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The Beginners Guide to Sheep

| 11/3/2011 4:04:11 PM

Suzanne HeadshotWhen Andrew and I first purchased this farm, it was for the purpose of raising meat sheep and poultry. Although we both had experience with numerous other types of livestock, sheep were new to us. Andrew was raised with chickens and cows. I had chickens, horses, and starting in my teen years alpacas. We had talked since high school about having a farm one day. However the one thing we never seemed to agree on was what we were going to have on the farm! Over the years we watched market trends and feed prices shift, attended numerous livestock auctions and farm events, and spent many hours discussing what “product” would work best for our lifestyle and goals. We both knew we wanted to raise a healthy meat as several members of our family required special diets for medical reasons. After a short stint with meat rabbits, we quickly decided that wasn’t for us. We both agreed chickens were a must, since we love both the birds and the yummy baked goods I use so many eggs on. I am not a big fan of large cows, and their slow growth and long gestation didn’t quit match with what we wanted as our main product. So, we began looking into sheep.


After three years of investigating sheep, reading and studying about the different breeds, and comparing growth charts and traits we finally selected our breed. We decided the katahdin hair sheep was the breed for us. This breed stood out to us for several reasons. For starters, I had just spent 10 years working with alpacas. Alpacas, like wool sheep, must be shorn yearly. This is not a task I have ever enjoyed and it can be quit expensive. We did not want a wool type breed that required shearing. So we narrowed it down to hair sheep. Hair sheep also have the advantage of not requiring tail docks, another task which I can do but would really rather not. There are several different hair sheep breeds in America. The most common ones are Barbados, Dorper, and Katahdin with Painted Desert, St. Croix, and several other breeds growing in popularity across America. The two fastest growing hair sheep breeds in North America are the Dorper and Katahdin.

Here we see an assortment of hair sheep breeds. Starting on the far left is a young Dorper ram. Next to him in front is a Barbados ewe, with a painted desert ewe behind her. Standing alone in the middle is a ½ dorper x ½ wool sheep cross. Far right is a dorper x katahdin cross ram.

First Flock of Sheep 

So besides not wanting to shear our sheep, we also wanted a breed naturally resistant to parasites and ailments, with fast growth, good foraging ability, and a high reproductive rate. The Katahdin is an “improved” hair sheep breed, meaning it does not have a “true” continuous hair coat. Instead, it grows hair which sheds out naturally each year. This is perfect for our climate, since they have a thick hair coat in the winter and shed out during the spring just in time for our hot and humid summer to arrive. The Katahdin is known for it’s parasite and hoof rot resistance, excellent mothering ability, high lambing percentage, and above average milk production. While many other breeds occasionally twin, the katahdin has an average reproductive rate of 2-2.5 meaning they almost always twin, and can successfully raise triplets. They reach puberty early, will breed year round (where some breeds only mate seasonally), and are hardy and long-lived. Some breeds of sheep have a prime breeding length of only a few years, while some katahdin females have been known to breed well into their teen years.

Roxane Whisnant
11/4/2011 1:15:13 PM

It is so good that you have stressed the importance of buying from 'reputable' breeders. After 12 years of breeding alpacas, many years of raising chickens, and now heritage turkeys...that seems to be the one monster that keeps raising its ugly head. Someday, maybe we'll see a system in place that will register these complaints of so-called "breeders" and that information could be accessible online through USDA. Imagine that database! Anyone raising livestock (regardless of breed), needs someplace to turn instead of chaulking it up to 'lesson learned', and 'buyer beware'. It would benefit those of us that help mentor those left to fend for themselve and improve the over-all herd/flock/pasture health. It would be a win-win. We'd have better informed breeders with fewer bad experiences AND healthier livestock that didn't have to go through much of the sicknesses and/or diseases. Even our pastures would be healthier with fewer contaminates to spread from farm to farm. So glad your rocky start met with someone you can trust for your future endeavors! We aren't all bad...

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