Sheep Vocabulary

Baa Baa Black sheep, have you any wool? It’s spring time… and that means it’s lambing season. The grass is soon to green and the weather will begin to warm up and the ewes are ready to give birth to their baby lambs.

Growing up on a small family acreage, lambing season was by far my favorite time of year. There was always excitement awaiting the birth of the new baby lambs. We would go out to the barn multiple times a day to do chores and to make sure the ewes had everything they needed to have their lambs. It was always exciting to go out and hear a little “baa” and find a new lamb.

Let’s learn some Ovis aries (That’s the scientific name for sheep) vocabulary and breeds!


Ewe: A ewe is a female sheep and a young female sheep is called a ewe lamb.

Ram: A ram is an intact male sheep. He is able to reproduce when he is put in a pen with female ewes. A male lamb has reached its sexual maturity approximately 6-8 months after birth. Normally, one ram can breed between 30 – 35 ewes each breeding season.

Lamb: A lamb is a young sheep that is under one year of age. They typically have not produced an offspring yet.

Lambing: Lambing is the act of giving birth to a lamb. Sheep have a 145 day gestation period. That means that it takes 145 days from the time that fertilization takes place until the baby lamb is born. You can find a lambing calculator here. Spring lambing takes advantage of the ewe’s natural breeding cycle. The ewes are often bred between October and December for the lambs to be born between March and May. Spring lambs improve breeding outcomes and allows for better pasture utilization.

Lamb Vs. Mutton: Meat produced from young sheep under one year old is called lamb. Lamb is very mild and tender meat. Mutton is the meat from sheep that are more than one year old. Unlike lamb, mutton has a more intense flavor. Mutton is also less tender than lamb. 

Wool: The fiber that sheep grow is called wool. The wool from one sheep is called fleece. Each year a sheep can produce 2 to 30 pounds of wool depending on the breed. The wool is sheared from the sheep and collected to make yarn or blankets.

Nutrition: Sheep are ruminant animals. They have four-chambered stomachs. Because of the makeup of their stomachs, sheep are natural grazers. Their diet consists of forages like grass, hay, and silage. They can also consume grain like corn or pellets. Sheep love the taste of grain, it is like “candy” to them. Farmers must be careful and not overfeed grain to sheep because they can overeat and large amounts of lactic acid can build up in their rumen. This could be fatal for the sheep. It is important to introduce grain slowly to their diet to give time for the rumen to adjust to the new diet.


Polled Dorset
Photo By: Cgoodwin

Dorset: Dorset sheep originated in southern England. They were first imported to the US 1885. Dorset sheep are all white. They are medium sized. Dorsets are known for their ability to breed out of season and lamb up to two times a year. The Polled Dorset, without horns, is the most popular breed in the United States. Many 4-Hers start their 4-H sheep project with a Dorset ewe lamb.


lincoln sheep

Photo By: NLSBA

Lincoln: Lincoln sheep are considered to be one of the world’s largest breeds of sheep. They are an English breed. They produce heavy, long and lustrous fleece. The Lincoln breed is mainly used for wool production.  They were first brought to the United States in the 1800’s. Today, Lincoln sheep are quite rare in the United States.

rambouillet sheep

Photo By: OSU

Rambouillet: This large, rugged, and long-living breed is the foundation of most western range flocks. Rambouillet sheep flock well together, which is an important trait for range flocks. They are considered to be a dual-purpose breed which means they can be used for wool or meat production.

suffolk sheepSuffolk: The Suffolk breed is one of the most popular breeds of sheep in the United States. They originated from England and were brought to the US in 1888. They produce high quality market lambs. The Suffolk breed is the preferred for producing club lambs. The lambs grow fast and produce well-muscled carcasses. Suffolk rams are commonly used for crossbreeding programs because they produced lambs with lean, high-yield carcasses, and a rapid growth rate. Suffolk ewes are excellent mothers and produce plenty of milk for their offspring.

Laura with lamb

Me as a child checking on the baby lambs on my family’s acreage.

Happy lambing season from my farm to yours!



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