Farming Magazine - June, 2008

FEATURES

The Future of Hair Sheep

Managing a large flock with natural ease
By Kara Lynn Dunn

Part 3 of a 3-Part Series

PHOTOS BY BRIAN P. WHATTAM, UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED.

Gene and Veronica LaMothe, along with their son Guy, were already raising wooly sheep and Angus beef when they transported 240 Dorper-St. Croix crossbred hair sheep from Texas in March 2007

“Wild predators decimated our wool sheep numbers in 2005 in spite of using llamas and a guard donkey. We were not getting a reasonable percentage of success at lambing with the woolies; we had to assist approximately one in every three lambs get to their mothers to nurse. Add the cost of shearing, which is more than the value of the wool, and after reading about hair sheep for sale, we decided to try them,” LaMothe says.

Guy LaMothe checks the hay supply for the flock at Beartown Farms on a warm spring day in northern New York in April 2008. The LaMothes use guard dogs to protect their hair sheep in small and large flocks.

The Dorper is a South African meat sheep breed that was developed in the 1930s. An out-of-season breeder, it is fertile, hornless, suited to grazing and has a mixed hair-wool coat. The skin is said to be preferred for leatherwork and to comprise up to 20 percent of the total carcass value.

The St. Croix breed, thought to be descended from the hair sheep of West Africa, was first imported into the United States in 1975, and sheds its mixed wool-hair coat in the spring.

The 230 ewes and 10 rams all tested negative for blue tongue and arrived at one of the LaMothe’s three Beartown Farms near Antwerp, N.Y. The family has converted a barn that once housed dairy cows, and is said to have been the first modern glassed-in milking parlor in the region in the 1950s. That parlor is long-gone, but the remaining 65-foot-wide-by-115-foot-long, three-aisle barn is well-suited to a chuted handling system and as a night shelter for the pasture-based flock.

How do the LaMothes manage 180 wooly sheep, 240 hair sheep and 80 Angus beef cattle?

“When we started, we found that our greatest limiting factor is time. We selected Angus beef cattle because they can almost take care of themselves, and we have evolved into hair sheep for the same reason. Northern New York, with the lake effect that brings some 40 inches of rain fairly well spread out through the year, is ideal for growing grass and raising grass-fed livestock,” LaMothe says.

A retired U.S. Air Force veteran, LaMothe travels to Korea about every three months for three months as a consultant. He plans to be home for the winter lambing, gone in the early spring and back for summer haying in 2008. He expects to be a full-time farmer by 2009.

Testing an easy care system

“We use an easy care system with the sheep. They are largely on their own. We are letting them breed at will, and although we had to deal with winter lambing on their timetable, we only had to assist two of the hair sheep ewes. We do not use jugs, do not feed grain and we lambed 100 [maiden] ewes in three weeks’ time in mid-December and January, and lost only about nine lambs in freezing temperatures,” LaMothe says.

“We want the sheep to show us what they can do on their own and we will interfere only when we see we have to. We want to keep this as easy care as possible. We are seeing that the Dorp-Croix ewes are naturally good mothers and we have had few orphans so far,” he adds.

How fast will lambs grow to market size

One of the questions the LaMothes are studying is how fast the hair sheep lambs will grow into marketable weights of 80 to 90 pounds. LaMothe says the St. Croix breed tends to produce smaller sized lambs, but can be bred twice a year, while the Dorper breeding lends itself to higher mature weights for market lambs and more rapid growth. They plan to breed their 50 percent St. Croix-50 percent Dorper ewes to Dorper rams to produce market lambs, and have set a goal to build a flock that will lamb three times over two years’ time.

The St. Croix breed has a natural resistance to parasites that fits well with the LaMothes’ easy care system. The Dorpers are perhaps not as resistant, LaMothe says, but Veronica has taken the FAMACHA training classes offered by Cornell Cooperative Extension to monitor the flock for indications of anemia and the need to worm (FAMACA is named for Francois Malan, a South African livestock parasitologist concerned with the problems of worm control in the large sheep and goat industries of that country).

“As a rule, we worm in the spring before the flock goes out on pasture and in the fall when they are coming off the grass. We expect to begin grazing some of the hair sheep with our cattle to help control parasites as well,” LaMothe says.

“As we get started with the hair sheep, we are experimenting a bit to see how well they will adapt to northern New York farming conditions. These breeds are raised farther north, in Canada, so it is not that they cannot live in this climate. We bring them in at night and in summer 2008, we will have three guard dogs to help protect them,” he says.

The dogs and a tightly-strung electrified fence of 14-gauge wire carrying up to 5,000 volts have predator problems under control so far.

The LaMothes plan to expand gradually with a goal of raising about 500 hair sheep. They estimate that 600 of their 1,000 acres are suited to grazing.

The LaMothes sold their wool ewes in early 2008 and began offering starter flocks of the hair sheep in the spring. They have primarily sent their wool sheep to a local auction house or to the New Holland, Pa., sale barn, but are looking to eliminate the middle man and to market grass-fed lamb and hormone-free beef. “We are not organic, but we might as well be,” LaMothe says. He hopes to sell direct to a regional slaughterhouse rather than shipping animals to auction in the future.

Marketing the future of hair sheep in northern New York

Betsy Hodge oversees the care of 80 percent of the commercial Dorset-type ewes at the Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County Learning Farm in Canton, N.Y. She also raises hair sheep at her home farm. She says one of the first challenges for marketing hair sheep was that the non-wooly sheep were put into the goat pens at the auction houses.

“When they first arrived at the auction houses, the hair sheep looked different than the traditional wool sheep and were put in the pens with the goats. The traditional sheep buyers were wary because the hair sheep did not look like the wool sheep. Their interest is changing as the carcass quality has turned out to be similar to wool sheep and the hair sheep are now well accepted at the sales as they become more in demand by buyers,” she says.

“A current challenge in this area is that there aren’t as many animals to choose from for genetic selection. Things will improve on that front as more people raise the hair sheep and expand the selection pool locally,” she says.

Hodge cautions, however, that “those who think that getting a hair sheep and breeding it to your woolies is the way to go should be cautioned that it takes two generations to get animals that can be considered hair or shedding sheep. Hair sheep are a good option if you are patient, want to keep your genetics strong and have good, prolific sheep.”

Kirby Selkirk, a shepherd in Chateaugay, N.Y., and a New York Farm Bureau field advisor, says, “One of the things that is needed to create and maintain a strong market for lamb in northern New York is a consistent, high-quality supply of product. Increasing the number of flocks and the producer network that supports maintenance of those flocks will be the key to establishing the supply and the consumer markets.”

As a shepherdess, sheep shearer and a farmer-advisor to the Northern New York Agricultural Development Program, Sandy von Allmen brings a unique perspective to the prospect of growing the region’s hair sheep industry. She says, “Hair sheep are becoming a factor in the agricultural industry in northern New York. The ease of raising them and their parasite resistance makes them attractive in an area where parasites are a very big issue. The end market opportunities will need to develop, however, and anything that looks different, like the hair sheep, will need to prove itself to drive prices up.” She says the quality of the hair sheep being raised in the region and word-of-mouth will help build the local freezer trade within five years. “I have been recommending to people interested in starting with sheep to go with the hair sheep. Management of these sheep would be easier for first-time shepherds, there would be more satisfaction in the results of their time and efforts and that could certainly lead to growth of the enterprise,” she says.

Will hair sheep replace the woolies in St. Lawrence County?

“I know of three shepherds who have dispensed with their wooled sheep and gone to all hair sheep with rapidly expanding [200 to 300-head] flocks. This is due to the ease of management with the hair sheep. All they need is some good grass, which we can grow well in New York State. One of our older shepherds [age in the 80s] said we need more sheep in the area and even he has considered the hair sheep.”

Will hair sheep find their way to von Allmen’s farm where she now raises the Ile de France breed for its fine wool that one buyer purchases to mix with alpaca and mohair?

“I can not rule out that one day I will be having hair sheep myself,” von Allmen says, “but right now my wooled sheep only need to be shorn once every two years, and we have strong markets in local buyers and the export buyers. The exported wool was up 20 cents per pound in 2007. These woolies are a good breed for me, but I am happy to see the hair sheep find a place here—more flocks and farms will help strengthen agriculture’s place in the North Country.”

SIDEBAR 1

Photo courtesy of CCE Franklin County.
Cornell Cooperative Extension of Franklin County Rural and Economic Development Specialist Bernadette Logozar holds the Livestock Marketing Toolkit that has been popular with producers across northern New York and elsewhere. The kit, available by mail order, answers such questions as what does the customer want, how do I produce/process what the customer wants, and how will I market my product.

Planning for a Successful Small Livestock Enterprise

Although a trend looks to be forming around hair sheep in northern New York, hair sheep are still sheep and need protection from predators and parasites and, as with any livestock, diligent attention to their care, marketing and sale to achieve success.

Molly Ames, farm business management educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County, is co-director of the New Strategies: Enhancing Profitability on North Country Farms project, funded by the New York Farm Viability Institute and supported by the Northern New York Agricultural Development Program. Ames says, “We are seeing more and more interest statewide in raising sheep, goats and beef cows. Clearly, there are opportunities for non-commodity, direct marketing, small-scale agriculture in the North Country. Our first recommendations from extension are always to do your research and to write a business plan for your chosen enterprise.”

Market research: assess risk, opportunity

New Strategies Project Co-director Bernadette Logozar encourages and equips producers to also add a marketing plan to business enterprise planning before you begin production.

Logozar says, “Interest in grass-based, natural, organic and value-added livestock production is growing in northern New York. A growing percentage of farms are diversifying into livestock-based farm ventures. According to the 2002 Ag Census, 36 percent of farmers in northern New York are nondairy livestock farms raising beef, chicken, turkey, pork, lamb, eggs and other diversified agricultural products for sale.”

She says the direct market opportunities for livestock farmers are currently underutilized—from direct marketing and the freezer trade, selling to local retailers and restaurants and at farmers’ markets, and establishing an on-farm retail outlet and Internet sales.

With funding from the Northern New York Agricultural Development Program, Logozar developed the Livestock Marketing Toolkit to help producers sell their meats and other livestock-based products.

The kit encourages producers to identify and develop their unique market audiences and the selling points that attract those audiences.

Logozar says, “Do your research. Find out what people in your area want to pay for a product, what might they be willing to pay if they understood the value-added features of your product, and what the competition is charging for similar products.”

To build the toolkit, Logozar researched resources available from marketing and breed organizations through Checkoff programs that use a fee per animal sold to develop promotions and marketing materials. For example, the American Lamb Board offers promotional items such as stickers, signs and brochures to assist farmers in educating their customers about the quality of lamb they are selling.

“Planning and implementing good marketing and agricultural production practices will reduce your risks and help improve your bottom line. Taking care of the basics related to facilities, equipment, storage, fencing, signage and marketing can go a long way toward mitigating your risks, and protecting your buyers, you and your farm,” Logozar says.

“As a vital part of the agricultural industry in northern New York, our small livestock producers must continue to plan and progress toward providing buyers with the quality, consistency and quantity of livestock products they want from this region. To help, extension continues to work with Cornell’s beef cattle specialist and the Sheep and Goat Marketing program to offer comprehensive programs that help farmers to work towards greater consistency in the products they are sending to market,” she adds.

The Livestock Marketing Toolkit for beef, pork and lamb producers includes a 15-page direct-from-the-farm marketing checklist, steps for conducting market research and building your brand, public relations and advertising tips, and how to find resources on the Internet. The kit is available for $15 plus $5 postage/handling.

Resources: networking, tours, mentoring and more

Logozar suggests participating in farmer discussion groups, and building a support network, such as the three-year-old Northern New York Farmers Partnership that holds regular pasture walks.

Look for business planning courses, farm tours, research reports, the opportunity to host on-farm trials and demonstration projects, and new and beginning farmer workshops for learning and networking opportunities.

The NY FarmLink and NY FarmNet programs (800-547-3276) based at Cornell University offer help with developing personalized risk management plans.

Cornell Cooperative Extension educators can arrange one-on-one mentoring opportunities, on-farm apprenticeship learning, and connect farmers to ag service professionals, insurance agents, financial advisors and tax consultants and resources.

Another recently developed resource that helps farmers plan their businesses is the “Resources Guide to Direct Marketing Livestock and Poultry” available as a 95-page PDF online from New York Farms! at www.nyfarms.info/whatnyfarmsdo.html. Logozar says the document contains “everything you need to know related to regulations if you are thinking of direct marketing livestock and poultry products.”

The “Guide to Farming in New York State: What Every Ag Entrepreneur Needs to Know,” available through Cornell’s Small Farm program at www.smallfarms.cornell.edu, is useful for farmers starting new enterprises.

For details on any of these resources, contact Logozar at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Franklin County at 518-483-7403 or  bel7@cornell.edu, or Ames at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County at 315-788-8450 or mba7@cornell.edu. You can also call your local extension office.

SIDEBAR 2

For More Info:

Beartown Farms
Gene, Veronica and Guy LaMothe
Antwerp, N.Y.
315-287-9188 or 315-523-4197
grassgrown@hotmail.com

American Dorper Sheep Breeders Society:
www.dorperamerica.org

St. Croix Sheep Breeders International Association:
www.stcroixsheep.org

St. Croix Hair Sheep Breeders of North America:
www.stcroixhairsheepbreeders.org

Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County
Sheep and Goat Program Educator Betsy Hodge
1894 State Highway 68
Canton, N.Y. 13617
315-379-0607
betsyhodge@twcny.rr.com