My philosophy is to maximize the maternal instincts of the Katahdin breed without sacrificing growth. This produces a balanced animal that can produce quality market lambs under a wide range of production systems. The flock is bred to become self-sufficient with low maintenance and minimal intervention. At the CMG Katahdin farm, we don't work for our sheep, our sheep work for us.
The perfect animal for me is a 160-170 pound ewe who will have twins or triplets every time without losing a lamb. The ewe would keep her twins or triplets within five feet at all times during the first week of life. This is what I consider to be strong maternal instincts. When you take a newborn lamb away from a highly maternal ewe (e.g. to weight it and tag it) that ewe will stomp her feet and bleet obscenities at you until the lamb is returned. In addition, this ewe has ample milk to raise the twins/triplets with a good rate of gain. The best mothers put all their energy into raising their lambs to the point of sacrificing their own body condition. After weaning her lambs, the ewe is able to regain her strengh on grass alone (or medium quality hay) until she is ready to be bred again.
In northern Iowa, the grazing season lasts 6-7 months a year and the stored forage season is 5-6 months. My stored forage consists of large round bales and large square bales of hay and the ewes are allowed to self-feed. During early gestation, you must be careful not to feed high quality hay because if the ewes get too fat too early they are prone to pregnancy toxemia. It is a common mistake to overfeed this breed too early in gestation. This is due to the extreme ability for this breed to convert feed into energy. As gestation progresses, the quality of hay should be gradually increased without overfeeding the ewes. (Higher quality hay may be used in a limit-feeding system but that is not applicable for the CMG Katahdin system.) Around the time that the lambs are born, it is safe and beneficial to increase to a high quality hay, and continue this through lactation. If I don't have access to high quality hay, I will continue to feed with the lower quality hay and add shell corn at the rate of one pound per ewe per day during lactation. This helps give the ewes the energy to produce the quantity of milk needed to feed her twins/triplets. There is a direct correlation to the birth weight of the lambs as the quality of the feed changes. You need to develop a "shepherd's eye" in order to adjust the feed to obtain the optimum size lamb. My optimum lambs are 9 pound triplets and 11 pound twins.
I turn the rams in to breed the ewes on pasture in late August or early September, depending on weather. The ewes are sorted into several evenly matched groups and one ram is turned in with each group. All groups must be treated the same. After two complete estrus cycles, the rams are removed and all the ewes are placed back together again. The reason for this is to get an accurate comparison of each ram's performance.
The only reason I watch the lambing is to gather data for registration and for the National Sheep Improvement Program (NSIP). This program is a system that provides statistical performance analysis for the comparison of sheep within your flock and also with other flocks using the NSIP. The Katahdin breed has been very agressive in using the NSIP program to identify the strengths and weaknesses of breeding stock. The traits that are identified by the system are weaning weights, 120 day weights, maternal milk production, prolificacy, percent weaned, and total pounds weaned per ewe per lambing. For more information on NSIP and a complete description of the traits, go to NSIP.org. [One example of how to use the NSIP would be that in a commercial flock of 1000 ewes, an average value of +5 in the ewe flock would provide an extra 5000 pounds of lamb weaned per lambing compared to an average flock.]