Becoming a Shepherd
Is Sheep Farming Right For You?
Reading Time: 5 minutes
This story was featured in the September / October 2019 issue of Countryside!
Shepherding has been part of humanity for thousands of years. And I was drawn to this lifestyle. I do not come from a background of shepherding. My family roots are deep in suburbia. However, I do have a strong family gene for handcrafts. The crafts involving wool yarn primarily passed down to me from my Welsh Nana, have always been part of my relaxation. I often need to raise the bar from enjoying a hobby to making it part of my lifestyle. I guess it was no big surprise that my heart would gravitate towards becoming a shepherd and be part of the entire process.
Raising animals that provide fiber is fascinating. I wanted to be part of the entire cycle. From the sheep that grazes and forages on our property, harvesting the wool, cleaning the year’s accumulation of dirt, hay and grime from the fleece. Watching the fleece change from gray and dirty to snowy white and soft. And finally, transitioning that fiber to yarn and cloth. Yes, I wanted to experience it all. The hands-on approach to shepherding filled a space in my life that I didn’t know I had. Eventually, my fiber journey became the larger part of my days. I learned to build on the skills passed down from my grandmother and mom. Teachers stepped in, in the form of friends, and taught me new skills. Becoming a shepherd gave my life a circle of meaning. The writer, Antoine de Saint-Exupery stated, “If someone wants a sheep, then that means he exists.” It’s hard to not feel that you are a vibrant part of life when raising sheep.
For our first step into raising fiber animals, I chose a fiber breed of goats. Pygora goats started me at a comfort level since I had raised plenty of goats previously but had not raised sheep. We learned to shear, trim hooves, manage kidding season, and process the fiber. I also learned how to keep the smelly bucks from touching my clothes during the fall rutting season! Soon enough, sheep joined our fiber farm, and now the sheep outnumber the goats!
As all the daily animal care progressed, I was gathering skills at the other end of the spectrum too. Learning to warp a rigid heddle loom, creating natural plant dyes, and making time for the yearly skirting of the fleeces before they are sent off to the mill for processing. The seasonal ebb and flow of shepherd life appeals to my senses. It begins or ends with the yearly shearing when you can see firsthand if your animal is producing a healthy fleece. Nutrition is a key element in a good healthy fleece. Parasite control, appropriate feed, and low stress produce the best fleeces.
What Fiber Animals Should You Choose?
First when becoming a shepherd, I suggest knowing your goal for raising fiber animals. Are you interested in having a few animals to provide fiber for your own spinning or hand crafts? Are you interested in breeding and selling spring lambs? The different aspects of raising sheep and fiber animals will dictate what you need to provide as far as housing, fencing, and acreage. How much time do you have available for the animal’s daily care? Most ruminants are fairly low-maintenance, but daily care is required. Alpaca, llamas, sheep, fiber goats, and angora rabbits all require daily fresh water, hay or fresh foraging, and shelter. Rabbits require a more regular grooming than sheep but take up much less space and can be raised in your home or apartment!
How Much Land Do You Need?
Stocking rates vary and this number is dependent on what type of forage is grown. An acre of land can support six fiber animals if the animal’s needs are met. It is not necessary to have a 100-acre ranch to successfully raise a small flock. They require fencing, shelter, fresh water always, and a source of forage or grazing. If you don’t have a good source of fresh grazing, hay must be supplied daily. Make sure you take all this into consideration as you plan the financing for your fiber flock.
Keep in mind that these are flock animals. They are stressed when alone. Somewhere between two and 100 animals is the sweet spot for beginning your fiber flock.
“Don’t Buy into Sheep, Grow into Sheep” — Katherine Grossman
Be realistic about your time. At first, I thought I would be the one shearing and processing the fiber from the animal all the way to the yarn stage. I did not have the available time for the entire process. The farm, family, and work took up a sizeable chunk of my day and I had to accept that I needed to bring in skilled hands to help the fleeces become yarn. I chose to give up shearing and processing the wool into yarn. I look at it as a partnership with my shearer and the mill owner. We all want the best possible product from the renewable, yearlong growth. I kept my favorite parts of the process, raising the animals and seeing to their health and wellbeing, and creating with yarn made from our sheep and goat fiber.
Is a Breeding Flock Right for You?
While lambs and goat kids are among the cutest things ever put on earth, becoming a shepherd requires a different level of endurance. Sheep are very capable of delivering lambs in a field, with you finding the cute additions the next morning. However, when your income is dependent on having healthy lambs and kids to sell, many shepherds prefer to take a more hands-on approach to lambing or kidding season. Stamina wise, this raises a shepherd to the next level in my opinion. Many nights will be spent sitting in the barn in case you need to assist during labor. Sleep interruptions will become the norm for weeks on end. And while the rewards are great, this is not something every person can happily endure. It’s ok to house a flock of wethers and ewes not intended for breeding. The benefits of raising a strictly fiber flock are also great.
You may be a shepherd of a large flock of sheep, or a flock of two. You may be a shearer that harvests the yearly fleece, or a mill owner that processes small orders into roving or yarn. The maker that chooses beautiful wool, and the buyer who purchases quality wool products also contribute to the cycle. No matter where you join the process, shepherd, shearer, mill owner, maker or buyer, you are part of a tradition handed down through countless generations. Wool, along with other fiber has been part of the civilization of the world. Let’s continue to make the wool traditions of the past a strong part of our future, and encourage the future shepherds, teachers, and wool artists of tomorrow.
Originally published in Countryside and Small Stock Journal Sept/Oct 2019 and regularly vetted for accuracy.