Many young adults who show sheep have a solid background of working with livestock since childhood. That’s the case for Jessica Leary, who started showing sheep with help from her aunt who raises Lincoln sheep. Because there was no opportunity to participate in local 4-H, Leary started her show career in junior shows.

Today, Leary has about 40 Southdowns on her Fox Field Farm in Oakham, MA.

She said the Southdown temperament is what attracted her to the breed. “They can be a little stubborn,” she said, “but they’re easy to work with once I take them to a show, and they’re very friendly.”

Southdowns originated in England as the diminutive Babydoll Southdown and were introduced to the U.S. by colonists. With the help of New Zealand Southdown genetics, U.S. breeders increased the breed’s size to create the modern Southdown.

Leary said desirable breed characteristics include a short, square muzzle, a wooly face, short ears covered with wool, a black nose and mousy brown coloring on the lower legs and muzzle.

While other meat breeds were entering breed classes as highly fitted animals with quite a bit of wool, the Southdown breed association took the initiative to require slick shearing of show sheep. This provides the judge with a more accurate view of animals. Leary said compared to breeds that are fitted with more wool, it’s easier to prepare Southdowns for the show ring.

The Fox Field Farm flock is shorn twice a year, in early spring and again in late autumn. “In early January, we shear heads and boots,” said Leary, “especially if we see a brood ewe that’s ready to lamb so she can see her lambs better.”

The modern version of an old breed

Fall-born Southdown lambs grow quickly with the help of a good creep ration. Photo courtesy of Jessica Leary

Leary said Southdowns have become more competitive over the past several years, and like other breeds, the type has changed. “Before, judges wanted to see big, extreme sheep,” she said. “Now they’re a better size – not as tall, and they’re thicker.”

Rams at Fox Field Farm are placed with ewes in late summer for January and February lambs. Introducing ram genetics is an important aspect of raising registered sheep. Although Leary has attended sales to find new flock sires, she’s found some of the rams offered lack true breed characteristics and has found more desirable rams via online sales.

“A ram might have all the traits we want like a nice, clean front and square head with good lower leg muscle, but have a pink nose,” said Leary, adding that the correct nose color for the breed is solid black. “That isn’t something we want to breed to.”

Leary has tried various breeding techniques including natural cover as well as synchronization with CDIRs (controlled internal drug release dispensers), which can be used to facilitate out-of-season breeding or to synchronize heat cycles. After breeding, Leary’s Southdown ewes are pastured with her aunt’s 100 natural colored and white Lincoln ewes.

“This year we used CIDRs on a lot of ewes,” said Leary. “Then we’ll pull three ewes at a time and put them in with the buck so they aren’t bred all at the same time.” All ewes are pregnancy checked, and most ewes are confirmed pregnant within one or two heat cycles. Leary said this year’s fall lambs were all born with five to seven days.

Lambs are offered creep feed to help provide early, good growth when feed conversion is most efficient.

With good breeding stock, choosing replacement ewe lambs can be difficult. In spring, Leary looks through the lambs to decide which ones to keep for the flock or sell for the lucrative Easter market. A local buyer purchases older animals for processing and sale at farmers markets.

“Our first show is the end of May,” said Leary, “so usually by then, we sift through the ewe lambs and pick the ones we want to keep.”

Brood ewes are maintained on pasture throughout the year, with supplemental hay through winter. Leary purchases small square bales that are easy to take to shows and large round bales to feed at home. She also relies on large round bales of straw for bedding.

The show sheep are kept primarily in the barn and receive supplemental feed as they’re prepared for shows. Leary is constantly trying new feed rations to determine which will be the best match for the animals she’s preparing.

Leary said there are challenges with raising sheep, including ewes that don’t have sufficient milk for lambs, resulting in bottle babies. Predators have also been a challenge.

“A few years ago we had two animals attacked in two nights,” said Leary. “We never determined what it was, but it could have been coyotes. The ground was frozen so we couldn’t see any tracks.”

Parasites are also an ongoing challenge, so Leary tries to stay ahead of potential problems.

Junior Southdown shows will often hold a Southdown market lamb show, which helps breeders learn which lines excel in producing highly marketable offspring. Leary said those who raise other breeds will often choose Southdowns or Southdown crosses for market classes because the breed consistently produces desirable carcasses.

One of Leary’s favorite young ewes is Talula, a yearling out of one of her high-performing breeding lines. “We got confirmation that she’s pregnant so hopefully she’ll have ewe lambs,” she said. “Each year they’ve gotten better.”

by Sally Colby