Welcome back to the shepherding series. Today we are exploring the options for housing sheep. If you would like to watch the accompanying video, please do.
There are two common options for where sheep live, at least in most areas. They can either be out on pasture or sleep in a secured barn at night while grazing during the day. However, all sheep need some form of housing so they may get out of the rain, wind, sun, and snow. While they are hardy animals, they still need some kind of shelter.
Why Sheep Need Shelter
Sheep are amazing animals that are far tougher than we give them credit for. Looking back through history we find evidence that shepherds kept their sheep in either caves or fenced structures at night to protect them from predators. We know that domestic sheep evolved with a type of primitive housings or shelter alongside humans. We also know from watching sheep that they seek shelter either under trees or in a formal shelter during inclement weather.
Qualities in a Sheep Shelter
Sheep need a few basics in their shelters.
- A roof
- Air exchange
- Draft free
That’s it. The bare bones minimum required to keep sheep healthy.
Two of our neighbors have sheep on pasture all of the time except during lambing and shearing. The animals are moved through a rotational grazing system and each paddock contains a small shelter for the animals to get in if bad weather arises.
These are simple shelters. One farm uses stationary three sided or two or even one sided shelters while the other uses a cattle panel hoop house covered in a blue tarp. These are easy shelters to construct and simply provide windbreaks and a roof.
The hay bill is significantly less when keeping sheep on pasture. After all, their food is right there day and night. Fleeces also stay cleaner due to less hay usage. These lower costs are often attractive to new shepherds. However, other costs can eat up those savings.
My neighbors also successfully manage sheep on pasture in an area of heavy predator load due to their personal packs of Livestock Guardian Dogs. Equine, llamas, geese, and even my ox Asset who will gore a coyote are ineffective compared to a fully trained working pack of dogs. Feeding these dogs can be expensive.
In our area we face bears, coyotes, feral dogs, Bobcats, hogs, and the occasional panther. A single dog cannot defend their pack against that kind of attack power. Even two or three struggle. People in our area who successfully raise sheep and goats on pasture have five to eight fully trained working dogs with the stock at all times.
Pate’s mother, Honey, was from our neighbor’s working pack. She successfully took on three coyotes at once while 10 weeks pregnant while one dog took on another two and the third moved the sheep. Honey had injuries even though she killed two of the coyotes. Sweetie, who was also heavily pregnant, had injuries. Sugar who stayed with the sheep was fine. Two more dogs would have made a huge difference in that fight and kept those coyotes from getting a lamb that day. Moral of the story – if you plan to keep sheep on pasture have enough dogs to defend the flock without getting seriously injured.
Recap of Pastured Sheep
- Requires easier housing
- Sheep have access to food 24/7
- Lower hay bill
- Need more LGD
- The LGD eat. ALLOT.
- More opportunities for predators
- Rotational grazing breaks the parasite cycle
- Less time intensive
- Still need shelter during inclement weather, especially during lambing and shearing
In Permanent Housing
I have used a permanent housing option for my sheep since the beginning. The first ewe I got was newly born. She was followed by two other lambs. Given that they had no adult sheep or adult dog to guide and protect them, they definitely needed a more secure structure than a pasture raised management system offers. When I moved to the new farm we had no fencing and they simply wandered the pastures and woods all day with our big ram and dog. Housing at night was important to protect them from predators and to convince them they really wanted to stay home.
When I first started I used an old shed with cattle panels to keep the sheep in. I also provided plenty of hay for them to lay in. That was great for them to stay warm. With just three young sheep it took about ten minutes a day to clean. I had cute little laundry baskets as hay feeders and a bucket for water, and mineral blocks.
Fast forward seven years. I now have twelve full grown sheep. Orion is a whooping two hundred and fifty pounds. He’s about the same size as the cart pony I use, and just as tough on equipment. The cute little laundry baskets are gone. They hay is gone simply because of cost. We now use rubber troughs and old extra large dog house bottoms to hold they hay. We use equipment for horses to hold the water and loose minerals.
The housing is still light, allows good air exchange, protects from drafts, and allows plenty of room for them to get away from each other. All the basics are there. The basics are just industrial strength at this point. So is the mess they make nightly. Every day we have to CLEAN their pen. That requires raking, shoveling, schlepping, and moving fifty to one hundred pounds of waste away daily. It is a time and labor investment. If they pens are not properly cleaned daily, then the parasite load will build up quickly and cause health problems for your flocks. I also like to add some barn lime a few times of year.
Our sheep still spend a good deal of time outside. They are protected whenever bad weather strikes. Over the past three years weather has lead to many downed trees and limbs that could have easily killed any of my sheep if they were sleeping underneath.
Pate has an easy time of guarding them. I’m only twenty feet away at night should my dog need back up protecting the sheep. That has happened more than once when coyotes had gotten too close or a scallywag came onto the property at night. We even had a bobcat in with the lambs one night early on at the old farm. If I had not been there with the shotgun to back up Pate I would have lost her and possibly my lambs. Pate was only a large puppy at the time. Being close to the barn and another line of defense for Pate allows me a lower feed bill. It also allows me to have a closer relationship with Pate. I think that’s good for us both. However, as she gets older I need to seriously think about getting a puppy for her to train. She’s still a very powerful dog. However, just like people, the older they get the less spry they become. Instead of managing a pack of dogs I’m managing one alarm system that just happens to be able to kill two coyotes in one fight. More than that and she would be seriously harmed.
Permanent housing is more expensive to build and maintain. Even buying land with existing structures is more expensive than purchasing undeveloped land. Those cost need to be assessed when developing your operation. Purchasing the materials or existing structure is a one time cost. however, you will need to stay on top of repairs. This requires not only capital to purchase materials such as wood and nails, but the knowledge to make the repairs. That knowledge can be expensive in financial resources or labor.
Recap of Using Permanent Housing
- Need fewer dogs if close to home
- You will need to get up at night and see about them if the dog(s) is barking
- Labor intensive cleaning to keep the parasite load down and the cycle broken
- Greater initial capital needed and more costly to repair
- Limits herd size significantly
These are the very basic requirements of sheep housing and keeping safely on pasture. I hope you found it informative.
In January I’ll be diving into the basic anatomy and biology of sheep before getting into common sheep ailments and how to handle them.
Until next time,
Craft no harm,
Moriah and the flock