By Rodney Kott, Extension Sheep Specialist, Animal & Range Sciences Department, Montana State University


Montana is one of the leading sheep producing states in the US. Much of Montana is well suited to sheep production. Sheep can be used to harvest Montana's largest renewable resource — forage. They convert grass, a large variety of weeds, some browse and crop residue into food and fiber. Also, sheep grazing may be a cost affective and viable alternative to chemical control of noxious weeds.

The range sheep industry has declined significantly over the last decade. However, the number of small flocks that are used to supplement other farm income has grown in recent years. A small flock of sheep offers an opportunity for added income by utilizing land, buildings, labor and skills that otherwise would produce little. The initial investment and annual operation costs of a sheep enterprise are relatively low. Sheep production requires adequate but not elaborate facilities and equipment. Sheep utilize roughage as their primary feed supply and usually do not require large amounts of purchased feed. Labor requirements are relatively seasonal. Shearing and lambing can be scheduled to coincide with available labor. In most instances, virtually all the resources necessary for a small flock of sheep already exist on Montana farms and ranches.

In addition, the sheep industry continues to attract many newcomers. Sheep are a popular enterprise for small landowners. Before getting into the sheep business, a prospective producer should realize that sheep production must be regarded as a business. First, an assessment of one's available resources (labor, feed, facilities and investment capital) should be made. Then a realistic plan for the sheep enterprise can be developed. For instance, the time of year when labor is available should determine when to lamb. People who have off-farm jobs often choose to lamb late (early summer) when the climate is more moderate and there is less demand for time during lambing. On the other hand, farmers and ranchers may choose to lamb early (during late winter) before spring crop work begins.

Any prospective producer who is not committed to giving sheep the management and care needed should reconsider prior to getting into the business. A genuine interest and a suitable environment are the major requirements for successful sheep production. Productivity of a sheep enterprise is highly variable and is largely dependent on the resources committed to that enterprise. When developing a sheep enterprise it is essential the program and production levels are designed with available resources in mind.

Another important factor that newcomers to the sheep industry must realize is that sheep are defenseless against dogs and coyotes. Owners must be aware of the potential problem these predators can cause. In areas where these problems exist precautions which minimize the conflicts (guard dogs, electric fenced, penning sheep at night, etc.) should be employed.

The purpose of this publication is to provide some of the basic information needed to be successful in the sheep industry. It does not go into detail on the phases of management, breeding, nutrition and marketing. This information combined with practical experience will assist in making a sheep enterprise profitable.


Profit should be the goal of all sheep owners. The following production goals or key indicators should be within the reach of most sheep producers:

  • 95% conception rate in a 45 day breeding period for mature ewes (# ewes lambing divided by # ewes turned to ram times 100)
  • 150% lamb crop (190% in Finn cross ewes) born on mature ewes of ewes lambing (# of lambs born divided by # of ewes lambing times 100)
  • Less than 10% lamb mortality from birth to 30 days of age
  • Less than 5% lamb mortality from 30 days of age to weaning

Popular Breeds of Sheep In Montana

There are more than 20 breeds of sheep in the U.S. that contribute to commercial sheep production. Their use is influenced primarily by environmental adaptability, management goals and personal preference of the sheep raiser. Some of the more prevalent breeds in Montana are the Rambouillet, Targhee, Columbia, Hampshire, Suffolk, Finn and Polypay. The Rambouillet, Targhee and Columbia are white-face breeds and are selected for both lamb and wool production.

targhee sheepTarghee

columbia sheepColumbia

The Hampshire and Suffolk are black-face, meat-type breeds and are selected basically for lamb production, growth rate, feed efficiency and carcass quality. Hampshire or Suffolk rams often are used to cross on white-face ewes for the production of market lambs. Because the lambs are crossbred (black-face X white-face), they all are usually marketed and replacement ewes obtained elsewhere.

suffolk sheep

The Finn is a breed selected basically for lambing rate and is used in crossbreeding programs to improve lamb production. It generally is not recommended that the ewes contain less than one-half Finn breeding. Ewes with one-quarter Finn blood have the potential to produce 200 percent lamb crops, which probably is all the lambs that a producer wants or can economically handle. The Polypay was developed at the USDA Sheep Station at Dubois, Idaho, and is one-quarter Finn, one-quarter Rambouillet, one-quarter Targhee and one-quarter Dorset. It has the lamb production potential similar to other crosses with one-fourth Finn breeding. A rule of thumb is that for each 1% of Finn breeding, a producer can expect an increase in lambing rate of 1%. Another advantage of utilizing a small percentage of Finn breeding in the ewe flock is that a higher percentage of those ewes will breed and lamb at 1 year of age. However, remember as lamb crop increases, management level and nutritional inputs must increase.

Getting Started in the Sheep Business: Selection of Ewes

The success in a sheep enterprise quite often is determined by the type of sheep that a producer starts with. Before buying, learn as much as you can about the sheep you are interested in. Ask the seller to put the sheep into pens so that each animal may be thoroughly examined. Open their mouths and look at their teeth to determine the age of the sheep. The udder, or bag, should be soft, pliable and free of any knots or lumps. All sheep should have two functional teats. It has been said many times that unless you really know what you are buying, you may find that you are buying someone else's culls and troubles. If you feel that you do not have the expertise to do an adequate job, take an experienced sheep person with you when you select breeding stock. Do not be afraid to ask questions. Beware of buying other people's problems.

Ideally, a beginning sheep raiser should start with 30 to 50 head of 3- to 4-year-old ewes. This number allows the investment in good rams and will require little more time and facilities than would be required for 10 to 20 ewes. The 3- to 4-year-old ewes have had enough experience to serve as teachers.

This, however, is often not possible. In many instances, the type of ewe that a beginning producer uses to start his sheep flock depends more upon what is available than what is preferred. Therefore, consideration should be given to the following when purchasing various age ewes:

Ewe lambs Can often be purchased for much less than yearling ewes, and in some cases, may be a viable option. Their wool and possibly a lamb crop in many cases will pay for their years keep and provide a set of yearling ewes a year later that cost appreciably less than if yearling ewes had been purchased initially. Remember, however, if you are going to breed lambs, they should weigh about 95 pounds at the beginning of the breeding season. Also, it should be noted that ewe lambs have substantially lower fertility rates than older ewes. With Finn-cross ewe lambs, one might expect to get 80 to 90 percent bred as lambs. White-face (Columbia, Targhee and Rambouillet) ewe lambs usually do not mature sexually as early. One would expect only to be able to get 30 to 60 percent to lamb at 12 to 14 months of age.
Range-type, white-faced yearling ewes Are usually available and can provide excellent foundation stock for beginning sheep producers. However, it must be remembered that yearling ewes are just beginners at motherhood. They require more attention in their first lambing season, just as a ewe lamb will, to avoid disowning and mothering problems.
Two to five year old ewes Are generally recommended to the newcomer, because they have enough experience to act as teachers and still have a productive life of several years. Good ewes of this age, however, usually are available only when a flock is being liquidated. Find out the reason for selling. There may be a health problem that would make their purchase unwise.
Five and six year old ewes Are often culled from range flocks because they would have a difficult time going through another lambing under adverse range conditions. But, with good feed and care they can get along fine and be quite productive for another year or two. Range ewes of this age, with good mouths and udders, usually will lamb at a satisfactory rate without difficulty and will be good mothers. However, a ewe's true age is a big concern when purchasing this type of ewe. Unless the ewes have been identified so that their age is known, there is no way to tell whether they are 5, 6 or 9 years old. Also, these ewes must be culled regularly on the basis of their productivity and apparent ability to lamb another year. The most common mistake is attempting to keep such ewes too many years.
Single or one-term ewes Are likely to be quite old and represent considerable risk. A higher percentage may die, not lamb or present problems at lambing time. Ewes of this kind normally are fairly cheap — but for a good reason. An inexperienced person would be well advised to avoid this kind of ewe, although an experienced sheep person might get along very well with them

Under farm flock conditions, ewes normally are productive until about 7 years old. Few remain productive after 8 years. Obviously, then, a young ewe in good condition will produce more lamb crops and be worth more than an older ewe.