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Prospective sheep farmers visit North Star Farms

Man shears sheepThe number of sheep and sheep producers are growing in Maine and beyond. The Maine Sheep Breeders Association, in partnership with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, has developed a 30-month long project known as the “Outreach to Emerging Maine Sheep Entrepreneurs”. The project’s purpose is to equip new sheep producers with knowledge and skills for a successful sheep enterprise.

Leah Hoenen is a participant and has volunteered to write about her experiences and share them with the UMaine Extension Community:

sheepLast summer, my husband and I made a deal. We’d buy a farm and bring my horses to Maine and I’d buy him some sheep. He’s always wanted sheep, I needed to have my horses nearby; it made sense. The horses arrived last July. It’s time for me to deliver. This year is Sheep Year and we decided to kick it off with a lambing day.

The lambs (and sheep) are so cute that any reservations I may have had about us having some of our own start to evaporate on the spot. That promise I made is materializing right before my eyes and that panicky feeling starts to come back. Thus far, I have deliberately avoided contact with lambs for this very reason. If it’s cute or comes with a sad story, I want to take it home. This is not a good thing: I don’t know what to do with sheep – at all. Until the beginning of this year, my sheep-knowledge account was bankrupt. I know they stand on four feet and grow wool. I think they eat grass. It’s not enough to go on.

That’s why we turned up at 10 a.m., March 30 when Phil and Lisa Webster opened their farm to the public and to participants in the Emerging Maine Sheep Entrepreneurs program (that’s us!). UMaine’s Cooperative Extension and the Maine Sheep Breeders Association are putting together 30 months of classes and activities for people who want to be shepherds. We need them.

sheep producerI stopped freaking out about taking on a new category of pet/livestock around Lisa’s second sentence. She’s an encyclopedia. Spending two hours at the Websters’ farm was like reading a book in a day.

The tours were open question-and-answer sessions with a focus on lambing (that’s definitely in our five-year plan, not our first-year plan). While we acquired a great deal of information on breeding, lambing and the types of sheep used for different purposes, we also came away with a decent stash of general information above and beyond the regular advice to keep them dry and clean. To wit: It’s ok to feed sheep grain – they’ll probably need it. Don’t let them get fat (that’s going to be really hard for me).

At some point we’ll want to breed our sheep. Maybe I take All Creatures Great and Small too literally, but the anecdotes I’ve heard always led me to believe sheep had difficult deliveries and I pictured myself having to channel my inner midwife every spring, although I’m sure I would take the OB-sleeve route over the aforementioned All Creatures’ “hot water, soap and a towel” routine. But, apparently, ewes do alright on their own, as a rule, and that’s a relief. Phil and Lisa tube colostrum into their lambs, and that is definitely something I want to practice with an experienced guide before I’m in a position of needing to do it at home on my own. (Tubing is something horse owners are generally discouraged from attempting alone at home).

Our notes are extensive and our brains are in high gear. We have a lot to learn. The first course we are taking as part of the entrepreneur’s program is “So You Want to Farm in Maine.” I call it “Don’t Go Broke Farming in Maine.” We haven’t taken any courses on not damaging our animals yet, so the open farm day was effectively the first one of those.

The take-away: we can do this. Armed with some husbandry courses, good books and hopefully several more farm visits, we’ll be in decent shape to embark on this endeavor, without worrying that we’ll inadvertently kill the poor things out of sheer (shear?) ignorance, but feeling like we can take good care of them and see them thrive.

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