DAVE LEFEVER

Lancaster Farming Staff  

 

Forage Selection, Marketing Make Successful Sheep Operation

LITTLESTOWN (Adams Co.) -When Terry and Sally Scholle decided to go into the sheep business, they had some choices to make.

“The big decision was, what kind of operation did we want to have?” Sally said.

Terry had owned the 100-acre farm near Littlestown since 1985, raising beef cattle and renting out some of the land to a crop farmer. But before they were married in 2000 (which was also the year Terry retired from his electrical engineering job with the federal government), the couple decided to go in a different direction with the farm.

Since then they’ve had an array of adventures in the sheep business, from establishing forages to meeting new lamb customers to — believe it or not — coyote attacks.

The Scholles decided to focus on grass-based production. And they chose sheep because the small ruminants are less demanding on the land and consume much less water per pound of bodyweight than cows.

Because purebred show-type sheep tend not to be the most practical, especially on grass, the Scholles decided on commercial Dorset/Rambouillet crossbreds. The Dorset genetics they chose are from “old-fashioned” lines developed in Australia, Sally said. These result in shorter-legged, hardy sheep that are especially efficient at grazing.

The Scholles started by purchasing a flock of about 125 ewes from Ohio. Sally remembered the day they unloaded them on the farm.

“They just got off the truck and put their heads down and continued grazing like they’d never stopped,” she said.

Recently, the Scholles began introducing some North Country Cheviot genetics into the flock. They like the Cheviot’s wool-free head and legs. One of the advantages is easier shearing. The Cheviots also do well on grass and produce good carcasses.

Today, the Scholles maintain a flock of 300-350 ewes here on Creekside Sheep and Wool Farm. They are generally thrilled with how the sheep fit into good land management practices. They have also developed an ethnic market for their grass-fed lamb.

 

 

Developing Pastures

The Scholles sowed a variety of forage species on the farm, aiming for diversity and matching grasses with soil types.

The birdsfoot trefoil and reed canarygrass have proven especially adept at thriving in poorly drained areas.

One paddock has remained water-logged for the past two years, but the Scholles have continued to graze it because of the productivity of the two grasses.

Taking a close look at the paddock just this past Feb. 9 revealed rich green shoots of reed canarygrass growing underneath the thick mat of brown left over from last year’s growth.

The Scholles have not had to worry about hoof problems on the wetter soils.

Hoof rot would be the main concern, but because the Scholles essentially maintain a closed flock, Sally said the chances of hoof rot coming onto the farm are slim.

Some of the paddocks took two to three years for grasses to establish after being in row crop production.

One of the paddocks seeded with tall fescue and ladino clover was taken over by weeds before the forages ever made an appearance.

“Some kid could have come and made a prize-winning weed collection,” Sally said. Weeds flourishing in the paddock included pokeweed, poison ivy, jimsonweed, and thistle.

They mowed down the weeds and waited. Finally, in the third year, a lush stand of fescue appeared.

“It was like somebody turned on a switch,” Terry said.

While some graziers dislike fescue because of its tendency to take over pastures, the Scholles love it.

“Our animals do well on tall fescue,” Terry said.

One advantage of fescue is its ability to provide forage well into the winter. The Scholles’ ewe lambs were busily grazing fescue on Feb. 8 of this year.

The Scholles can attest to the value of using livestock to revitalize degraded soils.

A paddock they used to refer to as “the desert field” showed extremely low levels of nutrients and organic matter, Sally said.

“The soil test was off the chart,” Sally said. ‘We may as well would have sent in sand.”

Before seeding it with orchardgrass, the Scholles plowed and worked the field, but didn’t succeed in establishing a stand.

Plowing was “the worst thing we could have done,” according to Sally.

A combination of seeding oats as a nurse crop and then overwintering sheep in the field finally resulted in a good stand of orchardgrass.

“We thought we had ruined fields by leaving sheep out too long,” Sally said. “We found out you just about can’t do it.”

They have made a practice of grazing late into the season and letting the sheep chew the grass down closely. That delays forage growth in the spring and helps keep it from outgrowing the sheeps’ ability to graze it.

One year, they seeded forage turnips in late August and were pleased with the results. The turnips provided high quality feed well into the winter.

They would like to sow turnips again, but at this point don’t have the means to broadcast the seeds.

Target date for lambing is in April, about six weeks before the full spring flush of grass.

In the last two years, the Scholles have been purchasing most of their hay for winter feeding. If conditions are right for it, they have a custom operator make hay on paddocks with good growth.

They prefer to let the sheep harvest the grass as much as possible. If necessary, Terry mows the paddocks to control head formation and weeds.

The only piece of hay equipment they own is a rake — a relatively inexpensive piece of equipment yet used for a critical part of haymaking, Sally said.

The Scholles have worked with the Adams County Conservation District and Natural Resources and Conservation Service to install streambank fencing and gravel-based stream crossings on the farm.

They have developed a total of 17 paddocks on about 80 acres of grazing land.

In the past two years, the Scholles have had to supply practically no water to the paddocks, with sheep meeting their needs from streams on the farm. During drought summers, they pump water from a pond on the farm and haul it to the sheep in plastic barrels.

 

Marketing

A producer/customer alliance began several years ago when Terry was delivering some sheep to Westminster Livestock Auction in Westminster, Md.

A man approached Terry and asked if he had lambs to sell. Because selling livestock privately on auction property isn’t allowed, Terry invited the man and his companions to follow him home.

When they arrived at the farm, the man said “I have something to tell you — I’m Muslim.”

Terry had already assumed that from the man’s appearance and from knowing about the Muslim market for lambs.

“I felt bad for him,” Terry said. “Here he was apologizing for being Muslim.”

It turns out that the man, along with his family and many others from his mosque in the Baltimore area, became regular customers. The man acts as a broker, buying lambs off the farm and often bringing his family along.

“They’re really nice,” Sally said. Sometimes joining in the family outing to the Scholles’ farm is an elderly woman who brings along bread to share, she said.

The Muslim holiday of Eid ul Adha is a key time for lamb purchases. This year, the holiday fell on Jan. 21. It comes 10 days earlier each year.

The timing of the holiday, at least for now, is good for the Scholles’ growing program. By late fall and early winter, their grass-fed lambs are about 80-100 pounds in size, the way the buyers like them.

“All of our carcasses are finished on grass and they’re wonderful,” Sally said of the meat quality.

The Scholles feed practically no grain (rarely, in unusual situations.) In winter, round hay bales are fed on the ground in paddocks.

When they started in the business, the Scholles had hoped to be more successful marketing wool. (The Rambouillet part of the cross is intended to increase wool value.) But the wool market in recent years has been dismally low. Finding niche markets may be the answer for the wool accumulating on the farm, Sally said.

The Scholles built a pole barn and equipped it with sheep handling equipment to simplify the job of working sheep.

They administer wormer as needed, taking care not to increase resistance in the parasites.

Sally, a 1975 animal science graduate of DelVal College, uses a microscope to monitor fecal parasites.

The Scholles suffered a shock and a setback last summer when predators ravaged the flock. Between 30 and 40 mature ewes and lambs were killed, either on the spot or later from injuries.

A Pennsylvania game warden helped confirm that coyotes were responsible for the attack. Feral dogs may have also participated, according to Terry.

Many of the sheep were severely bitten in the throat area and in the hind end.

A Sheep’s Best Friend

To prevent more attacks, the Scholles purchased three Great Pyrenees guard dogs (one of them part Anatolian.)

The dogs live outside with the flock, bond with the sheep, and patrol the paddocks for predators.