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

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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.

Removing All Cattle from the Farm Operation

Some health issues, a hospital stay, and the realization that those health issues were going to be chronic sealed the deal. We needed to get out of the beef business. While our customers were saddened at not getting our pasture-raised beef anymore, they did understand the reasoning. The safety of the humans and the animals was a priority, and if safety for man and beast couldn’t be maintained, change was needed.

That decision was the easy part. The biggest question in my mind now was, who is going to buy these cows? Everyone wants calves, but not many people want the animals that give you the calves. Many people would say take them to the auction barn. That was the absolute last of last resorts. These were cows with years of calf-giving left in them. We would exhaust every other option first.

I set our price, listed them on Craigslist, and waited. And waited some more. And started to fret, which doesn’t do a bit of good, in case you were wondering. And then got a text from a man who was interested. He came, we discussed things, he came back with a trailer, wrote me a check, and they were off to their new home. Let me tell you how much stress fell from my shoulders as I watched that trailer pull out of the driveway!

Transition to Sheep and Goats

Photo by Keba M. Hitzeman

We now have Shetland wool sheep, and Kinder goats. What else would we need to change to make the farm more conducive to these smaller animals? We’re working out the pasture arrangements we want, since sheep and goats don’t eat as much as cows, and certainly don’t tear up the ground the way cows do. That means the sheep and goats can be on the larger pastures longer, and we can also make temporary pastures in the “in-between” spaces that were too small to graze cattle.

The barn has been reconfigured to be better suited to small ruminants. Large pens are being subdivided, welded wire was attached to the tube gates so the little beasties can’t squeeze through, and the hay feeding areas were redone. It hasn’t been all smooth sailing, and I’ve had to redo some things as reality didn’t match my expectations, but things are running smoother than they did last year!

I’ve been asked when our transition will be complete, and my answer is usually some variation of “when they put me in the ground.” We continue to learn, discover better ways to do things, or that we don’t want to continue doing a particular thing. I guess that means that the transition is never done, which makes for an interesting, if sometimes exhausting, way of life. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Keba M. Hitzeman is an advocate for locally raised and produced products, baseball fan, caregiver, chicken wrangler, daughter, farmer, fiber artist, gamer, gardener, herbalist, laborer, manager, musician, nature-lover, potter, shepherdess, and teacher. She owns and operates Innisfree on the Stillwater, a certified Organic farm, where she raises Shetland wool sheep, Kinder goats, and a motley crew of chickens. Find her on Facebook and Instagram. Her fiber arts are at The Studio at Innisfree. Read all of Keba’s posts in her GRIT series, Returning to Innisfree.