Selecting an Animal

Selecting an animal is an important step in home slaughtering.  If you are purchasing an animal, it is a good idea to visit the farm in advance of the time you want to pick up the animal.  An advance visit will give you the opportunity to access the living conditions provided for the animals and the general health of the flock.  You will also be able to discuss with the farmer any particular needs you have in selecting an animal.  The information provided below relates to sheep, however most of it will apply for goats as well.

Living Conditions

Animals should be given good living conditions and treated well.  Farms that do not do so should not be encouraged or supported.

 Are the living conditions healthy and comfortable for the animal?

What is your general impression of the farm as you arrive?  Is the farm unkempt? Are dogs allowed to run around barking at and chasing the animals? Or, are they trained to be considerate of the animals?  Dogs that freely get in the pasture or corral and bark and chase the sheep create unnecessary stress for the animals.

Does the farmer respect the lives of the animals?

Does the farmer genuinely respect the animals? How does the farmer talk about the animals?  Farmers that talk abusively or degradingly about animals tend to treat the animals this way.  Does the farmer kick or beat the animals?   Mistreated animals will be more stressed than necessary.

Is there plenty of clean water?

Does the water trough seem adequate for the number of animals?   Consider that an adult sheep will drink a gallon or more of water a day.  The trough should hold probably about two gallons of water per sheep.  This insures that the animals’ water will not run out in a day.

Is there quality food?

Is there plenty of grass during the growing season?  The number of sheep that an acre will support depends on the local environment.  Wetter climates allow for pasture that will support more sheep.  If the pasture is neatly trimmed like a putting green, then it is likely that the pasture is overgrazed and is not large enough to support the number of sheep.

Is feed stored properly?

Feed is stored for times that it is not available in the pasture or to supplement the pasture feed for one reason or another.  Is the hay or grain stored under shelter?  Is the hay moldy?  Are the feed storage facilities well kept?  Are there obvious rodent problems in the storage facility?

Is the barn clean?

The barn is a place where feed and implements are kept for the animals.   A clean barn is an indication of the farmer’s disposition towards the animals.  A clean barn provides a location to store feed that will maintain a good quality to the feed.  The animals may be in the barn  at night where predators are a concern or if an animal needs special treatment, otherwise many farmers let the animals stay outside.

Is there shelter from bad weather?

A shed is typical shelter for animals.  A shed is a roof with one to three walls.  The walls should be positioned so as to protect the animals from the prevailing inclement weather.  A shed should allow 20 square feet of space per animal.   This equates to a 4’ x 5’ space per animal.  A shed that is 10’ x 20’ would be adequate for 10 sheep.  Shelter space for animals may also be in the barn provided the animals may freely come and go.

Is their corral clean?

Corrals should be cleaned periodically to avoid unhealthy living conditions.  The corral should have a location for fresh clean water.

Is there pasture for the animals?

Animals should not be made to live in pens or corrals continuously.  Pens and corrals, though useful for some aspects of animal husbandry, are not the normal living conditions of animals.  When used for long term living, they tend to create unsanitary and thus unhealthy living conditions.  Animals need room to exercise and wander freely.

 Condition of the Flock

The reason for looking at the flock at a whole is to determine how well the flock is managed and whether the flock is healthy such that it will supply a healthy animal.  It should be expected that any flock will from time to time have an animal that has health issues. An isolated animal that is being cared for properly is not a reason to not select an animal from a flock, however a poorly managed flock that has many unhealthy sheep is reason to go find another farm.

What is the condition of the flock?

Are there obvious signs of disease in the flock?
Are the sheep show signs of lameness?
Are the sheep coughing?
Do the sheep have diarrhea (scours)?

Are the sheep vaccinated or medicated?

Vaccinations and other medical treatments are an aspect of animal husbandry that has polarized sides.  Whatever side of the topic you are on it is important to inquire from the framer regarding vaccinations and other medical treatments.

Are the sheep vaccinated for tetanus? or sore mouth?
Are the sheep treated for internal parasites (worms)? or external parasites (keds or ticks)?

Condition of the Animal

Animals that are not healthy, are not cared for properly or are pregnant should not be selected for slaughter.

How does it walk or move?

As you watch the animal in the corral observe its movements.  Does it move around with vigor, or is it wobbly and slowly?  Animals that move with vigor are likely to be healthier.  Does it limp or hobble?  This may indicate an injury or disease.

How is its breathing?

Breathing should be consistent and strong.  Labored, fast, shallow  or wheezing breath may all be indications of lung illness.

Inspect the head.

The mouth, nose and tongue should be free of sores.  The eyes should be clear and not watery.   The face should be clean and free of discharge in the eyes, nose, mouth or ears.

Source:  This sight has some good info on home butchering

Does the bulk seem appropriate for the body size?

Feel the musculature of the animal.  The animal should have fully developed muscles and should not feel emaciated.

Are the sheep shorn annually?

Since sheep wool grows continuously, it is important to sheer the sheep annually, typically in the spring before the hot weather arrives.  Excess wool may stress the animal and make it uncomfortable.  Sheering is also beneficial for the use of the wool.  Wool that is unshorn for too long will become matted and filled with a large amount of debris.  These characteristics make the wool of poor quality.

Hair breed shed their hair so these breeds are not shorn.


Is the tail bobbed?

The tails are bobbed to reduce the incidence of feces collecting on the tail which is a potential home for fly eggs which may result in a condition called Myasis or otherwise known as fly strike.  Myasis is when the fly larve become imbedded in living flesh and feed off of this tissue.  This is potentially dangerous and fatal particularly with livestock.


Is the ewe pregnant?  The farmer should know or be able to help make this determination.

Determining that pregnancy is not likely:

Is the breed a primitive breed or an improved breed?

Primitive breeds such as Black Welsh Mountain, Gotland, Soay and Shetland have estrous cycles that are affected by the amount of daylight and they go into estrus annually in the fall and lambing occurs in the spring.  During longer days these animals do not have an estrous cycle.  The normal lack of estrous cycle is called anestrus.   If these breeds of sheep are past the lambing season and in the anestrus period – typically April through October then pregnancy is not likely.

Improved breeds such as Dorset, Rambouillet, Merino, Finsheep, Romanov, Karakul and hair sheep go into estrus less seasonally with either an extended breeding season or year round breeding.  Lambing may occur year round. For these it is necessary to know the typical anestrus period or if the ewe has been with the ram in order to rule out pregnanacy

Is the ewe in estrus?

If so and the ewe is not with a ram, then the animal is not going to be pregnant.  Unfortunately it may not be easy to tell if the ewe is in estrus.  Signs are as subtle as the ewe seeking out the ram or vigorous wagging of the tail.  Sheep estrous cycle is an average of 17 days.

Is the ram kept with the ewes?

If the ram is kept separate from the ewe, when were they last together?

If the ewe was not with the ram within the the previous 5 months  then pregnancy is not likely.  Sheep gestation period averages 145 days.

If pregnancy is a possibility, because either the ram is kept with the ewe or they were together for breeding with in the time of gestation, look for these signs to determine pregnanacy:

The ewe will likely be calmer and have more of an appetite.

The ewe’s abdomen just in front of the udders will be tighter after about 6 weeks, which may be difficult to detect if this is your first time handling the animal.

The ewe’s abdomen should start to swell after about 12 weeks, of course this may be hard to tell if the breed is normally robust in the abdomen or if you are seeing the animal for the first time.

Fetal movement may be detected by about 16 weeks and if not detected, angulation from legs and the head may be felt when pushing lightly on the abdomen.


If pregnancy is a possibility and physical examination of the ewe is not conclusive than a veterinarian may be consulted for a conclusive determination.

What is the musculature or the animal?

 The following excerpt should aid in conducting a hands on inspection of the lamb for slaughter.


Proper lamb selection also depends on muscling. Select a lamb that feels firm or hard muscled. The lamb should have a good expression of muscle from the shoulder to the rump. It should have a long, level, square rump with good width at the pin bones (dock). Other good indicators of muscling are the forearm and leg muscles. The widest part of the leg, when viewed from behind, should be through the middle of the leg or the stifle area. Also, a lamb that walks and stands wide is generally going to be more heavily muscled. 

Structural correctness

Structural correctness refers to the skeletal system or bone structure of an animal. A lamb should hold its head erect and the neck should extend out of the top of the shoulder. A lamb should travel and stand wide and straight on both its front and rear legs and the legs should be placed squarely under the body. A lamb should have a strong top and a long, level rump. It should be heavy boned and be strong on its pasterns. Avoid open-shouldered, weak-topped, steep-rumped lambs.

Style and balance

Style and balance refer to the way all body parts blend together, how the front end matches the rear end, and how “eye appealing” a lamb is. When viewed from the side, a lamb should have a clean front, smooth shoulder, level top, level rump, trim middle and straight legs. Because all club lambs are shorn smooth, it is absolutely necessary that a lamb have a tight hide and be free of wrinkles. A lamb should never be selected in the wool, if possible. A good, smooth, thin-hided lamb has eye appeal and will handle well when properly finished. A lamb that is balanced, smooth, pretty, and holds up its head is the first one you notice when you walk in the pen.

Source: Excerpt from 4-H Show Lamb Guide; Texas Agricultural Extension Service Chester P. Fehlis, Deputy Director The Texas A&M University System College Station, Texas; Produced by AgriLife Communications & Marketing, The Texas A&M System Extension publications can be found on the Web at:

More Information

 If you would like more information on animal husbandry for sheep a few websites are excellent sources. and have very comprehensive information regarding raising sheep.

The 4-H is a youth development program that is part of the Cooperative Extension System.  It has offices in many states.  Their websites can be a wealth of information for those wishing to raise a sheep or obtain an animal.  The primary site is

Future Farmers of America, which is now known as FFA National, is an organization that supports and encourages agricultural education students in the United States.  Their web site is

The internet is full of 4-H and FFA publications for raising market animals.  Many having similar information to these:

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has numerous publications on food production designed to help developing countries create their own sustainable agricultural systems.  These publications have wonderful information relating to raising and slaughtering animals for food.


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