Sheep were among the first species of animals to be domesticated. They provide meat for food and wool and sheepskin for clothing and shelter. Today, sheep are used for their meat, wool and milk. Many popular cheeses like feta, ricotta, romano and Roquefort are made using sheep milk and are commonly imported to the U.S. from France, Greece, Italy and Spain. Cosmetics, lubricants, piano keys and many other types of by-products are made from sheep.
Like other types of livestock, there are many different breeds of sheep, all with different characteristics and traits. Some breeds are known for high milk production or the wool they produce. Depending on the breed, sheep vary in height and weight. Female sheep, called ewes, typically weigh between 99 and 220 pounds. Rams, male sheep used for breeding, can weigh up to 350 pounds.
Ewes are usually bred in the fall and give birth in the late winter and early spring. Lambs are sold to market when they reach between 115 and 140 pounds, which is approximately four to seven months of age. Like cattle, sheep are ruminants, which means they have four compartments in their stomach. Sheep do not have any upper front teeth. When eating forages, such as grass and alfalfa, they close the lower teeth against the dental pad of the upper jaw.
- Ewe: a female sheep of any age.
- Fleece: the outer covering of wool on a sheep.
- Flock: a group of sheep that live, travel or feed together.
- Lamb: baby sheep. The meat of a sheep that is usually 4-6 months old is also referred to as lamb.
- Lambing: to give birth to a lamb or lambs.
- Lanolin: oil extracted from sheep wool and used in cosmetics and lubricants.
- Mutton: meat of an adult sheep.
- Ram: a male sheep used for breeding.
- Ruminant: animals, such as sheep, that have multiple compartments in their stomach. They first chew their food to soften it, swallow it and then return it to their mouth for continued chewing. This is called chewing the cud.
- Shearing: removal of the wool from a sheep.
- Shepherd: a person who takes care of sheep (also called a sheepherder).
- Wether: a male sheep not used for breeding.
- Wool: fiber covering on a sheep.
Source: Illinois AITC: Terra Nove Readers.
- Ewes are pregnant for 145-153 days (5 months), and usually give birth to one or two lambs at a time.
- Like cattle, sheep are ruminants and have 4 compartments to their stomach.
- Sheep do not have upper teeth. They have a dental pad on the roof of their mouth that they grind their lower teeth against to chew food.
- You can tell a sheep’s age by looking at its teeth.
- Sheep are sheared once a year, and their wool is used for clothing and knitting fabrics. Shearing is much like getting a haircut.
- An average fleece from one sheep will provide enough fabric for one wool suit.
- Wool is a natural renewable product.
- One pound of wool can make 10 miles of yarn.
- Sheep also provide products for common things like piano keys, candles, shampoos, fertilizer, chewing gum, and even medicines like snake antivenin.
Indiana Grown: Sheep
According to the American Sheep Industry Association, as of Jan. 1, 2014, there were 5.21 million head of sheep in the United States1. Sheep are produced in all 50 states. The states that produce the most sheep are located west of the Mississippi River. The eastern part of the country supports a greater number of smaller, pasture-based operations. Hoosier farmers raise around 50,000 head each year. Indiana ranks number 28 in production. There are approximately 2,000 sheep farms in Indiana.
Questions & Answers:
Q: Why are some of sheep sheared and others not?
A: Typically, the sheared sheep are meat breeds and the unsheared sheep are wool breeds.
Q: What happens to their tails?
A: The tails are docked at a young age to prevent disease and other health issues.
Q: How many different breeds of sheep are there in the U.S?
A: There are more than 40 breeds of sheep in the U.S. and approximately 900 different breeds around the world.
Columbia breed is one of the first breeds of sheep developed in the United States.
Dorset breed of sheep is known mostly for its prolific lambing.
Hampshire breed of sheep which originated around 1829.
Southdown breed was originally bred by John Ellman of Glynde, near Lewes, East Sussex, about 200 years ago.
Suffolk breed are a black-faced, open-faced breed of domestic sheep raised primarily for meat.