Leave the land the way you found it: Motto keeps Muskingum County sheep farmers on the move

DRESDEN, Ohio — A Dresden sheep farm operates by the creed: Leave the land the way you found it.

Shirley and Francis Steffee were both raised on farms in Muskingum County. Shirley’s family raised cattle, hogs and some sheep; Francis’ family raised cattle and sheep. Both knew they had a love of farming from early-on in their relationship.

After a few years of Francis serving in the military and moving constantly, they moved to a house on Shirley’s family farm in the early 1970s. Francis stayed in the military and would make commutes to and from the Ravenna arsenal for the Ohio National Guard, and Shirley worked in an insurance office off the farm. They raised two children, a son, who now lives in Arkansas, and a daughter living in Alaska.

They were always helping Shirley’s family on the farm, but it wasn’t until 1999 that they bought their first sheep flock.

“We came home from work and went back to work on the farm,” Shirley said.

Why sheep?

She said they became interested in sheep because Francis was gone frequently in the military and sheep was a type of livestock she could handle herself.

“They were good for a lady. A woman can handle them herself,” Shirley said.

In addition, she felt they were better for the pastures because they don’t cause as much destruction as cattle.

Farm purchase

Fast forward to 2003, when the family purchased the home farm of 53 acres. Last year, the Steffees purchased an additional 161 acres at another location in Dresden.

Also last year, the couple decided to do something unusual. They sold their entire flock after lambing in 2010. They went to visit their son and daughter and explored Switzerland for nine days.

But they knew it wouldn’t be long before their pasture started to grow and they would miss the livestock.

Starting again

They said they know some people would think they were crazy for starting another new flock, but it was something in them that inspired them.

“Even though you are walking to the barn at 2:30 a.m. in knee-deep snow to check on them, there is just something about it. It’s quality time,” Shirley said.

Now that Francis is retired from the military, they agree the sheep flock keeps them busy.

Shirley said they sold the old flock because they wanted to make changes in their herd, specifically to incorporate more Dorset characteristics to gain more mothering skills and a breed that would have a better weight gain after birth.

The previous herd was centered on Suffolk’s breed characteristics and the Steffees said the Suffolks just didn’t seem to fit what they were trying to accomplish.

“We keep looking for just the right fit for our farm,” Francis said.

Today, the flock has over 40 head of sheep and is growing, as lambing is not over this spring. In addition, they have already started preparing some ewes for fall lambing.

Conservation efforts

The Steffees were the recipients of the 2010 Resource Conservation Award for Agriculture presented by the Muskingum Soil and Water Conservation District — a testament to their belief that everyone should leave the ground as they found it or in better condition.

They have utilized EQIP funds for several projects on their farm, including 20.3 acres of prescribed grazing, four livestock watering tanks, two spring developments, 1,659 feet of pipeline for the watering tanks and 2,073 feet of fencing.

The couple have installed a total of 8,572 feet of fencing so far, which has been 16 rolls of woven wire fence — and the cost of woven wire has more than doubled since the project began. It went from $87 a roll to $198 in less than a year.

The Steffees utilize rotational grazing. They allow their sheep to feed for a week on a portion of the pasture and then move them with portable electrical fencing. The couple then sends in two calves to clean up the grass that the sheep refuse to eat.

“This way, it keeps the property in an even state,” Francis said. “We want to leave the land better than what we found it.”

In addition, the couple has 62 acres of woodland on the 161 acres they purchased in 2010. They plan on developing a tree farm on the property with a tree management plan.

About the Author

Kristy Foster Seachrist lives in Columbiana County raising sheep and horses. She earned her degree from Youngstown State University and has worked in both print and broadcast journalism. You can follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/fosterk96. More Stories by Kristy Foster Seachrist

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