Understanding agriculture: Sheep

If you are one who is perplexed by simple questions about agriculture that you don’t understand, read on. Today’s article is a primer on sheep, written primarily for the curious nonfarmer.

Sheep originated in Asia from ancient times. Several stories involving sheep are found in the Bible. For thousands of years, sheep have provided food and clothing for people. They have been used as pack animals and some breeds can even be milked.

In recent centuries, sheep have become important providers of meat. Sheep were brought to North America by Spanish and English settlers. Historians tell us that Columbus brought the animals to the New World on his second voyage in 1493. Approximately three-fourths of sheep in the United States are west of the Mississippi River. Indiana currently ranks 26th in sheep and lambs on farms among all states, just 1 percent of U.S. inventories. The largest sheep-producing states are Texas, California and Colorado.

Products we get from sheep include wool, lanolin (used in moisturizing creams), meat (called lamb from market animals, or mutton from mature animals), yarn and other products. Wool is sheared annually from sheep, much like we receive regular haircuts. Wool is used for carpet and for garments, like sweaters, blankets and socks. Wool color is either white, black or natural-color (shades of black, gray, silver, brown, beige, red or blond).

There are several terms associated with sheep production. One who raises and cares for sheep is called a shepherd. A ewe is a female sheep, and a ram is a male sheep. A wether is a male sheep that has been castrated. A group of sheep is called a flock. A fleece is the wool from a single sheep. A baby sheep is called a lamb. Birthing is called lambing.

The average gestation (pregnancy) period of a ewe is 148 days.

Breeds of sheep include Dorset, Hampshire, Suffolk, Oxford, Merino and Southdown. Some breeds are known more for their wool production, while others are better suited for meat production. Breeds known for their wool produce fine, medium or long types of wool. Suffolk is the breed with most purebred registrations in the U.S., and is known for its meatiness and high carcass quality.

Lamb cuts include lamb chops, rack roast, sirloin, leg of lamb and other cuts. According to USDA, a 3-oz. lamb chop (arm, braised), lean only, has 237 calories, 30 grams of protein and 12 grams of fat. A 3-oz. broiled loin lamb chop, lean only, has 184 calories, 25 grams of protein and 8 grams of fat.

Wool has unique qualities. A wool fiber has a certain amount of crimp (waviness of wool fiber, determined largely by breed), good tensile strength, is finer and more elastic than human hair, absorbs water, is non-conductive, a good insulator, easily dyed and nonflammable.

Predators, such as coyotes and wild dogs, are a problem in sheep flocks. Many shepherds use guard dogs or other guard animals trained to protect sheep.

Guard dog breeds include great Pyrenees, Komondor, Anatolian shepherd, Maremma and Akbash dog. Other guard animals may include llamas, donkeys, mules or ostriches. Some research indicates that co-grazing sheep with cattle reduces predation by coyotes.

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