Farming Magazine - May, 2008


The Future of Hair Sheep

Cutting costs with marine precision
By Kara Lynn Dunn

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 the spring.

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 field layout.”

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 ourselves.”

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 says

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 well.

“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 productive contribution.”

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 1828.”

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 year.”

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

Longview Farm
Robert E.Wilson
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.