Selecting a sheep breed represents an important part of the process of launching a sheep operation. For sheep breeders Steve Gabriel and Alex Caskey, the Katahdin breed checks all the boxes.
The two presented “Katahdin Sheep: A Versatile Breed for Pasture and Silvopasture” as a webinar hosted by Food Animal Concerns Trust. Gabriel operates Wellspring Forest Farm in Trumansburg, NY, and Alex Caskey owns Barred Owl Brook Farm in Essex, NY.
When Gabriel first took over 10 acres of former hay land in 2011, his goals included restoring more trees and reducing unwanted undergrowth to create a forest farm on the land. Katahdin sheep have proven instrumental as animal partners in improving his land. In 2013, he acquired a small flock and soon learned that Katahdins like foraging on nearly anything, as if they were goats – a helpful trait for his overgrown property.
“Through the process of working with lots of different animals, it’s important to match the animals to your goals and the state of succession your land is on and the market, if your goal is to sell products,” Gabriel said.
Selling fiber wasn’t one of his goals, so a hair sheep variety like Katahdin made sense. He raises between 30 and 70 Katahdins annually to sell as wholes and halves, although his mushroom business is the most profitable revenue stream on the farm. Still, he thinks it’s worthwhile to raise sheep.
“The ecological value is the big thing,” Gabriel said. “We’ve learned along the way that each animal in a community is unique with ever-changing dietary needs.”
The diverse buffet his land offered has helped keep his sheep healthy. For example, in the 2016 drought, his sheep foraged on a woody hedgerow for weeks. The hedgerow was “overgrown, impenetrable” but his flock was happy to help reduce its size – and gain something from its ingestion.
“The tannins in the willow reduce parasite loads and methane output and balance some of their rumen,” Gabriel said.
The sheep have also eaten unwanted honeysuckles and helped with planting trees. Gabriel accomplished the latter by bale grazing poor quality hay where he wanted to plant trees. The debris they left from bale grazing offered mulch and the sheep fertilized the area as well.
“That helped us move things along,” he said regarding his goals for reforesting his land. “We can’t do things with nearly the efficiency or joy they do this with.”
Many experts in silvopasture advise keeping livestock away from saplings until the trees grow above the height of the forage; however, Gabriel said that longer may be warranted with Katahdin sheep as they may still damage the bark on young trees because they enjoy chewing on woody vegetation.
Michael Piel developed the Katahdin in the 1950s in Maine and named the breed after Mt. Katahdin, the state’s highest peak. Although Katahdin tend to run small, Gabriel has bred his flock for size and this has not proven a big issue. He likes their “mellow disposition and good mothering instincts and a good propensity to work on the landscape,” he said.
Their hardiness allows them to winter outdoors with only windbreaks and tree shelters, although he makes small shelters available. The flock uses these only for the very worst weather. Gabriel times lambing for late spring so his animals can lamb on pasture.
“There’s some focus on continuing to remove animals susceptible to parasites,” Gabriel said. “It’s a good rule in small ruminants, but we’ve had low instances of that. Fence jumpers always need to leave the farm sooner than later.”
He selects animals for culling based on size, mothering ability and parasite resistance.
Caskey faced similar problems as Gabriel when he began farming in 2019 – land that had laid fallow for 25 to 30 years lacking any agricultural infrastructure like fences and waterlines. While he builds those as time and finances allow, Katahdins allow him to farm in the meantime, as their hardiness and ability to use shrubs and trees for fodder enable the animals to thrive under less-than-ideal circumstances and with a shepherd with limited experience.
“The exceptional mothering ability is definitely something that stood out to me with this breed,” Caskey added. “While I think Katahdins tend to be more parasite resistant, it’s not a guarantee.”
He currently has 19 ewes bred and plans to genotype this year. Caskey hopes to continue the genetic improvement of his flock and sell breeding stock.
“If you do that well, you’re retaining your best animals,” he said. “Everything else, we sell and try not to overwinter. Right now, we have a great relationship to a neighboring farm. We sell live sheep to them, and that’s great. It allows me to do what I love: working with sheep.”
As he has limited infrastructure, he uses 18 to 20 rolls of fencing electrified by portable chargers. He wants to rotate his flock more but needs to continue to improve his forage to do so.
In winter, he feeds a shredded beet pulp alfalfa mix if required and hay. Like Gabriel, his ewes lamb on pasture. He uses livestock guardian dogs to protect the flock and has experienced no losses to predators.
Caskey recommends joining organizations to gain more information and learn about resources available to shepherds, including the New York State Sheep/Goat Health Assurance Program, FAMACHA, Katahdin Hair Sheep International (katahdins.org), Eastern Alliance for Production of Katahdins (easternalliancekatahdins.com) and the National Sheep Improvement Program (nsip.org).
He encourages anyone shopping for sheep to source from a producer with similar management systems and production goals, not a local barn sale. Farmers doing the latter are “likely just buying someone else’s problem,” Caskey said.
He also stressed the importance of establishing a biosecurity plan, a quarantine plan for sick animals and a relationship with a vet.
“Keep good records,” he added. “It’s very difficult to improve your flock without them.”
by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
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