had 2 million sheep on their reservation. To say they were destroying the rangeland was probably a valid analysis.
However, the government’s response to this was not good. They went onto the reservation and killed 30% of the sheep-mostly without proper compensation or permission. When they were compensated, the government paid them a whopping $1-$1.50.
This resulted in the Navajo Churro sheep becoming endangered and nearly going extinct. It also resulted in a huge cultural shift. Economic power and therefore cultural power was wrenched from the hands of Navajo women.
We liked the Navajo Churro sheep. We liked them a lot more than the Gulf Coast sheep breed.
There were two things we didn’t like though.
- The Navajo Churro Sheep was more friendly than the Gulf Coast sheep, but not by much. Even bottle fed babies grew up and became wary of people. I prefer friendly animals
- The Navajo Churro sheep rams head butted EVERYTHING. Their shelter? Destroyed. The shed in their pen? Destroyed. The fencing? Destroyed. This was why we finally got rid of them. They cost us too much.
The third reason is the best reason though. We have a longstanding and warm friendship with a Navajo family on the Navajo reservation.
Over the years, we have sent them many Navajo Churro sheep.
We decided we would give them the entire flock. Now, they breed the sheep distribute them out to other small farmers wanting to preserve this rare breed.
It makes us very happy.
Great web page with tons of breed descriptions so you can pick your own sheep breed: http://www.ansi.okstate.edu/breeds/sheep/
What sheep breed did you decide to raise and why do you like them?
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