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Getting Started in Sheep

Sheep production has been part of Saskatchewan agriculture for more than 200 years and has provided a number of opportunities with a wide range of production systems. Sheep production has provided meat and wool along with targeted grazing to manage weeds such as leafy spurge. Sheep management requirements will ultimately depend on available resources and demands of the marketplace. Your goals and the environment the animals must live in will determine the type of operation.

The three types of sheep enterprises

Commercial lamb production

The majority of Saskatchewan sheep producers raise feeder or slaughter weight market lambs. Rangeland operations typically sell lambs as feeders which are later fed to produce meat for the consumer's plate. Most often a crossbred ewe is bred to a purebred ram, and all lambs are marketed as commercial lambs. A useful crossbred ewe should be prolific, a good milker and produce lambs that mature quickly with quality carcasses. The ram should be capable of siring thrifty, uniform, fast-gaining lambs of desirable carcass quality.

Ewes are primarily bred to lamb between January and May, with top dollar typically going to those lambs that reach the market earliest. Intensive accelerated lambing operations will lamb three times in two years with varying dates. Only the best ewe lambs in the flock should be kept for the expansion of the flock or to replace ewes that are culled. Out-of-season breeding with compatible breeds means lambs are produced year-round, providing a more consistent supply for the marketplace. The degree of success depends on feeding and management.

Purebred sheep production

Purebred sheep breeders produce foundation breeding stock, with defined breeding programs designed to improve commercial sheep production. A purebred animal should show the distinct characteristics of the breed, and be eligible for registration in the breed association.

Sound management practices are essential to ensure purebred seed stock will compete in the marketplace. It is essential that purebreed breeders track the performance of their flock and only select high-quality animals to be kept for the breeding flock. A well-defined genetic program includes the culling of animals that do not carry appropriate genetics or are reproductively unfit for siring offspring. Commercial producers depend on purebreed breeders to continually be improving their genetic program to improve the quality of lambs produced.

Initial cost per purebred animal is usually higher than for commercial sheep. More time, work, and breeding expertise is required than a commercial operation and probably not the best enterprise option for a beginner sheep producer.

Feedlot lamb production

Lambs weighing 50 to 80 pounds are placed into a dry lot and fed hay, grain and supplements to a targeted endpoint. At 100 to 115 pounds, they are marketed as butcher lambs. A suitable enclosure with shelter and good water is needed. Profits depend upon the relationship between the value of the grower lamb, selling price of the finished lamb, and feed requirements and prices. Sound feeding practices and a careful study of the market are essential.

This is probably not an area for the beginner until some experience in feeding lambs and knowledge of the market is established.

Sheep breeds

Suffolk and Hampshire represent the black-faced breeds in Saskatchewan. White-faced breeds generally used are Dorset, Rambouillet, Colombia, North Country Cheviot and Arcotts. Romanov and Katahdins are represented to a lesser degree at this time. Crossbred ewes are often produced from white-faced ewes bred to black-faced rams. Your choice of breed will be determined largely by environment/management interactions and the market you intend to target.

Read the breed literature, talk to other producers, and visit as many operations as possible before making a decision. A complete understanding of the marketplace and sizes/types of finish lambs needed by your customer is key to success. The Saskatchewan Sheep Development Board has a great description of the popular breeds and traits that are used in Canada. They can be found on the Sheep Development Board website.

For first-time producers, 25 head or less is most suitable as you learn about sheep production, the industry and marketplace.

Production methods

There are predominately three types of production methods:

Intensive Accelerated - Total Confinement - Ewes and lambs are kept in corrals or barns year-round and fed to their requirements while maximizing production. Ewes are flushed (fed grain prior to breeding) to increase the occurrence of multiple births. Grain is also fed prior to lambing and during lactation to meet their increased requirements and keep the ewes on a high plane of nutrition. Lambs will be creep-fed. Good-quality water, salt, and minerals should be made available to all animals at all times. Confinement tends to be a higher-cost method of production, but can result in increased productivity and revenue per ewe.

Semi Confinement - Lambs are confined and creep-fed to market weight, while ewes graze on pasture after weaning. Ewes are fed in confinement during the winter.

Range/Grass Based -This is the traditional method of production. Ewes are bred on pasture in the late fall for spring lambing. Ewes and lambs are pastured throughout the summer, and lambs are shipped to market in the fall. Some producers take advantage of special grazing projects to provide summer rangeland. Predator control is a bigger challenge in pasture environments. However, the addition of guard dogs or donkeys and electric fencing has greatly reduced losses.

Shelters and equipment

Existing farm buildings can easily be converted into adequate sheep shelter or lambing facilities. Sheep need to be cool, dry, and free from drafts. A pole shed, open to the south and bedded with straw, is adequate protection in winter. When lambing in winter, a building that can be partially heated is an asset to the livelihood of new-born lambs.

Lambing pens, where a ewe and her lambs can be placed for several days, can be built of panels that can be dismantled during the rest of the year. Space for a claiming pen with five to eight ewes and their lambs should adjoin the lambing area. Portable 12-to-16 foot panels are ideal for many small operations. These can be moved about as needed to form pens, corrals, chutes and so on.

A sorting and handling pen/chute, with a place for a scale, makes life easier for breeding, vaccinating, weighing, and loading sheep for sale. Except for the breeding season, rams will need a small corral and shelter, which is separate from the ewes.

Nutrition

Sheep do not seek out specific feeds to meet their requirements. It is a common misconception to think sheep will do better than cattle on poor-quality feed. Don't plan your feeding program around straw. Ewes that look after twins or triplets, adequately produce milk, produce good-quality fleece and are resistant to pregnancy toxemia need good feed to get them there. Proper nutrition is essential for ensuring acceptable production levels and condition of the animals. Visual estimation of sheep body condition is difficult due to their wool. Hands-on condition scoring is essential to estimating fat cover and preventing over-or-under-feeding. Hay is a typical feed for sheep operations. Chopped hay is more easily supplemented and mixed with a protein supplement, depending on the needs of the ewe. There are several forage varieties to make hay with. Coarse stemmy hay is only utilized properly by chopping and its use should be limited. Straw should be avoided as the main source of forage. Grain should be fed whole to all ages of sheep. It is not recommended that any feed be fed off the ground.

Availability of feed resources, processing and handling equipment, costs, stage of production, external environment and production goals are important factors to ensuring a successful feeding plan. It is important to work with a nutritionist to ensure the ration you provide meets the needs of your animals.

Unless ewes are in excellent condition, it may be necessary to flush them by feeding grain for several weeks before and during the breeding season. This should increase the lambing per cent. Rams should also be fed grain during these periods to maintain good condition. The amount of grain and additional supplement fed throughout the other stages of production will depend on the quality of grains fed, amount and type of other feeds, and production stage, especially the number of lambs the ewe is nursing. It is important to feed according to body condition, as over-fat ewes and rams will not usually breed successfully.

Sheep should have access to salt and minerals/vitamins year-round. Sheep are sensitive to copper, and cattle minerals contain levels usually too high for the average sheep flock. This varies with the area of the province and, in some instances, by breed of sheep. Selenium should be supplemented in areas of the province that are selenium-deficient. It is also important to ensure that adequate levels of Vitamins A, D and E are provided to the flock. There are several types of mineral and vitamin supplements commercially available. Consult with a nutritionist on which is right for your operation.

Lambs should have access to creep feed soon after birth. The creep area should be a comfortable place for the lambs (warm, draft-free, well-lit) and not accessible to the ewes. Creep feeders should be designed to keep the feed clean. After weaning, lamb feed rations are gradually changed over a two-week period to a mixture of whole grain (barley is best) and a commercial protein/mineral/vitamin supplement.

Water

All sheep, including small lambs, must have access to good-quality, fresh water. As with feed, test the water for quality parameters. The information can be used to mitigate any potential toxicities and deficiencies.

Diseases and parasites

Proper feed and management go a long way in preventing serious disease and parasite infestations in sheep flocks. Sheep should be treated at least once a year for internal and external parasites, by injection or drench method.

It is advisable to vaccinate lambs for clostridial diseases, using an eight-way vaccine. Booster doses are important to ensure annual immunity levels. Lambs should also be vaccinated for enterotoxemia (pulpy kidney or over-eating disease). In some cases, ewes should be vaccinated for this disease prior to lambing. A multiple vaccine can be used for clostridial and enterotoxemia diseases.

Seremouth is a viral disease affecting any age of sheep, most often lambs. Take care when handling sheep with this disease, as it is transferable to humans. Pregnant women should not be handling lamb fetuses or any other material, as other diseases may be transferable, as well.

It is recommended to develop a veterinarian-client relationship to develop a specific flock health program for your farm.

Marketing options

The Saskatchewan Sheep Development Board assembles loads at points throughout the province through the year. Producers can phone the office as lambs approach market weight, and the office will arrange a drop-off point at a specified time and location. In addition, there are various sales held throughout the province over the year. Animals can also be purchased by livestock buyers on-farm, or sold farm-gate to private customers.

Wool production

Wool production has not been a major part of the industry. However, some producers have focused management and breeding toward this market as a complement to market lamb production. Specialty flocks produce wool for hand spinners and weavers.

There are several wool collection depots throughout the province. For more information and depot locations contact the Saskatchewan Sheep Development Board.

For more information about the Saskatchewan sheep industry visit the Saskatchewan Sheep Development Board website.

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