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Getting started

Farm & Fiberworks


Getting Started with Jacob Sheep
(printable version)

Congratulations on your choice of Jacob Sheep. Here are a few ideas to help you get started.

Before you shop…

1. Join the Jacob Sheep Breeders Association. The JSBA is a great source for information, guidance and connections with other Jacob Breeders. It's a great group of people, all committed to preserving this unique breed. You'll get a quarterly newsletter, flock book, and breeder identification needed to register any lambs you produce.

2. Read about the basics. Get a copy of Paula Simmon's book, Raising Sheep the Modern Way, or the equivalent. Most of the general information applies to all sheep. Contact your local Cooperative Extension office and see what information they have available. Remember, though that most Extension information is aimed at the commercial sheep breeder with "modern" breeds. Read it with a grain of salt.

3. Think about your objectives and interests. Once you know why you want Jacobs, you'll be better able to make the right selection. The reasons for keeping these animals are as diverse as the folks who have them. Some common objectives include:

fleeces for your own handspinning
fleeces for sale to hand spinners
good-looking lawn mowers
preservation of genetic diversity
intelligence and personality

Set up your facilities

4. Set up your facilities first. Nobody is every totally set up when they get their first animals, but you'll be thankful you've at least started off right. You'll need:

Good fencing. Sheep challenge fences, especially intelligent sheep. Don't skimp on your fencing materials - the money you save will be lost when your first animal escapes. Consider New Zealand style fencing if you're starting from scratch. These multi-strand electric systems were designed specifically for sheep and work quite well. They also look nice, require less maintenance, and are fairly easy to install or modify. Heavy gauge woven "field" fence is an alternative, although you run the risk of Jacobs getting their horns stuck. By all means, do NOT use barbed wire. In the best case, barbs will rip out wool; in the worst case, they'll snare and shread a sheep. If you have barbed wire anywhere on your property, get rid of it if there's any chance the sheep could come in contact with it.

Jacob-friendly feeders. Unless you have plenty of good quality pasture, you'll probably be feeding your sheep. Because of their horns, Jacobs have problems with some traditional feeders. Make sure a 4-horned adult can get feed out of the feeder you select. Remember that some may have forward-tipping horns that will prevent them from eating at certain angles. Avoid feeders that require the sheep to stick their heads into a box. Those horns increase the chances of an animal getting stuck and being injured by others shoving against it. If you build feeders out of wood, double the recommended strength of the lumber used for parts that will come into contact with horns. For example, if your feeder plan calls for 1x4 slats, use 2x4s.

Catching area. You'll have to catch your sheep to shear, medicate, trim hooves, etc. You won't be able to run them down on open pasture - don't waste your energy trying. They'll quickly come to sense when you intend to catch them and head for open ground. Your best bet is to set up feeders in a pen area that you can close off once your sheep are inside. The smaller the area, the less speed they can generate when you come in to catch them.

Finding a breeder

When you're ready to buy, you'll need to locate breeders. Talk to breeders in your area and elsewhere. Jacob breeders love to talk about their sheep and rarely get a chance to do so. Call some of the folks listed in the JSBA directory.

ask what stock they have available for sale
determine their breeding objectives - this is critical, as you want sheep to match your objectives. You'll be disappointed if you want good fleeces and you buy sheep breed for color or horn structure, but not for fleeces.
think about their willingness to explain things to you. Be sure you buy from someone willing to provide "after-sale support" to answer those questions that can only be answered by another Jacob breeder. Every breeder has their own style, so be sure you buy from someone you feel comfortable talking to.
ask about bloodlines. Consider how closely related the sheep are, and whether you want your flock to be that closely related. Regions seem to be dominated by a few major breeders, and many sheep in that region are descended from that major breeders stock. Consider distancing yourself from those bloodlines by bringing in sheep from another region.
don't limit yourself to local breeders. Jacobs are often shipped across the country, so you aren't limited to stock near your location. Lambs can be shipped air-freight, and adults are driven across the country by some of the major breeders. Breeders have an interest in selling their stock outside of their local area, so they may consider sharing some of the shipping cost.

Picking out a Jacob Sheep

When you're ready to pick out your sheep, you'll probably be overwhelmed by all the choices. A good breeder will help you choose the right sheep for you, but you can be prepared by understanding these major issues:

Conformation. This is the body build of the sheep. Unless you've looked at a lot of sheep this will be a tough thing to determine. Ask your breeder to point out variations in conformation. With Jacobs, you'll also see various body builds, some primitive and others more modern.

JSBA Standards. JSBA Standards identify what a Jacob Sheep should be. They come in two classes:

Standards, characteristics which all sheep must meet to be registered as Jacobs
Preferences, characteristics which would make an "ideal" Jacob, but aren't necessary for registration.

By all means, buy only those animals that meet the Standards. A breeder will call these registered or register-able. Use the Preferences to determine the overall quality. No sheep will meet all the Preferences, and not all the Preferences may matter to you. These sheep exhibit a variety of traits, so there's quite a bit of latitude in what makes a Jacob a Jacob.

Fleece quality. If you spin, you probably know what you want to see in a fleece. These are some of the issues to consider:

Evenness. Is the wool the same length and quality throughout the fleece?
Kemp. Does the fleece have patches of bristly hair, especially on the shoulders?
Breaks. Are weaknesses in the individual fibers that would cause the strands to break when pulled?
Coarseness. Is the fleece fine or course?
Spotting. Do you see black freckles in the white portions of the fleece? Part the fleece and look at the skin for freckles. This will give your white wool a heathery look. Depending on your perspective, this could be a good or bad feature.
Quilting. Are the black and white portions of the fleece the same length?

Horns. Horn quality is a challenge with the Jacobs. Look for balance to the horns, and fusion between multiple horns. Two or four-horned Jacobs are equally true to the breed, so pick your preference. Two-horned sheep have more solid sets and seem less prone to horn problems. Look for a wide sweep, especially in rams. Narrow sweeping horns can eventually grow into the face, requiring regular horn trimming (which is just about as fun as it sounds).

Horn quality is more of a challenge with four-horned Jacobs, but the arrangement is so unique and dramatic you'll probably want a four horn sheep at some point. Good horns in four-horned Jacobs are harder to come by, but worth seeking out. Look for balance, space between the top and side horns, and upright or rear-tipping horns.

Personality. Jacobs have distinct personalities - much more so than many breeds of sheep. We believe that personality and temperment are both genetic and environmental. At Swallow Lane we know each animal we sell and can give you a clear idea of what you'll be facing with each sheep you purchase. Be sure to discuss personalities when you shop. You'll be much better off starting with an easy-going animal than a skittish one. Again, you'll have to trust your breeder's judgment on personality.


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