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Everything You Need to Know About Hair Sheep

February 4, 2018

For the last 6 years we have been raising hair sheep as a part of our ranch. It first started as a side hobby for myself, but grew very quickly over those years as I acquired more sheep, different breeds and worked on making a very nice hair sheep breed. As homesteading and backyard hobby farmers keeps on growing so does the demand for these easy-to-care for sheep. Sometimes it’s hard to find information about hair sheep since they are up-and-coming, so I’ve decided to try to provide as much information as I possibly can in one place for you to know how to buy, raise and sell hair sheep.

Here is a short list of the most popular hair sheep breeds out there:

  • St. Croix
  • Dorper
  • Katahdin
  • Barbados
  • Royal White

Here is a list of why people are getting into hair sheep:

  • No need to sheer
  • Adaptable
  • Heat tolerant
  • Parasite resistent
  • Rarely need feet trimmed
  • Hoof rot uncommon
  • Easy lambing
  • Multiple babies
  • Great mothers
  • Prolific/very fertile
  • Can be bred year round
  • Can be bred twice a year
  • Eat a wide variety of forage
  • Low maintenance

Now I’ll explain each of these areas in detail:

Heat/Cold tolerant, No Need to Sheer: Most hair sheep originate from tropical regions, which is why they are able to shed their hair and allows them to breed twice a year. Despite being a tropical breed they have adapted very well to North America. People all over the United States north to south raise hair sheep and do well in warmer and colder environments. If you live in a part of the USA that gets cold during the winter, these sheep will grow a thick coat of wool during the winter, but don’t worry, they will shed it off during the spring. We have some really cold winters up here in the northwest and the sheep have always done exceptionally well. The ability to shed is dependent on the breed and who you are buying sheep from. Certain breeds shed faster and cleaner than some of the others, but they will all shed to a certain degree. Shedding ability is also an indicator of health, so if certain sheep do not shed completely or shed much later than other sheep it can indicate that they might not be as healthy as the other sheep are.

Parasite Resistant: One of the glorious advantages of hair sheep is that they are highly parasite resistant. Once again, certain hair breeds are more parasite resistant than others, but overall they are much better off than standard wool sheep breeds. If you are looking at hair sheep and they have very poopy butts then I would recommend staying away and not purchasing. It doesn’t necessarily mean they cannot be cured, but it means they are less likely to be resistant to parasites and could bring parasites to your property. In the 6 years we have had hair sheep we have NEVER wormed them. Keeping sheep on the same pasture all season increases your chances of parasites, so try to offer rotation to your pasture if possible and try not to bring them back to the same part of the pasture for 30 days, especially if you have problems with parasites.

Rarely Need Feet Trimmed: Hair sheep typically have slower growing hooves. I find that my sheep almost never need their feet trimmed before they are 3 years of age, if they are on soft pasture all the time their feet will eventually need trimmed, but not very often. Grain fed sheep also have faster growing hooves, so stay away from the grain if at all possible.

Hoof Rot is Uncommon: Again with the hooves. Hoof rot is very uncommon in hair sheep. Out of the 50 ewes we run I might have 2 a year that need their feet looked at and usually it’s a rock lodged in between their hooves that causes them to limp. Once again, hoof rot is very similar to the parasites. If they are in mud/manure or the same pasture too long the likeliness of hoof rot rises.

Great Lambing/Good Mothers: Mothering instinct is extremely important in all animals and reduces your chances of lambing issues and baby rejection issues. Hair sheep are extremely well known for easy lambing and multiple babies. It is very rare to have to intervene with the lambing process. I always recommend people to not keep time and to not watch too closely, because they almost never need help, but if you sit and watch them give birth you’ll be tempted to think they are not doing well and need a lamb pulled. If you see a sheep lambing and come back several hours later and see she is still lambing, then it might be time to step in, but several hours of labor is not uncommon for sheep. I find most of my hair sheep will have singles their first birth, twins their second birth and twins or triplets following the second birth. Once again, that’s breed dependent, but overall hair sheep are capable of multiple births and caring for multiple babies. Bottle babies are rare, but if/when it does happen it usually is with a momma that had triplets. It is always fun to see these sheep lamb and immediately start taking care of their babies. They will lamb out on pasture (as long as you are lambing at a decent time of year for weather) and usually do not have trouble finding their own babies (I have never jugged my sheep to lamb, they lamb out on spring pasture).

Very Prolific/Fertile: These sheep are so fertile, sometimes it’s frustrating! If your ram gets in with your ewes for a couple hours, the ewes will start cycling and several of them will get bred in that short period of time (guess how I know?). Intact ram lambs need to be pulled from the herd at 3 months of age to prevent breeding. Ewes can cycle as soon as a month after giving birth. Ewe lambs can start cycling between 5-6 months old and get bred and have lambs by their first birthday. They have a 5 month gestation period. These sheep are baby makers!

Can Be Bred Twice Year/ Can Breed Year Round: If you don’t believe me that hair sheep can be bred twice a year or year round, just leave your ram in year round and see how many lambs you have throughout the year! I have seen people leave their wool sheep rams in year round with their sheep and they will only lamb once a year, this is NOT so with hair sheep. It is possible to breed these sheep twice a year, but I personally do not do it. It is harder on the mom and it lowers her chance of multiple babies, especially if you live in an area that gets harder winters. If you breed twice a year you really only get 1 1/2 lamb crops which means you will never consistently have lambs at the same time twice a year. You might end up lambs in Feb/Oct, but next year it’ll be Mar/Nov. I like one big lamb crop once a year, but some people like to space their lambing out throughout the year.

Eat a wide variety of forage: A lot of people mistake these sheep as goats. I get it. Some of them have a lot resemblance to a goat, but they are a far cry from a goat. Unlike a goat, hair sheep will actually eat grass, but is not just limited to grass. They love clover and alfalfa. They also really appreciate leafy things like trees, bushes and willows. They will eat certain weeds, but not all weeds.

Low Maintenance: With everything you just read above you can see that these sheep are pretty low maintenance. I have found they eat very little when they are dry (without babies sucking) and will eat a lot more when lactating. They are lightweight and typically very easy to handle. They are perfect sheep for someone who has never had farm animals before and require very little care.

Now lets talk about the different breeds

St. Croix: When I first started into hair sheep I bought St. Croix’s. I still have remaining genetics of them in my herd and still love the breed to this day. They are typically very gentle and lightweight (maxing out at 150 lbs for the ewes and the rams 200 lbs). They are awesome mothers (multiple babies) and are very resistant to parasites and diseases. However, they are very slow growing and their lambs take anywhere from 8 months to a year to be “finished out,” and even then it is a very small carcass topping out at 45 lbs hanging weight. Their meat is extremely mild and has been sought after as some of the best tasting lamb available. You can eat 2 year old+ ewes and still have a very mild pleasurable eating experience. Great backyard breed, purebred St. Croix’s are white in color and have a nice uniform look to the flock. Rams are “polled” meaning, no horns, but sometimes grow small “scurs” which are hard deposits on the head that do not grow more than 3 inches long. Highly recommended if coming from a good source.

Barbados: I feel like these sheep should be labeled “the crazy one’s.” They are like St. Croix’s in almost every respect except for temperament. I’m sure there are some nice gentle one’s out there that people have tamed down, but overall they are a very flighty breed. Also, the rams grow massive curly horns, so if you are looking for something really cool to display on your wall in a few years then raise a ram up for a few years!

 

Dorper: We now run a mix of full Dorpers and St. Croix’s on our ranch. The reason was very obvious for adding the Dorper and that was for weight and muscle. Dorper’s are by far the closest hair sheep to the wool breed. They have woolier coats and are slower to shed (most of them). There are black headed Dorpers (most common) and white Dorpers (harder to find). They have incredible growth of lambs at butcher weight within 6-8 months with carcass weights in the 45-60 lb range. Their frames are much wider and have a large depth of body, which allows them to put on weight very fast. Dorper’s are typically set low to the ground and ewes are closer to 200 lbs with rams weighing 300 lbs +. With all that amazing weight gain comes draw backs. They are less likely to have several babies (though most of them will have twins after their first or second birth) and they are more likely to have lambing difficulties. I have also found that they can be “jumpers” which I very rarely saw in the St. Croix’s, this means that when put into a tight situation they are more likely to try to jump over you (or into you) than some of the other breeds. Rams are “polled” meaning, no horns, but sometimes grow small “scurs” which are hard deposits on the head that do not grow more than 3 inches long. If you are looking for a high weight gaining lamb, then Dorper’s might be your choice.

Katahdin: I have bought and sold sheep throughout the years and I have had a few Katahdin’s. They are a very nice mix between a St. Croix and Dorper. Good mother instincts, good weight gains (but not as good as the Dorper’s) and a pretty good disposition. They are a mixed bag of sheep and never look the same, so if you are looking to uniformity, then this not your breed. They come in dark/light brown, black, white, spotted, and everything in between! Rams are “polled” meaning, no horns, but sometimes grow small “scurs” which are hard deposits on the head that do not grow more than 3 inches long. They are a very common hair breed and typically easy to find.

Royal White: Royal Whites are the perfect mix between Dorper’s and St. Croix. The Royal White is around 75% Dorper and 25% or less St. Croix. This is basically the mix that I am trying to make myself, but Royal Whites are extremely difficult to find, so I figured I can make my own. They are an actual trademarked breed, so you can’t “make them” they have to be bought from the original stock… Too difficult to find, but if you can get your hands on some they are really nice sheep.

If you’ve bothered reading all of this you are probably wondering how to look for and buy a good hair sheep.

Here are some good tips on buying hair sheep. 

Know what you are looking for: If you read through my post above you probably have a pretty good idea of what breed you are looking for, so just start that as your baseline for breeds you are looking for.

How many can your property handle: I always recommend starting out with less than more. If you barely have grass growing you are going to have a hard time keeping your sheep happy and your going to have to buy hay. Typically assume 5 sheep/acre to start with (if irrigated ground).

Decide your price range: This is a big one. If you are looking for 5 sheep for $500 then you are going to have to settle on lower quality sheep. If you are willing to spend $200-$300/ewe then you will be looking in a higher quality range, generally speaking.

Talk to the seller on the phone: Does the seller sound like they know anything about sheep? I’m not saying you shouldn’t buy from someone who doesn’t know anything, but if you are looking for quality sheep and the seller doesn’t even know what breed they have or basics on sheep care, then you might want to look elsewhere.

Assess the property you are buying from: Are the sheep covered in manure/mud or sitting in a muddy nasty pen? Have they been fed junk (moldy hay, bread, scraps?). Some times the time of year is muddy or nasty, but usually you can get a “feel” of the property on how well it’s kept up and the condition of the animals. If it’s nasty, there’s a good chance a disease might be coming home with your sheep so stay away.

The quality of the sheep: What’s the history on the sheep? Is the seller being honest and open about problems with the sheep. Most sellers (even quality sellers) don’t typically sell their best stock, so they are going to be selling the lower end of their sheep (unless they are selling everything), so ask them why they are particularly selling those sheep and if they have had any issues lambing or other health issues. Are they healthy looking? (things to look for: snotty noses, bad eyes, limping, poopy butts, not completely shed during the summer). Were they bottle fed lambs or raised by their mom’s? I would recommend staying away from bottle fed lambs because that means they didn’t have a mom to learn things from and are typically pets. Doesn’t mean they cannot turn out to be good mothers, but it lessens their chances and usually their rumen isn’t developed as well, because they are raised on formula instead of momma’s milk. Certainly do not buy a ram that was bottle fed!

Temperament of sheep: As I discussed earlier the temperament of sheep is based on genetics and prior handling. Typically younger sheep are more skid-dish and older sheep are more gentle. You might want to consider buying an older ewe if you are planning on buying a whole bunch of young ewes. There are two extremes on temperament of sheep and you want to look for something in the middle. There are the pets: people hand feed their sheep and they are very friendly, this can be a good and a bad thing. I do not recommend rams being pets, they have little respect for humans and can be very aggressive as they get older. Ewes that are pets are not usually as bad, but can overly friendly and constantly following you or in your space, once again a respect issue. The other end of the spectrum is crazy pants. They see you coming from the other side of the pasture and they take off running. These sheep typically do not respect fences and are extremely hard to handle or get into a pen and are most likely to jump over you or at you when trying to get away. The middle ground is best. I have a few sheep that are trained to me shaking a bucket of grain and will come to me, but the rest keep their distance. They have the right “pressure points” and go the direction you generally want them to with the proper spacing and distance.

Here’s some good questions to ask the seller:

  • What breed of sheep do you have?
  • What is the age range of the sheep?
  • How much for the sheep?
  • What have you been feeding them?
  • When were they exposed to the ram? Or are they open (not bred)?
  • Any issues they have had with the sheep?
  • What type of fencing are they in? (woven wire, barbed wire, electric fence, hog panels?)
  • What is their vaccination record?
  • Have they ever been wormed?
  • How many handling have they received? (this’ll help you understand their temperament).
  • How many lambs do they typically have?
  • Why are they selling them?

I hope this is helpful to you as you look to add or change breeds of sheep. Please comment below if you have any questions!

 

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