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Festival draws state’s sheep enthusiasts to Hunterdon Co.

By TAMARA SCULLY
AFP Correpondent

RINGOES — The annual Garden State Sheep Breeders’ Sheep and Fiber Festival — held at the Hunterdon County Fairgrounds — is a three-day event attracting breeders and enthusiasts from around the region.
Sales of handmade fiber crafts, fleece, yarn and wool products, as well as the opportunity to see numerous sheep breeds up-close, attract visitors.
Events such as dog herding demonstrations or spinning and weaving workshops add to the fun, yet educational, atmosphere.
The event is a chance to socialize, compare experiences and network with other small breeders.
Competition in a variety of shows, from the fleece judging — which this year boasted 45 entries, making it the largest show and sale in New Jersey — to the breed exhibit, a skein contest, photo contest or the sheep show, gave participants a way to show off their hard-earned skills.
One highlight of the event this year was the first National Gotland Sheep Show.
Gotland sheep are a medium-sized, curly fleeced, multi-purpose breed.
While not rare worldwide, they are newly introduced to the United States, via a cross-breeding program using semen imported from the United Kingdom.
Historically, the breed was established in Sweden, by the Vikings.
Martin Dally, who served as the judge for the show, not only is a renowned expert in laparoscopic artificial insemination, but also is a breeder of Gotland Sheep, and the original importer of the semen.
Originally, Dally said, donor ewes are inseminated with the Gotland semen, and offspring is selected and bred to increase the purity until the breed is considered “genetically pure.”
“There is a higher standard for rams than ewes,” Dally explained, stating that rams cannot be registered until they are considered 87.5-percent Gotland, while ewes must meet 75 percent of the breed standards.
Foundation ewes can be of several acceptable breeds, including Shetland, Finn, Icelandic, or Border, Blue Faced or English Leicester, among others.
The cross-breeding began in 2003, and there are now breeders across the United States, Dally said.
Currently, there are four breeders in New Jersey — one in New York and one in Pennsylvania, according to the official American Gotland website.
“I’ve worked with sheep all my life,” Dally said, and he chose to bring the Gotland breed to the United States because of their “personality, mothering ability and lamb vigor.”
Lambs, he said, get up immediately after birth and begin nursing.
The lambs also gain weight readily, reach slaughter weight at approximately six months of age, and provide a mild, flavorful meat.
For Dally, importing semen to begin the breeding of American Gotlands was a natural fit.
Dally’s background as an animal research technician gave him plenty of opportunity to practice making incisions needed for laparoscopic artificial insemination.
Dally provides AI services to sheep around the world, and is considered an expert in AI as well as flock management and lamb production.
Dally not only served as the show judge for the festival, he also gave the breeders a presentation on optimizing lamb production.
Dally emphasized that lamb production and overall flock management is vitally important for all breeders, no matter the size or the exact management practices of the farm.
Breeders received a full lesson on best management practices to optimize lamb production, and the steps needed to ensure a healthy flock.
Pre-weaning, pre-breeding and herd management issues involving proper nutrition, worm and disease control and proper lambing practices were discussed.
Dally also gave a presentation filled with tips on showing the sheep.
Tricks of the trade — such as always finding the best light, never turning your back on the judge, and never casting a shadow on the animal — were some of the helpful hints.
“The sheep is the primary thing. You are not the primary thing,” Dally said. “Always have the sheep between you and the judge. Always be alert.” Talking to others is not acceptable in the ring.
Dally also had volunteers bring a sheep that does not like being led into the ring, along with a sheep which is a well-behaved while being led.
After being dragged into the show ring, the reluctant sheep was put into line behind the good leader.
Dally demonstrated that the animal was more than happy to walk politely behind a good leader.
The tip: Watch which direction the sheep will be traveling in the ring, and get behind a good leader.
Dally also had words of wisdom about setting up the sheep for judging. Getting the back legs into the correct position is of the utmost importance, Dally said.
The back legs should not be too close or too spread out, but the aim is to have the legs in a “natural stance.”
Fleece should have all the sand and dust brushed off, and opened up to show at its best.
Depending on breed, the methods of preparing the fleece for show will be different, as some will be fluffed with the hands, and some blown dry, he said.
A good judge will never touch the teeth of the sheep, as this could spread germs between animals. Teeth are shown by using the fingers to expose them, as Dally demonstrated to participants.
Judges may palpitate the testicles of rams, and a good hold on a short lead should be used during this portion of the judging.
Dally said that during the festival’s judging, he would attempt to make suggestions to those who may make a mistake in the ring, to assist them in improving their handling techniques.
Most importantly, he encouraged relaxation.
Dally reminded participants to keep the animals isolated upon return to the farm, watch for symptoms of illness, and to keep them a bit more sheltered than usual.
The animals, Dally says, are somewhat stressed from being transported and housed at the show, and more susceptible to illness.
The small group of a dozen or so breeders who participated in Dally’s seminars were rewarded with practical advice from a top breeder, an esteemed judge, and — according to many, a good friend.