Sheep 101 logo

Spring grazing

Production environments vary

Sheep and goats in Kazakhstan

Breeding group

The ram is half the flock 

Ram selection

measuring the scrotum of a buck 
Measuring the scrotum

Katahdin ewe lamb
Bright, alert sheep

Dark hooves 
Dark hooves may stay healthier

Lamb (milk) teeth
Milk teeth (4 months old) 

Yearling mouth 
Yearling mouth (1-2 years)

2 year old mouth
2 year old mouth (2-3 years)

3 year old mouth
3 year old mouth (3-4 years)

Full mouth
4 year old mouth (4-5 years)

Solid mouth 
Full mouth (7-8 years old)

Broken mouth
Broken mouth (10-11 years old)

Gummer (11-12 years old)

Tagged lamb
Scrapie (L) and flock (R) tags 

Structurally-correct ewe lamb
Structurally-correct ewe lamb

A sound udder
Sound udder  

Favor multiple births 

Katahdin ram with outstanding EPD's
Ram with outstanding EPD's

Big show sheep
Show rams

Sale barn animals
Sale barn animals

Buy from reputable breeders

Sheep in handling system
Polypay flock

Breeding values on rams


    Selecting breeding stock

    Starting with and selecting the right sheep will go a long way towards ensuring a successful sheep enterprise, no matter what the production emphasis is or where the farm or ranch is located.

    Breed selection is discussed in the Breed Selection chapter. It is very important that the appropriate breed(s) or type(s) be chosen, that they be well-adapted to the environment and production system in which they will be raised, and that they be suited to the markets in which they will be sold. It is almost always better to upgrade local breeds or stock than to introduce new breeds or genetics that may not be adapted to the local environment or production system.

    Most sheep selection is still based on visual appraisal. Unfortunately, you cannot tell much about the future productivity of an animal simply by looking at it. Ideally, sheep selection should be a combination of visual appraisal and evaluation of performance records.

    You need to be careful when comparing sheep on one farm to sheep on another farm. Good management and nutrition can mask poor or mediocre genetics, while poor management and nutrition can cover up good genetics. Sheep that look better, especially "fatter," aren not necessarily better sheep. Nor should you rely soley on the information that the breeder gives you. You need to use your own observation and evaluation skills to make sound selection and purchasing decisions.

    Ram selection

    There is a saying that "the ram is "half the flock." The basis for this statement is that his genetics will be spread over many more offspring than a ewe's will. After several seasons of use, more than 90 percent of the genetics in the flock will be influenced by a single ram. The ram is the primary means by which genetic improvement will be made in a flock.

    If a ram's daughters will be retained in the flock for breeding purposes, he should be born as a twin or triplet and/or come from a productive ewe or family line. His dam should be one of the most productive members of the flock. Reproduction should always be maximized relative to the production environment. Multiple births may not be advisable in all production environments, but a higher reproductive rate will yield greater profits in almost all production envionrments. Some rams and breeds have genetic values (e.g. EBVs) for reproductive and fitness (e.g. parasite resistance) traits.

    If the ram will be used to sire market lambs, he should be of adequate frame size (for his breed), well-grown for his age and plane of nutrition, and well- muscled. You can tell how thickly muscled a ram is by feeling how wide and deep his loin is and by measuring the circumference of his lower leg with your hands. The forearm is another good indicator of muscling. Heavy-boned animals are usually more heavily muscled than lighter boned ones. Ultrasound can be used to more accurately measure muscling. Some rams and breeds have genetic values for growth and muscling (loin depth).

    When visually appraising rams, you should be much more critical than you are with ewes. If a ram has a serious physical defect or other genetic flaw, many lambs could be potentially impacted, including potential replacement lambs. Ideally, only the top five percent of rams from a farm's lamb crop should be considered for breeding. Just because a ram has testicles doesn't mean he should be allowed to mate with ewes.

    Ideally, a breeding soundness exam (BSE) should be conducted on any ram that is purchased for breeding. A breeding soundness exam evaluates the ram's breeding potential and includes a physical exam and semen test. Ideally, a serving capacity test is included. A serving capacity test evaluates a ram's desire to mate with ewes. Some studies have found that more than 10 percent of rams are homosexual and will not mate with ewes.

    If rams are not tested for fertility and will be used in single-sire mating systems, a marking harness or raddle paint should be used to monitor breeding activity The color of the paint or crayon should be changed approximately every 17 days, as this is the average length of the ewe's estrus (heat) cycle. You should start with lighter colors, so that you are able to identify re-marks.

    Producers should be willing to pay much more for rams than ewes. The old rule of thumb is that a ram is worth five times the value of a market lamb. If market lambs are worth $200, you should be willing to pay $1000 for a ram with superior genetics. It is better to start with mediocre ewes (so long as they are healthy) and a superior ram rather than superior ewes and a mediocre ram.



    When starting a sheep enterprise, you can start with ewe lambs or yearlings that have never lambed and/or mature ewes that have already produced offspring -- or a combination of ewes of different ages. It is probably better to start with ewes of similar ages, as they require similar feeding and management. You can also start with open or pregnant ewes. There are pros and cons to each purchasing decision.

    You are less likely to "purchase" problems if you purchase ewe lambs and yearlings that have never lambed. You are not likely to encounter any problems with their reproductive systems, especially their udders. Because young ewes have more productive years ahead of them, they usually sell for higher prices than mature ewes. The same is true of yearling ewes or hoggets.

    On the other hand, ewe lambs (bred to lamb at 12 to 14 months of age) are still growing and are more likely to experience dystocia (lambing difficulties) and other problems at lambing. Inexperienced shepherds may not want to purchase or breed ewe lambs. Ewe lambs also give birth to fewer lambs. Many ewe lambs give birth to single lambs. Embryonic death is higher among young females.

    A ewe lamb will not produce as much milk for her lamb(s) as a mature ewe. Sometimes, ewe lambs do not have enough milk for their lamb(s), especially if they have multiple lambs. Yearlings (bred to lamb for the first time as two year olds) will experience fewer problems than ewe lambs. They usually sell for higher prices than ewe lambs. On the other hand, ewes bred to lamb for the first time as yearlings usually have higher lifetime production. When properly managed, They usually experience no more problems than mature ewes.

    For people that are inexperienced raising sheep or have fewer dollars to spend, it may be a good idea to start with mature ewes (ewes that have previously raised lambs). Mature ewes give birth to more lambs, are better mothers, and produce more milk for their lambs. A ewe's performance usually peaks between 3 and 6 years of age. When purchasing mature ewes, it is especially important to make sure they are sound (udders and teeth).

    If you purchase bred ewes, you do not have to purchase a ram right away. Bred ewes usually cost more than open ewes. It is best to purchase them at least a month (preferably longer) before they are due to begin lambing, so that they can adjust to their new surroundings. You also don't want to stress them too close to lambing. If you are paying more money because they are bred, you may want assurances that they are carrying lambs.

    Aging (mouthing) sheep

    The approximate age of sheep can be determined by examining their front incisor teeth. Young lambs have eight milk teeth or temporary incisors arranged in four pairs on their lower jaw. There are no teeth on the upper front jaw, only a dental pad. At approximately one year of age, the middle pair of incisors is shed and replaced by permanent teeth (incisors).

    Some breeds mature at a faster rate and their teeth will erupt at an earlier age. At approximately two years of age, the second pair of milk teeth is replaced by permanent incisor teeth. At three and four years of age, the third and fourth pair of permanent teeth appear.

    At four years of age, the sheep has a "full" or "solid" mouth. As the sheep ages, the teeth will start to wear, spread, and eventually break off. When a sheep loses some of its teeth, it is called "broken" mouth. When it has no teeth (incisors) left, it is called a "gummer." A well-fedr sheep can manage without incisors, so long as its molars are still in good condition. Sheep without front teeth have a more difficult time grazing short pasture. As the condition of a sheep's teeth vary by its diet, it can be difficult to accurately predict age once a sheep has a full mouth.

    Age of sheep
    Number of teeth
    Birth to 12 months
    8 milk teeth
    all temporary teeth
    ~ 12 to 24 months

    Two tooth

    2 central incisors
    6 milk teeth
    ~ 24 to 36 months
    Four tooth
    2 central incisors
    2 middle incisors
    4 milk teeth
    ~ 36 to 48 months
    Six tooth
    2 central incisors
    2 middle incisors
    2 lateral incisors
    Over 48 months
    8 tooth
    Full mouth
    Solid mouth
    2 central incisors
    2 middle incisors
    2 lateral incisors
    2 corner incisors

    When examining the teeth of a sheep to determine its age, it is not necessary to pry open its mouth. Sheep will resist less, if you use your fingers to part their lips. When purchasing mature ewes, be sure they are the age they are advertised to be. Make sure they still have teeth!


    When selecting sheep for breeding, the most important criteria is health. Starting with unhealthy sheep dooms the shepherd to failure. A healthy sheep is bright and alert. It does not separate itself from the rest of the flock. It is in good body condition, relative to its age, stage of production, and plane of nutrition. Sheep that limp, have abscesses, cloudy eyes, or sore mouth lesions, show respiratory symptoms, or are in extremely poor body condition should not be purchased for breeding. If many sheep on a farm display these characteristics, choose another breeder to buy from.

    A sheep that is sound is in good physical condition and free from serious defects. A sound animal will survive and be productive for a longer time than an animal which has physical problems.

    In a correct mouth, both the top and bottom jaws are aligned so the incisor teeth are flush with the pad on the upper jaw. Sheep with severe "undershot" or "overshot" jaws should be avoided, as this is an inherited defect. An overshot jaw, also called a "parrot mouth," is when the lower jaw is too short. Sheep with severe undershot parrot mouths may have difficulty grazing short pastures.

    An overshot jaw, also called a "monkey mouth" is when the lower jaw is too long. Slight variations in jaw alignment are not a problem or inherited defect. The best way to observe jaw structure is to look at the sheep from the side. Feel the teeth to confirm what you see.

    Jaw structure

    The condition of a sheep's teeth depend upon its diet. Animals on a rough, coarse diet will grind their teeth away faster than animals on an easily eaten diet. The molar teeth are far more important than the incisor teeth. They do the grinding of feed. To evaluate the molar teeth, you have to feel on the outside of the cheek and jaw.

    Never put your fingers inside the animal's jaw. You are likely to get badly bitten. Bad breath can be a sign that there is something wrong with the molar teeth. Animals with teeth problems should be not selected or retained for breeding. Sheep with sloppy mouths may have teeth or other problems.

    Feet and legs
    A sound sheep has straight legs that are set squarely under the four corners of its body. They are not too close at the hocks or knees. The pasterns are neither too straight nor too angled. Sheep with severe feet and leg problems may break down in difficult production situations. Sheep with slight structural defects usually do not have any problems. Structural problems can be passed onto the offspring.

    Take a test on sheep feet and leg structure =>

    Animals with abnormal or excessive hoof growth, cracked hooves, or extremely splayed hooves should be avoided as breeding stock. It is a common belief that animals with dark-colored hooves experience fewer hoof problems than animals with ligh-colored hoofs, but there is no evidence to support this claim. Hoof color varies by breed. Some breeds can have hooves with different colorization: black, mottled, or light.


    Conformation is the body form of the animal. It varies by breed and breed type. Smooth shoulders and staight backs are desireable traits. A ram that will be used to sire market lambs should be thickly muscled, especially through the leg and loin. A level dock is preferred for club lamb sires.

    Volume and capacity
    A sheep should have a deep side, wide top, and "round" body, indicative of good spring of rib. Narrow, flat-sided, shallow-bodied animals are less likely to be productive.

    Skeletal size (hip height) should be evaluated within breeds or breed types. Large-framed sheep tend to grow faster and finish at heavier weights than small-framed animals. They also need to eat more. They are more difficult to "finish" on pasture diets. Finish means to deposit sufficient externa fat (over the back, ribs, and loin). A large-framed female tends to produce heavier lambs than a small-frame female. However, production efficiency tends to favor females of more moderate body size. Selection should be for ewes of adequate frame. Extremes in frame size should be avoided.

    Sex character
    Rams should appear rugged, stout, and masculine. If they have horns, the horns should be growing away from their head. Ewes should be feminine and more refined in their features. Femininity is usually associated with a longer head and neck and a more angular body type.

    If wool production is important, breeding stock selection criteria should include fleece traits such as fiber diameter, staple length, uniformity of length and diameter, and freedom from defects. White-wooled sheep should be free from colored fibers. Fleeces should be dense and free from kemp and medulated fibers. Some animals and breeds have genetic values for wool traits.

    Sheep that are wool blind or have excessive wrinkles should not be selected for breeding. If hair or shedding sheep are being selected, sheep with excessively woolly coats should be avoided, as they may not adequately shed.

    Hair sheep should be evaluated at the yearling stage for shedding. Not all lambs fully shed, but that does not mean they will not shed as yearlings. While hair sheep breeds vary in their shedding ability, hair sheep ewes that do not shed their coats fully should be discriminated against. They should not be registered. It is particularly important that the ram have a good hair coat that fully sheds. Coat color does not affect shedding or producing ability.

    A ewe with an unsound udder has no value in a breeding program. The size of the sheep's udder will depend upon its age and stage of lactation. Ewes' udders should be palpated to determined that they are healthy and functional. Ewes with hard, lumpy udders should not be considered for breeding purposes.

    The udder should have two functional teats that are free from defects. Ewes with pendulous udders and bulbous or oversized teats should be avoided. Rams should be evaluated to determine that they have two teats free of defects. Supernumerary teats are a genetic defect.


    The ram's testicles should be palpated to determine that they are well-developed and normal. They should be firm, evenly sized, and move freely within the scrotum. Both the testicles and epididymis should be free from lumps. A rams with a smaller than average scrotal circumference should not be selected for breeding. Scrotal size varies by breed, body condition, and season. Rams with small testicles should not be used for breeding. There are correlations between a ram's scrotal size and the reproductive performance of his daughters.


    When selecting sheep for breeding, performance records (if they are available) are usually more predictive of furture performance than what an animal looks like. You cannot tell much about a ewe's producing-ability by looking at her. Nor can you evaluate the survivability of a ram's offspring by looking at him.

    There are three types of production records in sheep production: on-farm performance records, central performance tests, and across-flock EBV's. Any sheep farm can keep on-farm performance records. All that is needed is some form of individual animal identification, a record book, and a scale. Birth dates and weaning weights should be recorded. Weaning weights should be corrected to a common age and adjusted for birth type, type of rearing, and age of dam. Otherwise, lambs with an environmental advantage, not genetic superiority will be favored in the selection process: early-born lambs, single, and lambs reared by mature ewes.

    Selection should favor the lambs with the heaviest adjusted weaning weights from dams with the heaviest litter weights. In the very least, twin and triplet-born ewe lambs should be saved for breeding, unless multiple births are a disadvantage in the production environment. At the same time, it is important to only compare lambs from the same contemporary group. A contemporary group is a group of animals of similar age that have been reared together with the same management and feeding. It would not be accurate to compare lambs born in January with those born in April.

    A central performance test is where rams from different flocks are brought to a central location for performance recording. In a central performance test, observed differences between rams are considered more likely due to genetic differences, which will be passed onto the next generation of offspring, rather than environmental differences which will not be passed on. A central performance test is an ideal place to purchase a ram that will be used to sire market lambs. Maternal traits are much more difficult to assess and require years of performance record keeping.

    EBV is the acronym for Expected Breeding Value. An EBV is an estimate of the genetic value of an animal that will be passed onto its progeny. For example, if a lamb's parents have EBVs of +2 lbs. for weaning weight, this means the lamb will be 2 lbs. (on-average) heavier than the average of the breed. EBV's are calculated for various growth, maternal, fitness, fleece, and carcass traits. They are the only way to make accurate across-flock comparisons.

    In the United States, EBV's are available through the National Sheep Improvement Program (NSIP). Data is processed by Australia's LambPlan. New Zealand, Canada, and the United Kingdom have similar performance-testing and sire referencing schemes. Sheep with performance records are more valuable than those without. Every effort should be made to purchase sheep, especially rams, with some type of performance records. Higher prices should be expected for performance tested animals.


    There are many places to buy breeding stock: consignment or production sales, performance-tested sales, dispersal or reduction sales, sale barns, and breeders. With the exception of private treaty sales, livestock are usually sold via public auction: live, silent, or sealed bid, with live auctions being the most common. Telephone, internet, and mailed bids are often accepted. Virtual auctions are becoming more popular.

    A central performance test can be a good place to purchase rams. Many performance tests have sales at the end of their tests. Only the top-performing rams are sold. Sometimes, ewes are included in the sales. All animals have health papers. Sometimes, the rams have undergone testing for breeding soundness.

    A consignment sale is one in which breeders consign one or more of their animals to the sale. Some consignment sales are for registered sheep, while others cator to the needs of commercial breeders. Sheep sold at consignment sales are required to have health papers.

    Some farms or ranches have their own production sales or several breeders work together to hold a production sale. A dispersal sale would be a production sale of a breeder that is reducing or dispersing his herd. Sheep sold at production and dispersal sales are required to have health papers.

    A sale barn or public livestock auction (or stockyard) is usuallly not the best place to purchase breeding livestock. This is because many producers take their cull stock to salebarns. There are no health requirements when selling livestock at salebarns. While animals tend to sell for cheaper prices at salebarns than at other sales or via private treaty, the health risks are usually not worth the savings.

    Even if healthy animals are brought to a sale barn, they are exposed to other animals that may be infected with or carriers of contagious diseases. Diseases common to sale barn animals include foot rot, pink eye, and soremouth. Cull stock may have chronic diseases or reproductive problems.

    If breeding stock are purchased from a salebarn or similar venue, care should be taken to isolate them from the rest of the herd for at least 30 days. Lambs are the safest to buy for breeding, as they are not likely to have any reproductive problems.

    The best place to purchase breeding stock is from a reputable breeder that will stand behind his/her animals. Most breed associations have directories of breeders that usually have stock for sale. Many states have clearing house lists of breeding stock for sale. Various web sites list breeding stock for sale. Many seedstock producers have web sites or social media pages. Never overlook classified ads in agricultural publications and local media as a potential source of breeding stock. Facebook and Craig's List have become increasingly popular places to buy and sell livestock. Facebook does not allow the sale of animals, so you must be careful with your wording.

    Regardless of where or from whom breeding stock are purchased, the animals should be isolated for at least 30 days with no fenceline contact with the existing flock. Ideally, breeding stock should be purchased from as few places as possible. Once the starter flock has been acquired, it is best to close the flock to outside purchases, except for stud rams. It is usually necessary to purchase outside males to make genetic improvement in the flock and prevent excessive levels of inbreeding. Though less common in the sheep industry, AI (artificial insemination) is a another way to introduce new genetics to the flock.

    National (state) identification requirements

    In the United States, all breeding sheep are required to have official USDA scrapie identification, usually ear tags. The identification should be applied on the farm where the animal was born. Most countries have national animal identification requirements. Increasingly, the requirement is for electronic identification (RFID). Breed associations also have ID requirements for registered or recorded animals. When purchasing breeding stock, be sure they are carrying appropriate ID.

    <= SHEEP 201 INDEX

Late updated 19-Apr-2021 by Susan Schoenian.
Copyright© 2021. Sheep 101 and 201.