Tennessee Sheep are Flock Stars
We’ve all seen cattle and horses grazing on Tennessee pastures. But some local farmers are shepherding in a relatively lesser known sector of animal agriculture: sheep.
Whether raised for wool, meat or both, raising sheep is a win-win for both beginning and veteran Tennessee farmers. Their high market prices continue to hold, and they require little in infrastructure outlay. What’s more, the state’s long grass-growing season is particularly suited for raising the docile livestock.
Although countries such as China, New Zealand and Australia dominate the market, there’s money in it for domestic producers as well.
“Most crops sell in the fall,” explains Warren Gill, Middle Tennessee State University‘s (MTSU) agribusiness and agriscience school director. “There are not many agricultural products that naturally sell in the spring. Being able to sell both wool and lambs in May and June allows you to have cash to cover spring expenses.”
As Gill notes, sheep produce two valuable products: wool and meat. This depends upon whether the animal falls into the category of wool breeds, meat breeds or hair sheep. And that’s just the beginning, as meat breeds grow wool too, though hair sheep are raised strictly for meat.
“There are over 250 breeds to choose from,” says Mark Powell, an officer with the Tennessee Sheep Producers Association and an administrator of the Tennessee Agricultural Enhancement Program for the state department of agriculture. He raises sheep on 70 acres of his 180-acre Watertown farm.
SEE MORE: Tennessee Sheep Shearing Video
Powell concentrates on three main meat breeds: Hampshire, Southdown and Dorset. However, his daughter Sarah, age 6, raises five Cheviots as well. Grace, 10, raises Hampshire, while middle daughter Anna, 9, concentrates on Southdown.
Many state producers choose the hair breed. Why? “You don’t have to shear the sheep,” Powell says.
Shearing takes place in the spring. MTSU hosts an annual sheep shearing class each April, where the first order of business is tips on buying and maintaining equipment.
“These are not your barber’s clippers,” Gill says with a chuckle.
Shearers have to learn to control sheep with their feet so their hands remain free for shearing. The right pattern of prescribed strokes is “almost like cutting out a dress pattern,” Gill says. If done properly, the fleece holds together in one large piece – but that result comes only after shearing many, many sheep.
Many state sheep farmers sell their wool through the Tennessee Wool Pool, started in the 1800s in Goodlettsville. Considered the oldest recorded marketing cooperative of farmers, it allows farmers to pool their wool together in order to get better prices.
In Tennessee, sheep graze in fields from early spring through late fall or early winter. “We have enough water, sunlight and moderate temperatures for a variety of grasses to grow for a longer period,” says Powell, comparing the shorter grazing season of colder states.
He supplements with grain during Tennessee’s cold months and during lambing season to boost milk yield. Typically, ewes breed in September and October and give birth in January and February. The lambs are then sold around May or early June.
Sheep allow a producer to take advantage of hilly land not suitable for row crops. And they can help with weed control, such as the plant pest buttercup. “Cattle don’t like them, horses don’t like them and they’ll choke out the good grasses,” Gill says. “But sheep will actually eat them and control them.”
SEE MORE: Meet Sheep Farmer Reyes Rich
Rotating the sheep to new areas is important. “If sheep are left on a pasture for too long, they can nub it off to the ground,” Powell says.
Sheep also need enough land to minimize the risk of disease. “You have to do really good health management,” Gill says.
Farmers also have to consider how best to protect the sheep. While their gentle nature and small size make them easy to handle, the same qualities also make them prey for coyotes and aggressive dogs.
Powell advises having a good predator-proof fence and good guard animals. Some people use donkeys, but Powell chooses a llama and a Great Pyrenees dog. He buys the dogs just after weaning and immediately puts them in with the lambs so the animals will bond.
Cohabitation With Cattle
These aren’t the only animals that farmers put with their sheep. Many getting into sheep production already have cattle on their land.
“They start out raising 100 head of cattle, and they put in maybe 20 ewes,” Powell says. When the sheep make them more money faster, he says, “they end up keeping about 25 cows and 100 to 200 head of sheep.”
Also, cows usually have one calf a year while sheep often have two lambs annually.
“With cattle, our typical ratio is one mature bull for 25 cows,” Gill says. “With sheep, a ram can breed at least 25 and often 50 ewes.”
The Farmer-Consumer Connection
For questions about purchasing lamb, just ask the farmer. Many encourage customers to visit their farms so they feel comfortable with what they’re getting and see how the animals are raised. Lamb must be USDA-inspected, Gill says, “but a producer can sell a lamb and then take it to a processor [for a customer].”
“More and more people are asking more questions about where their food is coming from,” Gill says. “They want to talk to the farmer that raises their food. Sheep and lambs fit perfectly with that.”