Over the past few years I have mentioned our sheep a lot and have written a few posts. Well the day has finally come where we are switching breeds over time. The switch is from Shetland Sheep to Babydoll Sheep. There are several key differences in our decision. For those that have small spaces to graze and have been thinking about sheep, the Shetland and the Babydoll have a lot to offer but they are very different sheep.
One thing I noticed about Babydoll Sheep is that there is no weight standard listed at the registry breed description pages. After a bit of research it appears that the females are supposed to be around 100-115 lbs and rams can be 150-180. They are supposed to be 18-24 inches at the shoulder ideally.
The Babydoll has corky legs which means it is impossible for them to really stand up on their back legs when they are grown. This is one reason they are so great for vineyards and orchards. I have seen one of our females stand a few inches for just a second but that was it and it only gave her a few inches extra reach. They are too short legged and bottom heavy to eat things that are above 32 inches or so.
We are struggling to keep our Babydolls on a diet because they are cute and want snacks.
While Babydoll Sheep are fairly rounded, ours are quite a bit overweight at the moment. We found Penny and Pearl on Craigslist and they had been listed for awhile. An older retired couple got them as lambs and now were being forced to move to town and downsize. Their children didn’t think the sheep would be a good fit.
The two sheep are really bonded so they wanted them to go together. Well the reason they are so overweight is that they were being babied all the time and fed animal crackers.
Yep, I got a to go back of animal crackers with my sheep purchase. They also got their fair share of grain. We got a good deal and when we learned, the couple were actually moving to our county, we definitely told them that they could come and see them anytime and see their future lambs. I really hope they will do that sometime because I could tell it really hurt for them to give up their cherished pets.
We bought some Shetland sheep because we wanted a hardy sheep that was affordable. Shetlands are originally from the Shetland Islands in the UK and they produce outstanding wool for those that are into producing fiber. This is what the famous Shetland sweaters are made from. Shetlands come in a huge range of colors so in a single herd you can have a lot of different colors of fleece. This is great because you have variety without having to dye the wool.
The Shetland sheep is quite small but they have a body type more like a goat than a sheep. The roundness you see mostly comes from wool. We have found that females tend to be about 75 lbs and mature rams will be as large as 120 lbs. Weight can vary a lot depending on the breeding stock you get and how well they are fed.
If you feed them a lot of grain, you can add weight to them but they will never have the meaty mass of a sheep like the Babydoll
Shetlands are a lot louder and expressive than Babydoll Sheep. While the Babydolls really love a good snack they don’t make a lot of racket everytime they see you with a bucket or small container. Our Shetlands will baa a lot every time. This is pretty annoying and would be more of a problem if we had neighbors closer to us.
The Babydoll sheep can baa but they don’t really do it unless something is super upsetting to them. Our little ram lamb makes a little noise because he is a mere 8 weeks old but Penny and Pearl are 4 and 3 years old and they grunt in a funny fashion if they are pushing on each other or sometimes if they are happy.
Shetlands Are Tougher
Our Shetlands could care less about a barn a lot of the time. Even if they can get out of the weather they often will not choose to do so. Last winter they stayed out in the snow and my husband had to go out and make a trail for them to get to their hay. They really would prefer to graze through a snowstorm if they can get away with it rather than eat hay.
Our Babydolls don’t have a fleece that dries out fast like a Shetland, It is a very dense fleece and if they get rained on it stays wet for a long time. They really do not like to be out in a big rain and will head straight for cover when it starts. This behavior has led us to the determination that we really need a more central and specialized barn structure that is just for the sheep.
Babydolls are also very likely to get stuck if it snows very much. As you can see in the video and pics, Penny and Pearl are not much more than knee height. Penny has 6 inch legs and clearance and Pearl has just a little bit more than that. If we get a moderate snow this winter I am going to want one of us to make sure they are close to their barn before it gets too deep and they have to have a path dug for them. Perhaps they could just slide on down the mountain?
Last year even the Shetlands got stuck in a spot when it snowed and Matt had to go dig a path for them.
Shetlands are much more skittish than Babydolls
Matt and I have raised three generations of Shetland sheep on our farm and even the bottle baby I raised is skittish. The Babydolls on the other hand were brought home and within an hour acted more friendly toward us than any of the Shetlands ever have even though that same day, the Babydolls had been tackled and thrown in our truck and taken from the only home they ever remember having. That is remarkably docile for any animal.
We were shocked that they acted like such big babies so fast. There was really not a transition period. They did get a little more friendly over a few days but that just meant they would come running as fast as their little legs could go to get a snack or their ears rubbed. Penny actually lifts her back leg like a dog when you rub her ears and wags her tail. It is really funny to see it.
The Horn Factor
Babydolls are hornless so you never have to think about dehorning. That is a very nice feature in a sheep. My husband and I have raised a lot of horned animals and our conclusion is that it is not worth it. For starters their is a safety issue, especially if you have children. Only male Shetland sheep have horns but they never stop growing. In the picture above, Truman is only a little over a year old! Their horns grow really fast.
The Shetland ram knocked Matt down and on another occasion charged me and chased me around the house. We had horned cattle, including a bull at one point. We are done having horned animals around our farm.
Another issue with horns is that they can be knocked off when animals are young. We were catching some Shetland ram lambs and a horn popped half way off with not much force. We learned that when males are young, the horn is not really rooted to the head very well and this could happen. Of course this is a big concern because infection can set in rapidly.
You can use paste and other methods to dehorn sheep when they are a few days old but it is messy and caustic. Another method is a hot iron designed to kill the horn bud. Neither one of us want to fool with that when we can just raise Babydolls.
We have butchered a few of the Shetland sheep for our personal meat supply through the year. You only get 30 lbs from a 1 year old lamb but it is quite good. We like to make gyros out of the loin.
Since we are just getting started with Babydoll sheep we have not raised any for just meat. Our ewes will have lambs in Spring of 2020 and we will butcher in the winter months.
We do know that the Babydoll sheep are a lot more heavily muscled and are just heavier overall so there will be a lot of meat compared to the mere 30 lbs you get from a Shetland.
Shetland sheep meat cuts are not as beefy. You can look at a Shetland leg of lamb and a Babydoll leg of lamb and there is a world of difference. Babydolls are pretty much made like a full size sheep but with very short legs.
Lamb is expensive at the grocery store and local farmer’s markets. In my area the cheapest lamb at the store is ground lamb for $10 and around $15 per pound for lambchops. A leg of lamb is harder to find at still around $10. Using the lower end of the price spectrum, a single 1-year old Shetland sheep lamb will provide $300 or more in meat for the freezer.
I want to tell everyone right away that if they think they will make a decent amount of money off of the fleece and the wool from their sheep, they are mistaken. Sorry but the fiber mills pay very little. You get $4-$6 per lb for the wool depending on quality. We had some yarn spun from the wool and it appears that the market is pretty saturated.
Above is the wool we had spun. The cost to get it washed and spun was $13.75 per skein. Each skein weighs 100 grams or 3.5 oz. I have some extra to sell if anyone is interested. Price is $18.00 plus actual cost of shipping. Even at that we are not making anything on it.This is the reality of the fiber aspect of sheep raising.You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more info. We have white and black yarn. It is a good weight for hat making.
Unless you want to spend a lot of time involved with the fiber arts industry, it can be very hard to find a way to market your product and actually make a profit. If you can produce goods from your wool, then you might be able to make a little money.
Shearing takes a lot of work. If you are paying someone else to do it then you might break even if you sell the fleece to a fiber mill or private person but you are not going to make anything beyond that.
We like having sheep but we have come to terms with the fact that there is simply not any money in the fiber unless you find a niche market and have a little luck. A lot of people seem to be trying to get your fleece or wool from you for little or nothing.
The products produced with the wool sell for a lot of money but as the farmer producing the wool; you don’t even break even on the wool. A handmade wool sweater may cost $500 but the farmer only received $4-$6 per lb for their wool. That is just the going rate. Private people don’t pay much more than that if you can find a buyer.
I have even had a wool spinner take a few fleeces and never even give me a few skeins of yarn in return. This was a private individual and not a professional mill but it still was a wake up call.
Perhaps you will have a different experience in your area. If you have a friend or someone that likes to spin and you trust them, you may be able to find a better solution than we have.
Our plan is to sell the fleece for whatever the going rate is because fiber is not our primary concern on the farm. We want sheep for keeping our vineyard, fields, and forests eaten down and to put meat on the table.
Since the Babydolls are so tame, Matt and I talked about how they would probably stand pretty well to be milked. I bought some cheese made from 100% sheep’s milk and liked it. When the time is right, we will try to milk a sheep or two and see how it goes. Both of us eat a lot of cheese and do not want to give it up during a long emergency unless we absolutely have to do so. I am going to research what cheeses I could make that would keep the best throughout the year since we would only be able to milk the sheep for a short time per year.
Babydoll and Southdown Sheep: Are they the same?
It can be really confusing when you see Babydoll and Southdown in the name of a sheep because there is a larger breed of sheep called Southdown. Babydolls are often called Babydoll Southdowns. If you see the word Southdown in a Craigslist ad or similar, realize that these may not be a Babydoll sheep. When in doubt, ask the seller to clarify if it is not obvious from pictures. I called an ad once thinking that they were selling registered Babydoll sheep, but they were selling the larger Southdowns.
Conclusion: Babydolls are better for those that want a calm sheep without horns
Farming can be a lot of work and trouble. For most people a calm and docile breed without horns is going to work out a lot better so I would without any reservations, recommend Babydoll Sheep. I have seen a lot of older people successfully have fairly large Babydoll herds that they manage. They are just so darn tame and you can just move them by shaking a feed can.
If you live somewhere, that is remote and you have a lot of overgrown fields, then Shetlands are a hardy choice that are more able to defend themselves against predators. They are simply faster at running and more fearful. The wool you get from Shetlands is much higher in quality than that from Babydolls. The fiber mills test wool based on a micron count and the Shetland always brings a better price.
Shetland Sheep will almost always be easier to find and cost less than Babydoll Sheep so if you just want something to eat things down fast and don’t want to spend a lot, the Shetland may be the most suitable solution.
I am going to list the major Babydoll and Shetland sheep registries here so that you can visit them if you want to know more about the breed or find some in your area. Craigslist is a good place to look for sheep too.
There are three different Babydoll registries. Many sheep are registered through one or more registries. I found two Shetland sheep organizations. You can also search for them on Facebook.
Samantha Biggers lives on a mountain in North Carolina with her husband, Matthew, in a house they built. They have a small steep slope vineyard, raise sheep, and grow gourmet mushrooms. Since 2017 she has been proud to write for Backdoor Survival.