West Virginia dairy transitions to sheep

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GREENVILLE, W.Va. — It wasn’t Aaron and Tara Helmick’s dream to have sheep, let alone several hundred of them, although the ewes and lambs do look at home on the grassy slopes of their southern West Virginia farm.

Dairy was Aaron’s dream and, on paper, it was the most profitable part of their operation. 

Continuing to milk made sense financially, but other parts of life for the first generational dairy farmers weren’t adding up. 

“It wasn’t like, this is awful and we hate it, but we were getting burnt out and not really seeing it because we’d done it for so long and been in the industry for so long, we didn’t know what something else looked like,” Tara Helmick said. “We put a lot of stock in our faith in God in leading us through those things.”

They bought their first 50 bred ewes in January 2019. By the end of the year, they had 500 ewes. They quit milking in January 2020.

The sheep numbers made sense for the budget and for the vision of what their life should look like.

“My wife’s part of the dream was she wanted her kids to grow up on the farm with their parents there not working jobs off farm,” Aaron said. Sheep allowed them to do that and more.

Growing up

Aaron and Tara met in college at West Virginia University. She was a freshman and he was a senior when Tara took a job at the university dairy.

“They were looking for a sucker to take the cows to the state fair,” she said. “I didn’t know why no one wanted to do it, so I said I’d do it.” Aaron was a sucker too, apparently, and also went to the fair with the university cows. That’s how the two met.

Tara grew up near Morgantown, West Virginia, on a small commercial cow-calf beef farm. Aaron did not grow up on a farm, but he was always around them. He worked on neighboring farms, eventually earning enough money to buy his first show calf when he was 12. He worked in exchange for board for the calf at a dairy up the road. After college he worked at dairies around the region.

They got married in 2009. The newlyweds rented a dairy in Hans Creek Valley in Monroe County and began building a life, business and family together.

Their dairy was a low input grazing system because they had the land base for it, Tara said. They transitioned to organic in 2015, selling their milk to Organic Valley. The most cows they milked at one time was about 120, Tara said.

The couple rented an apartment at the dairy and then moved into a trailer on the property. When the opportunity came to buy a small farm minutes away from the dairy, they took it. 

“The dairy was very good to us,” Aaron said. “It really helped us in regard to giving us an equity springboard. It put us into land ownership and home ownership.”

Their son, Andrew, was born in 2011. He’s nearly 11 now. Three more children would follow: daughter Lainey, 7; son, Graham, 5; and son, Emory, 2.

Breaking point

Things began to change in 2018. They were approaching the end of their 10-year lease on the dairy. It was time to reevaluate. Would they keep milking there or try to find other land and build a new facility? At the same time, they needed to grow.

“We had to increase the size of the dairy to maintain the living standard,” Tara said. “We’re not rich fancy people by any means, but to be able to afford a living and afford help.”

Help was already getting harder to find. Aaron was taking on more and more at the dairy and was slowly burning out. He was physically present for all his children’s big life events, but he wasn’t mentally present, he said.

The final straw came when they thought they’d found a man to take over the daily dairy operations. When he backed out at the last minute, they realized how much they’d been counting on this new person being there to give them some relief.

They’d already been looking around for other opportunities in agriculture that would bring in a similar income for their land base. Something with more flexibility and less labor. Something their children could be involved with. Something to fix their “people problems,” as Aaron called it. Sheep seemed to be a solution to those problems. 

Sheepish beginnings

The ewes came to the farm a week before Aaron and Tara left for two weeks to attend the Ranching for Profit school in South Dakota in early 2019. They left Tara’s parents and their children to handle lambing, which they did with relative ease.

Everything went so well, Aaron decided to get more sheep. They were getting mostly Katahdin hair sheep in from various flock dispersals or other sales. Buying a large group often yielded a better deal per head. Culling could be done as they went. By the end of the year they had about 500 ewes.

Unfortunately, subsequent lambings were not as painless.

“It’s more like what didn’t go wrong,” Aaron said.

They lost a bunch of lambs to parasites. Another time they had issues with sore mouth and foot scald. Their second big lambing, in February 2020, it seemed like things were going well until the rain hit. Their valley received 8 inches of rain in 30 hours. The stockpiled pastures the ewes were on turned into mud. They lost a couple hundred lambs and dozens of ewes during and after that weather event.

After that, they bought Easycares, a composite hair sheep breed developed in Nebraska, to replace many of their Katahdin ewes. That helped some of their issues with mothering ability and hardiness. They also improved their systems for feeding and lambing.

Marketing

The Helmicks went to the Ranching for Profit school with a mind to help figure out their dairy problem. They’ve always treated the farm like a business, but they wanted to take it to the next level. Ranching for Profit helped them do that. 

“I tell people, don’t go unless you’re ready to have your life changed,” Aaron said.

While the dairy was paying the bills, it wasn’t helping them meet the mission and vision for their life and family. They transitioned out of the dairy over a year, breeding the dairy cows back to beef bulls and eventually selling the cows. The lessons they learned in the school helped them shape their new sheep enterprise.

They’re primarily a grass and grazing-based system. Ewes lamb on pasture in the spring with minimal assistance. Aaron or his employee check the flocks and feed the livestock guardian dogs once a day. 

A portion of their lambs are finished out as feeders in the old dairy barn. Lambs are weighed once a week. If enough hit 70 pounds, the target weight for their local market, they send a load out. Instead of aiming for the Easter market, Aaron sells lambs the rest of the year to avoid the flooded market that pushes prices down. He primarily markets lambs from November through March. They send lambs to the auction about 40 weeks out of the year.

They also market around “people events.” 

“We had a barn full of lambs feeding last summer,” Aaron said. “We wanted to go on vacation. We had other people who wanted to go on vacation. I called a buyer and said, ‘What’s your price? We negotiated.’”

They were up to about 700 ewes, but recently sold some because they had a buyer and the price was right. Even with all those sheep, they still have extra grass so they bring in stockers and bred cows if they’re the right price to create extra income. 

“I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface in grazing with the sheep because we’re still trying to figure out the infrastructure,” Tara said. “We could support many more hundreds or a couple thousand more head with improved grazing.”

The sheep are the centerpiece of their operation right now, but they remain flexible. At the end of each year, they take stock of their entire business. 

“If we could walk away today, how much cash would we have, and what would we do with it?” Aaron said. Would they buy into their business again next year?

Then they lay out their options on a flip chart page, something they learned from the Ranching for Profit school. Rental property, mutual funds, feeder lambs, buy more ewes, pay off all operating debts. The page shows that flipping houses would bring the biggest return on investment.

“But you can’t eat off of assets,” Tara said.

The sheep business remains the winner for the way family, life and business intersect

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is Farm and Dairy's editor and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County, where she co-manages the family farm raising beef cattle and sheep with her husband and in-laws. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts. She can be reached at rachel@farmanddairy.com or 724-201-1544.

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