Shepherd to Shepherd: Producer Forum Blog #4

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For our fourth and final producer forum we asked our four shepherds to share some words of wisdom. As usual, their answers are as varied as their production systems and geographic location.

What has your experience taught you over the years and what nuggets or advice would you share with others, especially new, Katahdin producers?

Michelle Canfield (Canfield Farms, Western Washington)

Farming is a lot of work! Pulling from my day job that involves a lot of concepts from Toyota Lean Six Sigma, I think having a continuous process improvement mindset is helpful. I utilize “Kanban Boards” that help me plan, prioritize and see the flow of work through my system, as well as communicate work to be done, and work accomplished, with other helpers on the farm. They are simple boards with 3×5 cards or magnetized labels that flow left-to-right through columns of backlog, prep, ready, in progress and done. It really helps you see the landscape of all the work in one big space, move priorities around, and appreciate progress made, despite a never-ending backlog of incoming work and projects.

I try to carve out a little bit of time each day and week to invest in a project that will reduce my workload, expenses, losses, and waste over time. The “80/20 rule” applies to many things. 20% of our sheep cost us 80% of the work. 20% of our problems cause 80% of our losses. So, if I can continuously knock out the biggest sources of loss and waste, by culling poor doers and bottom EBV performers, addressing the most common causes of loss in my system, and improving efficiency of movement and effort, I’ll always be incrementally improving in output and profitability. Ben Hartman’s books on Lean Farming are good reads!

Along these lines, having the discipline to necropsy every dead sheep can really build knowledge about the most common causes of loss. I like to joke that it’s like that Geico commercial “fifteen minutes can save you fifteen percent!” That’s all it takes to quickly cut open a dead animal, using a box knife with a fresh blade and a pair of tree pruners to cut through ribs. Look at heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, stomach, intestines and for enlarged lymph nodes. You grow your skill at knowing what’s “normal” over time, and almost always I can definitively conclude what factor(s) most likely killed the sheep. It’s amazing how often necropsies prove my assumptions wrong. This feeds into my analysis of what prevention projects will give the biggest bang for the buck in reducing losses in the future.

It can be easy to get discouraged, overwhelmed, or burned out by farming. But by investing in and tracking daily small gains in progress and efficiency, you can stay hopeful and encouraged; knowing you’re always slowly getting a little bit better, each and every day!

Lynn Fahrmeier (Fahrmeier Katahdins, Western Missouri),

Being first generation shepherds, my wife, Donna and I have often said that we really like Katahdin Sheep but we fell in love with the people. Since buying our first ewes from Doug & Laura Fortmeyer in 1997, everyone we meet is kind and friendly and will go out of their way to answer your questions. Because so many people that raise hair sheep are either first time shepherds, or even first-time farmers, this helpful and friendly attitude is very important. KHSI through the years has focused on the education of new shepherds and I believe that is one of the most important traits of the breed.

Another nugget that I have learned is this is a marathon and not a sprint. We set our goals for our flocks and then want to get there tomorrow. Slow down, enjoy the journey and don’t stress out when everything doesn’t go as planned. Learn and grow. Personally, not much has gone as I would have hoped in the last couple of years, between personal health challenges, weather swings and coyotes. However, I have a nice set of ewes that I am proud of and they are bred to some nice rams and I am looking forward to lambing next March. You will never find or produce a perfect ram or ewe, but figuring out how to improve your flock each and every year is the fun part.

Finally, realize the sheep industry is changing. 25 years ago, we did not know what the ethnic light lamb market was, but now it is driving the industry. I think it is exciting that it is opening doors for so many small flocks that did not have the ability to finish lambs to traditional market weights. I also think it is exciting that some Katahdin breeders have the genetic package to produce lambs for restaurants and grocery store chains while others focus on the light lamb market. Take advantage of whatever your “unfair advantage” is and make money by producing and selling the right type of lamb for your situation.

Lamb consumption is growing in the US. We import 70% of all lamb eaten. That means we could triple the size of every sheep flock and still not meet demand. This is an exciting time to raise Katahdins. Network with fellow shepherds, set your goals and enjoy the journey.

Roxanne Newton (Hound River Farm, South Georgia)

We started out nearly twenty years ago with virtually no livestock experience. We bought sheep because we had a lot of grass to mow. Because of our inexperience, we took some hits at the beginning, especially with respect to parasites. But we learned from those mistakes quickly and that became the impetus for our early selection for parasite resistance. We also learned over time not to micromanage the ewes; we wanted our flock to be easy-care. Ewes that did well, stayed. Needy ewes or those that couldn’t acclimate were culled.

At the outset, I kept good records. It’s really hard to improve your flock without them. Records are the key to making selection and culling decisions and can alert you to other problems. For instance, just the act of recording lamb weights can indicate an animal’s growth potential, a lamb’s susceptibility to parasites, or the milking ability of the ewe. It could also indicate that a ewe has poor mothering instincts or possibly a problem with her udder. These are just a few examples of why recordkeeping is so important.

My advice to new producers is to first try to figure out how you want to market your sheep. If it’s quality breeding stock you’re aiming to sell, it’s going to require more of your time and effort, including marketing and networking. Not all purebred Katahdins are “quality” animals, so knowing your local market for meat lambs is important too.

Join sheep associations, attend educational events, get to know other Katahdin producers and read as much as you can about management and husbandry. Know your market. Sheep don’t sell themselves. Don’t be afraid to promote your sheep. Get a website or Facebook page and back up each quality animal you’re selling with accurate information: weaning and post weaning measurements, pedigree information, lambing records, and treatments. The more data you collect, the better informed your customers will be. Join NSIP. By having EBVs you will add more data and more value to your animals. My final piece of advice is to take advantage of the resources you have available. If you have great forage, don’t waste money feeding your sheep in confinement.

Etienne and Isabel Richards (Gibraltar Farm, Central NY)

Focus on what works for you (what you enjoy about shepherding) and on your farm (special considerations for your sheep, environment and market). There will always be new trends and gadgets and things that you can do. Try new things but make sure you have a way of measuring if it really does as advertised on your farm. If it is something that you do not enjoy doing or if it does not perform well for you, stop doing it.

Define your goals and how you want to approach your journey as a shepherd. Decide if you want to select your sheep to fit your management or if you want to change your management to fit your sheep. Keep this in mind when you make decisions. It won’t always be easy to stay within the lines. It is fine to make changes as long as it fits your goals.

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