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Michigan couple makes gainful switch to sheep
By KEVIN WALKER
Michigan Correspondent

ATHENS, Mich. — For Alice and Kirby Hostetler, after years of dealing with the falling prices of pork and other commodities, raising sheep has become a profitable line of work.

The couple raises about 400 commercial sheep in Athens, Mich., about 10 miles south of Battle Creek. Kirby grew up on a farm, and used to raise hogs and cattle, but got out when he was faced with having to greatly increase the number of hogs.

“In ‘98 I got rid of all my hogs,” he said. “The more I looked at the sheep, the more I got excited about it. There weren’t a lot of purchased inputs. Our goal is to get to 600 ewes. We’d like to get 1,000 lambs.”

In 2003 he also started selling Silver Stream Shelters. He touts the hoop barn as more healthy to work in than a traditional barn. “It’s like working outside; and yet, you’re out of the elements,” Kirby said of the shelters. “They’re just a pleasure to work in. They’re very economical and can be put up quickly.”

There are several hoop barns on the Hostetler farm. One is used for feeding calves, as well as to hold lambs that are ready to go to market. Another shelter is for yearling ewes, which are being exposed to a ram for the first time.

The shelters are used for lambing, and for finishing the lambs. The lambs are finished in the shelter during the six or eight weeks before they go to market.

“I’m trying to let the sheep do the work for me,” Kirby said. Most of the sheep are left outside, their wool protecting them from even the coldest temperatures. The sheep feed on grass - even in January when the ground isn’t snow covered. “They don’t like the ice,” Kirby cautioned.

The couple uses a working chute to corral the sheep when they are dewormed. Kirby said parasitic diseases are the single largest problem he’s faced in raising sheep. The couple herds the sheep through the chute, where they give the sheep the dewormer. They use a drench fed into the sheep’s mouth.

The trick is to keep the sheep’s head about level, Kirby said. It’s only a small amount of liquid, but if the sheep’s head is too high, it’s possible to get the liquid in its lungs. If its head is too low, it could spit the liquid out.

Most of Kirby’s life has been on the farm. He spent two years in the service after being drafted during the Vietnam War; however, he was never sent overseas. He said he was one of the last people in Branch County to be drafted.

Kirby believes that raising sheep is a good business in this area partly because of the ethnic market. Muslims often favor lamb, and the large number of Muslims in the Detroit area helps the business. The price of sheep is now at 90 cents a pound, Kirby said. After 9/11, the price dropped to 45 cents a pound but went up slowly.

One day the couple found that one or more coyotes had killed 12 sheep in one night. Although it was discouraging, they stuck with the business. They haven’t had any problems with coyotes since, even though they don’t use a guard animal, or anything else to guard against coyotes except some electric fencing and a line of barbed wire along the bottom.

Now Alice is raising about 50 goats on the farm, because people from the Hispanic community keep asking about it.

“We’re getting so many Mexicans moving into the area,” Alice said. “They keep asking for goats.”

Alice started out using goats’ milk to feed orphan lambs, and later started raising more when her neighbor gave up his herd because of health problems.

The first year she raised goats for meat several kids died from a disease. After that she started treating the feed. When a neighbor’s goat once climbed on her car, Alice said she’d never raise goats, but later changed her mind. “Goats have a lot more personality than sheep,” she said. “They’re people animals.”

Published in the January 18, 2006 issue of Farm World.

1/18/2006