When it comes to sheep breeds, there’s no mistaking a Cheviot. They’re small in stature compared to most other breeds, but those who raise them select them because they’re hardy, fast-maturing and efficient on grass. And if those traits aren’t enough, Cheviots are attractive with a clean white head and legs and an alert appearance.
Ron and Barb Yochum raise Cheviot sheep in Townville, Crawford County, PA. Their White Birch Farm flock includes 35 purebred ewes and a selection of good rams.
“They’re easy keepers and alert,” said Ron when he was asked to describe what he liked most about the breed. “They’re very good mothers and the babies are hardy when they’re born. They also have a good carcass and they’re noted for their pretty heads with ears set on top of their heads.” Ron added that it’s a common practice of commercial flocks to use Cheviot rams on black-faced ewes to improve the carcass.
Cheviots are one of the true pure breeds, one that has been improved through selection within the breed rather than outcrossing. Because of their purity, the desirable Cheviot traits are evident in crossbreds. Originally from the Cheviot Hills on the Scottish border, shepherds selected animals that could withstand an often harsh environment with little human intervention.
Ron has been raising sheep for 52 years. “I was ten when I started in 4-H,” he said. “I’ve had Cheviots for 22 years. Before that I had Polled Dorsets and Southdowns.” Ron says he’s seen some changes in industry preferences over the years, including increased size. “They’ve gotten bigger, like a lot of other breeds,” he said, adding that despite the changes, the breed’s unique style has remained the same. “The same thing happened with beef cattle. They got so big that it took more to build the frame, then they had to shrink them back down so we could afford to feed them.”
The White Birch flock spends the summer on pasture and is inside during lambing. Lambing begins in January and the last ewe lambs in March. Ron says that last year’s lambing season yielded 26 sets of twins and three sets of triplets. Ewes are well-prepared for lambing after good pasture and fall shearing. “We shear twice a year,” said Ron. “We shear around the first of November so they don’t have a lot of wool on them in January, which makes it nice at lambing. Everything is clean and the babies can find the udder. The second shearing is in May.”
Ron is currently using home-raised rams on the flock, but occasionally introduces outside rams to diversify the genetic pool. Some young stock is sold to other Cheviot breeders as breeding stock and others are raised as freezer lambs. Ron also sells lambs to youth for 4-H and FFA breeding projects, but makes it clear that although Cheviots are known for outstanding carcass quality, the breed won’t hold up to the black faced breeds that dominate market classes.
The Cheviot breed standard requires white fleece and white hair on the head and legs, but Ron says that there’s an occasional black lamb born on the farm, or a lamb with a sizeable black spot on its body. “That’s good,” he said, “because that means there’s dark pigment in the bloodlines to keep the black on the eyes, nose and hooves.” Ron starts watching lambs when they’re very young to look for desirable traits and potential show animals.
The Yochums brought eight sheep to the Keystone International Livestock Expo (KILE) held recently in Harrisburg, PA. Their yearling ewe entry was named champion Cheviot ewe and was also awarded Best Headed Cheviot Ewe. “She’s going to Louisville in November,” said Ron of the young ewe that’s the perfect example of classic Cheviot appearance. “After that she’ll become a mom in the flock.”
Ron did the fitting and show preparation for KILE but enlists help to prepare and show sheep at other shows. “While he’s showing some of them at the state shows, we show a different group at the fairs at home,” said Ron. And while the fleece isn’t a critical judging point for the Cheviot breed as it would be in a wool breed, it’s still important and good judges will part the fleece to check for crimp and quality.
In addition to raising Cheviots, Ron has several other livestock-related passions: fancy poultry and Percheron draft horses. He raises seven breeds of fancy show chickens and sells fertile hatching eggs to other fanciers throughout the country. The Yochums’ biggest show is Ohio National Poultry Show in Columbus, Ohio in November. Prior to the show, birds are fed probiotics to ensure optimum health and resistance to illness and are carefully isolated for a period of time when they return home.
Ron served as a director for the American Cheviot Sheep Society for eight years, and also served as interim secretary during his part of his tenure as a director.