Secrets of Raising Katahdin Sheep
Learn About the Popular Hair Sheep Breeds
By John Kirchhoff – For many people, mentioning hair sheep evokes either “I wouldn’t have anything else” or a “No way would I have them” response. My wife and I feel there’s no “best” breed, but rather which “breed” best fits your operation. In our operation, that sheep breed is the Katahdin sheep.
Breed Helps In Property Development
We both work off the farm; therefore time is a commodity in short supply. We feel that our time must be used where it will improve our operation, rather than maintaining status quo. For example, we consider time spent worming, shearing, docking and trimming hooves as merely maintaining an operation.
If this same time is spent building homestead fencing, water systems, improving lambing or handling facilities, it’s improving an operation. For us, the Katahdin sheep breed fits our operation and our philosophy quite well.
Katahdin: A True Hair Breed
Katahdin sheep are one of several hair breeds, the most common of which includes Barbados Black Belly, St. Croix and Dorper sheep.
While Dorper sheep are considered a hair breed, I’ve found a large number have quite a bit of wool or curly fibers in their coat. Many of the Dorper you see have been crossed with Katahdin sheep for several reasons. Breeders often use less-expensive Katahdin ewes to initiate an upgrading program with registered Dorper as the final goal. Unfortunately, as the percentage of Dorper increases, more wool is found in their coat and some animals lose some of their shedding ability. While I’m sure I’ll rile a lot of Dorper breeders, I’ve seen too many that had been sheared before a sale, which defeats the purpose of a hair animal.
The thickness of a Katahdin sheep’s winter coat will vary among individuals, but it needs to shed completely for an A or AA coat classification, which is the norm. For registered breeding stock, permanent wooly fibers are a no-no.
Several myths still surround hair sheep. (We’ve heard them all.)
They’re too small to be of commercial value.
Fact: While it’s true that Barbados and St. Croix are small animals (ewes 80-110 pounds), few commercial breeders raise them. Katahdin sheep and Dorper are bred as meat sheep breeds. A Katahdin ewe will average between 140-180 pounds, while Dorper ewes will average 160-200 pounds. Dorper lambs have amazing growth rates when young.
Hair sheep don’t bring as much on the slaughter market.
Fact: Eight or ten years ago you could expect a 5-10 cents/pound discount for hair animals. Anymore (at least in Missouri) it’s the carcass quality that sets the price. In this area, hair sheep often sell higher than wool sheep. More on that subject later.
Since hair sheep don’t have a heavy wool coat, they can’t take the cold.
Fact: Katahdin sheep, at least, will thrive from hot, humid Florida to the western provinces of Canada. Our flock is content to sleep outside in the coldest weather and will have unmelted snow on their backs like a wool animal.
A ewe’s wool will pay her winter feed bill.
Fact: In central Missouri, raising sheep for wool has been a losing proposition for a number of years. Flock owners with less than 50 animals have a difficult time getting someone to shear unless they pool their animals with neighbors. In 2001, my friend with Polypay paid $2 to shear $.50 worth of wool per animal. University of South Dakota research found it requires 250-300 pounds of dry matter forage to produce each pound of wool. We prefer using forage to produce lambs rather than wool. Our spring lambs require 4-5 pounds of dry matter forage to produce each pound of gain.
While I can’t speak for other hair breeds, Katahdin sheep are tough, hardy animals with eating habits more like that of a goat. I’ve seen Shropshire being used to keep weeds and grass down in Christmas tree plantations. They were an excellent choice for this as they seldom bothered the pine trees. We have eight foot Scotch Pines that look like a girdled palm tree and have seen them strip an old dried Christmas tree of its needles.
Katahdin sheep will strip the bark from cedars, pines and any deciduous tree that has smooth, immature bark. They will stand on their hind feet like goats to strip any low hanging limbs of their leaves. This behavior causes problems with maintaining desirable trees unless protection is provided.
It’s also common to see animals of up to a year old climbing to the top of a big bale of hay. The desire to climb mandates the use of a bale ring to prevent excessive waste.
Feed Efficiency vs. Flushing
To properly flush a ewe, she should be on an upward nutritional plane and gaining weight. Our grass-fed ewes normally go into the fall with a body score of 4-5, which makes flushing difficult: Adult Katahdin sheep can maintain themselves on poor quality forage that had our Romanovs literally skin and bones. (A friend with Polypay and Katahdin sheep has had the same experience.)
In fall 2000, we grazed our flock on cocklebur and waterhemp that followed an oat crop. Two weeks later, the ewes hadn’t lost any body condition. Any of the sheep breeds that’s considered to be one of the true hair sheep breeds has an advantage in that cockleburs, briars, “stick-tights” and so forth don’t become entangled. (Grabbing a Romanov that’s been walking through cockleburs is like wrestling with a 130-pound cocklebur.)
As with any young growing animal, the weight gains of a Katahdin lamb increase as the protein and digestibility of the forage increases. At 90 days, we’ve had November-December lambs on pasture, hay and whole grain (corn or milo) average 75 pounds. Our spring lambs on pasture alone (17-20 percent protein and 65-72 percent digestible organic matter-“DOM”) will average 55-60 pounds. May-June lambs on pasture alone (10-13 percent protein and 60-65 percent DOM) will average 45 pounds.
The lighter weights are the result of hot weather reducing forage intake (occurs with all grazing animals) and lowered nutritional quality of cool-season forages. Generally, hair breeds are more heat tolerant than wool breeds. Dorpers are known for their fast weight gains as lambs. 80 pounds at 90 days can be expected.
Gain vs. Latitude
When comparing weights, keep in mind we live in north central Missouri. In Canada, Katahdin sheep commonly gain well over a pound per day. People in the Midwest or southern states see this and make a trip to Alberta to purchase a super ram. A year and many dollars later, they can’t understand why the ram’s offspring doesn’t grow any faster than the rest of their animals.
This has nothing to do with genetics and everything to do with the latitude in which the animal lives: Things being equal, our weights will be lower than the weights of similar Katahdins raised in Canada, but higher than ones raised in Florida. High latitudes (up north) have a short growing season with long daylight periods and fast grass growth that is high in protein and low in fiber. Grazing animals put on weight quickly in preparation for the long winters.
At lower latitudes (down south), summer daylight periods are shorter, the temperature higher, grass growth is slower and is lower in protein and higher fiber. Animals don’t grow as fast but don’t need to with milder winters and longer growing season.
We’ve found that while genetics play an important role in weight gains, flock management, parasite control, forage quality and forage availability seem to be more important when it comes to the bottom line. A common lamb on good pasture will perform better than “Super Lamb” on poor pasture. The best genetics won’t keep an animal from starving to death.
Other than a few lambs for Hispanic weddings, we sell our slaughter animals through the local auction barn. As mentioned earlier, there’s no price discount for Katahdin sheep or Dorper sheep in central Missouri. This may or may not be the case in other states.
We are fortunate that buyers for the large ethnic market in St. Louis often attend sales. Many ethnic groups want a much different lamb or goat than has been marketed in the past. To appeal to ethnic buyers, it often requires a change in flock management. Bosnians want 60-pound animals while Muslims often prefer 60-80 pound animals. A large-framed, late-maturing breed will not have the necessary carcass quality at these weights, whereas Katahdin sheep or Dorpers will.
Mexicans prefer a larger lamb, and let nothing go to waste. After slaughter, all that’s left is hide, manure and stomach contents. As a bit of trivia, the majority of cull ewes the U.S. exports go to the Mexico City area. Libyans prefer old worn out buck goats for their “stronger flavor”. Most Muslims prefer intact ram lambs without tails being docked. It’s important to have an animal that’s “pure” or unaltered for sacrifice in observance of many holidays. This is inconvenient since you must pasture ram lambs separately from ewes to prevent unplanned pregnancies.
Many Greeks eat lamb for Easter, which is not always the same date as the traditional Easter.
In years past, 18-30 pound lambs sold well in Chicago for Jewish Passover. This market presented difficulties such as lambing in the dead of winter, having lambs large enough (especially when Passover comes early) and pooling with your neighbors to find enough lambs for a truckload.
For a number of years, there has been a good export market for ewe lambs going to Mexico. They like large groups of lambs on each farm, prefer solid colors, registered and must be enrolled in the scrapie program. While we’ve missed out on export sales the last several years because of retaining ewes to increase flock numbers, Mexican buyers will be coming by this spring.
Work with your state’s department of agriculture if you’re interested in export sales. They can provide you with information pertaining to regulations, health requirements and local export brokers. Since Missouri has more Katahdin sheep than any other state, the majority of export animals come from here.
We also sell breeding stock locally. A quality registered lamb will bring triple the fat lamb price. To be successful, you must sell quality, and I stress quality animals; send anything else to slaughter. To showcase the commercial qualities of our animals, all breeding stock we sell comes directly from pasture, having received no special treatment.
For several years we’ve had Romanov/Katahdin crosses. The first generation grows quite well due to the heterosis effect, but nearly always has a wool coat. These slaughter lambs sell comparable to pure Katahdin sheep per pound unless they’re full of cockleburs and briars. If you’re grazing crop-field aftermath, their coat will pick up trash where a Katahdin won’t.
As we disperse all our crossbreeds, we’ve found the crossbred cull ewes with a wool coat have sold for 50-75 percent of what comparable weight hair ewes bring. This may be due to the fact that wool can hide a lot of rib bones and other defects, while with a hair sheep what you see is what you get.
People converting to hair sheep breeds all notice certain things.
- As mentioned earlier, hair sheep breeds are considerably more heat-tolerant than wool breeds.
- When the weather’s hot and the pastures are dry, their wool animals will be under a tree while the hair animals are out grazing.
- When the pastures are poor, hair animals hold their body condition much better.
- Hair sheep breeds (Katahdin, St. Croix, Barbados) generally have much greater parasite resistance than wooled breeds, especially after one year of age. Research has shown Dorper have good parasite tolerance or resilience rather than resistance. They can harbor significant worm populations, yet not suffer the same effects a wool animal would. We normally worm our lambs 3-4 times a summer and the ewes not at all. Several Polypay owners in the area worm all animals 6-8 times during the summer and still lose animals to stomach worms.
- Ticks, keds and flystrike are not a problem and to date, there has never been a Katahdin with scrapie.
- We find it’s seldom necessary to trim hooves. Twice a year my friend with Polypays shows up at work doubled over as he shuffles around in pain. Sure enough, he’s been trimming hooves.
- While I can’t speak for other hair sheep breeds, Katahdin sheep are often more “flighty” than many other breeds: Several producers of both hair and wool animals have found coyote losses are considerably lower with Katahdins. Apparently, Momma Kathadin doesn’t wait around to see what happens when Mr. Coyote shows up for dinner.
- The flocking instinct of hair animals generally isn’t as good as wool breeds. Our young Katahdins can be difficult to move. Rather than stay in a group, they will scatter in all directions like a covey of quail.
- Most hair sheep breeds will lamb out of season without resorting to hormone therapy.
- My friend also mentioned his Katahdin-Dorper lambs are much fatter when born than Polypays.
- Docking tails is unnecessary, although you still see some “old timers” that dock just because they always have.
Getting Down to Business
After lambing season, most of our “sheep time” is spent managing our pastures so that we can provide our animals with the best quality forage possible. The low maintenance qualities of Katahdins allow us the time to do so. As mentioned earlier, the Katahdin breed has served us well.
We may be partial to the breed, but we’re not raising a hobby flock. While many of the characteristics hair animals possess appeal to the hobby flock owner, we expect an animal to make us money; if it doesn’t, it’s gone. If there were a hair Hampshire or Suffolk that would do a better job, we’d be raising them.
About Our Operation
Fourteen years ago my wife got into the sheep business when she purchased three registered Katahdin ewes, a ram, and later, three Romanov ewes. Four years ago we began converting all our cropland into pasture and expanded the flock. We are currently running 130 registered ewes with 10 commercial ewes that will be dispersed this year.
We have an 18-cell planned grazing system with 10,000 feet of electric fence and 5,000 feet of underground waterline on 35 acres. We are in the process of installing another 10,000 feet of electric fence on 25 acres that will result in another nine paddocks.
This spring we had an overall lambing average of 1.9 lambs/ewe born with 1.7 lambs weaned.
Thirty percent of the ewes were first-time lambers, having an average of 1.2 lambs/ewe. Of the ewe lambs exposed, 95 percent gave birth at the age of 11-13 months. Our experienced ewes averaged 2.1 lambs/ewe born with 1.9 weaned.
Three ewes needed assistance lambing (one got it, the other two didn’t and lost their lambs), one of which was 8 years old.
The majority of ewe lambs are sold as registered breeding stock; the majority of ram lambs are sold for slaughter. Breeding stock is selected under rigorous criteria, including parasite resistance, hair coat, growth characteristics on grass alone and general thriftiness. Plans for the future include a larger lambing/working shed-currently under construction, later lambing to reduce cold weather losses (10 percent death loss for everything combined, stillborn, drowning in water tank, mashed, runts, etc.), more intense selection for increased body length and a ewe flock of around 160-175 ewes.
Originally published in sheep! November/December 2003 and regularly vetted for accuracy.