A Little Background: Before we left the suburbs in search of our ancestral farming roots, we read many books and articles about sustainable farming. Our first inspiration was author and well-known “grass farmer,” Joel Salatin (Polyface Inc), who beautifully explains the reasons behind and methods of using a variety of animal species to strategically graze, fertilize, and rest divisions of pasture land.
Inspiration led to action, and our family began the process of moving to a 38 acre property in Seymour, Missouri that had been a horse farm for the past seven years. We knew we wanted to raise cattle, chickens and pigs to apply the rotational grazing method of putting nutrients into the soil to grow more lush, nutritious forage for the animals to produce healthy meat. Chickens and pigs were doable. However, we were faced with two challenges: One, cattle could be a dangerous creature for children who had, up to this point, been raised apart from them. Two, cattle prices: a tall order for a family new to farming on a VERY limited budget.
We were prompted to consult with a local veteran grass farmer who had already been a wealth of good advice, ideas and resourceful information. Our dilemma was discussed over dinner, and would became a providential conversation. “You should look into getting Katahdin sheep,” he said. “They’re safer and more manageable for families with kids, and you can buy several head of sheep for the same price of one cow.” He listed several other reasons as well.
“Sheep?” The thought of raising these skittish, seemingly small-brained creatures had never entered our minds! Our curiosity was piqued, however, and we decided to look into this possibility. We read books on keeping sheep and were a little intimidated about all the possible health problems they could be prone to and their tendency to escape through fencing, not to mention the fact that we knew absolutely nothing about caring for them!
All things considered, we made the plunge and purchased a flock of seventeen scrawny Katahdin lambs from a young man who raised them for a 4-H project. We didn’t realize they were scrawny when we bought them, or that some of them had scours. We were rookies, and they were the cheapest lambs of this breed we could find. The lambs were delivered to our farm, and we had them unloaded into our corral that we had reinforced to accommodate sheep. Our plan was to let them settle in a while and then move them onto pasture for rotational grazing. We pictured in our heads a shepherd easily leading his obedient sheep to a new grazing area and figured we’d just open the corral gate and lead them to their new pasture. That day will not soon be forgotten in our family.
As we opened the gate, the lambs, who neither knew nor trusted us, hesitated and then slowly moved toward the opening. Once they ventured though the gate, it was like marbles scattering when spilled on a hard floor. Into the woods went a handful, and the rest found tasty vegetation spread all across the pasture (everywhere except where we had set up electric netting for them to graze within). Any time we would come close to one, it would dart in another direction. All family members, large and small, were called in for reinforcement. Parents, kids and lambs were running everywhere! In our panic we began yelling as we chased, which frightened the lambs even more. We divided up our ranks, some to the woods and some circled in on the flock in the pastures. One particular lamb who we finally caught in the woods would not let us coax him toward the pasture. We hugged his neck and tried to get him to walk, but he just lay down and refused to budge. Another fellow escaped through our perimeter barbed wire fence and ran right down the road. A few of us jumped in our pickup and took off after him. We probably would have lost him altogether if it hadn’t been for a mom and her son who were driving by at the time. The mom stopped the car, and her son jumped out and caught hold of the runaway lamb. (Thank you both, if you’re reading this!) Long story short, we spent our entire Saturday rounding up all those lambs. Miraculously, they were all accounted for. We learned many a lesson about sheep and ourselves that day!
Our next challenge was the condition of our new flock. How would we treat their anemic, probably parasitic condition? To the internet we went. Most websites called for chemical de-wormers and other synthetic medications. That was not the solution we had in mind. By God’s grace, advice from holistic-based websites, help from our dear neighbors, and with time, we began implementing natural minerals, sea kelp, diatomacious earth and garlic mixed together and offered free choice to the lambs. They devoured their minerals like candy for the first few days, then eased up on their consumption. It seemed to be just what their bodies needed. Sadly, three of the seventeen never recovered. The rest of the flock began to thrive! They continued to enjoy their minerals, gained weight, grew beautiful coats, and produced delicious meat. The flock became familiar with and looked forward to our kids coming out to move them to their next “salad bar” pasture. They grew to know us and us them.
Our sheep have since grown in health and in number. We’re amazed and grateful over these improvements and the priceless lessons we’ve learned together through our adventure with sheep, who are now our favorite farm animal of all. We still have much to learn, but we’re grateful for the opportunity to raise clean, happy and healthy animals for your family’s table!
**A special thanks to God and to our veteran Missouri grass farmer, if you’re reading this, you know who you are!!