Pa. sheep producer: Attention to breeding, marketing pays dividend

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SCENERY HILL, Pa. – Washington County, Pa., sheep producer George Wherry has spent the last 25 years adjusting his farm’s output to improve dressing percent, grazing pastures, and predator control.

The 360-acre farm supports 800 sheep, including 365 production females, llamas and beef cattle.

“We like to work with not all our eggs in one basket,” said George Wherry, owner of Wherry’s Farm located in Pennsylvania’s largest sheep-producing county.

“If you can get females producing twins, and consistently, stick with it,” said Wherry.

Closed flock. He has used several breeds over the years to increase size, hardiness and to reduce and maintain the number of lambs produced by each ewe of the closed herd. Texel and Dorset rams are used as sires, although the farm is looking to upgrade the flock this fall.

Ewe-lamb replacements are bred in the fall or winter. Although these animals only produce a single offspring their first year, Wherry said it is important to have the extra output when one is looking to maximize production.

Raising 20 Angus-Simmental beef cattle alongside sheep tends to keep the pastures grasses even and provides freezer beef for the family.

“They complement one another.” Wherry said, “It keeps farm pastureland cleaner, utilizing both species.”

Wherry and his wife, Pat, took over the family farm in 1977. Prior to his retirement in 2001 from Consol Energy in Eighty Four, Pa., Wherry worked full-time for the coal mine and on the farm.

Take time for marketing. Although Wherry spends time evaluating markets, he does not consider himself a marketing specialist. He does, however, use the calendar as a marketing tool to interpret demand for lamb during ethnic holidays. Wherry has had luck in enhancing market prices for older stock throughout the year.

Prior to selling livestock through a broker, Wherry makes personal contact with restaurants and grocery stores. This time-consuming marketing step took him away from the farm for long periods of time. Wherry suggested if the manpower is available in the future, he would like to have one person concentrate on being a marketing manager for the farm.

“There are some people who could sell an Eskimo a refrigerator,” said Wherry. “You need charisma and charm.”

Wherry hopes that one of his daughters will return to the farm and contribute just that effort to develop new markets.

Facing challenges. The farm is constantly bombarded with new challenges, but the Wherrys seem to find a way to deal with each setback. Most recently, and devastatingly, they’ve been forced to deal with coyote problems.

“Coyotes are certainly the worst demise we have encountered,” said Wherry. Within the last six years, the farm has lost 214 head of sheep to coyotes.

Joe Shriner, the farm’s hunting and trapping specialist, has pursued the capture of these predators using snares. Since March of last year, Shriner has successfully captured three coyotes.

Guard llamas were also introduced to the farm five years ago to help in the war against coyotes and other predators. Each pasture is patrolled by one or more of the 14 guard llamas.

Wherry said he has observed a change since the llamas have been introduced.

“I noticed a few [ewes and lambs] mauled, but something stopped them [the predator] before they killed,” said Wherry.

Although Wherry said there is no way in knowing just how many sheep have been saved from predators, he is not willing to take the chance of losing more of the flock by not having the added protection of a guard llama. Llamas use spitting, biting and stomping as their modes of defense, and are said to have a keen sense when danger approaches.

Eye on end product. Improving the flock has become one of the farm’s most important goals. “We want more muscular lambs that will finish as quickly as possible on grass and some grain,” said Wherry.

The farm’s efforts to improve the flock has increased dressing percent. A group of 20 lambs, sold through a broker, dressed 60 percent. The highest percentage from previous years measured only 54 percent and 56 percent of any group of lambs.

Selling though a broker may not be for everyone, but Wherry has had some success selling in this manner. The farm would have received less money for the high percentage lambs if they had been sold by their live-weight instead of through the broker.

“I felt I did quite well to bring more through the broker,” said Wherry. To estimate his price on the rail, all lambs are weighed at the farm before being shipped.

With assistance from the Washington County Conservation Office, more pastureland will be prepared for rotational grazing, in an attempt to break parasite cycles and control weeds.

“I believe in paddocks to utilize grass and getting the best utilization for what money is put into it,” said Wherry. Fertility and pH levels of the grazing paddocks currently on the farm are monitored and maintained.

This time of year, the Wherrys keep busy shearing sheep. After shearing is completed, bagged wool will be sold in lots at the wool pool held at the Washington County (Pa.) Fairgrounds June 25.

Crops grown on the farm include barley and oats. Corn is excluded because it is easier and more economical to purchase it and have it delivered to the farm, Wherry said.

Wherry not only worries about his own land and livestock, but the production aspects of nearly 20 acres of neighboring ground. To help improve and develop the area, Wherry farms the small piece of ground owned by the Laskas family, with hay and other crops. Ironically, Jeanne Marie Laskas wrote about the Wherry’s farm in one of her books, Fifty Acres and a Poodle.

The farm has also seen its name in Good Housekeeping magazine, when a photo of the farm was used to introduce a story near the center of the July 2000 issue.

Wherry is a member of the Washington County Sheep and Wool Growers, the Pennsylvania Sheep and Wool Growers and the American Sheep Industry Association, as well as the Washington County Cattlemen’s Association and the Pennsylvania Cattlemen’s Association.

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