One Ohio Farm's Transition From Cattle to Wool Sheep Meets Mixed Emotions


Mother Cow With Calf In Enclosure

Photo by Keba M. Hitzeman

I don’t know that I’ve ever been through a transition that wasn’t painful in some way, either physically, emotionally, or spiritually. Change always hurts, even if it’s the right and proper thing to have done. So much discussion and agonizing over what is the right decision to make: Is the timing right? Does this need to be done now or can it wait? What happens after the transition is complete? How will this affect others? What do we do while the transition is occurring? All questions that are intensely personal and variable in their “right” answers, because your right answer may not be mine.

Our family farm centered around row crops and beef cattle for many years. Over time, people aged, equipment aged and became more difficult to fix, help was scarce. Machinery and cattle can be cantankerous and can hurt or kill people if full attention is not on the task at hand. Eventually, my parents decided to retire from active farming, sold the machinery, and hired a local crop farmer to plant and harvest the crops.

Reducing Our Cattle Herd

Hindsight being what it is, the cattle also should have been sold, but they had always been here (they came with the farm when my parents purchased it) and did a good job of keeping the pastures mowed. They were also nice to have in the freezer, so they stayed. A few times a year, we rounded up all the cows, sorted out calves to go to the auction barn, or took a couple of 18-month-olds to the butcher. The barn wasn’t set up for cattle sorting, so it was a task that took full attention to cut out the ones we wanted. At least the older mama cows knew the drill — they lined up at the gate to be let out. Unfortunately, some of the calves would try to cut the line and escape as well, leading to the poor soul on gate duty the unenviable task of trying to shut the gate as a mama cow plodded through, with a panicky calf attempting to squirt through the same space.

As my husband and I took over the operation, one of our first jobs was reducing the herd. At its max, there were over 30. We were able to shrink that to under a dozen mama cows. We found a market for custom-butchered beef sides and stopped taking the calves to the auction barn, which was increasingly a loss for us — lost time, lost money. After a couple of scary incidents involving panicky 18-month-old cattle, the next change was to take them to the butcher as yearlings. A little smaller, yes, but a less dangerous process to get them cut out of the herd, loaded, transported, and unloaded. Our customers didn’t mind at all.

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