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How Many Sheep Per Acre Can You Raise [USA Guide]

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So, you want to be a sheep keeper and wondering how many sheep per acre you can keep? We can’t blame you! It’s not a secret that sheep are nifty. They make warm wool that can make you money, their rich milk can make delicious cheese and other foods, they’re sweet animals to raise as pets, and you can make a load of money raising and selling them.

And perhaps best of all, IMO, they’re super tasty!

Yummy sheep meat! (Sorry, vegetarians. I love plants too.)

So. It makes sense to raise a flock of sheep on your land.

But how many sheep per acre is possible? And what about the laws governing sheep raising?

That’s just what we’re here to learn. And it’s going to be tons of fun!

Read on for about five minutes. We promise you’ll know more about raising sheep than most other homesteaders – and you’ll learn precisely how to determine a sustainable sheep stocking rate for your pastures.

Sound good?

Then here we go!

How Many Sheep Per Acre Can You Raise?

We usually recommend anywhere from two to four sheep per acre for new homesteaders starting a farm or small flock. But the exact answer largely depends! We’re about to share an easy sheep stocking rate formula in a moment so you can estimate how many sheep your homestead can support. There are other sheep stocking rate variables, too!

Consider the following sheep stocking rate nuances.

sheep flock and cow grazing and gazing into the camera
How many sheep per acre can you raise? It depends! We usually advise a stocking rate of three or four ewes per acre. Variables such as stocking density, soil and pasture quality, seasonal sheep forage availability, and sheep activity levels impact how many ewes your homestead can support! However, we also advise playing it safe and starting on a small scale. Start small with a few sheep! Then gauge (observe and measure) how well your land adapts. If you notice you have plenty of leftover healthy grass in the spring and also abundant leftover hay in the winter? Then it may be prudent to increase your flock.

First Things First – Sheep Need Sheep!

As a rule of thumb, sheep are not leaders. Their instinctual manner is to be timid. And they do not feel well alone or just with their young.

Sheep are herd animals! They feel and thrive best when they live in flocks. It’s in their genetics.

Regardless of the square feet of the pasture, sheep find safety in several similar-aged sheep.

Ewes with only lambs for companionship may get nervous because they feel overstressed about protecting their youngins. And themselves. It keeps them on edge all the time, unable to enjoy their lives.

So, please, for the sheep’s sake, never buy just one sheep and make her live alone. Get at least two sheep. Three or more is better. Flocked sheep are happier, less afraid, and more relaxed.

Second Things Second – Sheep Come Last!

If you begin raising sheep, it’s vital to have their environment prepared before getting them. So, before buying the sheep, ensure that you have everything in place, including the following.

  • Fencing (typically the single costliest expense)
  • Barn or other protective structure
  • Access to freshwater
  • Pasture

Other miscellaneous items to raise sheep properly include ear tags, hoof cutters, buckets, feeders, a crook to catch sheep, a drench gun, and syringes and needles for necessary vaccinations.

adorable sheep standing around their farmyard stable
Don’t forget about sheep housing! Even though sheep are rugged and hardy, they most certainly appreciate shelter to keep them safe and secure. Doubly so in the cold winter climates! (Some sheep also love lounging in the shade when the summer heat pounds on their fluffy wool coats.) So, your sheep accommodations must also consider sheep housing. Sheep housing doesn’t need to get fancy – or overly spacious. Old barns and sheds work magnificently. An excellent sheep facilities guide from the Umass Agriculture Extension advises around 14 square feet per head for flushing ewes and upwards of 30 square feet per head for rams. (Give the rams plenty of space. Nobody wants to get headbutted!)

Third Things Third – Sheep Terminology

Real quick, let’s review the following sheep terminology and facts.

  • Adult sheep can be female or male
  • Adult female sheep are ewes
  • Adult male sheep are rams
  • Sheep that are less than a year old are lambs
  • Female baby lambs are called ewe lambs
  • Male baby lambs are called ram lambs

OK, good talk.

Let’s get into the primary reason we’re here. How many sheep can you raise in an acre?

How Many Sheep Per Acre of Land Is Best?

How much land do sheep need? What is your pasture’s sheep stocking capacity?

It’s important to remember that every piece of land has a unique land grazing potential.

Creating a favorable environment depends on several variables, including:

  • Whether the sheep will be grazing all or just part of the year
  • The ready availability of clean water on the land
  • The breed and size of the sheep
  • Access to quality pasture
  • The quality of the soil
  • The climate

We’ll discuss each factor in detail below. But first, let’s look at how to calculate your property’s sheep stocking rate.

No worries – it’s simple and fast!

happy sheep hungrily eating hay for breakfast
Your acreage may provide adequate forage in the spring and summer. But what about in the fall and winter? Cold-weather ranchers need plenty of hay to help feed their hungry sheep when seasonal forage crops wane and fade in the late fall to early winter. Luckily – buying hay from a local farmer for a small backyard flock is affordable and likely won’t break the bank.

How to Calculate Your Land’s Sheep Stocking Rate

This method is not a precise science, but it will roughly estimate how many heads of sheep per acre your property can feasibly sustain.

This formula assumes that your grazing animals will consume 3% of their body weight each day, which is the amount that Cornell University asserts is common.

And the formula adds 0.5% waste and another 0.5% buffer, bringing the recommended daily foraging amount per sheep up to 4%.

Assign a beginning value to represent your pasture’s average per-acre yield. Estimating the average per acre might be tricky, especially if you’re beginning to experiment with raising sheep.

If you need help and you’re in the USA, it’s wise to contact your local branch of the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). They’ll have estimates of average yields in your locality – plus further guidance if you wish.

Here’s the formula:

  • Total Acres * Average Per-Acre Yield
  • Divided by
  • 365 * (4% of the Average Sheep Weight)
  • Equals How Many Sheep

So, let’s say that:

  • You have 5 acres of land
  • And your average sheep weighs 100 pounds
  • Then each sheep would require 365 * 4 = 1,460 pounds of food yearly.

Now, let’s say that each acre produced 5,000 pounds of forage annually.

  • That means that 5 acres produce 25,000 pounds of forage annually.
  • And each sheep needs 1,460 pounds per year.
  • That means you could feasibly accommodate 25,000 divided by 1,460 = 17 sheep on the 5 acres.

Here’s the sheep stocking equation after plugging in our figures from the example.

  • 5 * 5,000 = 25,000 
  • Divided by
  • 365 * (4) = 1,460

We end up with 25,000 Divided by 1,460 = Approximately 17 sheep!

That’s a basic idea of how many sheep the entire 5 acres can support. You can always choose to stock fewer than the maximum possible number.

Now we understand how to calculate how many sheep per acre we can sustain. So let’s dig deeper into the factors influencing the above formula from one pasture to another.

But first, consider the following.

domestic sheep exploring the farmyard and foraging for snacks
Your land’s productivity is the core variable when calculating how many sheep per acre you can raise. The productivity level gets measured via the hay equivalent per acre. In other words – how many tons of hay does your acreage produce per year? An excellent article on the University of Maine Extension about raising sheep states how properly managed pasture can produce up to five tons yearly. That’s a boatload of hay! However, they also warn that some acreage in New England may yield less than one ton! That’s another reason it’s difficult to calculate the stock rate accurately and consistently. (And we weren’t kidding when we said soil quality plays a massive role!)

Hilarious Half-Time Sheep Joke!

What kind of cars do sheep like to drive best?

Lamborghinis!

HA! Get it? Lamborghinis!

I’m dyin’ here!

OK, back to business.

Factors that Affect the Best Number of Sheep Per Acre of Pasture

How many acres of sheep pasture you need depends on whether it’s lush, productive land that accommodates nutritious green grass or arid land where no grass grows well.

One acre of grass high in nutrients can be superior to 5 acres of grass with low nutritional value. Every parcel of land is different.

It’s important not to exceed your maximum sheep stocking rate for your pasture. Doing so will stress both the sheep and the natural production of fodder.

Destruction of fodder creates smaller yields with substandard nutrition, affecting the general health of the sheep grazing there.

So, to abide by your stocking rate, you’ll have to consider relevant variables, including the following.

  • Size and breed of the sheep
  • Quality of water sources
  • Your local climate
  • Soil quality

Let’s zoom in on each of these vital factors.

sheep grazing on a colorful pasture during a beautiful autumn day
If only the grass grew abundantly year-round, we could dramatically increase the number of sheep per acre! Unfortunately, many of our homesteading friends endure cold winters and short growing seasons. That’s why calculating the exact sheep stock rate is so tricky! We also read an excellent article from the Oklahoma State University Extension that discussed sheep enterprises. The article discussed many brilliant forage crop insights, such as overseeding Bermuda grass or using cold-season perennial forage to help provide year-round grazing crops. These forage cultivation strategies won’t work with frequent winter snowstorms or blizzards. But they seem like a perfect herd environment forage strategy for many warmer climates.

Breed & Size of the Sheep

Size matters. Metabolism matters. Rams are bigger and more aggressive than ewes. And they need more food to sustain those traits.

So, it makes sense that lamb rams eat more than ewe lambs, ewes consume more than lambs, and rams eat more forage than ewes.

Sheep breeds matter. Larger breeds eat more than smaller breeds, increasing the food needed for the flock.

The equivalent acreage will support less of a heavier breed of sheep than a smaller breed. So, to maximize the number of sheep per acre, consider raising a smaller breed.

For instance, an adult Babydoll sheep will top out in weight at about 120 pounds, while a much larger Lincoln sheep typically weighs up to 350 pounds.

Assuming that the average sheep eats 3.5% of its body weight daily, that’s 4.2 (120 * .035) pounds daily for a Babydoll. And 12.25 pounds daily for a Lincoln.

That’s a huge difference, so it’s easy to see that the breed and size of your sheep directly affect how many of these lovely livestock animals per acre you can intelligently plan to sustain.

Your Guide to the Differences Between Sheep and Lambs (and Why It Matters)

Read More!

Local Climate

Weather conditions matter when it comes to raising sheep. Locations with more winter months will not supply as much natural fodder as locations with fewer winter months.

If you have long winters and lots of snow where you live, the vegetation there is likely much sparser than in locations with short winters and less snow.

Most species of grass require warmth to grow. Sheep can’t forage in snowy winter pasture conditions with no fresh grass and, therefore, must get fed supplemental foods – like grain and hay.

Milder climates support a more consistent reliability of food throughout the year, which allows you to rear a healthier, more robust flock.

Soil Quality

Soil quality largely determines forage quality. Like all plants grown outdoors, fodder is only as healthy as the soil. Nutrient-rich soil grows healthier, thicker types of grasses. Nutrient-poor soil creates the opposite.

Sheep will need to consume less fodder when it’s packed with nutrients than if it’s nutritionally devoid. Less nutritional value means sheep must eat more to meet their dietary needs.

The Importance of Paddock Rotation

It’s vital to practice regenerative agriculture by rotating the paddocks your sheep graze in. That’s because overgrazing destroys the root systems of the available fodder sources. Remember that access to water must be constant.

Rotating the paddocks allows for regrowth in one pasture paddock while the sheep graze in a different one. This rotating foraging cycle encourages healthy roots and better access to food. We believe this rotating cycle leads to better nutrition and longer life.

Closing Thoughts about How Many Sheep Per Acre Is Best

Every sheep-raising scenario is unique. Different animals, climates, sources of natural fodder, and numerous other operation-specific variables affect all shepherds and flocks differently.

Remember, it’s much better to have your pastures, fencing, water supply, barn or other protective structure, and miscellaneous supplies, like hoof trimmers and fleece shears, in order before you ever go out and purchase the first sheep or lamb.

That way, when you bring your new friends home, everything’s ready. Their supplies are waiting to keep them comfortable, nourished, hydrated, and protected.

It’s wise to begin your sheep-raising operation with a tiny quantity of animals until you better understand your pastures, sheep, and how one affects the other.

I’d also like to tell you another sheep joke before signing off for today, but I feel that would be in Baaaaaaaad taste.

Get it? Baaaaaaad taste!

HA! Gotcha again!

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2 Comments

  1. Not mentioned is how this would change if you are also raising another type of livestock. In my case, cattle. I have 5 acres, and plan to have a pair of breeding cows and a pair of breeding sheep.

    I do have 3 pastures: one small, one medium and one large. I would start on the large pasture, for three weeks, then go to the medium one for two weeks and the small one for 1 week. This would give the amount of recuperative time relative to the size of the pasture.

    Not sure whether to combine the cows and sheep for grazing, or follow the cows up with the sheep. (I understand that sheep graze fully to the ground, while cows don’t, which is why the sheep would follow the cows).

    Any thought on this?
    Thank you for the post! I have wondered!

    1. Hi Carol! That’s a great question! I don’t have much experience with this, but I’ve heard that cattle and sheep can bond together and continually graze together, which reduces losses due to predators. Here’s a great article on that. Otherwise, I’ve also read that grazing sheep and cattle simultaneously can benefit both species regarding health and reproductive rates. If you want to learn more about that, I recommend reading the findings from this study from the University of California on raising sheep and cows.

      I hope those resources help you. It seems like combining the sheep and cows can be beneficial if you gradually introduce them to each other so everyone feels safe. Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you have a lovely day!

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