By Matt Reese, Kim Lemmon and Kolt Buchenroth
It has certainly not been easy, but Roger and Jan Cox have quietly worked together over many years to build a successful sheep operation and a family legacy. They are the 2021 Charles Boyles Master Shepherd Award winners.
“This award has been given since 1987. It is named after Charles Boyles who was the farm manager of the sheep and beef facilities at Caldwell Research Station for many years. This is the highest recognition the Ohio sheep industry awards,” said Roger High, Executive Director of the Ohio Sheep Improvement Association and Ohio Sheep and Wool Program. “It is an honor to be able to recognize shepherds who are certainly deserving of this.”
With a clear dedication to excellence, the couple has been able to accomplish much on their Morrow County crop and livestock operation.
“They are successful because of their teamwork,” said Dale Davis, a Southdown breeder from Morrow County. “I have known Roger Cox all my life. He is a great friend. He is a good husband, father and grandfather. Back when they had the purebred Hamps they were really successful. They had farrow to finish hog unit. He has done a great job with that and fed cattle and had a row crop farm. The livestock always looked immaculate and the crops were always good. Roger and Jan have done a great job together. They got into the rotation of the grazing and I think that worked out really well. They do their research and they are not afraid to try different things. They also have a terrific breeding program. I think they are role models in the county. Whether you have been involved for a long time or are just getting started, you can go to Roger and ask him questions and he’ll be helpful and talk about feeding or grazing. He will listen to anyone and give you good advice. They have been mentors for beginning shepherds and have helped many families around the area.”
Longtime friend and Morrow County resident Dale Huvler agrees.
“I’ve known Roger for a long time, clear back to high school when I used to deliver feed out to their farm. He was a tenant farmer and he kept 120 ewes plus all the time. I started shearing at his place with two other gentlemen. We’d schedule it on Saturdays so Jan would be home to fix our lunch. Jan is a super cook,” Huvler said. “You just need to see Roger’s place and you know what kind of farmer he is. He takes great care of things. He never leaves the farm very often, but when he goes out to the fair or out in public he will talk to you and give you good advice. He’ll tell you the good and bad about everything, whether it is life or sheep or whatever.”
Their Plainview Stock Farm, LLC is just outside of Mt. Gilead. The farm has evolved significantly through the years, according to Roger Cox.
“My mother and dad bought me a registered Hampshire ewe and a pair of twin lambs back in 1958 and we had Hamps for a long time. We showed them when I was younger. As I got involved in farming we went from the registered sheep to more commercial sheep. We have had those all of this time,” Cox said. “In ‘05 we bought our first flock of Katahdins and we still had our Suffolk and Dorset cross sheep. We put the Katahdins on trial a little bit to see if we liked them. As time went by, we really liked them.”
Roger and Jan continue to manage the 100+ ewe flock of Katahdins through rotational grazing.
“We like them and they are good for the land also. It keeps organic matter up in the soils. They have helped pay off land. One reason Katahdins are popular is there is a lot of rotational grazing going on and they are adapted to forages. They are easy keepers. They are prolific. Longevity is on their side. We can get 7 to 9 lambings out of a ewe before we have to cull her out. We don’t have to shear. They shed,” Cox said. “They are hardy and we really like them. If we decide to go more terminal we can bring in a terminal ram. We just bought a pair of Cheviot rams, the old style Cheviots that cross really good. We have had them in the past but we haven’t used them for a while.”
The management has evolved to maximize productivity while minimizing inputs.
“Going into this next year we are going to have 112 ewes to lamb. We lambed 120 last year. Our age is getting to be a factor now. We used to run a couple of hundred ewes and it worked out really well. It is getting more challenging each year. One of the biggest changes is we used to lamb in January and February. Now I generally turn the rams in on my birthday, which is Nov. 19,” Cox said. “We about always get lambs around April 13. They lamb outside and in the barn also. Usually that time of year works out pretty well. We got away from the cold weather lambing. It is just easier for us to manage later when the weather is better.”
April lambing also works better with the grazing management.
“That way we can stay in tune with the grass. The ewes don’t stay in the barn very long that time of year,” Cox said. “We get a pretty good lambing percentage. We try to get them all through the barn for processing where they get their shots and then we head for the grass usually.”
Once out on pasture for the year the sheep are rotated through 4-acre paddocks.
“We try to keep them off 30 days if we can. A lot of times that is not so easy. If you get a dry spell or something you have to start moving pastures a little faster. Most of our pastures are alfalfa and orchardgrass. We have other paddocks we pasture with oats and we make oats hay. I really like that. It doesn’t cost too much. I’d like to get a paddock in cereal rye too. We also graze the turnips with the purple tops in the fall,” Cox said. “More people are going to rotational grazing and they are loading lambs right onto the trailer from pasture where they are finishing them. We are producing lighter lambs. Maybe 20 or 30 years ago our lambs were going out of here weighing 130 to 145 pounds. Now the market has changed quite a bit. You can still produce those kinds of lambs, but with the pasture, the smaller breeds and lighter lambs sell really well. Last year 91% of the lambs here went from pasture to the trailer and had enough finish to grade well. The other 9% went on a little shelled corn and supplement to finish those off. The market today is demanding smaller lambs, more roaster type.”
Katahdins are naturally resistant to many parasites, but this challenge is also managed with pasture rotation and selective manure application.
“When we haul manure I like to plow it under. I put it on about 8 acres or two paddocks. It helps cut down the parasite problems,” he said. “I generally don’t like turning sheep out onto pastures that have had manure hauled on them.”
Plainview Stock Farm also sells breeding stock.
“It seems like there is quite a demand for ewe lambs and ram lambs right now. The demand for maternal ewe lambs has been pretty good. We feel like we can kind of fill that market too. That is a value added product for us over and above what the market brings us. We also do some terminal breeding of terminal rams for market lambs,” Cox said. “The Katahdin breed is pretty popular and in the last several years they have been selling locally and quite a few have gone out of state as well. I try to cater to the younger breeder getting started. We try to keep the prices in line. That is my way of contributing to the sheep industry. We have to have these young people coming in to keep it going.”
The Cox family has an incredible tradition of serving as master shepherds from one generation to the next. It appears the tradition will continue in Morrow County.
“My family has raised sheep for my whole life. My dad raised sheep. Our ancestors came from Scotland and Ireland and supposedly they had sheep. My son and grandson have Katahdins and they have some good sized flocks. My daughter has a small flock of Katahdins,” Cox said. “I just want to thank God that we live in a country where we are so blessed. Like a lot of other people we started on the bottom rung. We have been able to buy a couple of farms. I appreciate this country so much because we had an opportunity to work hard, manage well — things can come together in America. That is what I believe in.”