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Sheep Mary

At age 10, Mary Zwald of Beaver Dam knows what a champion sheep is supposed to feel like to a judge in a show ring. With guidance from Mark Johnson, Mary palpates the various parts of a Southdown sheep Saturday, as part of Sheep Day at the Arlington Agricultural Research Station.

ARLINGTON — Mary had a little lamb.

And she wanted to know how to feed it so it would gain weight, but not get too fat for the fair ring.

For that, and other questions from young exhibitors about how to choose, feed and show a market lamb, Mark Johnson was there to help.

Saturday’s 11th Annual Arlington Sheep Day at the Arlington Agricultural Research Station included educational seminars for sheep aficionados of all ages.

Mary Zwalt, of Beaver Dam, is 10. She’s been in the show ring with a lamb before, at the Dodge County Fair. That’s why, as she stood in the Arlington station’s sheep barn with about 30 other young exhibitors, she knew one answer to an important question: When you’re buying your lamb, what do you need to ask the breeder?

Mary raised her hand and said, “Has the lamb been dewormed?”

Johnson, of Sandwich, Illinois, is co-owner of A&M Ranch, where he raises registered Southdown sheep. And yes, he said, deworming is one question to ask a lamb breeder.

Sheep halter

Justin Taylor, a sheep-showing veteran whose many venues include the Columbia County Fair, demonstrates the right way to put on a sheep halter -- with the lead rope on the animal's left side.

While some young exhibitors pick a lamb from one of the ewes on their farm, Johnson said many have to go to a breeder to find a show-worthy lamb. And how do you find a good breeder?

“Word of mouth,” said Jillian Bingen, 19, of Allenton.

Bingen could have taught the seminar alongside Johnson, because she’s been in the sheep show ring literally from infancy, she said.

“I was born in May,” she said, “and I was 2 months old when my dad held me in the show ring.”

Johnson said Bingen’s suggestion about finding a good sheep breeder by word of mouth is a good one. And he suggested a specific person to ask—the University of Wisconsin-Extension agriculture agent in your home county.

“They’re not going to send you to somebody who doesn’t stand behind their sheep,” Johnson said. “Good news travels fast, but bad news travels faster.”

Youth exhibitors can expect to a fairly good-size chunk of change for a good lamb — between $400 and $800.

When buying a lamb, Johnson advised, think first about the goals for the lamb. If an exhibitor is aiming at raising a lamb that will bring a good price at auction, they’ll want to look for a lamb whose weight is likely to be within the minimum-maximum range for the particular show where they’re exhibiting the animal, at the time of the show. If they’re aiming for a grand or reserve champion trophy, it’s important to look at how the lamb moves around the show ring.

One important question, according to Johnson, concerns what kinds of foods the animal is accustomed to eating.

If the exhibitor plans to feed the lamb something different, the lamb will be confused and probably won’t eat it.

“The lamb will look at the food and think, ‘I don’t know whether to eat this or (urinate) on it,’ ” Johnson said. That’s why it’s a good idea to introduce a lamb to a new food gradually – and to weigh each portion carefully, and to feed the animal at the same times every day.

And, Johnson said, there’s one universal truth for livestock shows in general and market lamb shows in particular.

“It’s a beauty contest,” he said.

That’s why the animal has to have the right amount of muscle, meat and fat in the right places, the right body proportions. To help demonstrate that, Johnson invited the young exhibitors to feel different parts of their hands, to get an idea of what different parts of a sheep’s body should feel like to livestock judges.

He also invited them to feel the sides, neck and back of a 1½ -year-old Southdown ewe.

The same ewe cooperated with Justin Taylor of Arlington as he demonstrated how to put on a rope halter, so that the lead is on the animal’s left side.

Bingen offered snippets of stories about stubborn sheep that didn’t lead as well as she’d liked, such as the one that insisted on walking sideways.

Generally speaking, Johnson said, a lamb at the breeder with bad walking habits won’t get better once an exhibitor buys it and takes it home. But Bingen said that hasn’t necessarily been her experience.

“You’ve just got to keep working with the lamb,” she said. “Eventually, it gets better.”

Follow Lyn Jerde on Twitter @LynJerde or contact her at 608-745-3587.

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