DEGRAFF, Ohio – A prize feed pan hanging from an alleyway fence inside Bill and Susan Shultz’s barn now holds veterinary supplies.
Back in the day, it rewarded their son, Joe, for his 1995 Ohio State Junior Fair champion Rambouillet ram.
Each stroke of the calligraphy on the toast-colored trough is still nearly as perfect as the August day Joe brought it home.
But those days are gone.
The Rambouillets are gone.
And the Shultzes are moving to something new.
A new mindset. The Rambouillets waded through pastures on Bunker Hill Farm since Joe, now a graduate student at Cornell, was born.
But things started to change about three years ago.
The Shultzes, who have watched the Ohio sheep industry slacken over the years, decided to take a risk.
At farms and fairs and shows for more than two decades, they watched sheep enthusiasts grab hold of the showring and club lamb mentality.
Now it’s time for things to go the other way, they decided.
“We really thought we’d love to have more of a commercial [flock] base in Ohio,” Bill Shultz said.
“It’s time for the pendulum to swing back.”
So the Shultzes pushed the swing and grabbed on for the ride.
They sold the breed they had shown for years and replaced the flock with Suffolks.
Through their flock, they’re developing a different kind of animal than most Ohio sheep breeders promote.
“We’re putting muscle back in Suffolks,” Susan Shultz said.
Worlds apart. The Shultzes think the demand for their type of sheep is out there, scattered across Ohio and the United States.
“The showring didn’t start as a social function. In the 1930s, the showring was the only way to evaluate animals, and that’s how farmers did it,” Bill Shultz said.
“The showring traditionally follows the needs of production. It may lag for a while, but it tries to represent [breeders’ desires],” he said.
“I think production and the showring will fit together over time. We won’t chase the showring.”
But for now, the showring and breeder barn are worlds apart.
And the Shultzes’ thinking is still not embraced in many circles. The couple will only sell sheep slick-sheared, and don’t participate in the show circuit much anymore.
They’re pouring their hearts into breeding for quality.
Hard to fake. “Slick-sheared is a different concept than fitted sheep. Using it, you can evaluate animals more truly,” Susan Shultz said of their decision.
Breeding animals destined to be slick-sheared is hard work. The Shultzes have to select a different type of animal to get them to look the part, they said.
“Straightness of top and lines and rump structure are hard to fake [without fitting],” Susan said.
“We’re talking about more muscling, not so much cosmetic things,” she said.
They hope breeding better animals will encourage more 4-H and FFA members to take an interest in breeding sheep and get the state better footing in the industry again.
A long history. Logan County – and Ohio, too – has a great sheep industry history, they say.
Bill thinks back to his childhood on the farm. He’s the third generation of his family to raise livestock in the county, taking after his maternal grandfather and then his father, Farrell Shultz.
Farrell started a Shropshire flock when he came back to west-central Ohio from Ohio State University in the 1930s. The man was a member of the school’s livestock judging team, and had a real interest in livestock, Bill Shultz figures.
“I have absolutely no idea why he picked sheep, though. Ohio had a really strong industry at that time, so that probably was a big part of it,” he said.
Every July. Bill has fond recollections of his father’s annual July sheep sale at the farm.
People came from all over the country to buy his breeding stock. Bill trimmed and washed the sheep for months in preparation for that one day, he said.
When it arrived, he sold bottled pop out of a water tank and spent the whole day reveling in his family’s reputation.
Sale-goers were almost like an extended family, watching Bill and his siblings grow through photos published in sale catalogs each year.
But those memories faded after the flock was dispersed when Bill was a freshman in high school. The young man kept Suffolks and Southdowns to show, but sold them when he went away to college.
After his college graduation from Ohio State in 1972, he covered shows and sales for a sheep magazine. When that got old, he came back home and started a Rambouillet flock.
At one time, he had around 400 ewes, he said.
These days. Years later, he’s got about 100 ewes on his farm near DeGraff, Ohio. He’s a stay-at-home sheep herder, and Susan teaches gifted middle schoolers nearby.
When he’s not inspecting the flock, fixing fence or repairing barn siding and doors, he takes time to read and research. It’s important to keep up on disease issues, breeding ideas, marketing, new ideas.
This is the first year the Shultzes have taken slick-sheared sheep out to shows and sales.
In early May, they took a handful to the 150-head Ohio Suffolk sale. Of 150 animals there, only five were slick-sheared; three were theirs.
They know they’re turning heads. But they’re also catching flak for it.
“It will take a really brave judge to pick one of these animals” as champion over fitted sheep, Susan said.
“But we’re sure, in time, one will be good enough.”
A lot to prove. Moving toward their goal of having a champion, the Shultzes know they have a lot to prove.
Their sheep have to be even better than the traditional animal so they even get a second glance, they said.
But time is on their side. The empty-nesters acknowledge and embrace the risks they never could take before.
“If it takes us five years to get to where we need to be, that’s fine,” Bill said.
Shultz breeds sheep on what he calls a “fast track” program.
He shortens the generation interval by breeding ewe lambs when they’re 7 months old, so they’ll lamb just as they turn to yearlings.
He speeds genetic change by mating a ram lamb from a ewe lamb in his fast track lineup.
“We know there’s genetic change, we just can’t physically see it. We hope we’re on the right track,” Bill said.
“We won’t know for five or 10 years, but at least we’ll get there in a hurry,” he joked.
Wide open markets. Summers at the Shultz farm in the 1980s and 1990s included family vacations – trips to South Dakota, North Dakota, other states – to shows and sales.
The family got to see a lot of the country, and picked up an appreciation for the sheep industry outside its backyard.
“A lot of Midwest breeders have narrow tunnel vision. They don’t see other bigger aspects of the industry,” Bill said.
So now, with their new breeding approach, the Shultzes are going after their markets – but they won’t chase the market around the globe, they cautioned.
They know it will be harder to reach herders in California vs. Ohio, they said. But they’re not deterred.
Excitement. Susan admits she hasn’t been this excited about sheep in a long time. Watching their breeding evolve is fun, and down the road, she knows their sheep will be successful, she said.
For now their challenge is to stay focused and be patient.
“We can’t let ourselves get sucked up in the excitement of winning a show. We have to remind ourselves of our vow not to take out anything but slick-sheared sheep,” Susan said.
“At some point in the livestock industry, things have to go back to production agriculture,” Bill Shultz said.
“Not everyone will agree [with what we’re doing], but this niche will make it all worth doing,” he said.
“It’s really renewed our spirits about raising sheep,” Susan said.
The Shultz farm also received a national award for their environmental practices. Read more here.
(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at email@example.com.)
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