Learn the science behind:
Next time you’re busy in your kitchen, whipping up one of your amazing dishes, just pause for a moment and look around. What do 99.9% of the ingredients in your dishes and the food in your kitchen have in common?
That’s correct, they come from FARMS. All around the world farmers are responsible for food production. These include grain, vegetable, fruit, fish, dairy, beef, and sheep farmers, just to name a few! In this article, we will explore the world of sheep farming.
- Sheep have been around a long time
- The yearly cycle of sheep farming
- Farming sheep – Several options
- The sustainability and future of sheep farming
Sheep have been around a long time
Sheep have been around for a long time. The wild ancestral species of domestic sheep is thought to be the wild mouflon. Sheep were one of the first animal species to be domesticated by humans. This likely happened around 11 000 to 9 000 BC in ancient Mesopotamia. There are also theories that the domestication of sheep may have happened around 7 000 BC in Mehrgarh, Pakistan. The domestic sheep then found its way to Africa and Europe via trading.
Initially, domestic sheep were used to produce meat and milk, and they were bred for their skins as well. Around 6 000 BC, wool-producing sheep started to be bred.
Sheep can produce wool, meat and milk
Nowadays, sheep breeds can be categorized according to what they produce. There are three main categories: wool, meat, and milk.
It’s almost impossible to breed sheep that are great at all three. Good at more than one trait, yes, but not great at ALL three. That is why you have breeds that excel at one of the three main categories.
Merinos, for example, are great wool-producing sheep, but they aren’t that great for producing meat or milk. Suffolk, on the other hand, are great at producing meat, but they aren’t great wool or milk producers. And Lacaune sheep, from France, are great milk producers.
Sheep are mainly bread for their wool, meat, and/or milk.
That said, whereas the sheep might be held for one main purpose, they can be used for more than one. So, although Merinos are mainly bred for wool, they also produce meat. Aside from providing meat, Suffolk do also produce wool.
Farmers may crossbreed their sheep, or select within their own flock to select for certain traits. By doing so, they try to find their ideal balance between the three different traits. For instance, they might try to increase the meat production of wool sheep. But there are always compromises in terms of one of the other traits.
The yearly cycle of sheep farming
Every year, sheep farms go through roughly the same cycle of production. Males and females mate, little lambs are born, these are raised and then the cycle starts over again. Of course, the cycle of life occurs no matter how the sheep are kept. In more intensive farming systems though, farmers closely manage the process. For those systems, the different phases can be visually represented using one of these handy wheel calendars.
Every phase, e.g. lambing or weaning, lasts a pre-determined time. Some of these timeframes may differ between sheep breeds, but not to a great extent. Let’s have a closer look at this cycle. We’ll start at the beginning, where the male and female sheep mate.
No matter whether you’re raising sheep for their meat, wool, or milk, this cycle is pretty much the same for all.
Sheep farmers refer to mating as joining. The yearly cycle ‘starts’ at the beginning of joining, and is referred to as day 0. During this time the rams and ewes are held together, in the same lot, for the ewes to be fertilized. This phase lasts about 35 days. During this time most ewes will have been fertile twice.
When humans are pregnant, we make ultrasound scans to check on the baby. Farmers do something similar with sheep. At day 84 – remember, we started counting at the beginning of the mating phase – the ewes are scanned to see whether they are pregnant. These scans will also tell you which ewes are bearing twins. They are then separated into groups according to these results.
This is important because pregnant ewes require more food to fulfill increased nutritional requirements. They will get additional feed rations, just like we humans might take additional supplements. These aren’t necessarily given as a pill. Instead, they might be incorporated into a block that sheep can lick, or in the form of a rough powder.
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The babies inside the sheep will continue to grow and develop. On day 146 the ewes start lambing. This will go on for about 35 days since they didn’t all get pregnant at the same time, nor are they all pregnant for the exact same duration. During this time it’s essential that the ewes eat well to be able to feed their lambs.
If you’re raising sheep for their milk, the ewes will be milked after lambing. This generally starts about 1-2 weeks after the lambs are born and continues for 4-8 months.
You might be wondering when in this cycle the sheep are sheared for their wool? Well, this depends on a range of factors. For instance, some sheep are sheared every 6 months, whereas others might only be sheared every 12 months. Also, shearers need to be available to shear the sheep! In other words, it depends.
On day 239, so when the lambs are about 80 days old, the lambs are ready to be weaned from their mothers to feed on their own. These ewes are then given the rest they need to get back into shape.
What then happens to the lambs depends on the type of farm they were born. Initially, the weaned lambs are put on quality pastures and are given supplemental feed like grain to help them grow and put on weight.
Some female lambs may be selected by the farmers to keep on the farm. Ram lambs are mostly sold. This is because most farmers buy new rams to keep the genetic pool diverse and prevent inbreeding.
Lambs that are sold can end up at another farm, to take part in their reproduction cycle. But, they can also be brought to a feedlot. A sheep feedlot is an intensive production system. The sole purpose of a feedlot is to take in animals, feed them for optimal growth and weight gain and sell them again, often to be slaughtered for meat production.
In a feedlot, farmers keep sheep in high densities and feed them daily. Their food ranges from grain and hay to specially produced pellets that contain all the essential ingredients for optimal growth.
From farm to plate
Sheep, especially ones from feedlots, are sold and taken to abattoirs where they are slaughtered and processed. Many butchers may even do their own slaughtering. From there, the meat goes to the end-user, such as yourself!
The types of meat supplied range from more unprocessed forms like whole lamb leg, to more processed forms like lamb chops.
When a full grown sheep is slaughtered and processed, it’s no longer called a sheep. We refer to ‘sheep meat’ as mutton!
Farming sheep – Several options
Even though this cycle is roughly the same for a wide range of sheep farming methods, how exactly the sheep are managed can differ a lot. There are simple a lot of different ways farmers may manage their sheep. A common way to categorize them is intensive vs. extensive sheep production systems. These are on the opposite ends of a spectrum, with different degrees of intensive farming systems in between. So what distinguishes the two extremes?
Extensive – just leave them be
On the extensive end of the spectrum, you would have a farm where the ewes (female sheep) and rams (male sheep) are together in a flock in a big field. They are mostly left to do their thing.
All three types of sheep can be held extensively. However, in order for the milk sheep to keep producing milk, they do need to be milked on a regular basis.
Intensive – move them around
In a very intensive system, you would have smaller flocks of sheep. The rams, and ewes are kept separate, except during mating season. Here, farmers move the flocks as often as every few hours to different small paddocks where they can graze.
Sheep are moved from paddock to paddock to give the pastures time to recover after grazing. The higher the density of sheep in a paddock, the more regularly they need to be moved to give the pasture time to recover. Farmers use the term grazing capacity to define how many sheep can be kept per hectare or acre on a specific field. In more intensive farming systems, more sheep are held than can be maintained by its grazing capacity. However, the sheep aren’t kept in the paddocks for very long, offsetting the overgrazing with shorter grazing periods.
Organic sheep farming
In a conventional sheep farming system, synthetic chemicals and substances are used to control internal and external parasites. In some feedlots, hormones are used to increase the growth rate of sheep.
In an organic sheep farming system, none of these practices, and some others, are accepted. Instead, organic farmers use the following practices:
- Sheep are kept in larger paddocks in lower densities.
- If they are fed additionally, they only get non-GMO feeds.
- Organically produced milk is given to bottle-fed lambs.
- No synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers are used on grazing pastures.
- Antibiotics and medicines are not used in a preventative way but only as a last resort in the case of illness or injury.
- Internal parasites are managed through specific rotational grazing practices.
Sheep can be farmed organically in both an in- and extensive manner. It all depends on the space and decisions made by the farmer.
The sustainability and future of sheep farming
For a sheep farm to be considered sustainable, it has to meet certain criteria. For instance, the farmers need to properly care for their livestock as well as the environment. The farm should benefit local communities, but also be economically viable.
To sustainably produce sheep, effective land management is key. This is where the grazing capacities play an important role. Grazing capacity defines the animal density that a piece of land can sustain over a year. If this density is exceeded without being offset with the necessary rest, environmental degradation will occur. Overgrazing will lead to less ground cover, and that will lead to erosion and the loss of the topsoil layer.
Animal welfare is as important. Emphasis is placed on the welfare of animals in feedlots, processing, and in transport. Farmers and farming communities are involved in research, development, and innovation to further improve and develop these practices.
So, while you’re busy preparing your food, whether that’s a piece of lamb, mutton, or something completely different, keep in mind that farmers are busy year-round, managing their animals and lands, all to ensure you are provided with the food you eat!
Photos of sheep used with permission from Westray Merinos.