By Matt Reese
After they graduated from college and got married, Levi and Krysti Morrow had a chance to buy a 36-acre piece of land that fit just right with the existing family farm in 2016, butting up against Levi’s father’s property in Morgan County. Since then, the Morrows have been trying to figure out exactly what type of farm production fits just right with the land and their family in the farm puzzle.
“We keep experimenting to find the right niche that is a fit for us,” Krysti said.
Levi is an ag teacher at nearby Morgan High School and Krysti was working for Morgan Soil and Water Conservation District when they purchased the property. They started out on their farm with a corn maze and an acre of u-pick pumpkins, finding some initial success and growing to add u-pick strawberries. When children were added to the mix, though, things changed. Charlie was born in 2018 and Krysti decided to stay home and work on the farm.
“We realized babies take a lot of time,” Krysti said. “Our second son was born in January of 2021. We have been trying to figure out on the u-pick side what is doable with labor, and welcoming the public onto your property and balancing that with kids. When we realized how difficult the strawberries were potentially going to be while balancing the kids, we looked at the land we have.”
The rolling ground was well suited for pasture. Levi’s father had some cattle and they had some hair sheep on a couple of acres.
“Traditionally on our farm we always raised beef cattle. They were never overly profitable for us, though, because of our limited pasture and we could never get the herd size to where it needed to be to be sustainable,” Levi said. “It was a winter day after Charlie was born. We had a cow with a calf stuck. It was half out. We were all at work and Krysti was home by herself taking care of the cows with a 3-month-old in the truck. It was a messy situation. After that, we came to the conclusion that if that was a sheep, she could have handled that by herself. That was the tipping point of what changed our mindset of going to hair sheep.”
The first hair sheep they had were on the farm to help keep the brush down.
“We decided to jump in and buy 90 more hair sheep in 2019. We went with hair sheep so we don’t have the maintenance of the wool and shearing,” Krysti said. “Now we have gone down to 58 ewes. We are rotating pastures and looking at keeping a handful of replacement ewe lambs this summer and getting back up to 75 or 80 for next year. We have stopped doing u-pick pumpkins and the corn maze. This is also our last year for u-pick strawberries until the kids are older. Now I do all of the day to day stuff — chores, feeding, pasture moves. When it comes to big stuff like vaccinating or weaning we try to schedule that for the weekend and get a crew together to do it in an afternoon.”
The pasture improvement, fencing, scales for monitoring market weights, and water improvements for the farm were made possible with a combination of grants from the USDA Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Projects. The perimeter fence for the farm is all woven wire and the interior fence is high tensile. The water sources for the sheep are spring and pond fed.
The hair sheep — mostly Katahdin with some Dorper crosses — do not require shearing and have excellent natural parasite resistance for reduced overall labor.
“They are less labor intensive and we can do more animals,” Levi said.
Soon after they had purchased the land, they took on the major task of cleaning up the property.
“When we bought the farm it was kind of a jungle,” Levi said.
“That is an understatement,” Krysti chimed in.
“There were 15 acres or so that had been row-cropped where there were lots of invasives and some wooded ground with hardly anything of value as far as timber. We have cleared 15 acres of land of invasives and undergrowth and reseeded grass under it for pasture. We left any trees of value,” Levi said. “I focused heavily on an orchardgrass and red clover mix. The red clover did not stick around very long. The orchardgrass was not in tune either. I did more research on the grasses. Everything around here was in tall fescue, but Kentucky 31 tall fescue gets a bad rap.”
With some more research on fescue toxicosis, the Morrows decided a switch to tall fescue was in order. The change seems to have served them — and their hair sheep — well so far.
“They love it, but we just need to adapt our grazing strategy to the tall fescue because that is what wants to grow there anyway. There is still some orchardgrass, but our pasture is mostly tall fescue with red and white clover,” Levi said. “We try to rotate once a week. It just depends on the pasture. We have different paddock sizes and we let the grass tell us what is going on. The sheep do the work mowing and we change pastures when we need to change. The ground that has been pasture for a while has been self-sustaining. The ground we have converted we have definitely had to add some fertility, just a little bit, and the sheep being on it has done wonders. We have done some liming too.”
While the nutrition for the flock is mostly grass based, grain is fed as needed.
“We let the feed tell us what to do. One year we had some really bad hay so we did supplement shelled corn for our ewes,” Levi said. “This last year we were blessed with really good quality hay and we did not have to supplement anything. We do finish our lambs on a shelled corn-based diet.”
They also make hay for the winter months.
“Our hay ground is all fenced and we adapt our hay as well. If we have extra grass we make more hay and if it gets dry we’ll put some poly wire up and graze our hay fields,” Levi said. “We typically make enough hay for ourselves and we occasionally have some extra to sell.”
The Morrows are working on improved lambing rates and maximizing their pasture, which, including rented land, is around 45 acres.
“Right now we are just focusing on managing the land well and working on lambing rates. We want to hit 2 lambs per ewe and get those out the door to the sale barn. If we can do that it would be ideal. This year we lambed in February and March. Next year we are going to try and transition to lambing more toward May and June, so we are not lambing in the winter,” Krysti said. “Both of our families have been very helpful and we are very grateful. This year for lambing my mom came and stayed with us for a while to help with the boys so I could get to the barn and do everything. If we lambed in a warmer season it will be easier with the children. Our lambing rate was 2.4 at one point, but we ended up about 1.9 this year. A handful of our bottle lambs had a bloat situation. There were a couple of others where the mother was not producing enough milk.”
For now they use all natural breeding, but as their markets evolve that may change.
“We have tried some out of season breeding. Katahdins have been known to breed out of season, but that did not work for us,” Krysti said. “Depending on where things go, if we sell more direct to consumers, we may need to use seeders and get them all synced together better.”
For now they are hoping to efficiently get this year’s lamb crop to market.
“The hair sheep do not grow as fast as the wool breeds. With wool breeds you can push them to market in 5 or 6 months. We had a handful that were ready in 5 months last year, but for us it is more like 6 to 8 months old to get to market. That is trying to hit 70-pound lambs, which seems to be what the market wants at the moment,” Krysti said. “These lambs we have now will be ready in September and October if we push them on grain. If we have the grass we’ll leave them out there to grow. So far this year’s lamb crop is growing much better than last year’s. We might be a little early, but 6 months is our goal with as few inputs and extra feed as possible.”
Their lambs are primarily marketed at Muskingum Livestock Auction, Mt. Hope Auction and through some local freezer lambs sales being processed locally. As they continue to learn, the Morrows continue to see the need to experiment.
“We do a lot of experimenting,” Levi said. “We want to stock some of the lambs a little longer on pasture. The market tends to go down around late summer and it stays that way through fall. It picks back up again around Christmas. We were going to try and stock these lambs on extra grass this summer. Maybe they won’t grow as fast and we’ll see if we can hold them off on weight until around Christmas and aim for some 80 pounds lambs, maybe pushing 90.”
Looking forward, the Morrows still have plans to tweak the balance between off-farm jobs, farming and family.
“Our goals tend to fluctuate on a given day. We have talked about having a high number of ewes and market those animals through different livestock auctions. We have talked about getting into the direct to customer meat business,” Krysti said. “For me, my favorite part is lambing — I really love lambing time. I love being home with the boys and getting to work on the farm, but it does have its challenges and every day is different.”
In the ongoing puzzle of the land, family and duties wrapped up in a farm, so far it looks like the hair sheep are the right fit for the Morrows.
“The focal point of the farm has been that we both wish to farm full-time someday,” Levi said. “We help with my dad, but we are essentially starting from scratch here. We are striving to get to that and the sheep seem to be working for us.”