Katahdins Are A Native, Easy-Keeping Sheep Breed

Katahdins are a resilient native sheep breed that do excellent on pasture, bringing benefits from yard management to meat production, milk and more!

by Masha Dougherty
PHOTO: Guy Sagi/Adobe Stock

For the independent homesteader, Katahdins have everything! The breed was developed in Maine during the 1950s by sheep farmer and amateur geneticist Michael Piel, who named his new breed after the tallest mountain in his state: Mount Katahdin. The hardy Katahdin combines excellent meat production and a rapid growth rate with vigorous reproduction, a self-shedding hair coat and the overall hardiness expected of an American production. Katahdins are also a naturally parasite-resistant sheep breed and produce abundant meat and milk on pasture. 

In the 10 years since I began raising Katahdins, I have fallen in love with these fluffy, stubborn, sweet-tempered sheep. Their hardiness and pasture-wisdom are just the qualities to recommend them to beginners as well as experienced shepherds. Smart, tough sheep that thrive on whatever happens to be growing—what’s not to like?

An Extraordinary Ovine

Katahdins have some great things to offer. They thrive on forage alone and make outstanding use of even very rough pasture and unimproved grazing land. They’re the best tool we know for reclaiming overgrown hillsides and waste fields or cleaning the understory of a forest. 

They also love weeds. Goldenrod, Queen Anne’s lace and blackberry briars are all favorite forages of the Katahdinthe more fibrous, the better. Even shrubs and bushes are food for this tough breed. So if you have pastures you want to improve naturally, bring on Katahdins.

This preference for wild foods is a great quality. In spring and fall, I graze my Katahdins in the woods, where the sheep find and eat a wide variety of plants, nuts and fruits. I find the more places I let my sheep forage, the better. Maybe it just follows that Katahdins are also ideal for reducing invasive plant species.

Japanese knotweed, for example, an aggressive invasive in the northeastern United States, is a favorite meal for my flock. 

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When it’s young and tender, they eat it right down to the ground, letting in sunlight to encourage new and more desirable ground covers. If they graze it later in the year, when it can be as much as 8 feet in height, my determined Katahdins will still strip all the leaves, stunting or killing the unwanted plants. This breed helps with farm work!

Katahdin sheep breed grass
Masha Dougherty

Natural Management

As hair sheep, Katahdins certainly fit shepherds who practice holistic grazing. Their short hair means they ground an electrical charge more easily than their thick-fleeced cousins do. This is a great advantage for sheep farmers. Why? Most folks who manage sheep with electric fencing—a necessity for holistic rotational grazing—must use bulky netting panels to contain their animals. 

I prefer to avoid electric netting for sheep. First, lambs can get entangled, and an animal subjected to repeated shock can die. Secondly, electric netting is a pain to move. It tangles easily. A roll of fence is bulky, heavy and awkward to carry and set up. And panels make the logistics of paddock moves difficult and complicated. 

I’m glad my sheep can be kept in with polytwine: two strands for adult animals, three when the flock includes lambs. There isn’t a need to buy a high-powered charger, either. I often use a small solar energizer of only 0.75 joules. The advantages of simple equipment go beyond making the chores easier. With the flexibility of light-weight reels and twine and a solar charger, I can take my sheep to more places on the farm, utilizing out-of-the-way forages and grooming hard-to-reach areas.

The increased efficiency saves me time and money.

Holistic grazing saves money in more ways than one, especially for breeds such as the Katahdin. Because they’re naturally parasite-
resistant and easy to control, it’s easy to keep these sheep healthy. Frequent moves mean they leave grazed areas before these become infested with worms, something that can be difficult to accomplish with breeds not as well adapted to temporary fence systems. 

No plan for holistic grazing is complete without water and minerals. Fortunately, Katahdins are easy sheep to provide for. 

On pasture, sheep typically drink very little water. A 5-gallon bucket refilled daily may be sufficient for 10 or more sheep. I also keep a copper-free salt block constantly available. (It’s important to avoid mineral blocks that include copper, which can cause toxic buildup in a sheep’s liver.) 

Katahdins’ mixed forage diet provides the bulk of their mineral needs. Some dried kelp offered as an occasional treat takes care of the rest.

Katahdins are hardy animals, and except at times when the weather is extreme or the lambs are very small, the sheep don’t require shelter. Their hair coats are waterproof and provide good insulation. 

Here in northern Appalachia where I live, temperatures may drop below zero on many winter nights. But the cold isn’t a problem for my adult animals. 

During the hottest summer months, I do make sure they have access to shade. Other than that, the infrastructure necessary for Katahdin sheep is minimal.

Breeding & Culling

As with any livestock, it makes a big difference to start with strong breeding stock. I learned this the hard way! My first Katahdins were cull animals from a neighboring farm. That was a big mistake. Although they were strong and healthy, they had mothering problems.

It took three years of uncompromising culling to establish the sound, reliable genetic pool I enjoy now. Don’t be afraid to enact draconian selection practices. The most reliable and effective way to avoid problems is to eliminate problem individuals. 

Katahdins are friendly and tractable, making for ease of management and milking. This breed rewards the regular handling inherent in intensive grass management. Even rams are typically gentle, but don’t let them get too familiar. Any animal may behave aggressively if it sees you as its equal. Never hesitate to replace an aggressive animal. You want to avoid injury and aggressive characteristics reproduced in your flock.

Katahdin lambs mature young, resulting in early availability for breeding. Ewes can be bred at 6 months. They conceive readily, and the rams are typically fertile throughout the year. It follows that you could have as many as three lambings in two years, while the Katahdin’s tough grazing genetics make it a good mother. 

Lambing problems ceased to be an issue as selection improved my flock genetics. Just a hint, though: Be sure to remove male lambs from the breeding flock by 4 months of age to avoid undesirable conceptions.

Although I like ewes to lamb in the barn between December and February (a period of unpredictable weather for my region), the rest of the year my flock lambs in the field. Katahdins seldom need assistance.  

Katahdin sheep breed lamb
britaseifert/Adobe Stock

Natural Health

Katahdins are one the most labor-free flocks you could have. They are less prone to common diseases, and when they are grazed on diverse pasture, they instinctively self-medicate with native plants. This, with Katahdins’ natural parasite-resistance, eliminates the need for toxic dewormers. On the rare occasions when I have seen signs of parasite infestation (a manurey tail or distended belly), the issues have rectified themselves without intervention.

Although much of their resistance is attributable to breed, management is a factor, too. When animals are moved to fresh native pasture on a frequent basis, as in intensive rotational grazing systems, few problems arise. 

I owe my experience with sheep diseases almost exclusively to my conventional neighbors, whose constantly grazed pastures build up soil-borne pathogens. Holistic grazing repays the work involved. I’m reminded of the saying: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Paying Their Way

Katahdins’ growth rate and carcass quality make them a hot commodity on the meat and breeding markets. First, losses are drastically reduced by their parasite-resistance. This breed’s fertility results in flock increases of an average of almost 200 percent per year. The fact that they’re hair sheep eliminates the need to pay for shearing, and their ability to survive on forage alone does away with the No. 1 cost in most sheep operations: grain.

For the homesteader, Katahdins’ size makes these sheep great candidates for home processing. Two people can butcher a medium-sized ram in less than two hours. And for folks that live off-grid, the smaller carcass, consumable in a short time, eliminates the need for refrigeration. Plus, Katahdin meat has a rich tenderness and very mild lamb flavor, making it popular even among lamb critics. 

Milk is another reason to raise Katahdins. Ewes can produce up to 2 quarts of rich, nutrient-dense milk per day, perfect for making rich, fragrant cheeses. Milk from forage has the highest levels of phytochemicals, making it especially healthful. And the tractable nature of this breed means they’re naturals for dairying. Of course, if they are used for milk, it needs to be taken into account that the lambs will need to be raised on artificial means.

Financially, you can start a Katahdin flock very economically. Aside from the cost of the initial fence and breeding stock, raising Katahdins won’t break the bank. In fact, they’re going to save you money, because they reduce lawn care time and costs. Grazed year round, Katahdins utilize forage almost as well as cows, with the added benefit that they can graze the same paddocks multiple times in winter, since their impact is light.

Im grateful for that flock of cull Katahdins of 10 years ago. They taught me so much. Today, Katahdins fill such an important role on our farm that I can’t imagine the place without them. From low maintenance to lamb chops, pasture improvement to parasite resistance, this American breed stands out. They are truly a homestead winner. 

More Information

Lamb Formula Recipe

I rarely see bottle lambs today, but when I do, I mix my own lamb formula: two cups of cow’s milk, an egg and a sprinkle of sugar. That’s it!

The sugar adds energy and palatability, while the egg provides extra protein and aids digestion. Before I got my flock’s genetics worked out, I had a couple bottle lambs per year, and this formula always pulled them through.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2023 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.

Masha Dougherty lives on a small farm in Toronto, Ohio. She enjoys reading philosophy and baking bread, as well as all aspects of farming, especially caring for her flock of Katahdin sheep.

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