Year-round lambing with planned crossbreds

CN-MR-3-Year round 1by Sally Colby

It isn’t easy to supply large amounts of fresh lamb year-round, but North Star Sheep Farm is doing just that. With about 825 ewes on four farms and a carefully planned breeding schedule, North Star is providing lamb to Whole Foods and New England chefs.

“We were born into it and it’s part of our lives,” said Lisa Webster, explaining that she and her husband Phil are fourth and fifth generation sheep farmers. “The farm we live on has been continually in use for the past 300 years.”

To ensure a strong group of working ewes that do well on pasture and produce lambs reliably, the Websters have incorporated seven breeds: Suffolk, Hampshire, Polypay, Rambouillet, Icelandic and Scottish Blackface.

“Our seventh breed is our commercial crossbred,” explained Lisa. “They’re our own sheep that are a Polypay, Hampshire and Suffolk cross. Those are the ones that are most likely to lamb out of season for us. They’re all third-generation females and we’ll continue to develop that cross.” As they grow the flock, the Websters will continue to keep purebred Hampshire ewes and Suffolk rams. “The goal is to eventually have 4,000 to 5,000 commercial ewes to supply the demand of our market,” said Lisa.

The Websters use a combination of FAMACHA and observation to manage parasites. “We rotate all of our ewe flock, in groups of 100 to 200, Each group has four pastures throughout the growing season,” said Lisa. “After they lamb, they are dewormed, and are dewormed again prior to breeding. Other than that, it’s on a case-by-case basis. If a sheep is off feed or isn’t doing well, the first thing we check for is parasites. If we have a group of ewes in a pasture that we’re having a problem with, we’ll close that pasture down and allow it to rest.” Lisa has found that when sheep are weakened due to parasite load, other weaknesses will follow. “They aren’t as hardy and have other issues  — it’s an indicator of the animal’s health.”

Lisa says that it takes at least three generations to develop a hardy, parasite-resistant animal for the New England environment. “Any time we purchase additional animals, we expect that they’ll require more feed and have more issues with parasites, but we expect their daughters to be more hardy,” she said. “The third generation is where we get really tough — they have to either flush up on pasture or that line naturally goes away.”

Breeding is nearly year-round, with rams pulled out so that there’s no lambing during January and most of February. Sheep are required to work at North Star Farm. “The big Suffolk and Hampshire sheep are large breeds typically accustomed to housing with a lot of corn in their feed program, are out on pasture grazing and get small amounts of oats and barley,” said Lisa. “They’re expected to do well with 90 percent intake grass in the summer and hay in the winter.”

Ewes are brought into lambing barns in the last few weeks prior to lambing. Lambs are started on creep feed at 30 days. Target market weight is 120 lbs., with an average hanging weight of 65 lbs. Lisa tracks market weights and cutability; she keeps that data to choose flock replacements. Phil hand selects 60 to 75 animals from a group of 200 hundred finished lambs for processing each week.

In addition to creating ewes that work for them, the Websters have also developed their own rams. “I purchased a flock of Suffolk ewes from Montana several years ago and spent a year gathering semen based on EPDs (expected progeny difference) of grandsons,” said Lisa. “That’s the basis for building the battery of Suffolk rams that are currently being used as flock sires.” Although many large commercial flocks don’t exhibit sheep, Phil and Lisa have always shown sheep and appreciate the opinion of judges in the show ring. They just returned from NAILE in Louisville, KY where a homebred ram was named reserve grand champion Suffolk ram.

“I believe that when you go to shows, you should take a representation of what your flock is,” said Lisa. “We use it as a chance to showcase what we’re doing rather than chase ribbons.”

Biosecurity is critical for sheep flocks, especially when new animals are being added to the flock. In addition to building the flock from within, the Websters often add ewes from outside flocks. New ewes from other farms are housed in separate buildings and graze on separate pastures, and are not intermingled with the farm’s existing flock until they go into the lambing barn. Sheep that go to shows are housed in a separate building for three weeks after returning to the farm.

North Star Farms markets to Whole Foods and works with a chef’s community to supply lamb. “It was word of mouth,” said Lisa, explaining how she introduced lamb to restaurants. “I worked closely with several chefs and it grew from there. My chefs are very loyal, and as long as I consistently give them a good product at a reasonable price, I have good long-term partnerships.”

Lisa also volunteers for the ASI (American Sheep Industry), cooking lamb and discussing farming in New England for both demo and media events, which helps increase the visibility of American lamb for North Star Farm and other sheep farms.

“We have a responsibility to grow a good product,” said Lisa. “If that product isn’t fresh, or is old in the package or on the hoof, it isn’t going to taste right.”

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