Amish sheep production continues dramatic expansion

first_imgShare Facebook Twitter Google + LinkedIn Pinterest On Wednesdays, the Mt. Hope Auction is abuzz with the excitement of the livestock sales as buyers and sellers crowd in to monitor prices. In recent years, sheep have become a much more significant part of the sale.“In the mid-90s, Mt. Hope was selling maybe 1,000 head of sheep and goats combined annually. Today they are selling more than 40,000 sheep only and still increasing,” said Leroy Kuhns. “The demand is really strong.”As the nearby auction has demanded more lamb, the Holmes County Amish population — including Kuhns and his family — has dramatically expanded sheep production. Kuhns was among the first to ramp up to commercial-scale sheep production.“When we bought our flock in ’96, I knew of only four sheep farmers in our community that had more than a hobby sized flock,” Kuhns said. “Holmes County has had a tremendous increase in sheep in the last several years.”Kuhns and his wife, Martha, took over his parents’ farm in 1986 and really emphasized diversity on the 86 acres.“We have just about done everything. We used to milk cows, we fattened beef steers, we fattened hogs, we farrowed pigs, and we raised a lot of dairy replacement heifers. The difference I see with raising sheep is that on a comparative scale some of these things we have been into is for every $30 of income you end up having $25 in cost,” Kuhns said. “With sheep, there seems to be less income, maybe a $10 income on a comparative basis, but we are able to keep $6 or $7 of that $10. There is a lot less investment and maintenance. I still want to be diversified, but right now we are really just into the sheep. We are increasing our numbers so we can make a living off of just the sheep. We are at 220-head now and might step up to 300.”The Kuhns family focused on “old style” Dorsets, in part due to their out-of-season breeding abilities.“They have the out-of-season breeding gene in them and 50% of that flock lambed the first fall. WeEwes with body depth are preferred so they can do well on grass.were raising a lot of dairy heifers at the time and we couldn’t raise enough feed. Once the sheep numbers got over 100 head we’d sell most of them and keep some of the best ewes. We did that three times through about 2001,” Kuhns said. “Now we are up to about 220 ewes. For the last 15 years or so we have just been breeding pure Dorsets. Those old style Dorset lambs are good for the Easter and Christmas markets, which is what we focused on. As time has gone on there are more foreign-born people in this country who seemingly prefer to eat lamb and there is more demand for the butterball fat roasting lamb weighing 50 to 60 pounds. About any time of year that class of lamb really sells well. The weekly high at Mt. Hope is around $3.75 a pound. The lowest high in 2016 was around $2.40 or so in the summer. Any more I don’t focus on the Christmas or Easter markets. I just focus on getting ewes bred that are open.”The consistently strong prices from the nearby auction have created demand for good breeding stock.“In the last six years we have sold breeding stock to more than 100 sheep operations. Some of those sold out of state but most of them were right in this community,” Kuhns said. “Most of our ewe lambs get sold as breeding stock and probably 10% of the ram lambs get sold as breeders.”Kuhns has worked to breed sheep that are a fit on his grass-based system.“We prefer a lot of body depth to allow them to stuff a lot of grass in there. I’ve had contact with a farmer who had a leggy ram out on grass. He had a tubular body design. He’d lose weight on grass and when they’d take him into the barn and get him on grain he’d start to gain weight. The same farmer had a Dorset ram with a lot of body capacity and he was fine on grass,” Kuhns said. “We like a ewe with a lot of body condition. I prefer to have the legs out on the corners with a wide body and a lot of stretch to them and I can never have enough muscling. There are other breeds that are fine, but if you want toThe handling system is an important part of the farm.breed out of season it narrows your choices down in the wool breeds to Dorsets and Polypays and their crosses. The hair sheep will do that too, but the hair sheep market at Mt. Hope is generally 20 to 60 cents a pound less than the wool breeds. That is why the Dorsets fit what we do. They have good muscling, good mothering and they breed out of season.”Kuhns tries to get his ewes to lamb three times in two years.“For the most part, we lamb in January, April and September, which we call an accelerated program. The group that lambs in January can lamb again in September and the group that lambs in the fall can lamb again in April,” he said. “Any individual ewe can have lambs three times in two years. We try to get from 60% to 70% of the ewes exposed to rams in the spring to conceive.”At 220-head, the Kuhns farm can produce nearly all of the feed for the flock.“We supply free choice mineral. We’ll buy lamb starter pellets, often 20% starter that is medicated to control coccidiosis. The highest-priced starter is around $16.50 for a 50-pound bag. One lamb will only consume maybe a third of a bag and they grow really well on that. We only feed creep pellets in the winter. When we lamb in January, we wean at an average of around seven weeks of age so that ewe needs to be fed no grain and coarse, poor-quality first-cutting hay for a week or so before weaning for the lamb to suck that bag down to prevent mastitis. We take them out on grass and the ewes really respond well and have great body condition after a month or so with no grain,” he said. “The spring group of lambs goes out on permanent pasture, which is generally bluegrass. The fall lambing group is often on third- or fourth-cutting mixed alfalfa grass hay. There is very little input for the spring or fall group.”The main labor with the sheep in the summer is moving the fence.“We do a lot of rotational grazing. We are probably moving a group every week,” Kuhns said. “The pastures are predominantly bluegrass with some occasional clover or orchardgrass. We don’t like to graze it shorter than three or four inches to help with parasites. However, in real life sheep don’t go by the rules and in some areas they will graze it right down and not in others so we shoot for a happy medium. We’ll put out 80 ewes to 2.5 or three acres and they are moved in a week’s time or so. It depends on the time of year and the weather.”Standing fields of corn are also an important food source on the farm.The Mt. Hope Auction is a very important market for the area Amish farming community.“With mature sheep it wouldn’t work so well, but last summer we had over 100-ewe lambs from our flock and they were born in January and in the spring. If they are any older they would be too big and they would damage the corn,” Kuhns said. “We run them into the corn field once the corn has been tasseling for a week or two, maybe late July or August. They clean up the bottom leaves and the grassy waterways and along the fences. We’ll have gravity flow water to almost all of the fields with hydrants. They get free choice mineral but that is all they get. Later in the year when they get the leaves cleaned up they will eat some of the grain. This year we had 105 ewe lambs we didn’t need to feed from early August to about the first of November. We had been no-tilling but we plowed this so there was very little parasite issue there. We lost one lamb. There is not a lot of maintenance involved, it is cool and it saves a lot on labor and feed.”For success grazing in the corn, Kuhns said to make sure the lambs are wormed and updated on their CDT vaccines to prevent overeating.Fencing can be a challenge for some Amish communities. Kuhns is permitted to use ElectroNet fence, which has been a real asset to the operation for the rotational and corn field grazing situations. It also really helps with predators.The handling system for the animals is another important tool on the farm.“Anybody with a lot of sheep that can’t afford a good handling system better not try sheep because it is hard to do it without one. Before we had this, there were a lot of things we should have done that we didn’t do because we couldn’t do them in a practical manner,” Kuhns said. “We have a scale that goes right into the head shoot. When we wean them we run the lambs over that scale. Whatever lambs are 48 pounds are over are sold that day on the meat market if they are not being kept back for breeding stock. That handling system is really worth a lot if you want to sort the ewes, check their bags or worm them.”Looking forward, further expansion to 300-head would require additional lambing facilities and purchasing hay.“I have a son that is 29 that is working with us on the farm. It remains to be seen if two households can make a living raising sheep on 86 acres. I feel it is possible, but there is quite a bit of labor involved when we are lambing in the winter,” Kuhns said. “Farming has a way of humbling you, but I am always learning and I love sharing information with others. I am excited about it. There is not a guarantee you will have a profit, but the sheep market has been good for many, many years, especially the roasting lamb market. I feel there is a lot of potential in sheep farming.”last_img read more