Farming Magazine - May, 2008
The Future of Hair Sheep
Cutting costs with marine precision
Part 2 of a 3-Part Series
As retired U.S. Marines, Bob and Leslie Wilson bring
military precision to their Longview Farm in Morristown, N.Y., on the Black
Lake. Bob says, “First learn, then plan, then execute.”
The Wilsons left Maryland after Sept. 11 in search of
land to live a simpler, agricultural lifestyle. A good deal of
reconnoitering by road trip across New York State preceded their purchase
of a farm that dates to 1828 in St. Lawrence County. They first looked at
the farm in February 2003. They were attracted by the reasonably-price land
with strong water reserves, but wanted to see how well it would drain in
After signing the deed came a year’s worth of
cleaning and remodeling of the barn that had not been maintained since the
1970s. Out with the old hay, in with a new mow floor. Amish neighbors
helped with residing the barn.
|Sheep are natural grazers and the Katahdin hair sheep are known for their mildly
flavored meat. These are just two of the reasons that the Wilsons chose to raise
this breed. The sheep shed their coats so they do not need to be sheared. They
also do not need tails docked.
Leslie says, “We removed 4 miles of old barbed
wire and load after load of old tractor tires, and don’t forget the
sweat-of-the-brow equity put in at the kitchen table planning barn and
The first 17 ewes arrived in 2004 and were kept for a
year to grow into maturity before starting a breeding program.
“We started small so we could learn, keep our
mistakes manageable and make incremental advances with less risk,”
Bob says. “We learned so we could execute sounder decisions for
growing into the carrying capacity of our equipment and
|These Katahdin Hair Sheep at Longview Farm are seen in a pen and with one of the feeders that the Wilsons made from locally-cut rough lumber.
Grass-based equals cost control
Keeping input costs low is a priority for the Wilsons,
so they purchased locally-cut rough lumber to build sheep pens, chutes and
feeders where old dairy stanchions had been.
|Bob Wilson, left, talks about using the Spin Doctor to handle sheep as fellow
Katahdin breeder Earle Travis listens with a group of farm visitors on a hair sheep
farms tour organized by Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.
From the start, the Wilsons were focused on creating a
sustainable, grass-based farm. Leslie says, “We try to mimic Mother
Nature as much as possible.”
They lamb in the spring and sell lambs raised on
mother’s milk and grass in the fall. They experimented with summer
and fall lambing, but find that lambing after May 1st works best for them,
with just Willie, the border collie, as help.
They castrate their ram lambs to keep them on their
mom’s milk and grass longer. The Katahdin breed produces 70 to
85-pound lambs that are well-sized for the ethnic market buyers at the New
Holland (Pa.) auction house where the Wilsons send their sheep.
“It is most cost-effective for us to sell our
excess lambs in the fall without having fed any grain,” Bob says.
They decided to raise Katahdin sheep so they would not
need to dock their tails or shear their wool, and for the breed’s
high parasite resistance and easy keeping, the opportunity to sell starter
flocks and the mild-flavored Katahdin meat.
“The future is bright for the Katahdin. These sheep have the one of fastest growing registries in
the U.S. We believe this breed allows us to reduce our workload, increase
our working efficiency and have time to do other things,” Bob says.
By the summer of 2008, the Wilsons will have 30 of
their 140 acres fenced and dotted with 100 grazing 100 ewes.
Slowly growing larger, stronger
“We figure the farm could handle a flock of 400
to 500 ewes, but we want to slowly grow into the workload until the need to
hire help would force a decision about getting larger. Another measuring
stick is to look at the way we do something and to ask if we could do it
that way when we are 70. If not, we develop a different way,” Bob
|The only help Bob and Leslie Wilson
have on their hair sheep farm works
for room and board.
The Wilsons are focused on maintaining healthy ewes
with healthy lambs as the marketable byproduct. At the end of each day,
Leslie takes 15 minutes to watch the flock and make sure all are doing
“I look to see if they are eating properly,
drinking, which animals might be looking thin. This process helped accustom
me to learning the normal behavior for sheep,” says Leslie, who is in
charge of keeping detailed and precise records on lambing dates, weights,
medical treatments, feet trimming, etc.
“We are prepared to cull ruthlessly to preserve
the integrity of the flock as a collective unit. Our objective is to retain
the best ewe lambs from our best-producing ewes, and the rest must go on
the truck,” Bob says.
Although Leslie knows the sheep by name, she notes
that she maintains an emotional detachment from the animals, which makes it
easier to send them to market. Bob says he thinks in terms of the numbers
of “exportable units for market” based on the type of truck
available to transport the sheep to New Holland.
Shepherds, citizens, neighbors
Having met in the Gulf War, Bob and Leslie have spent
time in other parts of the world where raising sheep has a long historic
tradition. Bob says, “Watching the
shepherds and Bedouins in places like
Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, I realized that raising sheep has been going on
since the days of Abraham, and I like the connectivity we now have to a
traditional lifestyle that endures and makes an essentially health and
He adds, “We have the luxury to be able to
develop a life plan into which we fit the farm business. That plan allows
us to be good neighbors, volunteer in the community and to be a citizen
first. Our time spent defending the notion of American citizenship around
the world means something precious when you come back home and settle on a
farm that has been home to a couple of dozen families since the
Bob notes that the local community has also helped
them grow into their farm.
|Neighbors passing by Longview Farm have marveled at the disciplined grazing style
of the Katahdin Hair Sheep owned by retired U.S. Marines Bob and Leslie Wilson.
Bob says people ask if the sheep have been trained.
“We have had lots of help from neighboring
farmers, implement dealers and from people like Betsy Hodge at Cornell
Cooperative Cooperative of St. Lawrence County, and Sandy von Allmen [a
shepherdess, sheep shearer and farmer-advisor to the Northern New York
Agricultural Development Program],” he says.
“We see sheep as a viable option to diversify an
existing farm, start a nondairy farming operation, and for our Amish
neighbors to create cash flow,” Bob says. “We already receive
about dozen unsolicited inquiries about the hair sheep each
|Although Bob Wilson is handy with a hammer and a trained stone carver, he does
not consider himself a welder, so the Wilsons purchased this Sydell “Spin Doctor” for
easier handling of their sheep for hoof trimming and other care.
Bob and Leslie have set their mission objective for
the next five years.
“Earle Travis [see the previous issue of Farming],
Leslie and I have set a goal over to establish 10 starter flockers of
Katahdin sheep locally over the next five years,” Bob says.
“Increasing our numbers will help us pool our resources, get better
deals on purchases and transportation, and have a larger supply of lambs to
sell at better pricing. We are on the cusp of a Renaissance of sustainable
agriculture here that we can be part of.”
In part three, learn how the LaMothe family is
pioneering large flock management of hair sheep with 240 Dorper-St. Croix
crossbreds on one of their two farms in Antwerp, N.Y.
The author is a freelance writer who keeps horses and
sheep on a 100-acre farm in Mannsville, N.Y.
For More Information on Raising Hair Sheep
in Northern New York
3801 County Route 6
Hammond, N.Y. 13646-4143
Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County
Sheep and Goat Program Educator Betsy Hodge
1894 State Highway 68
Canton, N.Y. 13617
Northern New York Agricultural Development Program
A farmer-driven program Web site that includes info on grass-based agriculture,
livestock production, marketing, IPM, soil surveys, dairy and more.
Livestock Marketing Toolkit For Beef, Pork, Lamb
A binder of best management practices profiles, promotion materials, 17-
page checklist for production costs, processing, pricing, food safety, advertising,
PR, industry associations; produced with support from Northern New
York Agricultural Development Program and New York Farm Viability Institute.
Cost is about $15 plus shipping. For more info: Bernadette Logozar, Cornell
Cooperative Extension of Franklin County, 518-483-7403.
Sheep and Goat Marketing Program at Cornell University
New Holland auction prices, sheep symposium and shearing school info,
production and management resources, research reports, etc.
Joint program of the University of Maryland and Cornell University provides
educational resources, marketing and producer directories, calendar of
events, links and market inquiries.