To tourists driving by on their way to area attractions, the sheep grazing on the grassy hills of Columbiana County look like they are just a natural part of the landscape. The idyllic scene certainly seems almost effortless to many casual passersby, but the reality is quite the opposite. It has taken years of effort and care to turn this former strip mine ground into an Ohio Environmental Steward Award recipient.
“We bought it in 1992. We came from Maryland and we had been small in sheep over there. We came here and I got my big farm,” said Cynthia Koonce. “I moved here with 35 ewes and one ram. There was not a fence on the place so we put the fence in during the winter of ‘92-’93.”
Initially, four miles of perimeter 8-strand high-tensile fence enclosed the roughly 140 acres with one major division. Since then, more fence has been added that further divided the pastures into seven different areas. Larger pastures are used for hay. After getting the farm fenced, it was ready for more sheep.
“The following year I bought a flock and kept some lambs so that by the end of 1994 I had 125 ewes. At that point I closed the flock and haven’t bought any ewes since then. Once you get up to that many you can start picking and choosing what you keep, which is kind of nice,” she said. “I now have about 300 ewes, but that fluctuates depending on coyotes and weather and how many I send to market. Ever since I have been here I have been lambing on an accelerated system. I was doing three lambings in two years until I ran out of barn space, time and energy.”
Koonce typically lambs between 300 and 400 a year. As she has grown her flock, she has also worked to improve the land that sits in the hills nestled between the Salem Reservoir to the east and the Guilford Lake State Park to the southwest.
“The Natural Resources Conservation Service continually monitors the runoff from this farm and I have never had an issue. There is only one stream and that is not an area where the sheep spend a lot of time. Any area where there might be some manure buildup, there are grass waterways that keep any runoff to a minimum,” she said. “Strip ground is difficult to work with, in terms of fencing as much as anything. Using tractors on this farm is interesting because of the holes in different places. I think that I have improved the pastures just in the way I have used them.”
Since starting at the farm, Koonce has moved toward more rotational grazing to maximize the resources of the farm while simultaneously caring for them.
“I am getting into more and more rotational grazing. I am using temporary fence for that. I tried using permanent fence and they just tore it up. For me it works much better using temporary fence. Last year half of the fields were cut off from grazing and we didn’t even take hay off of them. It was dry and it never grew enough to take hay, but I was able to graze all winter on those fields. With that grazing, the sheep didn’t want hay like they usually do in the winter,” she said. “I am also getting into more rotational grazing because of the cost of the feed. In the spring I have started pasturing my lambs for about 60 days. I used to keep them in the barn and feed them, but my $3,000 feed bill every month cured me of that. I do put them on grain to feed them out after they have been weaned.”
The high feed costs have also encouraged Koonce to start lambing on pasture.
“My ewe lambs are on pasture. They are not on grain,” she said. “They have handled it very well. I have always thought that it was better to feed grain, but they haven’t needed it.”
Koonce has also been a part of a fairly unique demonstration project that harnesses additional resources for the farm.
“NRCS wanted a demonstration project and I had the money for my portion of it so we put up a solar powered pump with a drilled well,” she said. “The water is pumped into a 1,500-gallon concrete septic tank and from there is pumped to two hydrants. We can run pipe through this whole area.”
The woodland on the farm has been selectively harvested for timber to improve the stand and generate income.
“We only use no-till planting practices, always maintain a sod cover and we compost the dead animals. I only use heavy equipment once a year to take hay off the pastures. When I clean the barns I spread the manure in the fields most adversely affected by the strip mining,” she said. “And, the older I get, the more I look for the ‘easier’ way to do thing like the concentrated use of rotational grazing and getting the sheep out of the barns.”
Koonce has loved being a part of the sheep industry and has traveled the world meeting with other sheep producers to learn and to teach.
“I like meeting sheep people and dealing with sheep people and trading stories with the old guys,” she said. “I really enjoy the personalities of sheep people. Sheep people are a lot alike anywhere in the world.”
The farm has also hosted Ohio Sheep Day in 2011 and numerous other local events all while adding to the aesthetic appeal of the area.
“My operation is in a relatively high tourist traffic area and everyone likes to look at the sheep ‘naturally’ grazing,” she said. “I just like to think this farm is better it was than when I started and that’s important to me.”