LineupI attended the KHSI Expo last weekend, in Indiana, Pennsylvania. Since it took me all day to fly there (I lose three hours traveling in that direction) I second-guessed myself whether it’s worth the time and expense to go all that way. But, it was, I had a great  time. Part of it is visiting with friends and making new ones, who are all sheep and Katahdin fanatics. I shared a room with two other women, so that was cheap; we were fed as part of the registration fee, so my biggest expense was just the flight. There were several really good speakers that I enjoyed- people I would likely never hear on this coast. I hardly got any sleep. And, I do enjoy the chance to evangelize NSIP when I can, and that venue is a prime opportunity. I’ll probably write a couple of posts about seminars I attended. But today I want to comment on the sale.

First off, I should say, there are a lot of ways to skin a cat. Lots of different feeding systems and rearing methods. If a person has found a method that works for them, and it’s making them money, well, good for them. I’m in no position to suggest they should change their approach. But it’s interesting to ponder what methods might be sustainable in some areas or niches, but not in others. And whether some people might inadvertently be hurting themselves down the road, and not realizing it. 

TwoEwesThe sale is fun to attend because you get to see, all in one place, sheep that come from austere, grass-fed systems, all the way to sheep that appear to have been fed more like foie gras geese. Just looking at the hay supply (or lack thereof) some people brought gave some hint about the ratio of roughage to grain that was being fed. Every time I spotted a pen of smaller-framed, leaner sheep, I’d ask the owner if they had been creep-fed. All but one pen had been given at least some grain (maybe some, belatedly and ineffectively, in attempt to put fat onto lean grassfeeders to make them look more show/sale-worthy?) I only found one producer who was doing 100% grass feeding on their lambs. But it was clear that some flocks had been fed a much more modest diet than others.

In the class lineup photos in the show arena, the sheep are all in a similar age group, so it makes it great for comparison. (At KHSI, there is no show competition, but the sale animals are brought out into the ring so potential buyers can get a better look at them standing and walking, and get their hands on them, if they choose.) I was distracted doing something when the ram lambs were in the ring, so I didn’t take pictures of those, these are all ewes. These are all just random pictures, the text doesn’t necessarily comment on any one of them. I just tried to capture some interesting views where very different sheep were positioned near each other. I’ve tried to cut the people out of the photos, because who’s who is not what interests me. But you can see a big spread not only in how the different animals were fed in the months leading up to the sale, but also just the skill and investment some folks put into presentation, from washing (bluing?), grooming, outfitting with attractive halter tack, stacking and even trotting their sheep. While other folks are a little more casual in their showmanship. Winking smile Some people were very serious the entire time during the presentation phase, concentrating on ensuring their sheep was always perfectly posed, subtly tweaking things like cow hocks and dippy toplines when they thought no buyers were looking. Other handlers used the time to yak with friends while appearing to have little awareness of or concern for how their sheep looked at the other end of the lead rope. Open-mouthed smile

TwoEwes2And, Holy Mother of God, there were some fat sheep there. Part of the convention of this sale is that an independent person objectively assesses the Body Condition Score (BCS) of all the sheep, and that gets posted on their sale cards. There were definitely a lot of fives there. But, I heard some hint that it’s avoided to actually give anyone a score of five, for risk of offending people and potentially discouraging them from participation in the event (as five is generally considered obese, so it would be somewhat insulting for a person to call another person’s sheep a five). So, one might presume that the modified scale used was probably more like 2-4, in quarter point increments, and anything near four, well, hmm. That’s pretty fat.


For butcher lambs, my feeling is, feed away- if you’ve got access to inexpensive, rich feed which accelerates growth and speeds your path to profits, and your customer is happy with the palatability, you should go for it. I do have concerns about feeding replacement ewelambs this way, however. For one, it’s known that over-fed ewelambs start laying fat deposits down in the udder, which compromises its productivity for life. I don’t want to insult anyone personally, so I was trying to surreptitiously photograph this ewe’s udder in a way that doesn’t identify her. Hopefully you can see a glimpse of what I mean- she either looks like she’s three months along in an accidental breeding; or she’s got a fat udder as a maiden ewe. Udder

I would be very nervous about buying such a ewe, regardless of how beautiful she might be, for fear of her being an unproductive mother, especially if she has triplets. However, in a high input system, perhaps any lack of milk quantity or quality is masked by the availability of soybean meal to the lambs, such that it’s a don’t-care for some folks. But beyond just udder development, I worry that ewes that are pushed to skeletal maturity too fast and loaded-up with extra weight, it may compromise their bone and joint structure, sacrificing their longevity and ability to hold up under years of multi-birth pregnancies. Our giant-breed dog friends learned that the hard way, that the bigger framed the animal, the slower you need to grow it if you want it to have a healthy, pain-free, and reasonably long life.

My other concern with buying a very highly conditioned sheep is, I have no idea what that sheep’s innate potential is. Even a terrible sheep can be made to look pretty good if fed the most generous diet, coddled to the max and presented skillfully. So, producers who super-feed, I think, tend to pat themselves on the back for being a good breeder, because all their sheep look really prime and seem consistent. In contrast, sheep on marginal forage given little de-worming and other intervention really show a big spread between the top and bottom performers. This makes it easier to identify the superior genetics and concentrate on them, while letting the poorer ones go. If all your sheep are just fat and fatter, and have been de-wormed continuously, it’s hard to tell, which ones are really the best growers and most hardy so you can improve your flock genetics over time? It becomes less about being a good breeder, and mostly about being a good feeder.

Then, there is just the sustainability aspect of over-feeding sheep into obesity. This level of fatness is far beyond what the butcher market requires, and in fact many packers would financially penalize lambs that are carrying too much condition. So, from a meat production standpoint, over-conditioning animals is just dumping money down the drain. There may be a small niche market for very expensive, fancy-looking breeding stock, but it’s not an expandable market. So, maybe you can sell twenty lambs into the $1,000 breeding animal niche. But you probably can’t sell a hundred, or thousand. So anyone breeding with scale has to settle for selling most animals into the slaughter channel, where certainly it makes no sense to put this much fat onto them.

On another topic, the USDA Dale Bumpers Small Farms Research Center is doing work with Katahdins, and they usually send some to sales. One reason is, they can’t sell private-treaty, since they are a government entity and must avoid conflict of interest. So, the only way to dissipate excess numbers is via public auctions. But their other intent is to share with seed stock producers the good genetics they are producing in their studies, and to educate people on their work. The research they are doing with their Katahdin flock right now is using EBVs to improve profitability traits, including ultrasound scanning for loin eye and fat depth in their sheep. So, all their sheep at the sale had shaved spots on their spines and sides near the last rib, from earlier scanning.

ShavedSheepInPenThe Center is also using Fecal Egg Count (FEC) EBVs to breed in more parasite resistance. Though they do utilize some grain in their system, they are an organic operation that’s moving towards being solely grass-fed. The animals they presented had very impressive EBVs for parasite resistance- some in the top 5-10% in the country; paired with very strong growth and maternal scores. The animals were also very grass-fed-ey looking. Sadly, both last year and this year, I saw them sell for low prices, there just wasn’t much interest in them. It’s really a shame, because they have tremendous data backing them, most people just don’t know what they’re missing out on. I’d have snapped up those sheep in a heartbeat if they were closer to home. Ironically, I suppose some of the folks buying them may be newbies who felt like they couldn’t afford the more expensive, super-conditioned sheep there; yet little do they know, they are taking home gold mines of genetic potential!


Other grass-fed-looking sheep garnered very little interest, the auctioneer seemed to struggle to elicit minimum bids on most of them. It’s really unfortunate, for those may have been sheep that could fatten equally to the fatty fivers given the right food supply, and they have proven their hardiness by being the top picks in a system of constant challenge. But it’s comparing apples to oranges to look at them in a bunch, and unfair to penalize the low-input animals when they may have been subsisting on marginal forage and perhaps less or no de-worming compared to their feedlot counterparts.

There was one pen of ewes that really caught my eye. I wish I had taken a picture, but maybe it’s best that I didn’t. This pen was owned by a person who is a very experienced and skilled showman and presenter, and all of his sheep are very highly conditioned and immaculately presented. Except, there was one ewe in the pen that wasn’t. At all. She was shorter-statured, smaller-framed, thin, narrow, hipbones visible, rough-coated and very refined.  The song from Sesame Street popped into my head (do you remember it, played while there was a foursquare presentation of things or kids moving about in different frames, three similar, one different?)

Three of these kids belong together, three of these kids are kind of the same. But one if these kids is dong her own thing, now it’s time to play our game, it’s time to play our game!

So the game is, why was this ewe so dramatically different than the others in the pen? Here’s a possible clue: she was a substitution for another ewe that had been pulled from the sale; whereas her penmates had all been planned entries. KHSI requires that you bring a ratio of ewes to rams, so the sale doesn’t just fill up with rams. So this person may have been cornered into conjuring up a replacement ewe for the one that couldn’t be brought, to prevent having to make the difficult choice to leave an extra ram at home to keep the right ratio. I can only guess that this ewe was pulled out of the pasture at the last minute to fill the slot. And so, she looked like she had been pulled out of the pasture. !!!! It made me chuckle, that his secret was revealed, and that he allowed it  to be revealed: yeah, your sheep look just like the grass-fed ones, *when they are grass-fed.* And they magically transform into butterball turkeys when you plan ahead and feed them differently in preparation for exhibition and sale. I wonder how many other viewers made that connection?

FourEwesI was heartened to see that other NSIP sheep there that had been conditioned more, but not excessively so, sold for good prices. Carl Ginapp (CMG) had the high-selling ram at $2,000. I actually did the bidding on this sheep, but not for my too-far-away-to-transport-sheep self, but rather as a conduit via cell phone for another Michelle who couldn’t attend. The auctioneer was very kind in allowing for some lag time for phone bids, frequently looking over to ask “what say you, person on the phone?” This was especially helpful to me, as I am kind of a nervous auction bidder anyway, and it was hard to relay information back and forth, with the very loud loudspeakers, trying to repeat what the auctioneer was saying into the phone, straining to hear what was said on the phone, and repeat back exactly what the buyer said so there was no miscommunication. It was a lively bidding war that had everyone laughing. 

This ram has some impressive EBVs for growth:

BWT: 0.7 (bottom 1% in the nation, not so great, as smaller is better here, but it’s a fight to keep it low when WWT rises)
WWT: 3.4 (top 1% in the nation)
PWWT: 6.1 (top 1% in the nation)
MWWT: 1.1 (top 4% in the nation)
NLB: 8% (60th percentile)
NLW: 10% (60th percentile)
Index: 107.2 (20th percentile)

Here is Carl, posing with his money-maker! The ram is a beefy tank, for sure!