Today I'm taking you to Summer Winds Farm, where Cheryl and her family raise Katahdin sheep for their table. Cheryl also has horses, cats and dogs, a garden, and a heifer that will hopefully be her family milk cow in the future.
The things I love about Cheryl's homestead are the house they are building without any debt, and the small "pasture" they've fenced for their grandson to play in. It keeps the dogs and sheep out of his play area so that this active little boy can run around without stepping in, you know, "anything".
Several English shepherds meet me at the door. My dogs Pete and Scooter were born here at Summer Winds Farm. Their father is Zach, pictured above, "farm dog extraordinaire". The dogs politely ask to be petted while Cheryl and I visit.
Why did you choose to raise sheep?
Cheryl: We started our homestead with the intention of being as self-sufficient as possible, so growing our own food was a priority from day one. I started with chickens and loved them and the fresh eggs, but I hated butchering them because of all the feathers. Then we tried goats, and they were great for milk but I could never bring myself to butcher one because they became pets. So sheep were next in line and they turned out to be the perfect meat supply for us. They were inexpensive to raise on pasture. An ewe produced twins at least once a year. They were small enough to butcher easily, and we loved the taste of lamb meat.
Why did you choose the Katahdin breed?
Cheryl: I chose Katahdins because I wanted to be able to do most of the work myself. Wool has almost no value so paying to have sheep sheared didn't appeal to me; since hair sheep shed their coats like dogs they were perfect for me. Katahdins are a bit smaller than some other hair sheep breeds. While that might seem to be a bad thing at first, for us it was a good thing because I wanted to use intensive grazing methods to raise grass-fed lambs, and larger breeds of sheep rarely do well on pasture alone. The smaller size of the Katahdins meant that they could put more of their nutrition into raising their lambs rather than into supporting their own large body weight. I was also drawn to their parasite resistance, good hooves and great mothering abilities.
How did you get started?
Cheryl: Once I decided to try raising sheep I talked to a friend who's had a commercial flock for about 20 years. When I told her that I was planning on starting a small flock but needed to do it on a budget, she suggested that I buy some of her older commercial ewes. Each year a commercial shepherd culls any ewes that need to be wormed too often, have problems lambing, don't hold their weight well, are poor mothers and so on. By the time an ewe is 6-7 years old she's proven her worth by passing all those cull years, but unfortunately in a commercial flock at that point it becomes hard for her to compete for food with the younger ewes. By buying some of her older ewes, I'd be getting great genetics for my flock at a cheap price; I'd just need to provide more feed for them than I would for younger stock. I bought eight ewes and one ram lamb that formed the foundation of a very parasite resistant flock that pretty much lambs on their own. I started my flock eight years ago so those original ewes have all died of old age, but I have their daughters and granddaughters.
What were your goals when you began, and how have they changed over the years?
Cheryl: My goal in the beginning was to raise sheep as our primary source of meat and hopefully at least a small amount of income for the homestead. Until last year I lambed 30-35 ewes each winter. Last year I sold all but a dozen ewes. I'm just getting too old to lamb out more than that. My little flock still provides our meat plus they also mow the acre of grass around our house so that we don't have to. The lambs they produce give us some meat and a bit of bonus income.
What do you enjoy most? the least?
Cheryl: My favorite part of raising sheep is lambing season, and my least favorite part of raising sheep is lambing season too! I love watching a newborn lamb learn to stand and find milk. They are very hardy little creatures and can withstand pretty much anything as long as they get some warm milk in them within the first hour or two. There is also nothing cuter than watching lambs play. They love to race and spend the first couple of months of their life racing each other from one end of the pasture to the other before they settle down to the more serious business of eating and growing.
Lambing season is also rough because things don't always go smoothly. I lamb in January and February because the lambs grow fastest on good pasture; they're pretty much grown by fall when my pasture is gone. But that means that I'm out there checking on ewes in all kinds of weather and that's not much fun!
Katahdins are great mothers and in a typical year I mostly just go outside and find newborn lambs nursing away, but some years things just don't seem to go as planned. This year I used a ram that threw especially big lambs and I had to help some of the younger and smaller ewes by pulling their lambs. Sometimes ewes will reject their lamb, often because they are a first time mother and something interferes, usually a rough birth or the livestock guardian dog gets in the way or something. If that early bonding is interrupted for any reason the ewe often doesn't know that's her lamb and instinctively keeps it away from her udder like she would if it was another ewe's lamb. Then I have to make a judgment call as to whether it's worth the effort to try to make her accept the lamb or take the lamb and bottle-feed it. If she's just a little confused, sometimes I can pen mom and baby together and she will figure it out.
What do your plans for the future include?
Cheryl: I will probably expand my flock a little bit more in the future. I've considered adding a dorper ram to increase the size of my terminal lamb crop, but I haven't made up my mind there yet. I think that I finally have my livestock guardian dogs set up with the right dogs in the right places to protect my sheep. For a long time I've fought coyote losses during lambing season. I'll continue to monitor that area since I know its one of the weakest spots in my program.
I'm always encouraging Cheryl to update the blog she started several years ago, but she says the grandchildren keep her too busy right now. I don't blame her for that, the years go by much too quickly!
Other posts in this series:
White Star Farm
Red Sky Farm
Summer Winds Farm
This post has been shared at some of my favorite blog hops.
My hope is to inspire you, and to encourage your homesteading plans and your dreams of a
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