Raising Gotland sheep for fiber, meat and pelts

Growing up in the South West of France on a vegetable farm, our family kept horses. In my early 30’s I made a complete switch to caring and learning how to raise and work with sheep.

Gotland sheep - Appletree Farm, Eugene, OR

My motto has always been, starting small, not hoarding animals, figuring out systems that are as sustainable as possible. For the last 2 years I have been working on turning this work of love into a venture that is financially sustainable and that can help feed out family.

Our family started raising Gotland sheep about 7 years ago. We came into them by complete chance and it was not long before I was completely enamored by them! They won my heart quickly, needless to say. They are friendly, inquisitive, easy to care for, excellent mothers, and beautiful.

Learning to know the Gotlands and to work with them, learning to crossbreed (they are not native to the US) presented me with a steep learning curve that I am still very much riding. My husband and I soon realized that these animals were not just here to feed our family, they were much more than food, their fiber is incredible and once we harvest the meat, their pelts are also beautiful for home décor or even to make clothing out of.

So I basically embarked on a learning journey of educating myself as much as possible about the breed itself, the genetics that are available within the breed, the most common use of their fiber, the taste of the meat, the best protocol to feed them, what minerals to give them, when to shear them, how to keep their wool clean, when to slaughter the lambs, who to keep, who to cull, what group to join to network with other breeders, and little by little I started gaining an understanding of how to use this breed that I love so dearly. The amazing thing with Gotlands is that nothing gets wasted. I am still very much in the process of learning and my husband and I learn something new every season. There are many challenges, unanswered questions, and then there is lambing, sweet lambs, beautiful fleeces, delicious meat, and overall friendly sheep that are easy to keep.

This breed has really allowed us to work a no waste approach to raising sheep.

If I have not yet convinced you that this is the breed to get, then read on!

The year for us starts in August when the kids start getting ready to go back to school. We check on our ewes’ condition and flush as necessary. We put the CDRs in, (they are intravaginal progesterone insert and they allow us to get the ewes cycling together). We basically synchronize our breeding ewes. Some of them will be artificially inseminated and take, others will be artificially inseminated and not take, and the ewes that will not take or not be AI’d will go with the rams for natural breeding. AI happens in early September, natural breeding follows. Teaser ram will go in with the ewes. Teaser ram will be pulled out when CRDs come out, then put back in again 48 hours before AI procedure. All rams will be removed after successful breeding.

Sometime in October (mid to end of October), most of our sheep will be sheared. These fleeces are usually the nicest fleeces. They are clean from a summer away from the barn, the staple is long, there is no undercoat. The lamb fleeces are amazing! I watch with delight as the locks fall down, the luster fully appears and the shine of each animal shows itself. These fleeces are my most marketable fleeces. (I sell them through my private listing, Facebook and they are posted on my web site).

Paul and I set up fences and systems for the winter, we check on our hay supply and might get a couple more tons of orchard grass to stock up the barn to its fullest.

Because I spend a lot of time on the farm, I pay close attention to my flock, and a lot of the time I can tell who gets bred and when they get bred.

The lambs we keep for meat are raised apart and will be harvested between Thanksgiving and January depending on how they are growing. The meat is pre-sold from the farm to the customers.

I will spend the winter planning, preparing, marketing, and networking for the farm. Once the gardens are put to sleep, I will actually have a bit of time off to network, make connections with other shepherds and fiber artists and ultimately plan the future of the farm with an emphasis on education.

A few weeks before lambing, the ewes will receive a CDT shot so that the lambs are protected at birth until they get their first inoculation (I will write a separate post on veterinary care in my flock).

Lambing takes place between the end of January and mid-March. As the ewes lamb they will get some alfalfa and a bit of grain. Because I keep a small flock I am able to pull them out after lambing, give them some space for a couple of days and keep all the dams and lambs together with a richer feed.

The next 4 months are exciting! I get to see Gotland lambs grow. This is a time of rebirth on the farm in the barn and in the fields. The children are happy to visit with the lambs and I become my sheep’s most popular shepherd!

Ideally Gotland sheep get evaluated at 110 days. It is a learning curve, a new skill that we are learning to be able to look at this breed and evaluate it. At that point we will start shaping up the plan: the rams we will keep, the rams we will have available to sell, the ewes we will keep as replacement ewes and the ewes we will sell as breeding ewes, as well as the lambs we will raise for meat and pelts.

In a small flock like mine, very few rams will be retained for breeding.

Roughly from March to July the sheep will graze on Oregon green pastures. We will watch and treat if necessary for parasites (see post on veterinary care).

I will be talking with potential buyers.

At some point between February and March the sheep will be shorn again. These fleeces will have various degrees of selling potential. Some of them might have some undercoat. I look at them carefully and decide what to put out and what to keep for me to use in my house or in our farm classroom.

In the spring I will also send out the sheep skins for processing. Pelts are an added product that people like to purchase as a pelt or that we can use to make things out of. I am working on making small pillows ½ sheep skin ½ fabric.

Starting late spring the lambs will start leaving to go to their new homes, we will get ready to go to Black Sheep Gathering, the kids will pick a lamb to show at the BSG and start working on showmanship skills. By then the farm is in full swing. Breeding plans are already in the thinking, new infrastructures might be put up as needed.

At this point, I am utterly overwhelmed by the amount of things to keep up with and satisfied by what we have accomplished this past year. Ready to do it again, only may be it will be better because I will surely have learned something, some things along the way.