There is an increasing number of sheep to be seen on the local hillsides around here, which is something new. (The story is closely connected to another blog post I might write soon, involving a growing ethnic community just south of Shipshewana who eat a lot of lamb.)
One of my good friends here, the son of my beloved Mrs. R., has recently begun raising sheep, so I paid him a visit last week to find out more. Last fall he purchased 80 ewes, and now (it’s May as I write this) it's lambing time!
Sam’s ewes (female adult sheep) are a cross breed—they are half Katahdin and half Dorper sheep. He also has a couple of Katahdin rams as a part of his herd.
I never knew (until now!) that there are actually TWO categories of sheep. There are those raised for their wool, of course—but there are also those raised for their meat, commonly called “hair sheep.” Sam’s Katahdins and Dorpers are breeds of hair sheep. They still grow a thicker coat in the winter, and they shed it in the spring, like most outdoor animals. But they don’t need to be sheared, nor is their coat a good source of wool. They were bred for their ability to produce high quality lamb or mutton meat.
The ewes can produce offspring about every eight months, and the babies take five months to gestate. The ewes can breed any time of year—but Sam separates the rams from the herd from July so he won’t have any lambs born in the winter.
Sam told me that sheep are notorious for getting sick and dying so quickly that nothing can be done for them. For that reason, sheep farmers say, “A sick sheep is a dead sheep.”
Of the 80 females Sam purchased last fall, 76 remained this spring to have offspring, and about 50 have given birth so far. Typically this type of ewe can have two or three lambs, but Sam’s herd are all first-time mothers, so one lamb apiece is the norm. A few of them did have twins—and in the case of the two surviving sets of twins, Sam took the stronger lamb of each pair and brought it to his daughter’s farm, where they are being bottle-fed—something that Sam’s three young grandchildren are enjoying very much! Other strategies for motherless lambs: Sometimes a mother without a lamb can be convinced to “adopt” a lamb without a mother. And Sam’s young neighbor Joel put a motherless lamb together with a mama goat with great success!
A full-grown sheep of this type weighs around 100-110 pounds, but he sells the lambs when they reach ideal weight for lamb meat, which is about 60 pounds. But all his female lambs for this year are already reserved for a fellow Amishman, who is going to use them as ewes to start his own herd.
Sam told me there are somewhere between 100 and 200 local Amish farmers raising sheep now—six in his church district alone. He said that the typical herd size depends on acreage of pasture available. A farmer can have five to eight ewes per acre. In Sam’s case, he has plenty of land. He has four or five pastures which he alternates; he says that it’s best to move the herd when they eat the grass down very low, because the pests and parasites are mostly found close to the ground. His pastures are bordered by an electric fence wire about knee-high—that’s all it takes to keep the sheep contained—although he has regular fencing around the perimeters of his land.
Likes and dislikes of sheep? Sam told me that the sheep really like hills, so they love to run up and down the small hilly areas on his land. What they dislike is wet feet, so they stay out of the water.
Next time you’re in the area, maybe you’ll notice the number of sheep dotting the pastures. The Amish culture may be slow to adopt changes, but not everything stays the same forever around here!
More about Dorper sheep here: https://morningchores.com/dorper-sheep/