With lambing in full swing around the farm, and many a baby sheep photo/video being shared on instagram, I thought I would take a moment and share the why, the how, of our little flock of sheep on the farm.
When we first purchased our property, we needed to have a modern septic system installed, as the home sewer was still a brick cesspool (no, this isn’t just a term for something disgusting…it’s actually a thing), and it had failed (yum, right?). This left us with a large swath of disturbed ground in the pasture for the new leach field, which we had to fence off separately so our horses could not access the ground and compact the soil above the pipes. (If you are especially confused about rural septic considerations, you may educate yourself with THIS fascinating article from the EPA)
The fenced off area was about 3/4 of an acre, and sparsely wooded, making it difficult to mow all the grass and weeds sprouting up. We needed four legged little lawnmowers that wouldn’t compact the ground and ruin our $10k sewer system. Preferably ones we could breed and use to fill our freezers. We settled on sheep.
After purchasing some rather tragic specimens via craigslist, and dealing with myriad illnesses, poor growth with our lambs, death-by-parasatism, we decided if we wanted to continue with our experiment it was time to invest in good-quality stock. Purebred stock. The breed we chose was the Katahdin Meat Sheep.
Katahdins are a relatively modern breed of sheep, developed in Maine in the middle of the 20th century. A breeder named Charlie Piel imported sheep native to the Virgin Islands, and began crossing them on larger bodied wool breeds from Britain, focusing on a prolific, medium-bodied sheep that would shed its fleece, eliminating the need for shearing or docking of tails.
The wool industry took quite a hit upon the advent of high performing, synthetic fabrics. Finding shearers nowadays can be quite troublesome and expensive, especially for the smallholder. Often, your run-of-the-mill, lower quality wools are worth almost nothing, regularly finding their way into compost piles and becoming nothing more than a nuisance and expense for the shepherd. The advent of craft clothing however has led to quite a revolution in fine quality wools, and many markets are opening up for selling the fleece of breeds like the Jacob, Icelandic, and Merino sheep.
Since you will always find us cooking instead of spinning wool or knitting clothing, a shedding meat sheep makes much more sense for our farm. We contacted a nearby breeder we found on the Katahdin Hair Sheep International website. After visiting her farm and learning more about the breed and her flock goals, she sold us our first two registered ewes and a very impressive ram. Upon crossing these animals and raising their lambs, we were hooked. These sheep were incredibly easy to care for, as compared to our Craigslist rejects. The ewes mothered the lambs, providing ample milk, the lambs grew and thrived on pasture.
We quickly made the decision to sell all of our other non-registered/crossbred sheep. We haven’t looked back.
As our registered flock continued to grow, we needed an outlet for our lambs. We weren't so interested in selling cuts of meat. With our busy flower and wedding businesses, we simply don’t have the time to usher animals back and forth to the processor, setting up a booth at a farmers market, meeting with chefs. Much respect to the incredible producers who do this work. It’s important.
Instead, we have chosen to raise quality seed stock for the producers who do the work of bringing locally produced, pasture-raised meats to the table. We carefully select the best rams and ewes we can get our hands on, often sending Brad on long hauls around the country to bring these genetics to Ohio. Our goal is to produce excellent rams and ewes that grow fast, perform well on pasture, have very high parasite resistance, and superior mothering ability. Breeders come to us to select new seed stock for their own flocks. This keeps us at home and focused on the other parts of our business with which you may be quite a bit more familiar.
Resistance to parasitism from the nematode known as barber pole worm (Haemonchus contortus) is an important trait for which we select heavily. This is an incredibly devestating parasite in sheep, which they pick up in the pasture from eating the grass. The larvae are ingested by the animal, where they develop into adults, who infect the intestine and lay more eggs that are deposited by the sheep, thus furthering your infection in your pasture (fun life-cycle diagram and further reading HERE). The worms attach themselves to the intestinal walls and suck blood from the sheep, leading to anemia and eventual death without intervention from the shepherd.
Like antibiotic resistance, anthelmintic resistance is becoming more prevalent from overuse and irresponsible use. Selecting for this important resistance trait will help to allow us to raise our sheep on pasture without relying on excessive anthelmintic use.
In order to help us identify the most parasite resistant, growthy, excellent animals, and therefore those we will either keep or market to other producers, we use an incredible resource known as the National Sheep Improvement Program . This is a data collection and processing program that allows us to scientifically predict how an individual animal will perform.
We collect data on each of our lambs during the first 120 days of their life. We weigh each lamb at birth, weaning (60 days of age) and post weaning (~120 days). We also measure fecal egg counts. This lovely task involves collecting fecal samples (yep), mashing them up with a salt solution (also yep), straining that solution and counting the number of barber pole worm eggs in each sample under a microscope (YEP).
We send that data into NSIP, and those smart folks crunch the data and send us back a report on our flock, a resource we can use to identify our most genetically impressive individuals. In addition to observation of the animals for correct confirmation and adherence to the breed standard, we use this data to make informed, intentional decisions and further our breeding goals.
Intention is a word we use frequently nowadays. I love it. It’s a reminder to think about the ways you do things, why you do them. Breeding these animals, raising flowers with intention is hard, thoughtful work. It requires investment - of money, time, education, fuel. It’s constant evaluation of your goals, and how to attain them. It’s identifying resources, mentors that can help get you there. It’s a learning process of pushing through failure and frustrations - and trust me - we get plenty of that.
If raising sheep is of interest to you, I encourage you to take a peek at some of the resources and events below, and never hesitate to reach out to us with questions. And keep following along on social media, because the next few weeks are the most rewarding of the year - when all the babies are born.
KHSI Expo - Cookeville, TN - August 15th-17th, 2019. Keynote speaker is Temple Grandin (!!!!!!!) Tons of educational seminars, connecting with shepherds around the world. All are welcome, you need not be involved directly with KHSI to attend.
Eastern NSIP sale - all breeds in NSIP, sold at auction in Wooster, Ohio on August 10th, 2019.
Southwest AREC Ram Test - A forage-based ram test and field day/sale in Glade Spring, Virginia.