PROGRESS: Grass-fed lambs dot spring pastures

FREDERICKTOWN, Ohio – The unexpected sight of 800 ewes and roughly 1,500 lambs stops traffic on a hilltop road near Fredericktown, Ohio.

The animals graze calmly in the grassy, green pastures in a bottomland cut only by fencelines and the roadway.

Young lambs, some only hours old, get their footing and then dart between their mommas and the other ewes.

Passersby often stop to take in the sight of Fox Hollow Farm, according to owners Bruce and Lisa Rickard.

Their family-run operation, which includes their teens Jesse and Hannah, specializes in grass-fed lamb and beef.

By the book. Bruce and Lisa Rickard learned almost all they know about farming from reading books.

Lisa grew up in Pittsburgh, and Bruce was raised near Cincinnati.

She had no family background in agriculture. His was all but a memory of his father and grandfather managing a dozen cows, all milked by hand, some corn, a garden, a few chickens. It was all about self-sufficiency, he said.

Bruce’s family left the farm when he was only 6.

Getting out. Twenty years ago, Bruce and Lisa met and married. They knew they didn’t want to stay in corporate America. They both yearned to live in the country, to be outside.

Their dreams rolled in motion all at once. Jesse was born, Lisa went on maternity leave. The price of everything was too high in New Jersey, and AT&T transferred Bruce to Columbus.

It was now or never for them. They had to start their dream farm.

They came to central Ohio in 1987, a spot they chose to be halfway between both their families.

The traded up a few years later, moving from a house Lisa described as “bigger and nicer” a few miles away to the present farmstead. Here, they have more land.

And each acre of their 280 plays an important part in the farm’s success.

Where to start? The walls in the couple’s Gilmore Road home are lined with bookshelves floor to ceiling. Each is packed with materials for the farm and for their children’s home-schooled education.

In the early years, the couple pored over many of those books, doing extensive reading on building fence and caring for animals.

They still weren’t sure what to start with: Pigs? Dairy cows, maybe? How about sheep? Lambs would probably be the best fit for their acreage and young children, they decided.

They started with eight sheep, just enough to get a flock established. But by 1993, the flock was too big and the work was too much. Bruce quit his job in Columbus. He needed to stay home and help with the farm.

‘Machinery people.’ Lisa Rickard admits they aren’t much of “machinery people.” They let their animals do all the work.

“When they’re out on grass, there are no chores except moving them around” from paddock to paddock, Lisa Rickard said.

Although the family patrols their fields to do vet work or pull the occasional lamb, they don’t make it a practice to coddle their flock.

“If they don’t do their jobs right, we cull them to keep a manageable level” of work, Lisa Rickard said.

“We let them do the job instead of waiting on them hand and foot in the barn.”

The barns on the Rickards’ farm are reserved only for “bummers,” the lambs that are left behind, sick, injured, and the foster ewes that take to them.

Another open-sided barn adjacent to the nursery puts a roof over their handling chutes for both the sheep and cattle.

Trial and error. The farm operates on trial and error, with the emphasis on error, Bruce Rickard said.

“We see new ways of doing things because we didn’t grow up in the farm mindset. But that doesn’t mean our ideas always work,” he joked.

Some of their projects have paid off.

The Polypay breed is good for intensive lambing. But as a family, they decided to reverse the thinking. Their flock lambs only once a year. And they lamb on pasture.

“The last time we were in the barn there were only about 100 ewes. We were filling all those little water buckets and all those little chores go a long way.

“We figured there had to be a better way,” Lisa Rickard said.

On grass. So they got to work, crossbreeding for pasturing ability, building fences and managing pastures.

One-hundred eighty acres are fenced into 38 permanent paddocks and a number of temporary ones.

But putting up and taking down fence doesn’t really matter to them.

The family figures only when a temporary fence gets put in the same place for three years in a row, it’s worth stretching a permanent fenceline there.

“We’re not above ripping out a fence and moving it,” Bruce said.

Jesse agrees. “It seems like we put fences up and then rip them down again,” he said.

Today, the flock is moved at least daily, as the last ewes lamb, to keep pastures fresh and in condition to support all those mouths.

At the end of lambing season, most sheep without a lamb at side goes directly to the market.

The Rickards save a few ram lambs and replacement ewes each year, but the rest of their 1,000-plus lamb crop crosses the auction block at Mount Vernon or goes into their farm-fresh sales freezers.

They say they’re lucky to have Mount Vernon in their backyard, just 20 minutes away. Bruce said it’s the largest sheep market east of the Mississippi.

That helps them get decent prices for their sheep. And if the prices are high, they’re not too far away to drive home and bring another load, Lisa said.

Beef bonus. The Rickards’ cows graze on a hilltop pasture east of the house.

Markets are outstripping their production right now. They just can’t keep up, Lisa said. They’ll have to get more calves to raise.

Bruce wants to eventually have 150 head of cattle, from stocker calves to cull cows.

“Demand has gotten ahead of us. There’s a real hole to deal with in our supply,” Lisa says, referring to customers who crave their grass-fed Holsteins.

“We think like sheep farmers, not like beef farmers. We only think one year at a time,” she joked.

The Rickards know Holsteins aren’t a beef breed, but have other reasons for raising them for market.

They had Shorthorns and Limousins when they first moved to Ohio. They finished them on grass, but Bruce said their meat was as tender as shoe leather.

The Holsteins, he says, have more intramuscular fat than beef breeds.

“And when you’re tasting meat, you’re tasting the fat. These steaks just melt in your mouth.”

The breed has a higher maintenance cost on bigger frames – they take 30 months to finish – and aren’t very winter hardy, but the Rickards won’t change.

Lisa thinks of the cattle she first had here in Ohio.

“They weren’t that great to handle, believe me. It’s a wonder we didn’t get killed,” she said.

Still, sheep are the main focus. The beef cattle always pull the family away from the sheep, they say.

“Per acre, sheep are real good moneymakers. There’s a lot more money in sheep – not so much money in each individual animal, but overall,” Bruce said.

A typical day. Bruce and Jesse make the first morning sweep through the paddocks to move the flock ahead. Hannah follows to record ewe numbers and tag lambs, dock tails and castrate.

Lisa enters records into the computer and manages the bottle-babies in the barns.

At any time a customer could pull up their driveway, hoping for some lamb chops or T-bone steaks.

The Rickards are happy to fill their shopping bags, their stomachs, their minds.

The big picture. For the Rickards, their sheep, their pastures, their family, are part of a bigger puzzle in life, Bruce said.

“I only get one life to live. I used to go to work in the morning in the dark, and leave in the evening in the dark. There was no evidence the sun even came up that day,” he said.

“Now I farm, stay at home, keep my expenses low, eat my own meat, have a garden.

“We’re making a living but not getting rich. What more could I want?” Rickard said.

Get the details



* Fox Hollow Farm

Bruce and Lisa Rickard

20060 Gilmore Road

Fredericktown, Ohio

740-694-8528

foxhollow@ecr.net

(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at amyers@farmanddairy.com.)

About the Author

Former staff reporter Andrea Zippay wrote for Farm and Dairy from 2001 to 2009. More Stories by Andrea Zippay

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