Counting Sheep

By / Photography By E. S. Bruhmann | March 01, 2011
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Jim Mansfield and Sheep

Kentucky-suited breed brings new income, dinner options

A motorist driving on I-64 between Frankfort and Lexington will likely spend time admiring the animals that graze the rolling fields of grass and enjoying the landscape on which Kentucky has built a considerable reputation.

But it’s not all bluegrass. All those horses are grazing on what agriculture wonks call “forage,” mixtures of plants that include bluegrass, but also include clover, timothy, alfalfa, orchardgrass, fescue, lespedeza and many, many more plant species. Kentucky excels in growing forage, explaining in part its predominance in the horse industry, and the fact that there are more cattle in Kentucky than any other state east of the Mississippi. The land, moisture and weather conditions are why Kentucky farmers raise grazing animals, and why they presently are being encouraged to grow switchgrass for biofuels.

While Mercer County farmer Jim Mansfield owns 40 acres of forage in central Kentucky, racehorses and biofuels aren’t of interest to him. Growing up in Vermont he learned to make maple syrup and was taught “the notion of good-quality food” from his mother, a cookbook writer, whom he describes as “a foodie.”

In and out of college and post-graduate studies in agriculture economics, living around the country as a farmer and agricultural specialist, he has grown cantaloupe and managed 100 acres of sweet potatoes. “I like to raise things I like to eat,” says Mansfield.

These days, he’s growing a new breed of sheep to produce a mild-tasting lamb to sell through Whole Foods. And he’s providing a new source of income for at least 14 Kentucky farmers.

Katahdin sheep, named for Mt. Katahdin in Maine, were developed by a Maine farmer beginning in the 1950s by crossbreeding traditional wool sheep with a Caribbean breed, referred to as “hair” sheep. Unlike dependable and widespread European breeds, Katahdins are not grown for both wool and meat, but meat only. Growing sheep for meat only is not a universally accepted concept, the way it is with cattle industry and even with goats.

The American Sheep Industry Council spends most of its funds promoting and researching wool, and its wool division is its largest membership. But “money’s not in the wool,” says Mansfield, “it’s in the meat.”

In the early 2000s, Mansfield had a herd of cattle on his farm. Most Kentucky farms have beef cattle. The animals are often fed from round bales of hay out in a pasture, and require minimal tending. In Kentucky, a “cow-calf” state, the young are sent to feedlots where they finish growing by eating grain. In this fashion, cattle provide a low-maintenance source of extra income for Kentucky farmers. Unfortunately, Mansfield says, “I didn’t really like [beef cattle] all that well.”

At the time, the University of Kentucky was promoting the attributes of an “all-purpose” sheep breed called Polypay, developed in Idaho by crossing several breeds with different characteristics to produce a sheep with many attributes. They are the Kate Gosselins of sheep, producing multiple lambs early and often. And their wool is high quality.

But an acquaintance of Mansfield’s continually praised her Katahdins, who can withstand heat and humidity (but grow furrier in the winter), often produce twins or triplets, require no shearing, are parasite-resistant and are good mothers. As the Katahdin International website enthusiastically proclaims, “An all purpose sheep, for anyone, at any location, any time of year!”

Low maintenance appealed to Mansfield. “I thought livestock was something I could do part time,” he says, earning a little extra income while he held an office job.

Instead, his little part-time Katahdin herd has turned into herds on the farm across the road and another a few miles away. In addition, a growing number of family farmers around Central Kentucky are building Katahdin herds to grow lamb for Mansfield. One farmer is a logger and vegetable grower; another raises cattle. Raising lamb provides a predictable and additional income stream for each (sheep and cows eat different forages, so they can both occupy the same acreage).

Mansfield’s “New American Lamb” is expanding the ability of Kentucky farms to feed Kentucky’s residents, rather than have us rely on lamb from New Zealand. “It’s obvious we have a real advantage here for raising forages,” says Mansfield, so it seems like the natural place for grazing livestock. Why not raise lamb and sell it to grocery stores? How hard can it be?

Sort of hard, actually. Currently, the American dollar isn’t strong, so New Zealand and Australia are sending most of their lamb to Asia, decreasing the supply to Americans. In addition a growing ethnic population in the U.S. eats lamb regularly, creating a domestic shortage. “Demand is climbing for lamb,” says Mansfield. A lot of that demand is on the East Coast: Boston, Philadelphia, New York.

New Holland, Pennsylvania, is a huge auction site for small ruminants and one that draws much attention from Kentucky farmers. Auctions provide a consistent marketplace for farmers to sell their animals. The drawback, historically, has been low and/or unpredictable prices.

But recent high demand has meant excellent prices for Kentucky farmers who are now happy with what they earn from the auction. “You can almost hear the giant sucking sound,” says Mansfield, as farmers fill their trailers full of small ruminants bound for Pennsylvania.

In a normal market, Mansfield offers Kentucky farmers an advantage: a consistent, guaranteed and fair price for the lambs that are grown according to a set of sustainable standards required first by Mansfield and added to later by Whole Foods buyers. The lambs must be born on the producer’s Kentucky farm, they are constantly on pasture and are never in feedlots. They never receive antibiotics, growth hormones, sulfa drugs, ionophores (an antibiotic replacement) or feed that contains animal products. They stay with their mothers for at least three months.

The result is a consistent supply of Kentucky lamb to Kentuckians. Even though the animals are grass fed (augmented with corn), the meat has a mild taste. Hair sheep do not produce lanolin found in wool, and the telltale lanolin flavor doesn’t appear in Katahdin meat.

Though sheep — and particularly Katahdin sheep — can breed any time of year, the idea of “spring lamb” or Easter lamb is not consistent with colder climates like Kentucky’s, unless you are looking to cook a whole baby lamb, like Roman abbacchio. A lot of resources are required to keep newborn fall lambs healthy through severe winter weather.

The lamb that produces, say, a six-pound leg that you might find in the supermarket, is one that, in nature, would generally be born in the spring and harvested in the fall.

In Kentucky, lamb season is autumn. Still, Mansfield’s charge is to provide lamb to retailers year round. Last year, local markets (including some Kroger stores) carried his product nearly the entire year, with a break in January, due both to the “giant sucking sound” and the season.

Virtually all of Mansfield’s growers are expanding their herds now, as Mansfield is. As the national market moderates, and herds increase, Kentucky-born New American Lamb will be available at Whole Foods in Louisville and Lexington, and in Mason and Cincinnati, Ohio, and other retailers. Soon, perhaps, Kentucky will be known for the preeminence of its homegrown food as well as its racehorses.

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