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Katahdin Hair Sheep

These sheep are missing something, and that's good, say Ron and Judy Monson. The Katahdin breed has hair instead of wool, and that means less work, according to the couple, who raise the sheep near Perham, Minnesota.

Ron remembers raising wool sheep as a teenager. "Shearing the wool was tough," he recalls, but the price paid for wool nearly covered feed costs. Now meat sheep producers are lucky if wool prices cover shearing costs. Plus, it's difficult to find someone to shear small flocks.

Katahdin sheep are perfect for people who want to raise easy-care livestock, says Jim Morgan, breed secretary for the Katahdin Hair Sheep International (KHSI). He and his wife raise Katahdins near Fayetteville, Arkansas. He says the ewes are excellent mothers and don't reject multiple lambs. Docking (removing tails) and crutching (removing wool on ewes before lambing) aren't necessary.

Katahdins are a medium-size breed; ewes range from 140 to 185 pounds. The lambs don't reach market weight as fast as some meat breeds, but they do just fine. Though they have no wool, they are hardy in climates from South America to Canada. Unlike many sheep breeds, they do well in hot, humid weather, thanks to their West African heritage. In colder climates, Katahdins grow a downy wool undercoat that sheds in the spring.

Just the right size

Ron, a credit card machine salesman, did the math before purchasing his first Katahdin ewes. He could feed one cow or six ewes with the same amount of pasture and hay. Six ewes could potentially produce 12 or more lambs - some to market, some to eat, some to breed.

Small flocks -- around 20 ewes -- can be raised without a large investment in handling equipment. A pickup with a topper or racks is all that's needed to transport them.

"They're moderate size and easy to handle," Ron says as he holds a Katahdin ewe to remove a piece of twine caught in her hoof. The ewes were recently moved to a new pasture Ron rents, and he watches for twine as well as other hazards.

Though the flock requires careful monitoring during lambing, the newborn lambs are on their feet and nursing immediately. The Monsons' first-time mothers have a 190% lambing rate. Mortality is low.

Ron studied the KHSI Web site and talked to producers before he bought his first batch of ewes. He learned about potential sheep diseases and what genetic lines had the best resistance. He also wanted bloodlines with bigger ewes.

His first batch of seven ewes from Alabama had the genetics he wanted. He added another 15 ewes from Oklahoma, then 17 from Arkansas, and then 29 from Oregon. The genetic diversity helps the herd stay healthy, but the Monsons still keep a close eye on the flock. "It's good to take a look at the girls every day," Ron says, as he and Judy mingle with their ewes on a foggy morning. Part of the chores is to look for any problems, but it's also done because the Monsons enjoy spending time with the animals.

3 things to get started

Morgan tells Katahdin producers they need three things:

1. Sheep-proof fence. Woven wire is typically the best option. Electric fence works, but requires more maintenance. It needs to have low-impedance fence chargers and high-tensile wire.

2. Predator protection. Guardian dogs or guardian animals such as donkeys or llamas work well. Ron bought a llama after losing a couple of lambs to coyotes. Putting the sheep in high-fenced corrals for the night is another option.

3. Shelter for lambing. If lambs are born when it's cold or wet, it's nice to have shelter, though Katahdins have proven to be quite hardy. Proper nutrition keeps them in good body condition and decreases the requirement for shelter.

A tasty market

The Monsons sell lambs as breeding stock and for meat. Some buyers pay a premium for unblemished (not castrated and no ear tags) lambs with tails. The breeding lambs often go to folks on small acreages who don't want to mess with shearing wool. Having fewer chores means more time to sit back and enjoy the experience.

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