by Sally Colby
Darlene Leary of Wind Valley Farm in Oakham, MA, took a few minutes to talk about sheep during a break from preparing a selection of animals for the show ring at the Keystone International Livestock Expo (KILE) held recently in Harrisburg, PA.
Although Leary is no novice when it comes to raising and showing purebred sheep, this year was different at KILE – it was the first year the show offered classes for Lincolns. “We brought natural-colored Lincolns,” said Leary, who partners with Bryan Mason to operate the farm. “It’s the first year they’re being shown [at KILE] so we want to support that show.” Wind Valley Farm is home to four breeds, but the Lincolns, which vary in color from almost black to silvery gray, belong to Leary and Mason, who is also the shearer for the flock.
Natural-colored Lincolns were added to the Wind Valley flock four years ago when Leary had the opportunity to purchase 41 natural-colored Lincolns from New York Lincoln breeder Joe Seavey. “All were good quality, and it kept a long-time breeding program going,” she said. “Sometimes, with a group of sheep, you have to cull some of the brood ewes, but we’ve only culled three ewes so far. It’s a good group of sheep and they’re our main breed now.”
Today, Leary has about 30 Lincoln ewes. In the autumn of 2017, 22 ewe lambs were born, adding to the options for flock replacements. “We’re just getting started with lambing this year,” she said. “We breed purposely for fall because barn space is limited. The goal is to have about half the ewes lamb in fall.”
To ensure a uniform lamb crop and the ability to select replacements from similar age groups, Leary uses CIDRs (controlled intervaginal drug release) to synchronize estrous, bringing ewes into heat uniformly and at a time that works best for overall farm management. While all four breeds are kept together throughout the year, they’re separated for breeding. With four breeds and the need to maintain separate breeding groups, Leary has found several neighbors with small acreage willing to host ewes with a ram during breeding season.
Lincolns, whether white or natural-colored, are a true multi-purpose sheep. “With a Lincoln, there’s a carcass, a fleece and a pelt,” said Leary. “That makes the most sense to me. It’s the most useable breed for us for what we’re doing.” Leary has some lambs processed at a USDA facility and works with a local golf course restaurant to feature Wind Valley Farm lamb on the menu.
Leary said that jet-black natural-colored Lincolns will usually retain a dark color, while silver or mixed fleeces tend to lighten over the years. Pelts, which are highly desirable for outstanding luster and unique color, are processed at Bucks County Fur in Pennsylvania. Leary sends some fleeces to Baaay State Blankets, and others are sold to private individuals and offered at the fiber festival in November at the Big E.
“We do a lot of fleece management,” said Leary, adding that fence line feeding helps keep feed and chaff out of the fleeces. “This is the time of year we like to shear the Lincoln ewes. After we have rain, the fleeces dry for two days, then the fleeces come back ‘up’ and the dirt is out.” Mason shears the Lincolns twice a year, in March and October. Leary said the spring-sheared wool isn’t as high quality as autumn-shorn wool. Yearling ewes are sheared, and Leary can usually market those fleeces via social media.
Brood ewes are maintained on pasture, and Leary has developed a partnership with Cold Harbor Brewing, a local craft brewery in Westborough, to obtain spent grains for supplemental feeding. “They brew twice a week, so I pick up spent brewer’s grains twice a week in 55-gallon barrels,” she said, adding that she’s been feeding spent grains for three years. “We feed it to all the sheep, but it’s mostly for the pastured sheep to supplement pasture. Our brood ewes don’t typically get any grain until a week or so before they’re due to lamb.” Leary has found that while most of the flock is eager to eat spent grains, there are several sheep that don’t like it. “Spent grain has been our biggest lifesaver,” she said. “We have about 15 acres of pasture to graze, so that gives us some rotation, but the brewer’s grains help so much.”
To prepare Lincolns for the show ring, sheep are first trained to walk on a halter. As the show date nears, bellies are sheared and the tips of the lustrous locks are clipped to shape the animal and highlight its most positive qualities. Three years ago, Wind Valley Farm was named premier breeder at the Big E, and received the premier exhibitor award two years in a row. “At Big E this year, there were six Lincolns in the fall ewe class, and they were all bred by us,” said Leary, adding that it’s satisfying to see others have success from sheep resulting from her breeding program. Leary sometimes exhibits sheep at the North American International Livestock Exposition (NAILE) in Louisville, KY, and determines whether she has animals suitable for that show based on their performance in shows leading up to NAILE. Because of the time and expense of traveling to a show that’s quite a distance from Massachusetts, Leary prefers to take a large group to NAILE.
While natural-colored Lincolns account for the majority of sheep at Wind Valley Farm, the farm is also home to Hampshires, Southdowns and Dorpers. “We have a variety,” said Leary. “We have two meat breeds, a fleece breed and a hair breed.”
The 15 Hampshires are owned by Malcom Johnson of New York, the 20 Southdowns belong to niece Jessica Leary, and nephew Jakob Leary is working on establishing a Dorper flock. Both Jessica and Jakob help prepare and show sheep. Whenever possible, Leary and her family purchase new stock privately and support online purebred sales.
Although predators are an ongoing issue for most sheep owners, Leary said they had an isolated coyote attack three years ago when the fence was down. “It was a dry year,” she said. “The stone wall sunk and left a perfect ‘V,’ and they went right under.” Leary has since seen coyotes on the game cameras, but they haven’t been a problem.
Leary likes to see young people becoming involved with sheep. “It helps them learn responsibility,” she said, “and they spend less time on electronic devices.”
Learn more about Wind Valley Farm on Facebook.