A Guide on Selecting Sheep to Purchase for Beginning Sheep Farmers

The first step in being a sheep farmer is to determine what breed of sheep you want to own. The second step as a beginning sheep farmer is have what the sheep needs before you purchase the sheep. The sheep breed is selected, the location, shelter, food and water are available for the sheep when you bring the sheep home. Now, to go get the sheep. The first thought as you arrive to look at sheep to purchase is “Which sheep do I choose?”

The first time I went to the sale barn as a beginning sheep farmer to purchase sheep, I was nervous and very unsure. I worried about making a good choice and not paying too much for the sheep I was bidding on. I had visited the sale barn for a couple of months, so the auctioneer “talk” was not strange and incomprehensible. I did not purchase anything on the first visit as a buyer due to being so unsure. Watching the sheep come into the sale ring every Saturday, and receiving a few tips like “sheep tails go down and goat tails go up” I began to learn and gain experience, to guide my decision on which sheep I should bid on and how high to bid. This does not mean I did not make mistakes, as I did. But I was learning about sheep and sheep markets. Since those early days as a sheep farmer I have developed a routine or check list for looking at the sheep and determining if I am going to buy and how much I am going to pay. This routine or check list I use to assess my own flock for replacement ewes, sheep to sale, how well a feed ration is working and always when I purchase sheep.

Step 1 – Body Condition

Body Condition 3 on these mixed hair sheep lambs located at a sale barn.

When I first see a sheep, any sheep, mine or someone else’s, I look at the body condition. A quick description for body condition is how fat is the sheep or can you see the bones of the sheep. I rate the sheep on the body condition 1 to 5 with 1 being a skeleton covered with hide to 5 being an overly fat sheep. To check the body condition of wool breed sheep, unless they are fresh sheared, and lambs (lambs from hair sheep have lamb wool), you have to put your hands on the sheep to feel for the body condition, as the wool covers what you can see. I place a hand on the back of the sheep to feel the backbone and top part of the ribcage. How much back bone I feel determines what score I give the sheep for body condition.

Along with body condition, I am looking over the body of the sheep to see if there are any cuts and scars. The location of cuts and scars may hinder the sheep in its’ daily life and as a producer. I also look for lumps or abscesses on the sheep. Lump and abscesses are symptoms of a serious injury or a possible disease. This first impression of the sheep will determine if I go to step 2 of my checklist as well as what I pay for the sheep.

Factors that affect the body condition of the sheep are lack of feed due to feed shortage, age, nursing lambs and illness. An overly fat sheep can have health problems. I do not make a decision solely on body condition. Determining body condition is just one step in the process of making a decision to purchase and the price I am willing to pay.

Step 2 – The Eyes

Looking at the eyes of sheep and goats

My next step is to look at details on the head of the animal. First is the eyes. The eyes need to be clear and the animal needs to see. The ability for a ewe sheep to see is important in the care of lambs. When lambs are first born, they do not know who their mom is and the ewe has to be able to see and track the lamb. Sheep use there sight to move around dangerous or potentially harmful objects during grazing and when the flock is moved from one location to another. A sheep also needs to be able to see predators and flight to safety.

A common illness in the eyes of sheep is pink eye. Pink eye can lead to blindness and is contagious not just to other sheep, but also to sheep farmers and other animals. Pink eye is easily treated to prevent blindness, if not too sever. I have purchased animals with pink eye. The first thing I do is put them in a pen alone. I treat the eye by “washing” the eye with saline solution or Vetrycin spray. After washing the eye, I put 2-5 drops of penicillin in the eye. I am not a veterinarian, so consult a veterinarian before you do anything to treat a condition you have not treated before.

After checking for clarity in the eye, I gently roll the lower eyelid down to expose a portion of the inside bottom eye lid and area around the eye. I am looking at the color of the membrane. The color of lower lid membrane will tell me if the sheep is anemic. I am looking for what is termed a famacha score. The more pink the better the score, if the area is white the sheep is anemic. There are many causes of anemia in sheep, but the most common is parasitic worms. Sheep can be anemic from worms and still have a body condition of 5.

I check my flock looking at the eyes using the famacha score every two months. Parasitic worms are a major health problem for sheep where I live. I want to make sure my sheep are healthy so they can produce the lambs.

When I look at the eyes I also look at the nostrils. I check to see if the sheep has a bad nasal discharge. In the hot months sheep will have a nasal discharge from panting due to heat. There are times they have a discharge due to dust or high pollen in our area. A healthy sheep has a clear nasal discharge. A sheep that has a respiratory irritation or illness will have a solid colored discharge.

Step 3 – The Teeth

There are two reasons for looking at the teeth of sheep. First, a sheep missing teeth will have a harder time grazing and chewing the food needed to stay healthy. Second, the teeth are a way of determining the approximate age of the sheep. The age of the sheep will determine when the sheep can be bred and how many years of producing lambs you can expect from the ewe or ram.

Prior to 2018, my sheep flock was a mix of various breeds of hair sheep. I decided to take sheep farming from a hobby to a serious business. My selection of hair sheep breed was Dorper sheep. I started purchasing on ewes that had Dorper characteristics. While

On a buying trip I was at the sale barn and not able to buy a ewe with Dorper characteristics as they were selling for more than my budget. Near the end of the sale this ewe came in, her body condition was a 2-3, she was not limping, no cuts, no lumps and no scars. Her bidding price started low due to her being thin. When I checked the sheep before the sale, this ewe was not there and I was not able to check her teeth. I bid and purchased her for $45. After settling with the sale barn, I went to look at my newly purchased ewe and load her in the trailer. While moving her out of the pen towards the trailer I noticed a lump on the side of her face. I felt the lump, it was hard and decided to check her teeth on their alignment. Upon opening her mouth I seen she had no teeth in front and the hard lump was her molars on top, but there were no molars on the bottom. My ewe was not just old, but ancient. I took my purchase home, named her Granny Ewe. At home I let her out in the yard to see if she could graze. Granny Ewe could not gum the grass off to eat. I had to come up with a plan on feeding Granny Ewe. I fed alfalfa hay to my horses, so the alfalfa leaves that fell on the floor with the fine stems I would gather into a bucket and put in front of Granny Ewe. Granny Ewe was placed in her own pen, by herself, so she could eat and hopefully be able to produce a lamb for me when her body condition improved . After she gained in body condition, I put the ram in with her to get her bred. And she did get bred.

A month before Granny Ewe was due to lamb, she was in very good body condition and looked very pregnant. My husband made the statement Granny Ewe would be lucky to survive lambing due to her age, better to sell her before I have to bury her. I took Granny Ewe to the sale barn, just hoping to get my $45 back. Granny Ewe came into the sale ring bouncing like a lamb and looking very pregnant. Granny Ewe looked so good, I almost bid on her. The bidding started at $55, yes more than I paid for her and several people were bidding. The bid rose to $85, yes I made back my money for the ewe and the feed. The bidding continued and Granny Ewe was sold for $155. The person who purchased Granny Ewe had no idea how much tender loving care was involved to get her to look so good. I was happy my mistake of purchasing her did not cost me money. We learn from our mistakes. I do not buy a sheep unless I can know approximate how old the sheep is and it has teeth to eat with.

As you get practice and gain experience in looking at sheep and their teeth, you learn the look of a young ewe, and middle aged ewe of 5-7 years and an old ewe by looking at the chin and jaw line. But in the beginning look at the teeth to determine how old.

It is important for the sheep farmer to look at the teeth of their sheep flock. Sometimes a young sheep will knock teeth out and have a gap making grazing more difficult. It is good practice as a sheep farmer to check the teeth of all your sheep for missing or broken teeth or if a sheep needs to be culled due to the age of the sheep.

Step 4 – Feet

The feet of a sheep tell a story about that sheep. When I look at a sheep’s feet I am looking for the history of how well the current and past sheep farmers take care of this sheep. Was the person a good sheep farmer or a bad sheep farmer?

A sheep with long toes tells me the sheep farmer did not trim the feet. The long toes also tell me the sheep farmer does not take pride in how this sheep looks at the sale. The long toes in a good indication the sheep has not been dewormed or vaccinated by the the current sheep farmer.

The shape of the toes on the hoof of the sheep will tell me if this sheep had hoof rot. Hoof rot is a bacterial infection in the toes of sheep feet. The bacteria eats the hoof away and if left untreated the bacterial can eat the hoof to the point the sheep has no hoof. Hoof rot when treated early leaves no lasting sign on the sheep. If the hoof rot was allowed to eat away part of the hoof, that part of the hoof never grows back normal. A sheep with partial toes is going to have a harder time keeping up with the flock during grazing or pasture changing.

Picture of hoof that had hoof rot. Notice the one toe is smaller than the other.

As sheep age the joints above the hoof changes and get thicker, similar to when people get older they get arthritis in their hands. The hoof of the sheep can tell a sheep farmer the story of the care and age of the sheep.

Step 5 – the rear of the sheep

A sheep farmer should look at the rear of their sheep daily, especially lambs to see if there is any manure on the backside or back legs. Manure on the backside and legs means the sheep is experiencing a digestive problem. In lambs this could mean scours and a lamb can die in days of first getting scours with no treatment. When determining on the purchase of a sheep, any type of digestive problem is not a problem you need to purchase.

While looking for manure, if the ewe has a bag or full udder, I will check for blood. Blood is an indicator of a recent birth or abortion. If the ewe has blood and no lambs, there was problems with the lambing and again this is a problem a sheep farmer does not need to purchase.

When purchasing ewes, I look at the udder and external reproductive parts. If there is any inner parts showing I do not purchase the animal. I will also look for stitch marks scars indicating a repair of a prolapse done on the ewe. A prolapse can be prevented before the prolapse appears, and treated after the ewe has prolapsed. A ewe that has prolapsed has a high probability of prolapse again.

A sheep farmer needs to look at the udder of the ewe to see if it is uniform in shape and the tits are not too large for a new born lamb to feed. If one side hangs down more than the other, indicates the ewe probably has singles. Sheep farmers make more money with twins than with singles. I will feel the udder for hardness and lumps to check for a history of mastitis.

Mastitis is a bacterial infection of the udder before or shortly after birthing lambs. Mastitis is treatable and if treated early will not affect milk production of the ewe. When a sheep farmer does not treat the mastitis, scar tissue is formed and milk production permanently reduced or does not produce milk at all. Mastitis can affect half or all of the udder. A sheep farmer needs the ewe to produce a good supply of milk for the lamb or lambs to grow. When a lamb can not get milk from the ewe, the sheep farmer has to feed the lamb with a bottle.

Big Bertha, my “One Tit Wonder” with triplets in 2021

Big Bertha is a registered fullblood Dorper ewe. I purchased her in fall of 2019. She has some age on her, but she has really good bloodlines that are not related to a lot of Dorper sheep in the United States as her sire is an embryo transplant from Australia. According the breed association records she has only had singles. When I was looking at purchasing her, I took into account her conformation, bloodlines and felt I was still making a good choice even though she only produced single lambs.

In 2020, Big Bertha lambed twins, two ewe lambs. They were up, nursing both sides and seemed to do well the first few days. Big Bertha is an awesome mother. After a week, I noticed one lamb was very not nursing much and just hanging behind her mom and sister. We checked Big Bertha’s udder and found no milk was coming from one tit. Because the lamb was weak, I took the lamb, bottle fed her and raised her. Since these lambs are really nice in conformation we decided to keep Big Bertha and supplement bottle feeding the next lambs when they were born.

In the spring of 2021, Big Bertha lambed again, not two but three lambs. This time we knew only one tit worked and was prepared. All three lambs were fed colostrum from a bottle to make sure each lamb received colostrum. I left the lambs with Big Bertha, but supplemented two of the lambs as the third lamb would have nothing to do with the bottle. The lambs were able to stay with Big Bertha and be mothered and nurse, but received additional milk replacement supplement four times a day. Keeping Big Bertha in my flock is more work as I will have to continue to supplement her lambs every lambing. The influx of new genetics into my flock, her conformation and mothering traits are beneficial for me to reach my breeding goals. I will keep Big Bertha in my breeding program regardless of the work I do helping with her lambs.

When you look at Big Bertha’s udder you can not tell one tit does not work. Feeling her udder you can feel one tit has a small hard lump. I do not know if she was born this way or if this lump developed. We have tried to open the tit with a tit needle and that did not work.

Depending on the goals of your breeding program, a ewe like Big Bertha may have more advantages to keeping her than marking her for cull. I do not own any other ewe worth this much effort.

I will discuss what to look for in a ram in a separate blog. The ram is responsible for half of the lamb crop from the ewes he breeds and a very important sheep in a breeding program.


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