Getting Started--a deeper look

Llama with sheep

Read this page only if you're really serious!  We'll be taking the points from the previous page one at a time, and going into greater depth.

1.  What is it that you want from the sheep?  Decide upfront to avoid problems around back!

Do you want a nice small flock of sheep to graze beautifully in your field, a lovely picture to behold and a delight to interact with?  If that’s all you want from the sheep, then this is a great breed for you.  Do consider, though, that they need time and care from you.  Even though they are hardy and do a wonderful job of mowing your field and keeping down the weeds, they do need enough pasture to get proper nutrition.  They need the proper kind of minerals and some selenium.  And, their hooves do grow and will need periodic trimming.  Also, they will need routine worming.  They will need to be sheared twice a year, and you will have some wonderful fleeces.  Some of the above chores can be done by you, if you have time and the willingness, and some you will wind up paying someone else to do.

Do you want the above, AND a source of income?  Most sheep breeds are generally not very profitable at this time. However, the Icelandic Sheep is still a fairly rare breed, and they are incredibly versatile, so there are a number of ways one can derive income from them.  They are truly a triple purpose breed, being a wonderful milk breed, a fabulous fleece breed, and an unusually tasty meat breed that grows fast and provides a unique, delicate lamb flavor.  At this time, the Icelandics also are commanding a respectable price in terms of breeding stock sales.

However, it’s wise to consider where your emphasis is going to be, so that you can focus your efforts.   You may well wind up doing it all, but scattering your efforts at first can be really unproductive.  Look at what your very first priority will be, and then finish the list, so you will have a better idea of how you are going to get where you want to be.  And, there is no substitute for doing your homework.

Chardonel's fleece sample

If you want to concentrate on fleece first of all, do you have the experience you need?  If so, great, but you’ll want to learn the unique features of the Icelandic fleece, so you can capitalize on it.  If not,  find someone very knowledgeable about Icelandic fleece who is willing to work with you.  Read all you can (the book The Icelandic Fleece: A Fibre for all Reasons is on our Read section).  Decide how you’re going to capitalize on the Icelandic wool.  Sell raw fleece?  Yarn?  Roving?  Where will you get the wool processed?  How much will it cost? What will you be able to sell the finished product for?  Answer all these questions before you decide if this is what you want. And then, find a mentor.

If you want to milk, have you done it before? If you’ve done it with dairy cattle, have you done seasonal milking? Is that want you want to do with the sheep?  How much will it cost for equipment?  How much time will it take, and are you willing to devote this much time and energy?  Where will you sell the milk?  What will the price be that you will be paid for the milk?  How will you transport the milk to the processor?  If you want to make and sell cheese, investigate what it will take, where your market will be, and how you will find that market.  Analyze costs carefully.  There is an internet list for sheep dairy producers—it is located at www.yahoogroups.com and you can join the list for free to learn more about sheep dairying.  If after all this, you decide this is the way you want to go, find a mentor. 

2.   Where should you go to get your sheep?  Look at least three places, talk to as many folks as you can, and find a mentor you can trust.    

Look at the Icelandic Breeders of North America (ISBONA) website.  See if you can either find a breeder in your area, or if you can find a breeder whose website you find interesting and appealing.  Find at least three of these and contact the breeders by phone, email, or snail mail.  You will find Icelandic Sheep breeders to be a wonderful group of people eager to share their knowledge with you.  Visit farms in your area if there are any.  See the sheep in the flesh, experience them, and ask lots of questions.  Make sure you understand what each breeder offers and guarantees.

3.  How many should you start with?  Start small, learn fast, and grow with your flock.    

 our barn January 2007

Look at your facilities, your fencing, your finances.  Also look at the time you have available for this new adventure.  Do not be swayed by the Icelandic Sheep’s beauty, intelligence, and attractiveness into getting yourself in too far.  Get your feet wet first, don’t jump into the deep end unless you’re really prepared!  Your flock will grow fast!  Many breeders recommend you start with two or three ewes and a ram.  See if that fits.  Four or five ewes with a ram could end up in a year to be 12 to 20 sheep!  Plan ahead.

4.  What’s the best way to maintain and grow your flock?  Manage around the resources you have.  Management Intensive Grazing can be done with a minimum of acreage and money!     

It’s not as simple as putting up a fence and putting out a bucket of water.   Fifteen to nineteen sheep can be raised comfortably on 4 acres in a non brittle environment, if you feed hay in the winter.  But this is dependent on how the land is managed, what kinds of forage are available, what the weather is like over the year, and what kind of land you’re starting with.  Again, there is no substitute for research. We recommend books on small farming, management intensive grazing, and holistic management in the Books and Magazines area of our Read section. 

5.  What are your goals, both short and long term, for your sheep…and yourself?  Be realistic and plan carefully, writing it all down as you go.    

HeartsEase--ewes and lambs

Look carefully at your plans, and use that mentor to help you understand if you’re being realistic.  Set out incremental steps for yourself.  Think ahead year by year to 5 years ahead, and write it all down.  Do your financial figuring now, so you have a base from which to work.  Research things like costs for feed, fencing, seed, soil enrichments, veterinary costs and all the myriad expenses you will incur.  Check them with your mentor again to see if they’re realistic.  Look at all your sources of revenue and itemize.  And plan to revise.  Then keep your plan in front of you and do the revisions as you need to.

Take a small business course, if you haven’t run your own business before.  Prepare yourself for keeping accurate records for accounting and tax purposes. 

6.  How can you best grow your operation profitably and without winding up with a million sheep and no market?  Plan, plan, plan first.  Stick to your plan second.   

Look at the goals you have set, and think marketing.  Read and research the marketing avenues open to you that will help you to find others that want and need your products.  Look at those target markets and figure out how you will find them and convince them that they need your products. 

Research ways to direct market your products—this is the best way to maximize your profits.  Decide whether you are willing to deal directly with customers.  Are you ready to do this?  If so, what avenues will you take?  How much time can you devote to this?  Will it be enough? 

Once you have a plan, carry it out.  Make sure you refer to it at least once a month, to see if you’re on target. Don’t get swept away in daily chores and running your operation—continue to think ahead, revising your plan, but keeping to your long term goals.

7.  What are you prepared to do in this venture? This is not only about the sheep—it’s about your own commitment of time, energy, and money.   

Realize that as you are entering into this relationship with your sheep, you need to make a commitment to them.  If you aren’t willing to do this, collect pictures of sheep instead.  These are exceptional animals who will enrich your life in many ways, but this does come at a price.

Ewe Geneva

Your commitment has to encompass a serious commitment of time and energy. Icelandics are easy care sheep; however, they still require a realistic amount of time—and energy—to keep them healthy and productive.  Talk to breeders; get opinions from four or five people to check out various methods of raising sheep.  Decide what will work for you.

Your other commitment will need to be to yourself, to planning for the future in a reasonable way and to staying on track.  Again, talk with four or five others to see what their experiences have taught them.  See how they manage their farms and balance their workload   Find out if this will work for you.

8.  Where will you be in ten years?  This will depend on how well you’ve covered the above steps!     

Be assured that one thing is certain—you won’t be where you thought you’d be!  You will make errors in judgment and mistakes in planning.  Many things you’d planned for will turn out beautifully, and some will not.  Nature will keep you humble, and the sheep will keep you inspired, if you let them.  You’ll experience incredible joy and deep sorrow.  And if you are very good at developing and carrying out your plans, revising them when necessary, and being open to new opportunities, you’ll be satisfied that you’ve done your best.  And, you will have made countless and invaluable friends along the way, both human and ovine.

                                                                            GOOD LUCK!

evening light

© HeartsEase Farm, Dansville, NY 14437 --  2012