No Business Like Sheep Business

By Carol Lea Spence
Photography by Stephen Patton and Matt Barton

Kentucky sheep producers are tapping into a rich history. Stone Age humans domesticated sheep 10,000 years ago in Asia Minor—the first farm animals on record. They were easy to handle, and they produced meat, milk, fiber, and shelter. What more did humans need?

If ever there is a picture of quintessential Americana, it’s the view from the driveway of Eileen O’Donohue’s Two Shakes Ranch in Washington County: a cozy, picket fence-encircled cottage with placid ewes and lambs grazing in the front yard. It calls you to chuck the dress shoes, pull on the wellies, and start raising sheep. O’Donohue heard the call; she was living in Bakersfield, Calif. when she decided to buy the place four years ago.

Colleen and Sanforod Dotson also heard the call and started the only sheep dairy in the state in Bath County. Dianne MacDonald heard it 35 years ago and has raised wool sheep (plus a few alpaca) for her fiber business ever since. Jim Mansfield has been raising sheep in Mercer County for about a decade.

In fact, full-time and part-time producers, as well as many beginning farmers, see the appeal behind the gentle ovines. Sheep are prolific, can thrive on marginal lands, don’t need a lot of space, and the initial investment is small compared to other livestock. What’s not to love?

At their peak in 1942, national sheep numbers stood at 56.2 million. Kentucky, with its 1.4 million head, had more sheep per square mile than any state east of the Mississippi. Professor Don Ely, UK sheep coordinator, describes the 60-mile radius area of Central Kentucky as the buckle on the sheep belt in those days, because sheep thrived on bluegrass.

After World War II, the development of synthetic fabrics hit the wool markets hard, and the entire sheep industry felt the blow. Sheep were raised primarily for their wool; meat was merely the by-product. These days, the model has flipped, with meat being the primary product, though it continues to be a by-product in fiber and dairy production. Despite a different emphasis, the industry hasn’t bounced back to its old numbers. The U.S. sheep inventory is less than 10 percent of what it was in 1942, numbering 5.35 million.
Kentucky, with more grazing land than cropland and a strong program for distributing tobacco settlement money, is trying to buck the trend.

“Nationally sheep numbers are down, but in Kentucky in 2011, they were up 18 percent and up another 8 percent in 2012,” said Kelley Yates, executive director of the Kentucky Sheep & Goat Development Office.

Eileen O'Donohue: "One of the things I've learned is how important it is to have other shepherds in your flock. I've gathered a lot of women from going to those Eweprofit days. We've done a lot of lambing over the phone together."

Hair today…

Mansfield and O’Donohue are producing lamb for a high-end niche market. Hair sheep are what you’ll find at O’Donohue’s place and also on Mansfield’s Four Hills Farm. Hair sheep are a meat breed and don’t produce wool. Instead, they shed their curly hair in early spring, sometimes looking like batting is peeling off them.

The fact that they don’t need to be sheared is appealing to some producers.

Not all meat producers prefer hair sheep, however. The majority of sheep in the state are wool sheep, breeds such as Polypay, Hampshire, or Suffolk.

“The first question you should ask yourself as a producer is ‘What are my production goals?’ Then you can ask which breed best fits those goals,” said Debra Aaron, UK animal sciences professor. “If your goal is to produce heavy-weight lambs on the traditional market, maybe a Hampshire or Suffolk fits best. Eileen and Jim found the breeds that fit their needs the best.”

Mansfield raises Katahdins. “We feel so confident about these sheep that I’ve trademarked the phrase New American Lamb.”

A former UK specialist in agricultural economics, Mansfield sells about 1,500 lambs a year to grocery stores and restaurants. This year he is starting direct-to-consumer sales of cuts on his farm. He raises all he can on his own farm, but to meet the demand, he has developed relationships with 25 other producers in Kentucky, Indiana, Tennessee, and Virginia who meet his requirements—pasture-raised lambs without antibiotics or hormones.

Persistence has paid off for Jim Mansfield, who spends much of his time marketing his product to food distributors, food processors, and stores. “We’re focused on being a reliable supplier of local lamb year round.”

“I’m able to pay people a premium, and everybody I’ve worked with has expanded,” Mansfield said.

Kentucky Lamb, O’Donohue’s business, was once one of Mansfield’s suppliers. Now she is doing her own marketing of lambs that are White Dorper crosses. In the short time she’s been in business, she has leaned on Ely, Aaron, and UK sheep unit manager Endre Fink for help.

“There’s a lot of good support out of UK, so it helps if you use them as a resource,” she said.

UK’s sheep experts know what producers need. They hold three Eweprofit Schools a year for new and prospective sheep producers and schools for lambing and shearing. The sheep unit at UK’s C. Oran Little Research Center in Woodford County often hosts tours for livestock groups, FFA, and 4-H. Plus, universities send their students to UK to prepare for sheep judging competitions at the North American International Livestock Exposition.

Fink spends a lot of time on the phone or at field days helping a growing number of producers from Kentucky and other states.

“We’re doing research that is really practical for people. We can show them what we just did and what worked and what didn’t,” he said.

Aaron worked for seven years on a grading-up project to develop White Dorpers less expensively. Grading up means using one breed to improve another breed through generations of controlled breeding.

“We had to start somewhere, because White Dorper sheep weren't available at that time, and if they had been available, we couldn’t have afforded them,” Aaron said. “We had to grade up; that was something producers were also thinking about doing.”

…Wool to Follow

A friend gave Dianne MacDonald an orphaned lamb 35 years ago. She kept it in a playpen in her kitchen and raised it at home with her three young sons.

“Considering my ignorance, it’s a miracle it survived,” she said.

In the process, MacDonald decided she liked sheep a lot and wanted to raise them for their fiber.

Dianne MacDonald believes natural fibers are more appreciated now than a decade ago. “There are more people doing this now. I’m not so much the weird lady with the sheep, anymore. There are a few others,” she said with a laugh.

Over the years, she taught herself through the College’s field days and even enrolled as a “mature student” in Ely’s sheep science course.

These days on her Tanglewood Farm, she crosses Romneys, CVMs, and Bluefaced Leicesters, with an occasional Wensleydale ram thrown in, to get the long, lustrous locks that are in demand.

From her on-farm studio in Woodford County, she sells yarns, roving, and fleeces and conducts workshops in dyeing and spinning. It’s not a get-rich business, she’s quick to say—“My husband would find that extremely funny if he were here”—but she makes enough “to support the sheep, support my habit, encourage other people, do the kinds of things I want to do, and live the kind of life I want to live.”

Her advice for people interested in getting into the sheep business?

“Start small, with just a few experienced ewes. Buy from someone who is willing to mentor you and be there to answer any questions you might have. And be prepared to learn a lot, especially during your first lambing season.”

Raising dairy sheep is more than a business to Colleen Dotson. "They need us and we need them. It's a good trade-off. They love attention. And it's nice to be needed."

“We didn’t know anything.”

“We’d never touched a sheep. We didn’t know farming,” said Sanford Dotson, farmer, shepherd, cheese maker, and proprietor, along with wife Colleen, of Good Shepherd Cheese, Kentucky’s only sheep dairy.

Realizing it’s hard to make a living just doing wool and knowing many people were already doing meat sheep, they thought sheep cheese could be their niche.

“We were dumb enough to think it wouldn’t be that bad,” he laughed.

The Dotsons bought property near Owingsville and took UKAg’s first cheese making class. They spent 2010 learning to milk their East Friesian sheep, a breed that will typically give four times the milk of other breeds, and they practiced making cheese on the kitchen counter. They chose to make an aged raw milk Pyrenees-style cheese, a recipe that goes back several thousand years. Responding to a demand from high-end restaurants, they’re adding a bleu cheese to their repertoire this year.

“It takes a lot of dedication and commitment,” Sanford Dotson said. “We do everything that a lamb operation would do for raising meat lambs, then we do the dairy on top of it, and we do the cheese making on top of that. Then we do the marketing. You get discouraged sometimes. Sometimes you think, remind me, Lord, why we’re doing this. But I wouldn’t trade it. It’s a good family life.”

Sheep can lead to a financially rewarding life, as well. As Ely points out, five ewes will generate, on average, 7.5 lambs and feed costs will be the same as feeding a cow and her one calf. Yet, depending upon market prices, those 7.5 lambs could net about $175 more than a calf at weaning weight. Those are numbers that make sense to a lot of Kentucky farmers.

“We’re probably never going to have 150,000 head in this state again, but sheep production is going to continue to be an economically viable part of Kentucky’s agriculture,” Aaron said. “Just because it’s not large doesn’t mean it can’t be viable.”

Because after all, what more do humans need?