Marie Roenke, of Trumansburg, NY, was 12 years old when she started raising sheep as a 4-H project. But she didn’t start out with one of the most common breeds.
“I wanted goats, but someone offered me some Jacob sheep,” said Marie. “I said sure, and they brought me two ewe lambs and a ram lamb from North Carolina in the back of their Jeep.”
When Marie got her first Jacob sheep, she had seen the breed but she didn’t know much about them other than the fact that they are a heritage breed. The two ewes, which she showed as breeding sheep, were the first sheep to be shown at the local 4-H show in several years. Eventually more 4-H youth started to show interest in sheep, and the sheep program began to regain popularity.
Marie’s next Jacob sheep came as the result of winning a heritage breed essay contest. “I saw the ad for the contest in a magazine, and I wrote my essay about Jacob sheep and how I wanted to get more into it,” said Marie. “You have to breed the ewe and show her, and make a scrapbook to send to the breeder.” Marie received a ewe lamb through that program, and had to travel to the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival to pick her up. She also picked up a ram on the same trip to further diversify the genetics in her flock.
The first sheep on Marie’s farm, which she named Spot Hollow Farm, had medium fleeces, but Marie says there’s a lot of variation between sheep when it comes to fleece quality. “Mine tend to have finer fleeces because I’ve been working on fleeces so it will be easier for me to sell them for hand-spinning fleeces,” said Marie, adding that the alternative is having the fleece processed into roving. “You can sell the coarser fleeces, but there isn’t as much interest in them.”
As Marie focused on improving the wool quality, she added a finer-wooled Jacob ram she purchased from a breeder Oregon. She began to see improvement in the fleeces of that ram’s offspring. At the same time, Marie continued to purchase ewes with good genetics from across the United States. She says Jacob sheep breeders are helpful to both buyers and sellers when it comes to transporting animals throughout the country.
Today, Marie has about 50 registered Jacob breeding ewes and keeps a selection of young replacements each year. She also has several Jacob crosses out of Finn x Dorset ewes that were bred to Jacob rams. Marie plans to breed the resulting offspring to a Bluefaced Leicester ram to get larger market lambs with quality fleeces. “The first generation crosses have really fine, dense Merino-type fleeces,” said Marie, “and they’re spotted.”
Most people who are somewhat familiar with sheep and are seeing Jacob sheep for the first time are usually taken aback when they see the uniquely spotted Jacob sheep with four horns. Marie says some sheep have six horns, and sheep with two horns are also fairly common. “I try to breed for four horns,” she said. “Once you start getting more than four horns, there’s less space on their heads and there can be problems with horn configuration, such as the horns fusing together or the blood flow is cut off to one horn.”
Marie says the heritability of the horned trait is tricky. “You can raise your chances of getting a decent horned animal by using decent horned sheep,” she said. “But having two parents with perfect horns does not guarantee that you’ll get even decent horns in the lambs. You have to look back further than one generation.” Marie added that environmental factors such as damage to horns in a fight can also affect horn growth; and insufficient nutrition, especially minerals, can also affect horn structure and growth.
Some Jacob sheep will breed out of season, and Marie says there seems to be a genetic component to the trait. She says in general, Jacob sheep lamb easily, and she only has to assist with one or two ewes each season. Most of Marie’s ewes have twins, which she prefers. “My yearlings and older ewes sometimes have singles, and that’s fine,” she said. “But I want the rest to have twins.”
Marie maintains registration on her flock and has recently started to offer breeding stock for sale. “Up until a few years ago, I was selling mostly grass-fed market lambs,” she said. “I’ve gotten more publicity lately and have made a name for myself, and now I can sell more breeding stock.”
As for parasites, which are an ongoing problem for most sheep producers in the northeast, Marie has managed to eliminate most of the ‘problem’ sheep in her flock. She recalls having little trouble with parasites last season because it was so dry, but relies on FAMACHA to determine which sheep should be dewormed. “I haven’t dewormed adult ewes in a while,” said Marie, adding that she deworms some of the lambs every year.
Since there aren’t many sheep shearers in her area, Marie decided it was best to learn how to shear herself. “I went to the Cornell shearing school and my mom got me shears for my birthday,” said Marie. “Now I shear for other people too.” Although she hasn’t yet learned how to spin, Marie would like to learn how to do that.
Marie enjoys showing her sheep and teaching people about the breed. When she has her Jacob sheep at a fair, people ask a lot of questions, including whether it’s normal that they have four horns, and sometimes ask if they’re goats.
In addition to selling fleeces, Marie sells grass-fed lamb to customers. She sells the lamb, arranges delivery to the butcher and customers pick up the cuts. “I also get the head, horns and pelts back,” she said. “I send the pelts for tanning.”
Marie is a recent graduate of Cornell University with a degree in Animal Science. While she was a student at Cornell, Marie worked on the sheep farm, first on night lambing shift and later during the day with routine flock maintenance. She says the experience there has helped her greatly with her own flock.
Marie’s future plans depend on whether she’s accepted for vet school, in which case she’ll probably reduce her herd by eliminating the crossbreds. Otherwise, she’ll continue raising and improving one of the most unique and interesting sheep breeds in the nation.