Katahdin Hair Sheep Upgrade Project – Phase II

2005 Annual Report for LNE03-178

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2003: $105,690.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2007
Region: Northeast
State: Maine
Project Leader:
Dr. Richard Brzozowski
University of Maine Cooperative Extension

Katahdin Hair Sheep Upgrade Project – Phase II


Three of the major problems facing the sheep industry today include (1) low wool prices, (2) increasing resistance by the major internal parasite in sheep, Haemonchus contortus, to all forms of chemical control (anthelmintics or dewormers), and (3) the health challenge of the prion disease in sheep (scrapie). This project addressed all three problems.

The Katahdin Hair Sheep breed was selected for this project because it produces no wool and does not need to be shorn. Currently the return to most sheep producers from the sale of wool is less than the cost of shearing. Meanwhile, the price of lamb meat has continued to rise. Hair sheep seem to take advantage of these two factors.

A technique to test for resistance to infection by the major internal parasite was used in this project. Selective cross breeding was used to produce Katahdin sheep with improved natural resistance. An unexpected spin off was a recent development of the technique by sheep research workers in South Africa that made monitoring parasite infection levels easier for farmers. This technique is known by the name “FAMACHA”. We have become one of the few in the United States to train producers on how to use this on-farm procedure to monitor internal parasite load.

In cooperation with Dr. Katherine O’Rourke, of Washington State University, we used genetic testing techniques to select Katahdin sheep with greater resistance to scrapie. This valuable approach offers the opportunity along with the USDA Scrapie Eradication Program to rid the sheep industry of this disease.

The project also used selective breeding to provide the genetic base for producing a more acceptable lamb carcass (slaughter weight, muscling and leanness). Cross breeding was used to improve carcass characteristics including size of the carcass, leg muscle size and increased loin muscling. The cross breeding resulted hybrid vigor, thus faster growing and heavier muscled lambs.

The project has also provided the opportunity to investigate the biological mechanism of how animals are more resistant to Haemonchus contortus. Nine Bowdoin College students completed research on various aspects with two publishing Honors thesis. In addition, one University of Maine student examined the genetic and immunological difference in parasite resistant and non-resistant sheep from the project as a part of his Masters degree awarded in 2005.

The project through support of SARE grant LNE-03-178 will continue through June 2006. The breeding stock developed from the project (ewes and rams) were distributed to 10 selected shepherds in the Northeast through an application process in August of 2005. Since that date, the researchers have worked with these producers by providing information, materials and special training.

The Katahdin Hair Sheep breed has grown in popularity over the last few years and is now one of the largest sheep registries (number of registered sheep) in the United States. The producers who received the Katahdin breeding stock from this project will have excellent opportunities to produce high quality meat lambs. In addition, they have the potential to greatly benefit from the unique genetic features by selling offspring as breeding stock.

Objectives/Performance Targets

Sixteen hundred current sheep farmers and those considering sheep who will receive information about hair sheep, rotational grazing, use of production records, the scrapie certification program and proactive sheep health programs: At this time, we estimate that we have reached approximately 1,000 current sheep farmers since the beginning of this project through field days, tours, articles, television feature stories, table-top displays, presentations and workshops. This is short of our original goal.

We are unable to document meeting all of the original performance targets at this time. These original targets included:
20 farmers have added hair sheep to their farming operation.

30 improved their efforts in using rotational grazing on their sheep farm.

20 began the use of a production record system.

20 joined the scrapie certification program.

20 began a customized preventative health care program.

Through a defined breeding program and using a detailed selection process, the Katahdin Hair Sheep will be upgraded to produce a larger, more market acceptable lamb carcass weight and have an increased resistance to internal parasites. We have accomplished this target and have proof with our production records, muscle measurements, and parasite monitoring records.

By the end of the project, at least 60 breeding ewes will be produced and ready for distribution to selected producers in the Northeast. Applications will be received from at least 25 farms and 10 farms will be selected to receive a group of upgraded breeding animals for production of lamb meat and breeding stock. This selected group of farmers will also commit to participation in the formation of a group breeding and marketing program. This target was reached.


From the very first breeding to the last, we have been pleased and somewhat surprised at the high genetic heritability seen with breeding for resistance to parasite infection. This result is even more important now than when the project began since more and more sheep producers are finding that the chemical control of Haemonchus contortus is becoming less effective. Interest in and about the project has grown and in 2005 we were invited to make presentations in Maine, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York.

By the end of Year Two, we produced 14 breeding animals that tested to be resistant to infection by the parasite. By the end of the project in the summer of 2005 we had approximately 100 animals that have tested to be resistant.

At the end of Year Five, we had a lambing percentage of 200% live animals (at weaning), that had an average weight gain of 0.60 pounds per day on grass with some grain supplement (creep fed). We have been able to demonstrate that it is possible to increase the level of parasite resistance and establish more clearly that selected breeding programs can be used as a powerful tool in controlling round worm infection.

One of the major breakthroughs that occurred during the second year of the study was learning about the FAMACHA technique for measuring level of parasite infection. Other techniques require special expensive equipment and a great deal of time and practice. This new technique (FAMACHA) developed in South Africa requires no microscope or special equipment and virtually anyone with good eyesight can be trained to be skilled in the technique.

We recognized the importance of the FAMACHA technique and Professor Settlemire was trained in the use of the procedure. Currently he is one of the few individuals in the Northeast who is certified to train farmers and others in the procedure. This technique has not only made the work for this project more efficient but over 100 farmers, extension agents and research workers have been trained as part of this project on how to use the procedure. We surveyed participants of FAMACHA trainings in the northeast region late in 2005 and have not yet fully compiled the results.

*1600 farmers learn about the project through field days, written articles, public presentations, newsletters and the web page. We have not yet met this milestone of 1600 producers. We were not able to get a web site up and working as we had expected. However, we did reach approximately 1,000 producers and interested individuals with information from the project.

*300 farmers attend on-farm field days to learn about hair sheep and the production systems used in this project. We were able to hold three field days at which approximately 90 farmers attended (total). However, we hosted at least three tours of the research flock at which over 100 farmers (and farm couples) learned about the research project. We hosted the Katahdin Hair Sheep International Gathering in 2003. A total of 100 people participated in some aspect of the three-day educational event.

* 200 people will learn about the project by presentations at workshops, shepherd schools and sheep meetings. We believe this was accomplished through the first 4 years of this research project. We had articles published in the Shepherd magazine, a magazine with a national readership. Presentations were given at 19 different locations. Tabletop displays were presented at agricultural fairs and sheep & wool festivals with posters and handouts.

* By the end of year two, a larger framed body and increased resistance to internal parasites will be incorporated into the breeding ewes. This milestone was accomplished and the animals have improved each successive year.

* 50 farmers request information as a result of reading articles. We are unable to document this milestone at this time. However, articles about the project appeared in the Shepherd magazine, one of the most popular sheep producer magazines in the country. The editor of Shepherd magazine attended the Katahdin Hair Sheep International Gathering in 2003 held in Maine. He interviewed several participants.

* 60 will request information as a result of reading the web page. A web page was never developed. This milestone was not reached.

* 20 will begin some form of production record program. We are unable to document this milestone at this time. We hope to be able to document this milestone by the end of the project (June 2006).

* 30 will begin or improve their use of rotational grazing. We are unable to document this milestone at this time.

* 20 farmers will join the national scrapie certification program. We are unable to document this milestone at this time. We know that several sheep producers have become registered to participate in the scrapie program in Maine over the last three years. However, we do not have proof showing it was our project that helped them make that decision.

* 60 farmers will request application material to receive a group of the upgraded Katahdin ewes developed by the project. This milestone is scheduled to be reached by the end of the project (June 2006).

* 25 farmers will complete the application requested breeding sheep, agreeing to participate in the group breeding program, become part of NSIP and join the scrapie certification program. This milestone is scheduled to be reached by the end of the project (June 2006).

* Ten selected farmers received mini flocks (9 ewes and a ram each). They have formed a group which will continue to upgrade their respective flocks so as to market meat and breeding stock. This milestone was met in 2005.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

A major impact of this project was the distribution of the animals obtained from the breeding in this project to farmers. This occurred in the summer of 2005. Ten farmers received a group of ten breeding animals (ewe lambs, brood ewes and a ram) with unique genetics. These were resistant to infection by Haemonchus contortus, the cause of the number one problem in the sheep industry. The sheep producers who received the animals now have the opportunity to not only produce high quality meat animals without chemical intervention but also have the opportunity to sell breeding stock. We believe the offspring which are resistant to infection will be in high demand and offer excellent opportunities to have a sheep enterprise that will add significantly to their farm income.