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Pennsylvania Shepherdess
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By Rosemarie Colombraro

Fans of CBS TV’s season of Survivor Vanuatu will remember fresh-faced Pennsylvania shepherdess Dolly Neely. Although the 26-year-old was the second person voted off the island after only six days, Dolly became an instant favorite among rural viewers.

A native Pennsylvanian, Dolly has traveled all over the world and met high-brow celebrities and Presidents Ford, Bush and Clinton. But her heart has always been on the sheep farm that her grandfather owned in Mercer, Pennsylvania.

Famous Dolly Neely and Dorset ram.
Famous Dolly Neely and Dorset ram.

“My mom works for the World Bank and she travels a lot. She would take me on certain trips, but whenever I was in Pennsylvania I would hang out with my grandfather,” says Dolly. We had the farm for around 11 years, and I had always been a part of it. I always was a homebody.”

Dolly went off to college to pursue a biology degree, but she wasn’t happy. “I never really fit in anywhere. I’ve always been an outdoor nature kind of girl, and I was needed there at the farm. My career path was that I would take over what my grandparents had when they were gone. My grandfather passed away in November 2003, and it was natural that I would take over for him. My grandmother passed away around Christmas a year and a month later.”

Dolly raises polled Dorsets on her 90-acre farm, Excalibur Country. “I stayed with the same breed my grandfather had. We used to have Suffolks-‘black face’- and we would cross breed them for the little 4H children in our area. They loved the speckled lambs. But right now I’m concentrating on the Dorsets for market lambs.”

The true history of the Dorset sheep is not known. However, many believe that the all-purpose breed may have been developed after crossing Spanish Merino sheep with Welsh Horned Sheep. Dorsets are known to have been in America as early as 1860, when a flock was brought to Oregon. They were also exhibited at the American Fat Stock Show in Chicago in the late 1800s. Polled Dorsets were registered as a new strain in 1956.

Dorsets are now a top breed in the United States. They are medium sized with a desirable carcass. The fleece is white and free from dark fibers, with a medium staple and yield of around 60%.

“I have sheep covers but they are a bit cumbersome, so I just try to keep a clean barn. If it’s cold outside I put them on, but I don’t do it to keep their wool nice. We take it to a wool pool and they pack it all in a baler, and it’s weighed and priced. I think last year we had about 250 pounds. We just broke even (after shearing and other expenses).”

Part of Dolly's sheep farm, 'Excalibur Country.'
Part of Dolly’s sheep farm, ‘Excalibur Country.’

But Dolly doesn’t concentrate on the wool as a value-added product at this point, preferring to work her way slowly into the business of sheep farming.

“The farm is a growing thing for me. It has really only been mine for a little over a year on my own. My grandfather planted sweet corn and I didn’t attempt that last year. The whole farming part of it is a challenge-I’m okay with maintenance, I can brush hog and do things like that. But I didn’t attempt any crops or harvest any hay.”

Dolly says one of the advantages of Dorsets is their twinning capability, as well as a strong mothering instinct. “I kept five ewes this past year, and along with other attributes I try to breed for mothering ability. I’ve only had to bottle feed one lamb-it was a yearling ewe that had an enormous boy and she passed away.”

When she gets more established, Dolly would like to work on “hothouse” lambing as a way to market her lambs. “Right now, we lamb right before Christmas and for Easter. We don’t breed out of season unless the rams get to them by accident! I wouldn’t mind doing some specialty breeding-the butcher says he will take as many as we bring him.”

Dolly's Dorsets - trim and blocky.
Dolly’s Dorsets – trim and blocky.

National coverage on the popular TV show Survivor Vanuatu had a slight effect in the sale of her lambs after the show aired. “I had gone out to the finale in December, and I had lambs at that point that probably should have gone to the sale-they weighed around 70 pounds. But I was out there, and I didn’t want the guy who was helping me to take the lambs without me,” laughs Dolly. “So we waited a week extra, and we ended up getting 60 cents a pound more than anybody else that day! It was really something.”

For Dolly, the life of sheep farming is a learning experience-one she eagerly embraces. It’s clear that Dolly’s choice to take over her family’s farm comes with no regret. “I think for me it has kept me simple and happy. The best part of my day is being in the barn and watching the lambs being born and eating the grain, and growing bigger” she says. “It’s wholesome and good in a world that is so hustle-and-bustle. I am motivated to work as long as I need to, to get everything done. [My work] directly benefits me and the animals that I love, and there isn’t much stress. There is always something new-it never gets mundane or boring. It’s very fulfilling, and it has kept me happy. I made friends with staff members on “Survivor,” and they were always saying I was so happy and content.”

So what does the future hold for Dolly Neely? “I think I am becoming a little bit more mature and seeing different things-and yes, I do feel different. My grandfather kept the farm small because he was older and couldn’t do as much work. I would like to get as big as I could for ninety acres.”

And she adds with a laugh, “But I have yet to find a husband!

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