by Sally Colby
The Keystone International Livestock Expo (KILE) was held recently in Harrisburg, PA, and the sheep show drew exhibitors from across the country. This year’s event offered classes for Lincoln Longwool sheep for the first time.
One Lincoln exhibitor was long-time Greenwood, DE, sheep breeder Debbie Vanderwende, who said her introduction to sheep was in 1990 when her daughter raised Suffolks for 4-H. “Then she added Lincolns,” said Vanderwende. “The Lincoln was a gift to me but I gave it to her because she was the show person.”
The Lincolns appealed to Vanderwende, and as is often the case with those who start with just a few sheep, she started to accumulate a sizeable flock. Although her first Lincoln was natural-colored, Vanderwende eventually added white Lincolns to the flock.
Vanderwende currently has about 150 Lincolns, both white and natural-colored, on her Locust Grove Farm. Natural-colored Lincolns range in color from nearly black to almost white, and some of Vanderwende’s natural-colored sheep have a coloration pattern known as silver saddle. “The rear end is darker than the front,” she said, describing the pattern. “Then there are really light colored sheep, almost white, that get lighter every year.”
Vanderwende is a stickler when it comes to her breeding program, and has worked hard to improve wool in the britches – the wool on the animal’s lower hind legs that can be coarse, hairy and overall lower quality. Although she will usually use white rams to breed white ewes and black rams to breed black ewes, she’ll vary that program to improve individual animals. “I’ll breed a ram, usually a white ram that has a really good britch, to a black ewe to improve the britch,” she said. “If a sheep doesn’t produce a consistently good fleece, they won’t be in the flock for long.”
In the show ring, Lincoln judges evaluate and score animals based on three factors: 40 percent on fleece, 40 percent on conformation and 20 percent on breed character. Vanderwende said wool quality can be the tie-breaker in a class.
“Their wool grows one inch per month,” said Vanderwende. “They’re sheared twice a year, right after the North American International Livestock Exposition [NAILE, held in Louisville, KY] at the end of November and in spring.”
The wool on the forelock portion of a Lincoln’s head typically rolls into dreadlocks, and Vanderwende prefers to remove those dreadlocks from ewes at lambing to make sure ewes’ vision isn’t impacted. “The dreads will come off all the sheep except the babies,” she explained. “I leave them on the babies so they’ll have nice dreads for next year. The second shearing is after the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival in May.”
Vanderwende said that while there’s a good market for Lincoln fleeces, it takes time to develop a strong customer base. “I’m hoping to sell more fleeces online,” she said. “Right now, it’s mostly word-of-mouth, or someone will come up with a tag number from a sheep they saw at a show and ask if I still have the fleece from that sheep.”
The rams are added to the ewe flock on Sept. 1 for early spring lambs and removed at the November shearing. “These girls are on the road so much,” said Vanderwende. “I quarantine them for two weeks when we get home, then clean them up and go on the road again.” Vanderwende realizes that it’s impossible to totally isolate sheep at a show, but she does her best to ensure her animals’ health.
Vanderwende’s flock is closed other than the occasional ram purchased to introduce new bloodlines. When it comes to selecting replacements for the flock, she looks at several factors. Since she knows her ewe families well, performance history is part of the selection criteria, and she keeps a close eye on young animals as they mature. Observation also helps when it comes to selecting animals for the show ring.
Whenever possible, Vanderwende enters two animals, often siblings, in each class at a show so she can see how they compare to one another. Maintaining a high-quality flock has allowed her to sell breeding stock and fleeces, and some lambs are custom processed for local customers.
As she fitted a February 2018 natural-colored Lincoln ram for the show ring, Vanderwende explained that the process involves trimming the wool in and around the neck to blend that area smoothly with the animal’s head. “I’ll blend it in to his shoulder without destroying too much of the lock structure,” she said. “I love the locks, and show sheep in a longer fleece than a lot of others because my next show will be Rhinebeck [at the New York State Sheep and Wool Festival], where I need a long fleece. Also, hand spinners love the longer fiber, so want a good quality product.”
Although most who show sheep use a fitting stand to trim animals prior to a show, Vanderwende uses a method that works well for her. She has found that it’s easier on both her and the sheep to work on them while sitting on a rolling mechanic’s chair. This means she doesn’t have to haul a fitting stand when she travels, and she has also observed that it’s easier on the animal to be tied because it’s something they’re already accustomed to from training at the farm.
The February ram lamb Vanderwende trimmed prior to the show was recently shown at the Big E in Massachusetts, where she exhibited 22 animals. She received three reserve grand champion ribbons, and was named premier exhibitor with her natural-colored Lincolns. Vanderwende also exhibits sheep at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, the Delaware State Fair and the Maryland State Fair.
This is the first time Lincoln breeders have had an opportunity to exhibit at KILE, and many of the classes were large. While most Lincoln shows have separate classes for natural-colored and white sheep, the classes were combined at KILE. Vanderwende exhibited 12 Lincolns at KILE and predicted that showing blacks against whites in the same classes would be more challenging.
“In Great Britain, they don’t recognize black Lincolns,” said Vanderwende, adding that natural-colored Lincolns have become more popular. “Here, it’s because we have a market for the wool.”