On the Helle Ranch in Montana, a group of Ohio sheep producers got to go up 10,000 feet in the mountains where the sheep are pastured in the summer. Photo by Roger High.

Ohioans gain insights in lamb and wool production out West

By Matt Reese

In Ohio there are meat sheep, wool sheep, meat and wool sheep, hair sheep, agritourism sheep, show sheep, club lamb and purebred sheep for 4-H and FFA projects, sheep on pasture, sheep in feedlots, and probably several sheep designations with more breeds than can be quickly counted in the state’s very broad sheep, lamb and wool sector. In the Western U.S., the industry is much more focused on a handful of sheep breeds for high quality wool and meat production amid some very challenging conditions.

Roger High, executive director of the Ohio Sheep Improvement Association, was recently on two trips further West to see the very different production methods with the same end goal as Ohio’s sheep producers — high quality end products.

The National Lamb Feeders Association hosted the Trail Blazers Tour in Texas this year.

“There were 26 of us who travelled to Austin, Texas and through the Hill Country to a lot of sheep production areas. The Hill Country area of Texas has transitioned to primarily Dorpers. Dorpers can survive those harsh conditions with cedar and mesquite trees,” High said. “Those Dorper sheep genetics were developed a few decades ago in South Africa and survive well in those harsh conditions. Dorpers work across the landscape and gain weight on it. There were still some Rambouillet fine wool sheep, but the main emphasis there is the Dorpers. We saw 80- to 110-pound Dorper lambs cranking out 35- to 55-pound carcasses destined mostly for the non-traditional ethnic markets in the East. The Texas Sheep and lamb industry is also heavily influenced by the 4-H and FFA club lamb projects both in the production of those lambs and the youth showing those lambs across the state of Texas.”

High also took a group of Ohio sheep producers to Montana this fall where they learned about the specifics of what is a very different business model from back home.

“There were 21 producers from Ohio who travelled on the trip to Montana. We framed the Montana Sheep and Agriculture Study Tour around the Montana Ram and Ewe Sale, a huge sale with rams and ewes from Montana and surrounding states. The lamb industry in Montana is focused on wool type sheep, especially the Targhee breed, although they still have other breeds and a few club lamb and purebred flocks” High said. “We saw some fairly large flocks, visited a number of museums in Montana, and we had a chance to visit Center of the Nation Wool, which is one of the larger wool warehouses in the country. They market much of the finest wool we see in the country because of those conditions in Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming.

“We went to the Pilster and Heiberthausen ranches near Alzada, the Hollenbeck Ranch in Molt, and spent some time in Bozeman where we visited the Montana Wool Lab and learned about a lot of wool research. We also went to Montana State University’s Sheep Center. Then we spent a couple days relaxing in Butte, studying the history of this old mining city. At the end of the tour we had the opportunity to visit the Helle Rambouillet Ranch that produces the Duckworth Wool products. That is a popular wool brand with shirts, accessories and underwear all made with wool from that ranch. On that part of the tour the Helle family worked with us to get us to their summer grazing range in the Gravelly Mountains.”

A huge difference between sheep production in Montana and Ohio is rainfall.

“We’re all dealing with water issues. Whether you are here where there is sometimes too much water or out there where there is not enough, water always seems to be impacting our agricultural industry,” High said. “Water is like gold out there and right now they have very extreme conditions in terms of drought and that is weighing heavy on the sheep and cattle producers. There are a lot of desperate situations. I think they are going to be getting rid of some cattle and adding more sheep, simply because they are more efficient. It is a pretty tough world out there right now in terms of drought conditions. They use reservoirs to irrigate their alfalfa fields and any crops like corn and vegetables they grow — there just was no water. They normally get about 10 to 12 inches of water a year and they have to get snow in the mountains over the winter. When that snow melts it fills those reservoirs up. But it was just brown out there and the reservoirs are empty.”

With less moisture, there are fewer foot rot problems, parasite issues and detriments to fine wool quality. They can store hay outside and turn the water off to bale hay and then turn it back on to grow more hay in Montana. They also need huge tracts of both public and private land for grazing sheep and beef cattle. 

The terrain is rugged and the work is hard on a Montana ranch. Photo by Roger High.

“They have maybe 5 ewes on 100 acres out there. It is rough, dry country that can still produce enough forages for the sheep and beef cattle. They do not feed a lot of grain to their livestock like we do in the East. Those sheep and beef cattle have to survive on what they can find on the ground under the sage brush,” High said. “The important lesson we need to bring out of there is the only way they can produce that quality of protein and fiber is to graze those mountains. They continuously have environmental groups that want sheep and beef cattle production out of that government ground managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service. The only agricultural commodities that you can productively raise in those mountains are sheep and beef cattle. Ranchers can’t raise any other type of food or livestock. This is about taking those resources to produce high quality protein wool fibers for our country.”

Don Hawk raises feedlot sheep, cattle and row-crops in Knox County and was one of the Ohio sheep and lamb producers able to go on the trip to Montana. On the trip, he developed new industry relationships, gained production insights and saw breathtaking scenery. He also learned great respect for Montana ranchers facing tough terrain, significant predation from coyotes, grizzly bears and wolves as well as difficult weather challenges.

“This was one of the most interesting trips I have been on. There are areas out there that are highly productive, but other areas that wouldn’t raise an argument. The hospitality of the folks in Montana was just super. We got insights in how they look at the wool clip and its importance. We visited three different large ranch operations and each one of them was unique in its own way. When they talk about acreage, or across the road or just down around the corner, it is a little different than what we’d talk about here in Ohio. Each ranch we went to had a minimum of 25,000 acres they owned. One family had 1,700 ewes and 300 cows. ‘Across the road’ was 2 or 3 miles and then a 4-mile driveway into a ranch and that ‘just around the corner’ might be 10 miles,” Hawk said. “They are focused on just 2 or 3 breeds of sheep: Targhee, Rambouillet and black-faced Hamp and Suffolk. One ranch takes their 2,500 ewes back into what they call the ‘breaks’ in the winter months. They move the ewes to that area in the fall and don’t see them until spring. That would drive me nuts. The ‘breaks’ are like cliffs, quick drop-offs that drop maybe 70 feet. If they go back and get around the sheep they may start running and, if there is snow, the sheep may not see the break coming up and they will go off the edge. That can be devastating. The sheep can also get ‘high-centered’ in the snow and they’ll break through the snow but can’t get their feet on the ground and they can freeze to death. They take them out in the fall and in the spring they bring them back.”

In Ohio, Hawk brings in western lambs to finish on his farm and was able to make some Montana business connections.

“We feed about 3,000 lambs a year and we were able to make connections with people with those kinds of volume out there,” Hawk said. “I learned they are dealing with some internal parasite challenges similar to what we deal with out here. The mindset has been that western lambs would not have that challenge. They use some of the same deworming products we use here. When we get our lambs into the Ohio feedlots we deworm and vaccinate them. We are now finding that the dewormer is not working because of overuse of some of the dewormers that are being used in the West as well as here in our flocks here in the East. We need to do more homework to find out if they have been deworming with a certain product, we need to use something different, even if the lambs came off the range.”

One of the highlights from the trip for both Hawk and High was the journey into the mountains on land where the Helle family manages thousands of sheep on around 100,000 private and public acres. 

“The Helle family are the founders of Duckworth clothing. The wool clip is the very important for them. They have 8,000 ewes and 25,000 acres on their home ranch. In the spring, they trail their sheep to U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S Forest Service grazing ground for a 90-day grazing period up in the mountains. You can talk about this all you want, but when you go see it, it is really something else. They took us up into the mountains at around 10,000 feet above sea level. They had about 4 inches of snow on the ground on Sept. 21 and they have to be off of that land by Oct. 1 by their contracts. They were starting to trail the sheep with one herder, three well-trained border collies and two great Pyrenees guard dogs bringing the 1,000 ewes back 40 miles closer to the home ranch,” Hawk said. “They work really hard on their wool type and meat type genetics. They want to produce a good lamb carcass and the wool clip is what they are really focused on to make the Duckworth clothing. It was very, very interesting to see their livestock production systems. It is a major commitment to raise livestock this way. I have a great amount of respect for what they are doing. Coming home I reflected on that and now I can better picture what it takes on their end and what we need to do for a quality end product here in Ohio.”

The group of Ohioans had fun and gained insights into the Western lamb and wool industry. Photo by Roger High.

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