Before we get into it, I want to say right off that I love my Icelandic Sheep! I have total respect for all the things that make them fabulous - that they are resilient, multi-purpose, and independent. When we started our farm, they seemed to be the perfect fit for what we were looking to do - raise multi-purpose, heritage breed livestock that retained as much of their ‘original’ characteristics as possible. Plus, already having Icelandic Chickens, and an Icelandic Horse, they seemed like the most obvious choice for us.
What I want to share here is what we learned about how Icelandics fit into our particular farm, and the land, grass, and infrastructure we have currently, and how we have adjusted our sheep-keeping to include Icelandics, but expanded and shifted our focus to include a second breed as well. As you will see, being flexible enough to make sure you have the right animals for your particular setup and your precise land and environment can make a big difference!
Our Icelandic Sheep Experience
After a ton of research, we started our Icelandic flock in 2018 with three registered bred ewes. At our highest numbers, we had about 25 Icelandic sheep, including mature ewes, 2 mature rams, and young sheep at various ages. We also have two excellent mentors who are available to help us along the way, answering questions we had anytime we ask. While everyone’s experience starting out is different, I wanted to share the three main challenges we faced, and continue to manage, as we work with Icelandic sheep.
Without a doubt, our biggest struggle with Icelandics has been and continues to be parasites, particularly in lambs. We started out taking a conservative approach, fearing building too much resistance to medications and only treating when FAMACHAS got pretty seriously poor. After losing a significant portion of our lambs the first year, we started to be more aggressive with parasite treatment, and also kept most of our lambs on dry lot or stalled until they were 3-4 months old. We had better success this way, but I didn’t like having to keep the sheep contained instead of grazing. Last year we let them stay on pasture but again, and even with aggressive parasite management, lost a number of lambs, and even a young ewe. During this time we were also learning a lot more about our farm and our land. People in our neighborhood shared with us the history of the farm, and how the land had been used. We discovered that the rubble from numerous barns had been buried just under a top layer of soil. And that after that, cattle were allowed to graze the pasture down to nothing year after year. In short, our land was poorly taken care of. We started to make connections between the poor quality of the soil/grass and the prevalence of parasites. As a result of our learning, we have begun making strategic choices about which sheep to retain-selecting those which have thrived, even in our less than ideal pastures. Below you will find the other criteria we now use when determining which Icelandics stay on our farm.
With the limited exception of two small pastures, our fifteen acres is currently unfenced. We use electric net fencing to keep our sheep and pigs contained and to move them around to fresh grazing areas in the summer. In general, the electric net fence works great for the Icelandic sheep, when it is HOT, and when it is perfectly set up, with enough tension, no holes, and no sagging. Of course, it is very difficult to keep your fence this way 100% of the time. More than any of our other animals on the farm (even our goats), we have found the Icelandics to be fence testers and fence jumpers. This winter we have had incredible amounts of snow - 40” at one time - and many of our fences are now frozen in ice, crushed or buried halfway in snow. This has given the three Icelandic sheep that are still outside free reign to go wherever they want. At the moment, they obey no fence, hop whatever one they want, and occasionally wander towards the road. Obviously, this is a dangerous situation, and quite annoying too!
While we hoped to take advantage of the Icelandic for at least two of its three purposes (wool and meat), our primary function on our farm is to raise meat animals. Due to the heavy losses of lambs we have experienced in our first few years, we have only been able to take a few to market so far. While the meat we got back was received by our customers extremely positively in terms of taste and quality, the yields were quite small. Another challenge has been timing. Because Icelandics are seasonal breeders, we can realistically only have lamb available from them at a certain point of the year. This often misses out on opportunities including religious holidays and festivals where lamb is in high demand.
How We Pivoted
Given the challenges we experienced with our Icelandic flock, I felt like we needed to make a pivot in our sheep-keeping plan. Sheep are essential to our overall farm plan for two important reasons. First, they qualify us for grants through our county soil and water department that are helping us get fencing and a better watering system, which benefits ALL of our livestock. Second, they have the ability to help us restore our soil and land through an integrated, holistic pasture management system. I wanted to hang on to Icelandics, but I needed another kind of sheep that would get meat to market at other times of the year, and would hopefully be more parasite resistant on our land. To meet those needs we decided on Katahdin hair sheep. We knew several farmers in our area that kept large flocks of Katahdins with success, in various types of pasture environments ranging from the forest (silvopasture) to open grasslands to solar grazing fields. In late 2019 we got our first bred Katahdins and had our first lambs in early 2020. For us, the difference in resilience and management has been night and day. We have not lost a single Katahdin lamb to parasites, and we have only had to treat one of our 10 adults for signs of parasites and her FAMACHA was barely in the range of needing treatment. Our Katahdins are also much more content to stay in their fences. They don’t tend to wander, test or get stuck in them. And, because they have a much longer breeding season, We can have meat lambs available throughout the year. BUT. We are still keeping Icelandics. Why? Because of the reasons, I stated at the beginning. We have been very selective about the animals we kept, and here are some of the criteria we used to make decisions on what sheep remained:
If the sheep was born on our farm, it must not have needed treatment for parasites
If the sheep were not born on our farm, they must not have needed more than one treatment for parasites
If the sheep has lambed, it must have lambed, and nursed, without difficulty
The sheep must produce at least average to good quality wool.
Our current flock consists of about 25 sheep, with 10 ewes still to lamb. We are maintaining about 65% Katahdins and 45% Icelandics. We continue to learn more about our sheep and our land each season of each year, and remain open to making adjustments as necessary. I’ve come to realize that not only must your livestock be a good fit for what you want in your farm plan, but must also fit into your land and infrastructure so that they, and you can thrive!