A few years ago, an Amish community near Calais nestled in the rugged terrain at the corners of Monroe, Noble and Belmont counties was looking for a new source of income. They had been loggers for generations, but changes in and enforcement of environmental regulations forced them to look for a new way to make a living from their land.
“They had all of this land but they weren’t really farmers. When it was farmed with horses a lot of the topsoil went down to the delta,” said Daryl Clark, a retired Ohio State University Extension agent and president of the Ohio Sheep Improvement Association. “This is land for livestock. This is mountains, steep grades and erosive red clay. It is even tough to do much with beef cattle there. They didn’t want to do dairy because of all of the regulations. One of the fellows had started with sheep and they kind of liked what was going on there and they contacted me. That is how we got started. So, we went to work building the sheep numbers there.”
From that point, Clark took on the unique challenges and opportunities of working with the Amish community that had plenty of interest in, but little experience with, commercial sheep production.
“They had no bad habits to unlearn, but they didn’t have any experience,” he said. “They are, course, influenced by internal aspects of the community and the bishop. But, the bishop was one of the first ones who talked with me and many of the first people with sheep were his sons. They wanted to get their youngsters involved in some operation at home and many of the young guys can do that.”
The key to successful sheep production operations in the area is a focus on forage and minimal grain feeding.
“They were spending lots of money with feed and the first year we really worked on getting that feed cost down,” Clark said. “They were getting to the point where they were running out of money for feed, selling the sheep and taking a loss.”
Clark emphasizes that the key with any type of profitable sheep operation is to determine the end goals up front. In this case, the Amish needed hardy, market-oriented animals that could excel in the challenging conditions.
“These animals have been selected to be easy keepers that do not need a lot of feed. Then, even if you buy them from someone doing the same things with them, there may be three or four in every 20 that just do not fit your style of production. It gets to the point where they just need to go somewhere else. There is nothing wrong with them, they just don’t quite fit for you,” Clark said. “Most of the time, the ewe-base for this group of Amish producers can be pretty well maintained on forages. These are market animals.”
Along with the grass, and some limited feed, hay is an important part of some of the operations.
“They are willing to buy hay. Then, the manure from that hay really helps the fertility in that ground down there,” Clark said. “With soil fertility you really have to start at the bottom and go from there with them. It is really pretty amazing sometimes with where they are grazing and how much meat they can get from those hills.”
Another significant challenge for the Amish sheep businesses has been the lack of electric fence, which has been a tremendous boon for sheep production due to its low cost and labor requirements.
“We cannot get into electric down in the area. As they are dividing fields for grazing they are doing it with woven fence, which is an expensive proposition. It is good fencing, but it can be a challenge to pay for that. You’d better use the forage pretty well to pay for that fence,” he said. “There is lots of labor there. They roll up that fence, move it unroll it and move on. I am still trying to convince them that electric is not always a bad guy if you use it the right way.”
As the sheep production has taken off in the community, much of the marketing for the lambs has been for breeding stock to sell to other Amish sheep producers.
“When possible they increase with lambs from the community. Many of them are still selling ewe lambs to expand other flocks in the community,” Clark said. “But, that option won’t last forever so we started looking at the marketing options. They started out going to Barnesville but now most of them go to the auction at Mt. Hope. I have some who are looking at producing roasters from 45- to 65-pound lambs with milk fat on them from their mother. We are also looking at adding some size to some of these animals for a different market. They were just price takers in the beginning, but now they are getting better at marketing. We are marketing the sheep in groups that helps them sell better at auction to help make sure they are getting the best price.”
Another challenge has been the lamb prices.
“So many of those guys got in when the lamb price was really high,” he said. “They need to understand there are cycles in the livestock industry and if you can live through that first down period, I think you’ll find that it will pay in the long haul. One way to do that is by being more forage based. They learn pretty quickly about what it takes.”
Though there certainly have been challenges, including a steep learning curve, sheep have become an important component to the economics of Calais. In fact, other Amish communities have been taking notice and adding sheep in the more traditional agricultural Amish areas like Holmes County.
“Some of these farms with very small acreages find that it is hard to make a living with larger livestock and sheep can be more profitable on smaller acreage,” Clark said. “There are now maybe 1,200 ewes down around Calais and I don’t think we are seeing any downsizing at all. There are still a lot of new people coming in to the sheep business down there. There are also a lot of sheep coming in around Holmes County up near the good sheep market.”
The trend of Amish sheep production has been so strong in recent years that it is having a noticeable effect on total state numbers of sheep.
“I think Ohio’s sheep numbers are up around 2% in the last two years, but I don’t think all of those Amish numbers are in there because they aren’t getting counted,” he said. “The numbers seem to still be growing. Just take a ride through Amish Country and you’ll see sheep where you have never seen them before.”