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Former OSU educator schools sheep producers on right flock
Ohio Correspondent

MOUNT HOPE, Ohio — Consumers may want a consistent product, but it doesn’t always happen, according to Daryl Clark, sheep producer and retired Ohio State University extension educator. He was a presenter at a recent “Sheep 101” event sponsored by the Ohio Heartland Sheep Improvement Assoc.

“When you go to a livestock auction, you see a whole variety of animals,” said Clark. “But I hope you are not going to a stock auction to get your sheep. If you are, you will be in trouble.”
He said the nice thing about sheep is they are versatile and can adapt to any type of production system, but certain types of sheep are better suited to specific systems. Sometimes, producing a high-quality product can be expensive and the system needs to sustain itself.

“There are a lot of variations in production systems,” Clark said. “It is best not to have one production system with one output and one market.”

Producers need to decide where they want to be in the production system. “Determine where you want to go and what your goals are,” he said. “If you want to buy sheep, go to someone who is producing the kind of sheep you want to produce. If you know the right people, you can get where you want to go.”

For example, club lambs and seedstock have a specific market, but that is just one piece of the puzzle, according to Clark. Some people just like sheep or they want something to clean up weeds and brush on their property.

“I am not sure that is where we want to be,” he said. “Some sheep look good in the show ring, but when you take them home, they don’t look good. They can’t sustain themselves. I am not putting them down, but we need to know where we are going.”

Commercial flocks are managed under a variety of systems and work particularly well when they are able to use a lot of forage.
“When feed costs are high, this doesn’t work as well,” he said. “Commercial producers need to produce lambs that appeal to a number buyers when they are sold at market.”

Right customer at right time
Clark added it takes planning for producers who want to hit the ethnic or roaster markets. Producers who want to sell roaster lambs need to identify a breed that will give them animals that mature early and are heavily muscled. He said the ethnic market is still developing, but animals need to be young and have a bloom.
“This market needs to have specific-size animals at the right time; producers need to study the needs of the market and be on time,” he said. “A week early or a week late can be a tragedy. It is hard to put an animal through without outside inputs. You can’t have lambs ready for this market on forage alone.”

Clark said producers should also have a backup plan if they are planning on selling freezer lambs. “I like to have three or four outlets to sell my sheep,” he said. “You don’t want to get backed into a corner where you have to sell that lamb on that date.”
He said the commercial wool market has not been an asset to the sheep industry for decades, but for producers who are willing to specialize in producing high-quality wool for spinners or weavers, it can be a good market. He added producers need to have some factor in there to cover the cost.

“Shepherds need to know their market and know what their customers want,” he said. 

“Shepherds need to respond to their customers, but some consumers enjoy their position and you need to proceed with caution.”

Clark said disease may be an issue for shepherds. “Most diseases I see come from someplace else,” he said. “As you get more sheep in the neighborhood, you need to be careful about who you let on your farm.”

He said a producer needs to watch what is happening up and down their road, particularly as many areas become more developed. “I have neighbors who didn’t grow up in the area, they don’t think like I do,” he said. “A lot of neighbors don’t understand what agriculture is about.”

Producers need to look at their operations from an environmental perspective, as well. “Will your operation meet environmental standards?” Clark asked. “We need to watch how we handle erosion and watch how we handle livestock waste.”

Clark cautioned beginning shepherds to proceed carefully, as they need to consider whether their operation is big enough to have an economic impact on their pocketbook.

“If everyone is going one way, go another way,” he said. “If the price stays OK, can you make it with what you are doing now? If the price goes down in a year or so, there will be a lot of good sheep for sale. You need to be sustainable and utilize your economic advantage.”

Clark said producers need to look at goals for their operations: What size and quality of lambs do they want to produce? When do they want to have their lambs ready to market? These factors all impact when producers lamb their flocks.

“My ideal lamb will be born outside and get up and nurse on its own,” he said. “If you are going to be a shepherd, sheep are meant to be shepherded. This is something they don’t do very well on their own.”