How many sheep per acre can my pasture sustain? That is the question I asked myself last spring as I purchased three Icelandic ewe lambs and one mature breeding ram. This article will attempt to blend my personal experiences (it will be updated as I experiment with my land and learn) with the conventional wisdom of the sheep experts. I find that is generally the best way to get to the bottom of things — as this question is actually not so easily answered — even for the experts.
So if you are a homesteader looking to add sheep to your land, I hope I can begin to address your questions and concerns.
The summer before I met my now-husband, I took a solo hike through the Fimmvörðuháls Pass in Iceland, a magical and isolated landscape. I fell in love with Iceland and I also fell in love with the rugged and beautiful Icelandic Sheep that roamed half-wild through the country.
Fast forward a few years, a baby, and purchasing our own homestead and I knew I wanted to add Icelandic sheep to our homestead for meat, fibre, and milk.
So I did. Pretty much immediately after moving in with our newborn baby boy as my husband ripped down walls and started renovating the 1860's farmhouse cottage.
You can read about them more in my article: Icelandic Sheep For Sustainable Meat, Wool, & Milk
That year the rains were relentless and our one acre of fenced-off pasture where the sheep would live had grasses growing as tall as my shoulder.
It would be June when the sheep arrived on it.
I was determined to raise Icelandic sheep on pasture and hay alone but I had never owned sheep before and didn’t know what was possible.
Talking to more experienced shepherds proved futile as there was no single solution or answer to this query.
That surprised me.
I had a shed full of hay as safety and a head full of plans on how to mob graze the new arrivals. I was and remain a huge fan of Allan Savory and his revolutionary holistic management system for grazing massive herds of ruminating livestock in a concentrated manner where the land, soil, and vegetation are improved.
On his vast pastures, carbon was sequestered through a carefully managed grazing system and his livestock fed people while combating climate change.
This is what I wanted for my own teeny tiny homestead. But information on how to do this on a smaller scale proved elusive.
In fact, I was warned away (usually with a condescending attitude) from even attempting it.
Luckily I’m stubborn, determined, and very willing to experiment, and yes — fail, if need be.
How else does one figure anything out?
Books and experts are not infallible, I can tell you that.
I watched in fascination as those four Icelandic sheep eschewed the hay I provided (well into the autumn months) as they slowly worked their way through 1 acre of lush, green, pasture.
I was amazed at how much one measly acre could provide to four sheep that always seemed to be eating.
This brings us to this spring 2022: I had a healthy ram lamb born to my ewe Brunhilde. Freya bore a ewe lamb which died in my arms shortly after birth. Sigrid, the smallest of the three ewes remains a mystery — is she even pregnant? Will I get a surprise lamb?
(That remains to be seen as of this writing.)
It is May. They were finally let out of their cozy shed after a long and cold winter of only hay and some soaked alfalfa pellets.
The pasture has rebounded and is lush and green — but it is certainly nowhere close to my shoulders. And I have not yet devised a good way to rotate them deliberately throughout the one-acre I do have.
I’m slowly acclimating them to the green grasses and once again I’m asking myself, how many sheep per acre is ideal?
What is the conventional advice? What can the land sustain and what are our best practices as shepherds and homesteaders — as stewards of these animals and the land?
Let’s explore this question in depth.
June 2022 Update: June is almost over. The meat chickens have been processed. My new baby will be born any day now. The ram lamb is growing chunky and strong on grass and his mother's milk. Sigrid has not lambed and I do not expect she will this year.
As for the pasture? It is tall, lush, and green. We are in a dry season and yet it holds strong. The sheep have not needed hay or any other supplemental feed at all.
Sheep Per Acre Rule Of Thumb
As a rule of thumb, for every one acre of rotationally grazed pasture you possess, you can have 10 ewes and 15 lambs.
Depending on the climate and pasture conditions, as well as the breed of sheep you raise, ideal sheep stocking rates may vary drastically.
As mentioned before, this rule of thumb also assumes that you’re using a well-designed rotational grazing plan, which is going to maximize your returns without damaging your fields.
If you decide not to rotate your fields or provide extra food like hay, it’s more likely that you’ll be able to support about two sheep per acre year-round.
Deciding to keep extra sheep per acre on a rotational plan is a decision that necessitates being ready to invest in feed if anything goes wrong.
There are other options available for additional grazing, such as renting land from local pasture owners. This method of providing grazing sources is less expensive than acquiring additional land with the added benefit of ensuring your sheep are primarily grass-fed.
Regardless of what options you pursue, it’s important to keep your sheep adequately fed according to their body weight.
With how much energy they need to function and produce goods, they can be found grazing for over 8 hours a day.
Ideally, they should be eating around 2.5 to 3% of their body weight daily. This nutrition is vital for them to grow the wool and meat that makes them an asset to your farm.
With Rotational Grazing
There are many rotational grazing plans freely available, including this one by Purdue University designed for a 100-ewe flock of sheep.
They suggest that, given 30 acres of properly managed land, you should be able to supply up to 100 sheep and 150 lambs per year.
It’s worth noting that this plan depends on the farmer’s ability to produce concentrates like grain either by growing it on his or her own land, or on additional rented land, or by purchasing it, although it does maximize what the grazing fields have to offer.
The plan first recommends dividing the 30 acres into three equally sized fields, which you could divide using something like electric sheep netting.
One would be used as the permanent pasture, planted with mixed grasses and legumes and used for grazing year-round.
One would be planted with seasonal crops and used through the summer and fall, and the last would be planted with hardy fescue grasses for winter grazing.
Calculating Land Grazing Potential
There are two ways to calculate your land grazing potential when raising sheep: using pre-calculated guidelines often available in your state agronomy guide, or calculating it manually.
To check the guidelines, you simply need to determine the species of grass that grow on your land and find them in your guide.
In some cases, it suggests an amount of sheep per acre based on the grass species.
If your state agronomy guide doesn’t provide any suggestions on land grazing potential, there’s also a calculation you can perform.
To start, you need to determine how much land you have and the species of grasses that inhabit it. The agronomy guide should suggest the hay yield per acre for these grasses.
You also need to determine the grazing season in your climate, which we can assume is 6 months.
For example, if you have 10 acres of land with a hay yield of 3 tons per acre, then your land will produce 30,000 pounds of hay per grazing season.
Sheep eat 3.5% of their body weight in hay or other foods per day.
Assuming that your sheep weigh around 150lbs, they will require 945lbs of hay per grazing season.
Dividing 30,000 (your total yield) by 945 (what each sheep needs) suggests that you can support 31.74 sheep on your land.
Dietary Needs Of Sheep
Sheep generally eat around 2.5 to 3 percent of their body weight on a daily basis.
The weight of sheep can vary widely based on breed and age, with average consumption ranging from 2 to 7lbs of food daily.
Grazing your sheep is a great way to get them the nutrients they need, but it’s important to pay attention to your land’s grazing potential and supplement as necessary to prevent overgrazing and to keep your sheep flock in good health.
Luckily, there are many alternative foods you can offer your sheep in difficult seasons.
As stated, you should make grazing on fresh grass the center of your flock’s diet.
Fresh and healthy grass will provide them with all of the nutrients they need, including protein, vitamins, minerals, and natural sugars.
The energy that grazing provides is necessary for them to produce their wool and meat.
(Note: sheep should also be provided with loose minerals specially formulated for their species, and plain old baking soda as a preventative measure against bloat.)
If your land is highly productive and adequate for the amount of sheep you have, then with proper strategies like rotational grazing it should be adequate to feed them for the entire year.
They should get all of the vitamins and minerals they need from grazing, but supplements are available if you’re concerned about your flock.
There are many different types of grasses you can choose from to plant.
You can make your selection based on nutritional content, climate, season, and length and there’s sure to be a species right for you.
Some common selections include Kentucky Bluegrass, Clover, Timothy Grass, and Orchardgrass.
Kentucky Bluegrass is a popular and common type of grass planted for grazing animals, which is hardy and suitable for wet or dry climates.
It manages to thrive despite being trampled or in subpar conditions but is considered an invasive species in many areas.
Timothy grass is an inexpensive and high-yield species of grass that is a great option for many flocks.
The primary downside is that it only starts growing in the early summer, and thus the yield is limited across a smaller growing season.
Orchardgrass, growing from early spring into the fall, is a sugary and lush grass that is good for grazing or producing hay.
It is known for being especially dense and can provide a lot of forage in small areas. This grass is easy for sheep to digest.
Grain is a common option for supplementing a flock during unproductive seasons.
It is rich in sugar and proteins with a high caloric content, which makes it a better option than hay for providing energy and maintaining your flock’s weight.
It is important to give grain in controlled amounts, however, as too much grain can cause your sheep to become overweight and sick.
It is also a great option for feeding pregnant sheep or the flock at large during the winter months since it provides them the extra boost of energy they need to keep warm.
For pregnant sheep, the extra energy will also be vital in the process of growing and birthing a lamb.
So far I have not needed to feed grain to my sheep, including the pregnant and lactating ewe.
I choose compressed alfalfa pellets soaked in water instead alongside black oil sunflower seeds.
Icelandic sheep do excellent on pasture and forage and in their native country, they do not receive supplemental grain but instead are expected to forage on their own for the entire season.
Hay, or dried grasses, is an excellent way to supplement your sheep if your pasture isn’t full-year sustainable.
It is produced by cutting, fluffing, and drying fresh grasses before forming it into easy-to-store bales.
While hay retains the proteins, vitamins, minerals, and natural sugars of fresh grass, it loses a significant caloric content and sheep will require significantly more hay to produce the energy they need.
If you’re worried about your flock’s intake of vital minerals, then providing a supplement can be an easy and simple way to ensure they’re getting the right amounts.
Minerals are key in ensuring that their overall health is the best it can be. Sheep mineral supplements are generally available in the form of a salt block that the sheep can lick or a loose salt that can be added to feed or given free choice on the side.
I only feed loose minerals (free choice, on the side) specially formulated for sheep.
This is very important as the mineral formulated for other animals may contain ingredients in toxic amounts to sheep — like copper.
I also offer free-choice baking soda to combat bloat.
Loose minerals are preferred to blocks as sheep can hurt their teeth on the blocks.
In addition to the grazing potential of your land, factors like the climate and terrain can impact how your sheep graze and how much they eat. These factors are worth taking into account as you determine what flock size is right for you.
Depending on how optimized your land is for your flock of sheep, they may graze the land more or less efficiently.
There are specifically three major factors of terrain that can impact grazing practices, which are the flatness of the terrain, how much shade is available, and how many water sources are available.
Sheep are more likely to graze efficiently on flat terrain, possibly due to the ease of seeing the best sources of grass and accessing them.
Now, Icelandic sheep like mine are the exception to this, but you have to keep in mind that breed does matter.
When your land also has water sources and shade distributed evenly enough across it that they can easily access shade or water from any point, your flock is also more likely to graze the land evenly.
The climate can have a major impact on the grazing practices of your sheep because your herd will be unwilling to go through the extreme midday heat to access the pasture.
Poor availability of shade and water can be a multiplier in discouraging grazing in hot climates because your flock is even less likely to brave the heat without any way to cool down.
The breed of your sheep factors into the calculations of land grazing potential.
Different breeds of sheep have different average body weights, and the amount that they consume daily is directly proportional to their weight: 2.5 to 3%.
For example, if you had Charollais ewes weighing an average of 200lb, they would require 5lb of food a day!
But if you had one of the smallest breeds, such as Ouessant ewes averaging 40lb, they would only eat 1lb of food a day — meaning that you could keep 5x as many Ouessant ewes than Charollais ewes.
Small sheep are just as useful to a farm as larger breeds, as well.
They’re still usable for meat, wool, and breeding. Certain sheep breeds are highly sought after if you’re able to offer healthy lambs, while others offer high-quality wools that can be sold for a higher price point.
Land which is grazed year-round is going to be considerably less productive than a pasture that is divided and rotated based on a seasonal schedule.
Once sheep have overgrazed a pasture and have eaten down the forage into nothing, it will take a long time for the grasses to grow back fully.
Using a rotational grazing schedule and giving patches of your land time to rest and regrow is a significantly more efficient method of grazing.
As the sheep forage through and eat up all the grass in one area of your pasture, all of the others are given the opportunity to grow lush and healthy grasses that will keep your flock fed for longer.
Generally speaking, allowing your sheep to tear up and mob graze a fenced-off/electrified-off parcel and then allowing that parcel to go untouched for 30 days can yield the best results.
Some people choose to follow the sheep with pastured chickens in tractors and this may actually help keep the parasite load of the land down.
We are considering that for next year when our rotational grazing system will finally be put into place. For now, our sheep share space with geese and the various chickens and ducks that roam and forage freely.
Deciding How Many Sheep Is Right For You
Unfortunately, there’s no single right answer: with factors like climate, breed, and resource availability differing across the globe, it takes research and experimentation to figure out what’s suitable for your land.
Kinda like what I'm doing.
But by experimenting with different flock and pasture management strategies, you can find a herd size that is right for you.
Utilizing a rotational grazing strategy and dividing your pasture into manageable smaller parcels of land is a great way to get started with sheep.
By allowing the grazed pasture to regrow, you can effectively prevent overgrazing and allow nutrient-dense grasses to flourish almost year-round.
Additionally, rotational grazing is great for preventing the spread of diseases and internal parasites because you are able to rotate your herd away from contaminated material.
Also, examining your opportunities such as purchasing feed and supplements, rotating land, and renting pasture to graze can be a major boon as you get started.
While it can be difficult and intimidating to start a new herd not knowing what may go wrong, being prepared for their care whether through thick or thin will set you up for success.
The simplest way to start is by doing your research and establishing a small, simple to maintain herd.
As you become more familiar with how to maximize your land’s potential and how many sheep your pasture can truly handle, you can expand the flock as appropriate and gain experience in a manageable way.
Before long, you’ll be a confident shepherd/ess.