(Scroll down to see a slide show of photos from the Ohio Sheep Day at Blue Heron Farm.)
LISBON, Ohio — There’s never been a better time to raise sheep, and there’s a lot of opportunity to get started.
But, like any livestock operation, it takes management and commitment.
It was that message of tempered optimism that flowed from speakers and visitors alike at the 2011 Ohio Sheep Day July 16.
Approximately 130 people attended the event, which was hosted at Blue Heron Farm in Columbiana County. (Read more about the farm.)
The day’s lineup included breakout sessions on pasture management and grazing, manure management, EQIP funding, feeding dried distiller’s grains, basic sheep management practices for beginners, and a lamb carcass cutting and cooking demonstration.
Lamb prices broke all trends in late 2010 and have remained strong into 2011, said keynote speaker Richard Ehrhardt, small ruminant specialist at Michigan State University.
Why? Simple supply and demand.
Supplies of both domestic and imported lamb have been tight. U.S. sheep production is down about 3 percent, Ehrhardt said, and imports from Australia and New Zealand are down because their own domestic market is expanding.
With the weaker U.S. dollar, demand for pelts has also increased — close to 50 percent higher, Ehrhardt said — particularly in China and Russia.
Domestic demand has also increased modestly over the past 10 years.
He projects prices will stay strong through 2011, although he looks for lower market weights if the price of corn stays high.
He also expects to see demand increase, with the growth in restaurant trade as the overall economy rebounds, the increase in ethnic lamb-consuming populations in the U.S., and higher interest in lamb dishes in general.
And in a somewhat related note, he expects to see more lambs owned and fed by packers, either directly or under farmer contracts.
Ehrhardt calls the current market a “tremendous opportunity” for producers, both veteran and beginner.
He also calls the Ohio-Michigan region a great place to raise sheep, because the flocks can use marginal land not suitable for other livestock or for crop production, because there is more than adequate water resources, and because farmers here are situated close to markets in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Columbus, and the East Coast.
Ehrhardt, who raises sheep himself, said it all comes down to increasing production efficiency and production per acre, and lowering labor inputs.
Figure out what works for your style of operation, he added, and pay attention to basics like lambing, and parasite control.
Ehrhardt, and host Cynthia Koonce, both encouraged sheep producers to consider an accelerated lambing system, lowering the interval between births from 12 months to as low as seven months.
“If you can offer lambs year-round, you can build markets,” Ehrhardt said. “They will come to you.”
“You can actually get more value for your lambs.”
It’s not for everyone, he added, because it does require more management attention to health, feeding and breeding of the flock.
He explained two systems, the STAR system Cornell developed in the 1980s (five lambings in three years, 7.2-month interval), and a similar practice that yields three lamb crops in two years (8-month interval).
Currently, the average U.S. flock has a lambing interval of about 9.5 months, which yields a lamb crop 1.26 times per year.
Under the STAR method, you basically have two flocks, one group that is lambing at the same time the other is getting bred or in early pregnancy. It is more rigid than the eight-month system, because of the smaller breeding window. But if you miss the breeding window in the eight-month system, you will have to wait 120 days for the ewe to be rebred, which puts you back into a 12-month interval.
Both methods require good pregnancy detection, ram fertility, high quality forage and better attention to feeding (you need to keep ewes in better body condition), and flock health, as ovine progressive pneumonia (OPP) and Johne’s disease will limit success of accelerated lambing.
“It’s a lot of little things,” Ehrhardt said of accelerated breeding success.
Certain breeds are also more likely to breed aseasonally, or out of season, including the hair breeds, and Dorset, Rambouillet, merino, Romanov and Finn sheep. Ram fertility and libido will also impact the success of increased lambing.
The Ohio Sheep Improvement Association has hosted the sheep field day on farms since 2004, said Roger High, executive director, who also works with Ohio State University’s animal sciences department. The field day moves around the state, and this was the first year it was held in the far eastern Ohio region, which drew farmers from Pennsylvania, too.
He’s seeing a lot more interest in sheep production, particularly among the Amish, and the field day gives people a chance to see realistic farm production, both the good and bad.
“We just want to get them to working farms,” High said.
The social aspect of the day is equally as important, he added, to get producers talking and asking “‘what are you doing, what works for you?'”
And that’s exactly why Kyle Dockery traveled 4 1/2 hours from Edgerton, Ohio, in Williams County.
“I ask questions,” he said. “It’s a good education.”
He runs about 30 ewes, and finishes out the lambs, marketing through the local United Producers auction.
At this sheep day, he was interested in Ehrhardt’s keynote presentation and the challenge to improve his efficiency.
Lucas Standley, of Morrow County, came to his first sheep field day with his son, Lucas, who got them started with sheep through 4-H projects.
“It’s good to have something like this,” the elder Standley said. “We’re just trying to learn more.”