Selecting traits that work at White Clover Sheep Farm

CW-MR-2-White clover sheep1by Sally Colby

After visiting a sheep farm as a youngster, Ulf Kintzel decided he wanted to become a shepherd. He spent school vacations working on that farm, and eventually did an apprenticeship in Germany to become a shepherd.

“There was something appealing to me about sheep,” said Kintzel, who moved to the United States in 1995 after graduating with a degree in agricultural engineering. “I was never intrigued the same way by cattle, goats or other livestock.”

Although Kintzel first raised sheep in New Jersey, he and his family now live in Rushville, NY, where they raise White Dorpers on White Clover Sheep Farm. Kintzel started with Texels, and eventually had an opportunity to purchase a White Dorper ram.

“The primary reason I got into this breed is because they are hair sheep and they shed,” he said, referring to his start with White Dorpers. “Wool doesn’t fetch any money and wool sheep still have to be shorn, which becomes a cost and not a profit. Hair sheep became a hot item for many people who want to raise a few sheep or a large flock so the expense of shearing is eliminated.”

As he converted from wool to hair sheep, Kintzel discovered that Dorper meat has a milder flavor, perhaps because they lack wool and lanolin. “The meat from hair sheep, even older animals harvested for sausage or stew, has a much milder flavor with no resemblance of the mutton taste that people find offensive,” he said.

Although meat flavor is an important factor, Dorpers offer other advantages. “They are ideally suited for grass feeding compared to other breeds in the United States,” said Kintzel. “Other breeds are bred to be too large and without depth. There’s not enough rumen capacity, so they must be fed grain to maintain body condition or to fatten or raise lambs.” Kintzel noted White Dorpers are a hardy breed and don’t usually require assistance at lambing. “Their survival instincts are intact,” he said. “The lambs get up and nurse quickly.”

Kintzel explained that one disadvantage of most hair breeds is that they don’t develop a good, meaty carcass. He added the most popular hair sheep, the Katahdin, has its place in sheep production but doesn’t produce a prime carcass. In comparison, the White Dorper produces a meaty carcass that is comparable to any of the wool sheep breeds.

Although some shepherds choose hair breeds for their parasite resistance, Kintzel says White Dorpers are no more or less resistant to internal parasites. However, he continually selects for parasite resistance within his own flock, and carefully manages all aspects of production to maintain that resistance. The result of this effort is that Kintzel can still use all three classes of anthelmintic products on his farm. “It’s a mixture of grazing (leaving residual forage), select sheep that are best-suited for environment, cull sheep that show signs of parasites and deworm on a need basis and not on a regular schedule,” he said, discussing his comprehensive approach to parasite control. “If you do all of that, your dewormers will work for a long time.”

Like other hair breeds, White Dorpers willingly graze a broad variety of pasture species that other sheep breeds refuse. The primary pasture species on White Clover Sheep Farm’s 135 acres of grazing land is orchardgrass. Kintzel adds red clover and white clover through frost seeding.

The flock currently includes 250 ewes, and because Kintzel does the majority of the farm work himself, he plans for three separate lambing seasons: at the beginning of January, late January/early February, and March. He achieves an annual average lambing percentage on adult ewes of about 1.8 lambs/ewe. Ewe lambs are bred for the first time during the same year they were born, which Kintzel says results in more total lambs during that ewe’s lifetime. Lambs are born in a modern, airy barn, and can be moved to individual jugs for a short time when necessary for bonding.

One unique aspect of Kintzel’s operation is the use of German Shepherd Dogs (GSD) — the breed he worked with in Germany — for herding. “It’s a tending breed,” said Kintzel, explaining the role of the GSD. “These dogs are not used to fetch and gather sheep in a fenced pasture. They aren’t good at doing an outrun. They are used to tend sheep in fields that are open or next to fields with crops. They patrol a straight line rather than going in an arc-shaped pattern around them.” Kintzel trains GSDs for herding work, and holds an annual herding trial at his farm in October. “It reflects Shepherd’s Day in miniature in old-world Germany,” he said.

To keep coyotes at bay, Kintzel uses guardian dogs: a mature Great Pyrenees and a young Akbash in training. Kintzel doesn’t use the GSDs for herding when the guardian dogs are in the fields. “Guardian dogs have the ability to recognize some regular herding dogs,” he said. “But you don’t want to overdo it and have seven or eight different dogs work on the flock.”

Kintzel says quality hair sheep that are suitable for grazing are a hard to find commodity, so people are anxious to purchase White Dorper and White Dorper crosses. “Most Dorpers in the Northeast are show sheep, and are grain fed, so I have a market niche with very little competition,” he said. “I sell breeding stock within New York, and as far as Ohio, down to South Carolina and east to Vermont,” he said. “Almost half of what I sell is breeding stock.”

In addition to selling breeding stock, Kintzel markets lambs through a buying club in New Jersey and through other vendors who distribute lamb to stores and restaurants. “There’s a substantial group of people nowadays who seek the connection to a farmer,” he said. “They’re willing to pay a little more to get it from a source they know.” Lambs are marketed at about 80+ pounds but under 100 pounds. “That’s the ideal carcass,” said Kintzel. “It’s the right ratio of meat, fat and bones. Traditional American lamb is larger when it’s harvested, and getting to that weight takes more time and effort.”

Kintzel’s wife Barbara works off the farm, but raises poultry and vegetables for the family. Children Sarah (age 15) Johann (age 11) and Lech (age 9) help with chores and assist when sheep are worked in the chutes.

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