I can’t say exactly why I felt it, but feel it I did. When I started out to build my own place, I knew cattle were the grazing animals for me, and more specifically black cattle. Sure, I had been around goats; my daughters kept a small flock of Pygmy goats, and we put them to use eradicating multiflora rose from old and neglected pastures. I also had friends who raised sheep. Sheep were interesting. I thought they smelled funny, were very prone to predation, and needed to be sheared.
In time, I was managing my own substantial herd of purebred Angus. Smack-dab at the edge of sheep country in central Ohio.
Even my friend, soil conservation specialist Mark Smith, couldn’t convince me that sheep had a place on my rolling grass farm. Mark raised market lambs from birth and kept a few head of beef cattle on the side. The cattle, he told me, were to help him get the most from his pastures and to offer a little additional income in the way of freezer beef. The part I remember most about those discussions was the part about the pastures — Mark’s place had very healthy pastures.
Then, just six years ago and a couple of farms later, I landed on an ideal piece of ground in Osage County, Kansas. This time I didn’t try to move much equipment or any animals with me. My plan was to start from scratch one last time. So naturally I went looking for cattle. Yes, I put together a small herd of Highland cattle, because I always wanted to raise them.
One day it finally hit me. I can recall the moment. I was leaning on the fence with my friend Bryan Welch, looking over his sheep flock and watching his Border Collies at work. Perhaps it was the way the low autumn light lit up the verdant subirrigated pasture. Possibly it was that the animals were multicolored and didn’t require shearing. I decided then and there that it was finally time for me to start raising Katahdin sheep of my own.
The following spring, I brought the first Katahdin ewes to my farm. Later that fall, I brought in another small group along with a majestic ram of mixed genetics, but sufficient Katahdin that he also shed his coat. Each spring thereafter, I’ve looked forward to lambing. Year-round, I enjoy walking among the various groups and simply marveling at their diversity, behavior, hardiness, and — with the help of a couple of donkeys — their resistance to the local coyote population. And very little marketing is needed to sell the incredibly tasty grassfed meat these wonderful creatures provide. I envision a 100-ewe flock in the not-so-distant future. I have a lot of catching up to do; since the cattle utilize different aspects of the pasture, they can stay too.
Whether you’re saving up to purchase your first sheep, goats or cattle, or you’re a veteran herdsperson, I’d love to hear from you. And if you have any favorite old — or new — tales to tell about raising, working or simply living with sheep and goats, I’d love to hear them. Email your stories and photos to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and they just might wind up in a future issue of Grit magazine.
Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper's Farmer magazines. Connect with him on Google+.