Originally published in “The Land” magazine on June 4, 2004.
With the county fair season fast approaching, 4-Hers like Krystal Lonning of the Bath-Geneva club are already well into raising their lambs. As Lonning enters her forth year in the market lamb project, she takes part in a livestock program that has seen steady change over the past two generations. Her neighbor, Steven Leroy, showed lambs with the same Bath-Geneva 4-H club from 1962 until 1971. In the years since, he has served the club as a lamb project adviser while remaining active with breeding and raising his own sheep near Geneva, Minnesota.
“When I was a 4-H member, the majority of the sheep were home grown, with limited cases where people bought lambs from other farmers,” Leroy said. “Now there are fewer people who have sheep on their farms.” Having purchased her lamb from a family friend, Lonning is now the rule rather than the exception. 4-Hers will pay from $100.00 to $200.00 for a competitive lamb and even higher prices for an exceptional animal.
As competition in the project has increased, the conditioning of the lambs in the months prior to the fair has justifiably intensified. “At first, it was just working on their handling for the show-ring and being able to present them for judging,” Leroy recalled. With the judge’s primary emphasis more on muscle mass and tone, Lonning finds herself “Walking the lamb every day.” She also runs it regularly to achieve better conditioning.
Besides exercise, a lamb’s diet is now more heavily geared towards building muscle. Leroy remembers feeding his lambs simple grain, oats, corn, and hay. Lonning actually uses a branded feed blend that has been specially developed for show lambs. Such feeds contain supplements to better promote the growth and development of the lambs.
Grooming of the lambs in the days prior to the actual show has also dramatically evolved. Leroy observed that “They didn’t slick-shear the sheep. You sheered them fairly close and then ‘blocked’ them with a handclipper to square them up. Wool was probably three-quarters to an inch thick.” Lonning’s lamb will be slick-sheared with an electric clipper, leaving the wool coat of the animal grown out to just above the skin.
In the show-ring, the continued emphasis on muscle-building is made apparent by the popularity of certain breeds. “The sheep are bigger than they used to be, with the most common breed being Suffolk,” Leroy said. Lonning has a Suffolk lamb, while in Leroy’s era one would generally have seen Southdown or Hampshire breeds on display. That being the case, lambs were often lighter, averaging 100 to 110 pounds. In comparison, it wouldn’t be surprising for Lonning’s lamb to end up weighing 125 to 135 pounds.
Lamb project participants begin showing throughout the summer at their county fair level, hoping to be selected for state fair competition or invitations to national livestock shows such as Ak-Sar-Ben in Omaha, Nebraska. Leroy actually made that trip to Nebraska as a teenager and Lonning hopes to do the same this fall.