Why Icelandic Sheep?

Many of you have heard me wax poetic about a thousand year old, hardy breed of sheep called Icelandics.

Kim and I recently returned from a scenic spot of land high up in the Mad River Valley of Vermont. There we attended an Icelandic Sheep workshop by Helen Whybrow of Knoll Farm.

Why the breed suits us

Our first foray with Icelandics was in Espergaerde, Copenhagen. Through a friend living there, we were introduced to Bo and his wife who tend a flock of 30 sheep on shared, public leased land (a neat idea for the Greenhorns to look into).

Icelandic Sheep - trimming hooves

We spent time with them during lambing. After lots of tagging ears, trimming hooves, checking placentas and herding ewes and their lambs together for some alone time to bond, we knew this was a breed we could work with.

A Triple Purpose Breed (for Triple Green Jade Farm)

It’s commonly known that Icelandics are a triple purpose breed. They are known for wool, meat and milk.

They produce two kinds of wool, the tog and the thell. One is light and delicate while the other is thicker and denser. These can be spun separately or together to produce amazing wool crafts, something that Kimmy is quite keen on.

Because they are a 100% grass-fed breed, they can thrive (and have survived for millennia) on good pasture.

For meat, this makes a tasty and healthy lamb that is in high demand for conscious carnivores.

The other item they can produce for about 7 months out of the year is milk. While the quantity is lower than other breeds devoted strictly for milking, like Friesians, the Icelandic do produce a milk with a high butterfat content that is perfect for cheese making.

Since our goals are more towards quality and not necessarily on producing a large quantity, having a hardy breed that can thrive in our cold Adirondack winters, one that has very few issues with lambing and that is grass-fed suits us well.

After we renovate the milking parlor at the farm, we are keen on adding on a cheese making facility.

Icelandic sheep at Knoll Farm

Pasture Management

As we have researched and spent time with the breed, this has confirmed our intent to make Icelandics part of our overall livestock plan.

At the workshop, we talked a lot about pasture management and how multi-species grazing (cows, sheep, chickens and pigs) can be an excellent solution for pasture health.

Monoculture isn’t just inefficient for plants, it’s also inefficient for livestock.

Talking about bio-diversity is right up my alley because after all it’s just following nature’s lead.

As a farmer, we’re all working for Mother Nature, weather we like it not.

That’s why I think multi-species rotational grazing is the bee’s knees.

Holistic farming and viewing the farm as a living system not only makes ecological sense, it also equates to economical sense. But I digress…

Let’s switch to cows. Having a milking parlor, one would assume we should have cows and I wholeheartedly agree.

What’s that got to do with sheep?

Excellent question. Just don’t get grossed out by the answer: parasitic control.

Having some level of parasites are a normal thing for sheep. They all have them. The goal is to keep their numbers low. Too many and a ewe can spiral downward to the point of no return (meaning death) rather quickly.

When sheep nibble up the grass, parasites live at the 3-4 inch level. So when sheep eat up the grass they inevitably gobble up some parasites as well.

Moving sheep in a pasture rotational helps with parasite management. The idea is to move them away from where they last ate (and manured) to break the chain of parasitic numbers to build up. In addition this also gives the grass time to regrow and for soil for be fertilized.

Cows also eat grass but instead they grab at it with their tongue and sort of tear it up. Cows will eat grasses that are higher up 6-8 inches off the ground that sheep may not bother with. They also look for different forages.

Cows also eat the same parasites that the sheep eat, but cows are what is known as a “stop organism.” Because sheep parasites do not adversely affect the cow, the chains broken there as well.

Healthy animals equals healthy pastures, and vice-versa.

This seems to be an eloquent solution and is very much part of our plans for herd management, rotational grazing and parasite management.

The views at Knoll Farm

Knoll Farm – Fayston, VT

Knoll Farm right now has some milky ewes and lambs they are selling, but I’m not sure if our barn and fences will be ready in time.

Other than our current lack of infrastructure, I wouldn’t hesitate buying a few ewes from Knoll Farm as Helen is such a knowledgeable and experienced shepherd.

This isn’t a kickstarter thing, but on the off-chance that you want to donate some funds to our sheep-buying adventure (maybe you would like some lamb, wool clothes or cheese delivered?), then I humbly offer you this link to check out at your leisure.

Until then, always know that as a follower of the farming journey – that ewe rock!


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