Farm Horizons, August 2010

Veterinarian Holly Neaton of Watertown isn’t ‘sheepish’ about her love of Polypay ewes, lambs, and rams

By Starrla Cray
Staff Writer

With their soft, fluffy bodies and wide-eyed innocence, it’s no wonder sheep are Holly Neaton’s animal of choice.

“I’m a veterinarian, so of course, I love all animals,” Neaton said. She admitted, however, that sheep do offer certain advantages.

“They’re easy for women, you don’t need a lot of equipment, and they’re gentle,” Neaton said. “I think they’re pretty, and they’re always happy to see you.”

Neaton and her husband, Paul, began raising Polypay sheep on their farm in rural Watertown 23 years ago.

“We keep about 300 to 400 at a time,” she said. Typically, there are four or five rams, 125 ewes, and several lambs of various ages.

During warm weather months, some of the sheep stay on pastures in Lester Prairie, St. Bonifacius, and Delano.

Winters are usually more work, because the sheep need to be fed indoors.

The workload also increases during lambing, which occurs four times each year.

About 45 ewes are bred during each lambing season.

“That’s enough for me and Paul to take care of,” Neaton said.

Each ewe gives birth to an average of 2.5 lambs. The ideal is two, according to Neaton, but sometimes as many as five are born at a time.

During the February lambing season, it’s especially important to check on the sheep periodically, even at night.

“You have to make sure they are not having any trouble, and that the lambs are warm enough,” Neaton said.

Polypay ewes are capable of giving birth three times every two years, Neaton said. The gestation period is five months, and they give milk for two months. Then, the sheep is given an extra month to rest and recuperate.

Newborn lambs weigh between 8 and 12 pounds, and take about six months to reach maturity. Full-sized Polypay ewes weigh between 140 and 180 pounds, and rams weigh about 190 to 250 pounds.

The price for a finished lamb (about 120 to 130 pounds) was $1.30 per pound in July.

“Right now, lamb prices are quite good,” Neaton said.

In addition to selling her sheep for meat, Neaton also sells wool and breeding stock.

She also provides sheep for the popular Miracle of Birth Center at the Minnesota State Fair each year, and is co-chair of the program.

Raising sheep offers a unique set of rewards and challenges, Neaton said.

She likened the difference between dairy cows and sheep to the distinction between cats and dogs.

Dogs are higher maintenance, whereas cats can be left alone a lot more, she explained.

Sheep are typically drier, cleaner, and don’t draw flies, Neaton added.

With sheep, Neaton also has time to work as a part-time veterinarian in Maple Plain.

“Paul does a lot,” she said. “They’re ‘my’ sheep, but I couldn’t take care of them without him.”

In addition to farming, Neaton’s husband operates a small trucking business.

The Neaton children, Nick, 27, Sam, 23, and Peter, 21, never latched onto the sheep, but Neaton said she personally thinks they are a joy to own.

“They’re just such gentle animals,” she said. “It’s way too much work if you don’t like it.”

Neaton offers a few words of caution for sheep farmers.

“They are sensitive to copper, so they can’t have feed that’s designed for other animals,” she said.

Farmers should also watch out for the rams, which can be aggressive at times.

“You just have to be careful, and not turn your back on them,” Neaton said.

Another issue to keep an eye on is predators. A couple of Neaton’s ewes were attacked by coyotes last summer. Since then, she has moved her sheep to a different pasture where coyotes are less prevalent.

Other measures Neaton uses to prevent attacks include electric fences and a protective llama.

“Llamas are really inquisitive. They don’t run from the dogs,” Neaton said. “They don’t attack or anything, but they intimidate the predators just enough.”

Sheep, on the other hand, are “chickens,” according to Neaton.

“They just turn and run,” she laughed.

Another characteristic of sheep is their flocking instinct.

“They’re not individuals,” Neaton said. “When you want one animal, you have to take the whole flock.”

Pastors who are writing sermons enjoy visiting Neaton’s farm to observe the sheep.

“There’s a reason why people are compared to sheep in the Bible,” Neaton laughed.

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