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Sheep are the most commonly kept cattle in the world. They are used for meat, wool, leather, milk. There is also a very wide variety of breeds, specialized for a range of purposes, climates, and conditions.
While you can categorize sheep by whether they are bred for meat, wool, or milk, in general, most sheep have more than one purpose. Wool and milk tend to be the polarization elements - wool production and milk production both require a lot of energy, and usually they are bred for one or the other. Meat tends to be more universal, though it is a byproduct of wool producers and milk producers.
There are so many breeds, that no matter what I recommend, someone is going to say I left off something vital. So I'll just hit a few of the top choices in each category, with some of the more unusual and hardy options thrown in. I tend to favor less common breeds, because they tend to retain more of the self-sufficiency characteristics desired in homestead farming.
Sheep grown for wool are so many that I can't even begin to touch on the full spectrum. Instead, I'll highlight a few breeds in need of preservation, some common ones, and some others worth mentioning for special niche market value with artisans.
- Black Welsh Mountain - has good colored fleece which does not gray with age. Also produces excellent meat that does not age to the coarser mutton. They are small, hardy, and well suited to homesteading. Rams have small horns, ewes are polled.
- Border Leicester - Good for wool and meat, has a good wool yield of fiber that is enjoyed by hand spinners. Rams have calmer disposition than many other sheep breeds. Polled breed.
- Jacob Sheep - Traditionally named after the sheep in the story of Jacob's selective breeding in the Bible. They are a multi-colored sheep, with striking colors, and their wool is prized by artisans. They have four horns each (sometimes six), both rams and ewes have horns but only the rams have more than two. They are also an excellent meat sheep, since lambs do not need finishing, but do well on grass. Produces a light weight wool that is low in grease.
- Karakul - A fat tailed sheep, the tail is prized in some cultures. A good fiber sheep, pelts of lambs are also very fine. May be horned or polled, they may also be many different colors. Lambs are slower growing but produce very fine meat that does not age into mutton. Usually produce a single lamb but twins and triplets do occur and the ewes are known for taking care of them. They are a very hardy sheep that adapts to a wide range of conditions.
- Shetland - A small hardy breed, their wool varies from sheep to sheep, and may have single fine coat or a double coat of fine and medium wool. They are bred in a variety of colors, and their wool is enjoyed by hand spinners and fiber artists - the wool colors have Viking names. While they are not highly prolific, they thrive on low quality forage and are thrifty animals, well suited to small farming conditions. They produce a small carcass with tasty meat.
Meat sheep typically grow faster, and are often very prolific.
- California Red - Redish brown wool, prized by natural fiber artists, but is primarily a meat breed. Good for warm and cold climates, fairly prolific and easy lamber.
- Dorper - bred for meat production, the meat stays tender throughout their life. Naturally polled, reasonably easy to care for. They are also prolific and easy lambers, and were bred to be low maintenance on marginal pasture. Be careful with Dorpers, make sure you've purchased them from someone who did not grain feed in large amounts - some breeders have stock that looks good, but which only does well on high grain rations, which takes the affordability out of raising them. Other breeders let them forage and feed them limited amounts of grain, which produces a more thrifty animal.
- Dorset - Used as a triple purpose breed, but most often for meat. A very old English breed, both rams and ewes have curling horns. Ewes produce well into their teens, have a high lambing rate. They do not produce a lot of wool, but it is fine quality. They produce less milk than sheep bred specifically for milk production, but are a good all purpose choice.
- Gulf Coast Native - a small sheep bred primarily for meat, but also has nice wool. Does well in warm humid climates, and has a higher tolerance to parasites than many breeds. They breed year-round, and produce a single lamb most often, with twins occasionally.
- St. Croix - A dual purpose breed, used for meat and milk, but also produces a nice pelt. Naturally polled, they can adapt well to a wide range of conditions. They are highly prolific, breeding year-round and producing twins and triplets regularly.
- Suffolk - The most common sheep in the US, frequently seen for 4-H and FFA. This is the largest meat sheep, and they are very prolific. Not particularly disease or parasite resistant, but good for cross breeding with hardier breeds to gain production traits. Naturally polled, they produce a light fleece.
Milk sheep are different than goats and cows. They typically milk for a shorter period of time - three to six months - and do not milk as heavily. Lambs are typically removed at one month of age and the ewe goes to the milk line. Sheep are milked from behind, not from the side like goats.
- British Milk Sheep - A triple purpose breed, with a high lambing rate. Hard to find in the US, but very prevalent in the UK. Triple utility makes it a good choice for homesteading if you can get it.
- East Friesian - One of the most popular milk sheep, also considered a triple purpose breed, though most often bred for milk production. Prolific lambing rate. They do require fairly intensive feed rations with higher grain amounts to produce milk. They produce a lightweight fleece. Naturally polled breed.
- Lacaune - primarily a dairy sheep, also raised for meat. This is a hair sheep breed, it sheds out the longer wool in the summer, and does not need sheared. Considered hardy and good milk producers.