Raising sheep in the southeast can be a challenge. That’s because sheep with heavy wool coats don’t thrive all that well in the heat. Plus, internal parasites, the most important mortality threat, are a serious problem in moist southern climates. So what do sheep farmers do? At Back Creek Farm, where Firsthand Foods sheep are raised, the first and most important strategy is breed selection and Katahdin hair sheep are the obvious choice. While its true this breed lacks wool to harvest and generate revenue, the upside is that it thrives in southeastern climates, easily fits into a rotational grazing system, and produces delicious meat.
The second line of defense is to seek out animal lines within the breed that have demonstrated their ability to fend off parasites. Determining this type of genetic predisposition is an active area of agricultural research due to high rates of sheep mortality from parasites and the prevalence of resistance to most treatments. Many of the rams and ewes purchased as reproductive animals at Back Creek were participants in agricultural research studies where they were found to naturally withstand parasites.
Another strategy involves multi-species grazing. Parasites are present in pastures in the tips of the grasses and forages, having been drawn up by moisture in the plants. Sheep parasites are not a problem for cattle so when cattle graze first, they effectively destroy some of the parasite load that would otherwise be a problem for the sheep. And the reverse is true. Cattle parasites don’t bother sheep so grazing them together or in rotation helps with parasite control.
Lastly, young sheep (or lamb) are especially vulnerable to parasites since they tend to lie around in the grass a lot, which increases their exposure. At Back Creek, they are experimenting with keeping the youngest lamb and their mothers in pens off pasture while they are building their immune systems. They are still fed grass but its in the form of hay, which is dry, and thus has minimal to no parasites.