The Katahdin: A Woolless Breed of Sheep
by Arthur Bolduc
The animal standing at my feet was a sheep, but there was something very different about it. Instead of the usual thick coat of wool, this sheep had a sleek deer-like coat of hair.
The temperature was climbing from a low of twenty below the night before to around zero the December morning we visited Piel Farm in Abbott, Maine. Two hundred and fifty or so head of sheep housed in south facing open sheds were contentedly lying on the dry manure pack or walking about chewing their cuds. The only indication they showed of the cold was their white breath in the crisp, dry air.
Charley Brown, manager of Piel Farm, wasn’t exactly bundled up against the cold either. In dungarees, insulated vest and hat, he keeps warm by keeping busy.
Piel Farm is not a fancy show place. It’s a nine hundred acre practical working sheep and cattle farm in central Maine. A little over two hundred acres are cleared for hay and pasture with the remainder in woodland. What is unusual about Piel Farm is the woolless breed of sheep they have developed.
Named Katahdin, after the state’s highest mountain peak that looms to the north of them, this unique breed is the product of the late Michael Piel’s interest in genetics, conservation and a strong desire to leave things a little better than he found them.
Michael, of the Piel brewing family, was disturbed by the dwindling number of small farms in New England and abandonment of open land to reforesting. With a growing world population and a shrinking food supply, he knew that one day in the not too distant future this land would be needed to feed the huge, ever growing population in the eastern part of our nation. In 1957 Michael set about to help stem the decline of small farms and preserve open farm land for future generations.
With a strong background in marketing and a knowledge of history and economics, Michael Piel had a clear grasp of the problems besetting small and part-time farmers in the northeast.
At one time sheep farming had been big business in New England. Renard Maiuri tells us that as many as 15 million head grazed the six state area where scarcely 50 thousand sheep can be found today.
The Yankee exodus after the Civil War and more recently the shift in textile manufacturing to the south and the introduction of synthetic fiber have all reduced the wool market and sheep population in New England.
For decades expenses have risen and sheep farmers have seen the price of wool decline steadily until today it brings little more than the price of shearing.
Due to the wooly nature of the beast, sheep farming is a dual crop enterprise. Even those farmers raising the mutton type breeds have to shear, crotch and dock their sheep at often less than break-even prices. Dairymen and beef producers would not consider competing in today’s market with dual purpose breeds of cattle. Even the poultrymen have their single purpose breeds of meat or egg birds. Michael Piel saw the need for a single purpose mutton sheep that didn’t have to be sheared or in need of special labor intensive attention inherent with wool production.
Of the world’s 200 or more breeds of domestic sheep, most have wool or at least long hair except for the African Hair sheep.
This rather undeveloped breed that found its way into the Caribbean area on slave ships a couple of hundred years ago where it became known as the Barbados Black Belly is a tropical breed with coarse goat-like hair. Small boned and lightly muscled, this breed seemed to have little to offer in the way of sheep improvement except for its gene pool that carried the hair factor instead of wool.
In 1957 Michael Piel imported a breeding trio, two ewes and a ram, from the Virgin Islands and the long, slow process of developing a revolutionary new breed of woolless sheep began.
They were crossed with the Suffolk, the Hampshire and the Wilshire Horn with varying degrees of success. The get from these crosses ranged fr om light boned animals to one cross that weighed nearly 200 lbs. at ten months. The best of the lot were kept, line bred and inbred to fix desirable traits and then crossed again on other groups to achieve desired improvements.
Thousands of sheep were bred, culled for improvement and bred again. Always with the hair factor as a goal, but not at the expense of an otherwise sound animal.
The untimely death of Michael Piel in 1976 cast some doubt on the future of the fledgling breed, but his widow, Barbara Piel, proved to have a genuine interest in her husband’s work and the knowledge to continue it.
One has only to look around the farm and talk to Charley to know that he has a lot of support and thinks enough of Mrs. Piel’s ideas and opinions to relate them to others.
Piel Farm, although not elaborate, is well equipped and laid out for maximum efficiency. It has a full complement of late model equipment that is well cared for and kept under cover. There is a heated, well-lighted maintenance shop where Charley spends a lot of time in winter doing preventative maintenance to avoid costly, time consuming repairs during the busy growing season.
Sheep feeding is mechanized. Round bales of hay are loaded into a hay chopper where they are mixed with grain and conveyed out to feed bunkers that run the length of the sheep pens. The pens are well constructed and designed so sheep can be moved in lots and the whole area cleaned by tractor. Charley and a helper do all the work that includes caring for about twenty-five head of beef cattle.
By eliminating drudgery Barbara Piel maintains a high level of enthusiasm and interest for the work at Piel Farm. It’s reflected in Charley’s interest in his work and he does have an interesting job.
After he had shown us the sheep and around the farm, he took us into the farm office, a spacious room with large windows that overlook fields to the south. The walls have the usual assortment of soil survey and topographic maps and a well-filled bookcase contains the latest editions of a wide range of agricultural books. And while an old friend attracted my attention, a Winchester Model 92 in the .218 Bee cal. that Charley uses to check the ever-increasing Eastern coyote population, everybody else gathered around a desk top I.B.M. Computer.
There was something alien about that marvel of modern electronics that I imagined would come between the farmer and hands-on experience that seemed so big a part of Piel Farm. But it took only a minute or two for Charley to demonstrate that a computer may well be one of the best investments a farmer, large or small, can make.
Pedigrees on such a new breed of mixed ancestry mean very little, but the data that computer contained made sense that even a novice could appreciate. Birth weights, number of lambs to each ewe, rate of weight gain – it was all there plus a lot more. They have a good handle on what is going on at Piel Farm, and what’s more they can demonstrate it to all who are interested.
It was a good presentation, but not a high pressure sales pitch. Barbara Piel is not interested in exploiting her husband’s work for profit. And she knows that the Katahdin is not the answer to every sheep breeder or farmer’s needs. But there is a niche in agriculture for a woolless breed of mutton sheep and she is working with sheep breeders across the country who are interested in improving her breed and to learn how it can help small farmers produce mutton at a reasonable profit, to help make better use of marginal farm land and to help stabilize a dwindling rural economy that can contribute an.d share in a rich nation’s wealth.