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Stories from the valley

Day-to-Day: Raising Sheep in an Uncertain World

Contributed by Dan Macon

Spring 2020, for all of us, has been one of the most bizarre experiences of our lifetimes. March 1st seems like a year ago when I consider everything that has changed in our world – lockdowns, physical distancing, the lack of staple supplies. The uncertainty we’re all facing is unsettling, to put it mildly. And yet despite these uncertain times, I continue to take comfort in the everyday work of caring for our sheep.

I don’t mean to say there isn’t uncertainty impacting our sheep business. Since roughly half of all of the domestic lamb consumed in the United States was served in restaurants, the market for lamb has fallen off the table – literally. Lambs that would have sold for nearly $300 in February are worth just $120-150 today. And nobody is buying the kind of coarse wool our sheep produce – there simply is no demand for it at the moment. We’ll shear the sheep this week, and we’ll market our lambs in about six weeks – and we know our income will take a significant hit this year.

In the past, we’ve marketed our wool and our lamb directly to consumers. While I enjoyed this immensely, it did not prove to be terribly profitable for our business. We’ve since shifted gears – we’ll market most of our lambs this year as feeder lambs – and someone else will market the meat we ultimately produce. Despite the renewed interest in locally-produced food (including meat), our business is not structured to market finished lambs directly. We have neither the forage resources nor the extra time necessary for direct marketing.

In the meantime, however, the sheep provide a daily reason for me to be outside. We were in the midst of lambing when the shelter-at-home orders were issued, which meant (mostly) my daily life didn’t change. The ewes still needed to be checked three times a day. Sometimes they needed help delivering their lambs. We built fence, moved sheep, took down fence – and started all over again. Now, with lambing over and the sheep moved back to our spring/summer pastures, my days begin with moving irrigation water and feeding the livestock guardian dogs. And this weekend, as we do every year on the Saturday before Mother’s Day, we’ll shear the sheep – their wool seems to grow whether we’re in the midst a pandemic or not! Sometime around Father’s Day, we’ll wean the lambs and sell most of them. Irrigation will continue till mid-October. We’ll make decisions about which ewes to keep for breeding purposes; we’ll buy a new ram or two. In other words, we’ll continue in the sheep business.

I count myself fortunate that I have a foot in both the production world and in the research and extension world. The day-to-day work of raising sheep has kept me sane during this unusual period; my research and extension work has kept our bills paid. I expect that Flying Mule Sheep Company will show a financial loss at the end of the year, but because it’s a part-time business, we’ll be able to keep going. In these uncertain days, I’m reassured by the certainty that sheep will always need a shepherd – and as a shepherd, I’m finding that I’ll always need sheep.