Breeding sheep are the 'long-term' projects and perhaps a little more time-consuming than club lambs. How well you choose your breeding ewes and ram can make or break your stay in the sheep business.
First things first. If you have not already done so, READ as much information as possible covering the different sheep breeds. Whether you borrow a friend's book inventory, surf the internet, visit a bookstore, library, or all of the above, do your legwork and KNOW which sheep breed you are most interested in, before you buy.
For the beginner, we recommend housing and caring for only one breed first, before adding others to your flock. Getting to know one breed will be quite the handful for you to start with! Trust us on this one.
Next, determine the size of your property and facility. Based on this, plan to purchase a number of ewes best suited for your ranch. We need to throw this in: START OFF WITH SMALL NUMBERS AS YOU ARE LEARNING. You can always build up in the future! A smaller group of ewes is much easier for you to handle in the beginning. As your expertise grows your flock will naturally grow, especially if you keep daughters of your best-producing ewes in the flock.
When you think you are ready for the big step to purchase your sheep, let's go over some options:
Here is the tough part. Knowing which Breeder or person to buy from. The most common ways we purchase sheep are mentioned above and you may go through all of these steps with a breeder before you buy.
You can begin the process by asking friends or acquaintances their opinions of where to go. You can then proceed. (If you choose the last option and begin your flock with purchasing from a friend, do this with caution! Check out all of your options first, and if your friend has the best stock for you, then, by all means, purchase there. A big world awaits you in the Sheep Industry and there is so much to see. Be fair to yourself and see all you can before your purchase your first breeding ewes).
If you can, our NUMBER ONE recommendation is visiting the breeder's ranch or farm to choose your stock. Ranch visits tell the whole story behind the flock i.e. how the sheep are managed, cleanliness of the facility, healthiness of the animals, and most important, the Sires and Dams are there for you to view. If you are buying a lamb as an example, seeing the mother and father of this individual will give you great insight to the growth potential and kind of adult your lamb will become. Seeing a sale lamb in a pen before the auction cannot give you this kind of first-hand knowledge before you purchase.
Looking around the ranch can also tell you how many siblings (brothers and sisters) the breeder has retained in his own flock. Another indicator of consistency and whether or not your ewe will go onto being a good breeder for you. Lots of pluses to ranch visits and this is truly the best way to buy.
Driving or flying distance to breeders ranches can be a major factor and in case it is not economically feasible or time away not possible, you may wish to contact breeders by letter or telephone. This is also a good way to find out what breeding sheep they have available. Once you are comfortable on the telephone with them be sure and request PHOTOS or videotape of those individuals for sale. If you can, also request pictures of sire and dams of the sale sheep. If you cannot visit the ranch personally, you may as well see it all in pictures!
Websites are also excellent overviews of what the breeder has to offer not only in sheep for sale but can tell you much about the type of operation the business is. Usually, you will find plenty of photos and lots of information to help you decide if you would like to purchase there.
Speaking to breeders at shows and sales is also extremely helpful too. Many of us attend sales each year because it is the best way to see many breeders at once, under one roof to compare notes on the different sheep. Breeders are usually on hand to talk with you too and answer any questions you may have. Remember though, most sale sheep at breeding shows are highly presented and fit to make them as attractive as possible to prospective buyers. I have heard over and over, "The sheep looked great at the show, but when I took her home and removed the wool, I was surprised to see what was underneath!"
If you are unsure about knowing sheep structure or what we call "Looking Through a Fit Job", ask a more seasoned sheep raiser to help you look at prospects at breeding sales. Don't get us wrong here! We believe that breeding sheep are beautiful washed and fit and that fitting should stay in the industry. There is nothing more beautiful than a nicely trimmed Suffolk or Dorset in the show ring. Good sheep will always be good sheep, whether they are fit or slick shorn. We hear the arguments against fitters and fitting all the time. Slick shearing is much easier on the buyer at a sale, or judge in the show ring, but I do not believe our industry is quite ready to sell all sheep slick shorn yet. The public is still looking for beauty as they walk through the sheep barns at fairs and anywhere you can find sheep exhibited. Exhibiting our breeding sheep in the manner in which makes them appealing to everyone is a must if we wish to keep the sheep industry alive in the U.S.