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The Best-Ever Four-Legged Fertilizing Lawnmowers: Steitzhof’s Merino Sheep
Montana Senior News, June/July 2016
Carol Treadwell-Steitz may not be a Trekkie, but she is definitely acquainted with one of Star Trek’s most famous lines: “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” In Carol’s case, it is her fingers that have boldly gone places she never dreamt of before she became a midwife to a small herd of South Australian Merino sheep.

As anyone who has raised animals knows, sometimes humans have to assist with birthing the young. For sheep, as well as many other critters, survival depends on the front legs and nose exiting simultaneously. When things do not proceed as Mother Nature intends, someone has to make a manual adjustment. Carol’s husband John is usually the one who comes to the rescue. But occasionally the situation calls for Carol to perform those intimate midwife duties while John keeps the ewe still.

Following the lamb’s birth, the ewe normally licks her babe clean and cajoles it to stand on wobbly legs. If the lamb does not promptly aim for the udder, Carol urges it in the right direction. “Some lambs instinctively know what to do; others don’t. My job is to make sure the lambs find the dinner table. The first 30 minutes are critical,” emphasizes Carol. “They get colostrum from their mother’s milk with nutrients and antibodies, which are only absorbed in the first 30 minutes to 48 hours.”

Originally a Minneapolis suburbanite, Carol knew nothing about sheep husbandry until she and John bought a Whitefish farm, which they named Steitzhof. John, on the other hand, grew up on a working farm in Pennsylvania along with beef cattle, horses, and a large herd of Dorset sheep. He started this venture with a good idea of what to expect, especially during lambing season.

“When we moved here, John wanted to raise animals. We decided on a small specialty herd of sheep because they’re pretty easy to raise and aren’t a lot of care. You just grow grass and feed them once a day,” says Carol. “They are four-legged fertilizing lawnmowers. They improve rather than destroy the landscape.”

The couple looked into breeds that would produce wool for spinning that featured high-quality luster, strength, and crimp. When they discovered the Australian Merinos, they agreed the species would suit their purposes and locale.

“These Merinos have longer legs and bodies than other Merinos and a longer staple length of wool, which spinners like,” explains John. “With the Northwest’s wet weather, the fleeces are more resistant to rot and will felt less than American Merinos.”

Raising no more than a dozen sheep at a time has made the workload manageable. To keep the fleeces clean, John and Carol dress each sheep in a cloth coat. Every few months, they exchange it for a larger size. For that task, John wrangles and Carol acts as valet. A lower head count has also helped with overseeing the health of the herd. The smaller the herd, the easier it is to detect potential problems.

“When my family lost a large percentage of our 100 sheep to disease, I found out how a whole flock can go south in a hurry,” recalls John. “That experience told me I didn’t want a large flock again.”

During those earlier years, John also learned about protecting sheep from unlikely predators. While some people might assume coyotes and mountain lions pose the most threat to a flock, he found that domestic dogs allowed to run loose are as deadly to sheep as any feral critter. Enter Teddy.

Affectionally dubbed, “The Inspector,” Teddy is Steitzhof’s resident watchman. He also happens to be a magnificent black llama who takes his job seriously.

“Teddy puts himself between the sheep and any danger. For instance, when horses act up, Teddy moves all the sheep towards and into the barn, then stands guard,” says Carol. He’ll even rush toward the enemy, which is unusual for llamas.”

“His screeches are the best protection available,” adds John. “His alarm call is not like any sound you have ever heard from a four-legged animal.”

When the lambs arrive each spring, Teddy keenly observes the birth and patiently waits for each new resident to appear. As soon as it is possible to do so, he sniffs each lamb, imprinting its scent. Then he trots away to keep a lookout over his flock from afar. When the coast appears clear, he sometimes discards his security guard persona and moves into frisky mode.

“We see him playfully herding the sheep or letting the lambs climb all over him,” says John, who has been known to join the fun and play a form of “Charge” with his rams from which he always escapes unscathed.

“They don’t see very well but you can still learn what their tricks are and the games they like to play. More than once, a ram has stolen my tractor keys right out of the ignition and dropped them on the ground not far away. Sheep are brighter than we think,” he says. “You get to know their personalities—who’s a boss, a bully, a leader, or a follower.”

Shearing occurs about a month before the lambs arrive. As in centuries past, this annual event is best handled by someone fast and adept at clipping the fleece. Friends and neighbors help with wrangling and skirting. The wranglers separate each reluctant—and often uncooperative—sheep from the herd and muscle it to the shearer. The skirters remove the dirtiest and shortest sections of fleece and bag the wool to sell at regional fiber festivals.

Since Carol is Executive Director of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation and John coaches alpine skiers, their decision to raise sheep was more a lifestyle choice than a full-time business. As John points out, “watching lambs butt heads and play king of the mountain sure beats sitting in front of a TV. There is something about raising animals and being around them every day that is a special thing. It’s always been a part of me. It’s all the life phases of that animal from the day the lamb is born to raising it through reproduction.”

“And they are way easier than dogs,” adds Carol. “You don’t have to take sheep for a walk.”

She and John love this way of living and are rightfully proud of their herd’s prize-winning fleeces. In just three years, Steitzhof has built a reputation for quality wool along with a growing roster of spinners wanting their wares. That compensates for any midnight midwife calls and for introducing Carol’s fingers to foreign places that now qualify as familiar territory.