More than 1.2 billion sheep are farmed around the world each year, and it is projected that the global rate of sheep meat consumption will reach nearly 39 million pounds by 2026. But sheep farming is done not only to produce meat but also milk, wool and skin. Overall, the U.S. sheep farming industry is expected to see a revenue of nearly $695 million in 2023.
While the practice of raising lambs and sheep has existed for thousands of years, this form of agriculture, like most others, has intensified — to the detriment of both animal welfare and the environment.
Here’s what you need to know about sheep farming, and its harmful effects.
What Is Sheep Farming?
Sheep farming is the way lambs and adult sheep are raised for human consumption, whether it be the animals’ meat or milk, or the sale of nonfood products such as sheepskin and wool.
What Are the Types of Sheep Farming?
Sheep are farmed for several reasons, with different farms rearing them for the various products listed below.
Many sheep raised for meat begin their lives on farms with access to pastures before they are transported to feedlots, where they are fed a diet intended to quickly fatten them for slaughter.
Meat produced from lambs younger than one year of age is typically referred to as “lamb,” while meat from sheep slaughtered at an older age — often three years old — is called “mutton.”
Lamb is a popular meat during the Christmas and Easter holidays. Lambs sold for these holidays may be slaughtered sooner, at around one month old.
Australia is the world’s top exporter of lamb, followed by New Zealand.
Cow’s milk and its derivative products account for the vast majority of global dairy production, at 81 percent. Just one percent of milk comes from sheep, but these animals — along with buffaloes, camels and goats — are used for one-third of the dairy supply in economically developing nations.
Like cows, sheep raised for dairy are continually impregnated. Some producers may “manipulate” natural daylight exposure in a barn in order toto stimulate the reproductive cycle. Shortly after a dairy ewe gives birth, her young are separated from her so that the mother’s milk can be sold for human consumption.
Sheep’s milk is also often processed into yogurt or cheeses, such as feta and ricotta.
After sheep are sheared of their wool, the fibers are turned into yarn, and the yarn is woven into fabric used in a variety of products, including clothing and accessories, furniture upholstery and carpets. Some wool is sold as yarn, for use in crafts such as knitting and crocheting.
Consumers may view wool as a byproduct of the sheep meat industry, but many sheep are indeed raised specifically for their wool. The process of shearing is unfortunately often violent and not without harm. Sheep are frequently injured in the process, which is usually hurried and high-volume.
The widespread availability of synthetic materials has led to a decreased demand for wool, playing a role in the drop in sheep farming.
Sheepskin, often referred to as “lambskin,” is the pelt and fleece of a sheep, and is used in a variety of accessories like bags and gloves, as well as other products like rugs.
How Is a Sheep Farm Maintained?
Most farmed sheep are raised both indoors and outdoors, grazing on pastures until they are ultimately sent to a feedlot or slaughterhouse.
Most sheep handling occurs during breeding, tail docking and castration, shearing, loading onto transport trucks and slaughter.
Sheep are prey animals and are prone to fear and distress when handled or threatened by humans.
Grazing is the practice of allowing livestock, such as sheep, to roam and feed on grass and other vegetation growing on fenced farmland. There are several different types of grazing, with some animals kept in one pasture, and others being rotated between different pastures.
Some farms supplement grain and other feed, while others provide only food gathered by the animals through grazing.
Many lambs and sheep are raised outdoors in pastures, while some sheep are kept indoors continuously. Like other farmed animals, sheep are often kept in barns and the number of animals per shed varies by facility.
Shelter is particularly important during “lambing,” when ewes are giving birth and nursing.
Farmed sheep are most often impregnated once every 12 months, though sometimes sheep are bred more frequently . Most ewes will produce 1-2 lambs per year.
Sheep management recommendations encourage farmers to begin breeding ewes when they are still lambs in order to boost their lifetime production of lambs by 15-20 percent. However, research has tied the breeding of ewe lambs at 7-9 months old to an increased risk of lamb stillbirth and low birth weight.
How Much Land Does a Sheep Farm Use?
Most recommendations encourage farms having one acre of land for every 6-10 sheep.
Environmental advocates often criticize animal agriculture’s land usage as inefficient. Production of livestock accounts for 80 percent of agricultural land globally, while producing only 20 percent of the world’s calories, according to Our World in Data. The research publication also states that a global shift towards plant-rich diets could reduce the amount of land used for agriculture by 75 percent.
In August 2022, author and environmentalist George Monbiot wrote for the Guardian that pasture-raised cattle and lamb were the “most damaging farm products.” Grazing requires 26 percent more land than raising livestock on feed, and is not sustainable..
“[T]he great majority of ‘regenerative’ pasture-fed meat is nothing of the kind,” Monbiot writes. “It’s rebranded ranching, arguably the most destructive industry on Earth. In the US, livestock grazing is the primary reason for land degradation.”
Why Is Sheep Farming Bad?
Critics of sheep farming say that the practice comes with significant risks to animal welfare, the environment and public health.
Many animal advocates argue that sheep farmed for their meat, milk and wool suffer from abuse and painful standard industry practices that cause the animals distress.
The European Food Safety Authority has found the most common threats to sheep welfare to be heat and cold stress, lameness and mastitis — a bacterial infection of the udder. The risk of mastitis increases in the case of high milk production. Like many dairy cows, some sheep are selectively bred to produce more milk than they naturally would. Sometimes, wounds suffered during shearing of a sheep’s wool can also lead to mastitis.
These findings indicate that extended hunger and respiratory illnesses are more common on intensive farms. While most sheep are farmed in smaller operations globally, large-scale farms account for 80 percent of the U.S. sheep herd.
Lambs’ tails are “docked” or cut in an attempt to increase cleanliness. While the American Veterinary Medical Association has not opposed this practice, it does state that “tail docking causes pain and discomfort” and recommends efforts to reduce that suffering, including medication. However, animal protection groups note that tail docking — as well as the castration of male lambs — is most often performed without any form of pain relief.
Farmed sheep do not naturally shed their wool and are often bred to produce a lot of it. Therefore, they must be sheared in order to avoid discomfort. This is even done at farmed animal sanctuaries. Butin animal agriculture, sheep may endure violent or stressful handling as well as wounds and other injuries during shearing (which can be dangerous for workers, too). In Australia, millions of lambs are sheared by mulesing, in which wool and skin from the animals’ rear ends are cut off without pain relief.
Research shows that, at slaughterhouses, lambs and sheep may experience painful or rough handling, thermal stress and ineffective stunning that leaves the animals conscious when their throats are cut.
Sheep can live up to 12 years naturally. As is the case for other animals farmed for food, the lifespan of sheep used in agriculture is cut far shorter.
Air and Water Pollution
Like other animal agriculture operations, sheep farms produce waste, and runoff from this manure can end up polluting waterways and causing eutrophication due to high levels of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. This can lead to depleted oxygen levels, or hypoxia, in the water, causing mass fish die-offs and areas devoid of life, commonly referred to as “dead zones.”
Researchers have found air pollutants considered “volatile organic compounds” produced on sheep farms, including ammonia — often found in high concentrations on farms due to mass amounts of animal waste — as well as carbon dioxide, methanol and acetaldehyde.
Furthermore, research has revealed microplastics present in both sheep and the soil on which they graze, due to the use of plastics in mulch — and the ruminant animals can spread this contamination.
Sheep may be given antibiotics as a supplement in their feed, as producers attempt to avoid bacterial illness like mastitis on dairy farms.
Researchers have found antibiotic residue in mutton, and animal agriculture’s preventative use of these drugs is of increasing concern to health officials.
The United Nations has urged farmers to halt the use of antibiotics in animals who are not ill, and the CDC refers to antimicrobial resistance as an “urgent global public health threat,” as untreatable conditions commonly known as “superbugs” continue their rise.
A 2023 report by World Animal Protection tied almost one million human deaths globally to the use of antibiotics on intensive farms, and warned that the practice is projected to double by the year 2050.
Methane Emissions Drive Global Warming
Due to its massive carbon footprint and the number of cattle compared to sheep, cattle farming takes up much of the focus in discussions of animal agriculture’s climate impacts. But sheep farming also contributes to global warming.
In fact, sheep and other small ruminants have a higher rate of emissions than dairy cows, emitting 6.5 kilograms of carbon-dioxide-equivalent greenhouse gases per kilogram of milk produced.
Wool, too, comes with a high emissions cost. A 2021 report by the Center for Biological Diversity and Collective Fashion Justice concluded that producing one kilogram of wool emits 41 kilograms of CO2-equivalent gases and that 72 percent of sustainability claims in wool advertising are unsubstantiated.
Sheep Farming Facts and Statistics
- China is the leading raiser of sheep, with a herd of more than 173 million in 2020.
- As of January 2023, there were over five million farmed sheep in the U.S., with “market lambs” — those slaughtered for meat as young as two months of age — accounting for 94 percent of that figure, according to the USDA.
- Only half of U.S. sheep farms consult a veterinarian each year, per compiled USDA data.
- The number of U.S. sheep peaked at 51 million in 1884 and is now 5.2 million — comprising less than one percent of the nation’s agricultural industry, due to decreasing demand for lambs’ meat and wool.
- In 2022, the U.S. produced 22.2 million pounds of wool.
- Globally, 1,949 million kilograms of wool was produced in 2021, following a rise in the sheep population by 3.7 billion animals in 2020.
- Americans consumed 1.4 pounds of lamb per capita in 2021. The rate is projected to drop slightly to 1.3 pounds.
The Bottom Line
The most effective way for individuals to opt out of supporting sheep farming is to shift away from products that come from sheep, replacing them with plant-based options whenever possible. The Humane Shopping Guide, provided by the Humane Society of the United States, offers alternatives to wool and other animal skins and furs. Plus, many sites, including ChooseVeg.com by Mercy For Animals, list free recipes that do not contain lamb or other animal products.
These are just a few ways to get started. Sentient Media’s Take Action page is regularly updated, and always features simple ways to help animals and the environment.
Jennifer is a writer and editor based near Washington, DC. Her background is in communications in the animal protection movement. She is also a contributing writer with Sentient Media.