There are things that you have to have to call yourself a shepherd: you, your sheep, some land and some fences. Everything else — buildings, handling systems, farming equipment, and all the other odds and ends you think you might need to raise sheep — can be done without.
That’s right, you don’t have to have a sheep shelter, you can get by without any handling structures, and you don’t need a whole bunch of fancy equipment. Don’t get me wrong, some facilities can make life easier for you and the sheep, and others become absolute necessities if you choose an intensive management approach like winter lambing. But if your heart’s set on sheep, you can have them without having to spend a small fortune on fancy facilities.
So deciding what’s really necessary and important in your operation is a matter of choice. The choices are based on your goals. When deciding what you need, keep in mind the following questions:
What’s your style of farming? (Are you trying to make a living as a commercial shepherd, or do you want to keep a dozen sheep for fun and mowing services?)
How’s your financial health? (Do you have an outside job or a big trust fund, or are you relying on your sheep to make a profit?)
How much time can you spend caring for your sheep? (Is your outside job 10 hours per week or 50? Do you have other obligations that will keep you away from the flock at certain times?)
On a sheep farm, barns generally meet two needs: storage for feed and supplies, and a place for winter lambing. Therefore, whether you need any buildings at all depends primarily on the time of year you’ll be lambing.
For small flocks that lamb in late spring or early summer on pasture, no sheep shelter is necessary. Grain and minerals for a small flock can be stored in large plastic or metal trash cans, which keep moisture and pests (for example, bugs and rodents) out. Remember that if feed is stored in cans, the lids must be fastened very securely. If the sheep gain unfettered access to feed, overconsumption can be fatal; keep the cans securely lidded and out of the sheep’s reach.
Hay for a small flock can be stored under a tarp. Some folks who do pasture lambing use portable temporary structures or tepees.
For large flocks that lamb on pasture, a small sheep and lambing shed comes in handy as a place to store feed and supplies and as a place to take care of sick or hurt animals. This type of structure provides flexibility for the shepherd. A design for a small lambing shed is available from the USDA plan service; this design works well for small to medium-sized flocks that will be lambing during inclement weather. Plan No. 5919 can be ordered from your county extension agent or from the Superintendent of Documents, Government Printing Office, Washington D.C.
Old farm buildings can often be remodeled to meet a shepherd’s needs, and inexpensive, alternative types of buildings also are gaining acceptance. For example, shepherds are beginning to use hoop houses (which are like a greenhouse made with plastic sheeting) or straw-bale structures instead of a conventional building. Whether you’re thinking of constructing a new building or adapting an old one, be sure to evaluate all your resources beforehand.
This article was adapted from Storey’s Guide to Raising Sheep by Paula Simmons and Carol Ekarius (Storey Publishing, 2009).