Nebraska producers find profits in Katahdin Hair Sheep
October 13, 2009
After several years of raising and shearing angora goats, Chuck and Bev Henkel at Tucker Hill Farm near Norfolk, NE knew they wanted to begin raising sheep, but they preferred not to deal with shearing chores.
“We wanted a meat breed that we could raise and direct market to customers,” Bev says. “We had angora goats for 18 years and did the shearing ourselves. It was very labor intensive. When we sold the goats, we knew we wanted an animal that would fit our pasture management system, because we raise cattle also. Sheep are a complimentary animal for pastures because they’ll eat forage that cattle won’t.”
Katahdin Hair Sheep is the breed the Henkels chose to raise. In addition to having coarse, outer hair fibers in their coats, the sheep are docile and easily handled. They were derived from breeds that originated in the Caribbean and British Islands. Developed in Maine in the 1970s by a breeder there, the sheep tolerate heat and humidity and with good management require only minimal parasite treatment.
“Due to our frequent moves and because the sheep don’t return to the same pastures for two years we have no need to treat them for parasites,” Bev says.
Katahdin ewes and rams reach puberty quickly and have a long and productive life. Mature ewes generally produce twins each year and occasionally have triplets or quadruplets. Flocks that are well-managed and made up of selected sheep should produce a 200 percent crop each year.
Ewes have exceptional mothering instincts and lamb easily. Lambs are vigorous at birth and alert. Rams are aggressive breeders and generally fertile year round. The breed is ideal for pasture lambing and grass/forage-based management systems. Depending on the management style, Katahdins can lamb at anytime during the year.
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“We lamb in May and June,” Bev says. “Lamb is technically an animal that’s one year old or younger. If the sheep is more than a year old, the meat is called mutton. Our lambs graze pastures and finish on grass because that’s what we have. From the research done by Dr. Tilak Dhiman at Utah State’s Skagg Nutrition Lab, ruminant animals will develop the proper Omega 6 and Omega 3 fatty acid balance if they’re fed on grass. Our lambs never receive any corn or starchy grain. We’ve had our meat tested at the Skaggs Lab to ensure the quality of our meat and the process we use produces the type of meat that we know our customers want.”
By the time their lambs are ready for market, they reach a weight of 105 to 110 pounds. Grain-fed lambs and other breeds may weigh more, but the Henkels say there’s no nutritional advantage in a heavier lamb.
“Our cattle are grass-fed too,” Bev says. “If we raised corn for feed, we’d have a lot of additional input costs with seed, fertilizer and equipment and not as healthy a finished product.”
Katahdin lambs produce a high quality, well-muscled carcass that is naturally lean and consistently offers a very mild flavor. Their meat is valued in specialty markets and lambs are sold at weights as low as 95 pounds.
The hair coat of the Katahdin varies in length and texture and can be any color. The Henkels flock is primarily a beige color.
“They develop a thicker coat in fall and winter and shed that in spring,” Bev says. “At that point, their hair is very short and close to their body. In spring they look like sheep that have been sheared. Sometimes they’ll retain little tufts on their body but for the most part they look pretty sleek.”
A two-line electric fence system creates portable paddocks for the sheep. At any given time the Henkels will have about 250 sheep that they move every couple of days. Because their ewes know the system so well, they readily move from their old paddock into a new one.
“They run into the new paddock when its time to move,” Bev says. “They know there’s a new grazing area for them. We have enough pastureland that they won’t graze the same area for two years. Some people think we could have more animals because we have so much pasture, but this way our land stays in good condition. We don’t have to worry about parasites because the sheep move all the time.”
As part of their natural meats system, the Henkels don’t use antibiotics or hormones in their production process. Their animals haven’t had health issues and any animals that require treatment are removed from their program and sold in other markets. They believe their grazing program produces a unique and tasty meat that isn’t easily found.
“We provided lamb at a benefit for an art center in Lincoln,” Bev says. “All the food and drink there was produced by people in eastern Nebraska. At our table one of the women refused the lamb until her husband tasted it and told her he didn’t think she’d want to miss it. When she did taste it, she said she couldn’t believe lamb tasted so good.”
The Henkels have been approached by restaurants searching for a weekly supply of fresh lamb. They don’t have a large enough flock and would have to lamb year round in order to provide a steady supply of fresh meat.
“We receive calls from people on the east and west coast who are looking for the type of meat we raise,” Bev says. “I always try to help them locate someone closer to them producing grass-fed lamb and grass-fed beef because I know there are other producers. I think its best if we all buy as locally and fresh as we can.”
Customers can seasonally purchase grass-fed lamb and grass-fed beef and pork from the Henkels. They also have the opportunity to visit the farm and see the lambs and other livestock.
“Visitors are welcome anytime to come and see how our animals are raised,” Bev says. “One year our visitors saw twins born about 15 feet away from them. That was pretty exciting. We learn as much from our visitors as they do from us.”