Sheep Breeding: Localize Your Livestock

Developing flocks and herds that are perfect for your place requires patience, persistence and an appreciation of the mysterious workings of nature.

| February/March 2013

It was a happy accident, really, involving a road trip, a mistaken identity, a negotiation and a bunch of Corsican rams.

Five years ago, I decided my sheep flock wasn’t meeting my goals. I had purebred Katahdin sheep, a hair sheep that sheds its coat each spring so you don’t have to shear them. There’s almost no local market for wool where I live, and very few shearers. I can shear one sheep if you give me half a day. The process also may require an emergency blood transfusion for the sheep or me, or both. So hair sheep are right for me.

The Katahdins were hardy, docile, successful mothers, great meat producers and formed a good flock. But I wasn’t quite satisfied, and thus my sheep-breeding program began.

I knew that managing our goats was physically much easier than wrangling the sheep, because the goats had horns. That may seem counterintuitive, but in our operation it’s much easier to sort the animals, move them, load them and ship them if you can reach out and grab an animal by the horns. Given that none of our goats or sheep had ever been aggressive toward humans, I didn’t feel that the horns were a safety hazard. Moving adult sheep can be a physical experience akin to no-pad tackle football. The animals weigh 150 to 250 pounds, and there’s a lot of blocking and tackling involved. I never liked football, so I wanted to add handles to our sheep.

The other minor drawback I saw in our Katahdins was that their lambs were slow starters. Many of them took several hours to stand up after they were born, and some of them had soft, floppy ankles for the first two or three days until they could run efficiently. We don’t help the ewes at all during lambing, so I thought we’d benefit from a lamb that was sturdier at birth.

Going against several decades of hard work by dozens of ranchers who had bred horns out of the Katahdin strain, I went looking for a ram to put horns back on mine.

1/30/2013 10:55:07 PM

Fascinating, educational article! Beautiful photography (and models). I would like to know how the meat is and where I might find some locally in New Jersey or elsewhere that ships.

Billy Joe's Food Farm
1/18/2013 4:35:07 PM

If you are breeding for meat, doesn't it make sense monetarily to try to ensure as many live births as possible, i.e. assistance? Also, if your sheep are all running together, how do you control time of breeding/births? What is your sheep to land ratio? One thing I think I would have added to this article, for purposes of education, is anyone thinking of adding a ram needs to understand how dangerous these animals can be. I think because they aren't huge, like bulls, people underestimate the danger in keeping rams. It is not for the faint-hearted.

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