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Young shepherds have wild and woolly jobs

August 06, 1998|By SHEILA HOTCHKIN

SHARPSBURG - The Ag Expo's market lamb show is not a typical beauty pageant. The judge looks for what's beneath a pretty face. Literally.

"I really like to keep the consumer in mind, and the packer," said Becky Benfer from Carroll County as she judged the entries to see which would bring the highest price on the market.

The lambs bleated mournfully, as if they knew what she was thinking.

Jesse Rohrer, 16, who received several blue-ribbon winners and two grand champions, explained that raising sheep is more of a business than a hobby.

The Sharpsburg resident started with a bred ewe after he asked for a sheep for Christmas at age 7. Rohrer now owns approximately 60 of the animals.

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"I had too many bills to pay, so I needed to start turning it into a business," he said.

He said the lambs, which are shown at around six months of age, have no names. They are simply given numbers.

Melissa Frey, who showed the market lamb reserve champion, said the mindset can take getting used to.

"You name a couple or something, and you get too attached," said the 15-year-old Williamsport resident. "And then you cry."

An owner can become more attached to the breeding ewes, which are kept longer, Frey said.

During the show, there are no sheepdogs or shepherd's crooks. The handler usually keeps one hand under the animal's chin and the other behind its head.

Rohrer prefers to keep the fingers of both hands under the lamb's jaw and his thumbs behind its ears.

"I show different than most people," he said.

The handlers try to help their lambs hide their flaws and highlight their strengths. Before the judge comes by, they will push the animal's hind legs back to give the appearance of a longer body and to highlight muscle tone.

"When you brace the lamb, you bring out the muscle tone in the back of the legs," Frey said.

The animals' wool is closely cropped to accentuate the muscle tone, said Mike Drake, the superintendent of the 4-H lamb club.

As they alternately parade the animals around the show ring and stand them at attention, the judge examines them, paying particular attention to the "hindsaddle," from the back of the ribs to the legs, which produces the most expensive cuts of meat.

But while she wants to see a lot of meat, Benfer does not want much fat on the lambs.

"Again, the consumer's looking for a leaner cut," she explained as she judged.

A good lamb comes more from breeding than care, said Drake, a Sharpsburg resident. But he said both can help.

Said Drake: "I would say it's 80 percent genetics and 20 percent made."

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