Sheep farming is perhaps the most flexible of all livestock enterprises. You can have a ranch system on many acres, or you can choose to have them on your small farm or even a plot. Sheep farming can turn that waste land into profits just within a year.
Sheep produce good manure; lambs under good management attain market weight at only five months and therefore ensure quick returns on investment. Sheep is suited for sparse dry land vegetation as they feed on a variety of pasture. Sheep are relatively calm animals and can be safely kept by women or children without posing any harm.
Unique characteristics of sheep
Sheep have quite a number of unique characteristics that make them an interesting species to keep. You have observed sheep walk, run or jump as a herd; this is due to strong herd instincts and an established hierarchy system. This instinct makes them good animals under ranch system as they always keep a tight flock. One person can herd a large number of sheep easily making them less labourious.
While goats are destructive during their grazing, sheep are graceful grazers that won’t destroy trees. Sheep have the ability to tolerate drought while maintaining good quality carcass. But you must endeavour to know some basic production steps to fully make use of sheep enterprise. For example; selecting the breeding stock (ewes and rams), lambing, lamb nutrition, weaning, diseases and parasites and culling.
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Selecting breeding stock
The male sheep or ram contributes up to 90 per cent of genetic improvement of the flock and therefore selection of a good ram is of paramount importance. Rams are sometimes called tups; the act of mating or season of mating in sheep is called tupping. A castrated ram is called a wether and a juvenile one is called a lamb ram. If you are establishing a farm and expecting to get super lambs selection of a superb foundation ram is the secret.
Most sheep breeds are seasonal breeders and will start cycling when day length decreases. They will come on heat after every 16 to 17 days until they are served; when on heat they will be receptive to the male for 24 hours. A twin ewe from a highly productive ewe is a plus when selecting your breeding foundation stock; ask for reproduction and performance records.
Keenly observe the legs, the mouth, posture and general body condition. The udder is a very important organ in a breeding ewe and it must be checked for any lumps which indicative of past or current mastitis infection.
Sexual aggression and masculinity in rams is a positive trait of a good sire; however scrotal circumference is the surest test for fertility in rams. The average scrotal circumference at seven months old should be around 30 centimetres. Palpate the scrotal sac and feel the testicles for any deformities; they should be oval and have a slippery feel. Masculinity is measured by a strong, bold head and neck and good body muscle cover. A weak, thin and sick ram is often sterile and will not serve ewes.
Sheep are prone to worm infestation; and this can have a negative impact on their productivity. It is recommended you drench ewes and rams to clear any internal parasites prior to breeding.
Hoof trimming of the ewe and rams is an important preparation before mating as a lame ram will experience difficulties mounting a female sheep. Flush (increasing nutrient intake and body condition prior to and during breeding)the ewe a fortnight to introduction to a ram for breeding to improve on the lambing rate and a shorter breeding season. When flushing, give high energy feeds for example good quality pasture supplemented with grains so that the ewe can gain weight. Avoid using legumes for flushing as they have been shown to delay conception by interfering with the hormonal interplay.
Rams should be sheared at around seven weeks to breeding season and be in a good nutrition plane. Thin or fat rams will have reduced aggression and thus low fertility. It is recommended to keep the ram and the ewe separated unless they are breeding. One ram can serve between 15 and 25 ewes.
Nutrition during pregnancy is of great importance. Inadequacies or imbalances will result in diseases, embryonic death and weak lambs with low birth weight, poor subsequent weight gain and reduced milk production by the ewe for the lambs. Feed the ewe on highly nutritious feeds (good quality roughage and concentrates) and provide mineral link rich in calcium and phosphorous in the last four to six weeks because 70 per cent of growth of the lamb takes place during this time.
In the last days avoid crowding, passage through narrow gates or jumping of pregnant ewes. At two weeks to lambing shear the ewes for easy nursing of the lambs especially around the udder, belly and flanks – this is called crutching.
Ewe have a gestation period of about five months (148 days on average); at one month to lambing the ewe needs to be fed on an improved diet composed of grains, good quality roughages and pasture. Although ewes give birth easily; first time mothers can experience some difficulties. Signs of birth are loss of appetite, enlarged udder and teats, dilated vulva with mucus discharge and will appear restless.
After birth cut the lamb’s umbilical cord and disinfect with iodine and make sure the lamb suckles the colostrum immediately. This will help boost the lamb’s immunity; if the lamb doesn’t suckle after birth use a stomach tube to give it colostrum and call a veterinary doctor to assist.
Lambs are playful animals therefore the farmer must ensure good space is provided for this. Remove any objects that may trap the playful lambs and cause injuries for example; strings, open water bodies, holes, loose doors or gates. Tail docking in female lambs should be done within the first week of life.
This is the removal of lambs from the mother’s milk diet and introduction into forage or grain diets. This is a critical stage in the lamb’s life as it results in stress which must be minimised. In early life, lamb’s digestive system hasn’t developed fully and can only digest milk. It is recommended to wean at two months or 20 kgs. Weaning helps the mother to return cycling and the lamb to gain more weight much faster. It should be done gradually to reduce inducing stress to the lamb.
At weaning, care should be taken to reduce mastitis in the ewe due to presence of milk in the teat cistern that will not be suckled by the lamb and can easily predispose to the disease. Mastitis in ewes will negatively affect future production.
To prevent mastitis in ewes at weaning, try to reduce milk production in the ewe around two weeks to weaning by remove grains from its diet and replace it with low quality forage and little water (don’t reduce water intake if the ewe is in hot environment, this can be dangerous) to stop milk production.
This should be continued for another one week post weaning.
Docking refers to cutting the sheep’s tail and has been a standard management practice in sheep farms. It is done to improve the health and ensure comfort of the sheep and lambs. A cut tail prevents feacal accumulation and reduces instances of fly strike and secondary bacterial infections. In female it makes it easier for natural mating. In some cultural settings docking isn’t done for religious or cultural reasons; some animal welfare activists have also raised concerns which are still subject of debate.
Parasites and their control
External, stomach and intestinal worms are a big problem in sheep production than in other livestock species. Sheep graze close to the ground and can easily pick up worm larvae while lambs take a long period to develop immunity thus easily succumbing to secondary bacterial infections.
Worm infestation is also caused by high stocking rates that put pressure on pastures and result in heavy contamination with worm larvae.
- The writer works as a Communication Officer at Kenya Tsetse and Trypanosmiasis Eradication Council- (KENTTEC)