Fluff on the farmFood to fabric, sheep provide it all. But production of this jack-of-all-trades livestock remains lackluster in North Dakota, where Bob Hewson is one of only a few sheep producers he knows of in the Billings County area.
By: Betsy Simon, The Dickinson Press
Food to fabric, sheep provide it all.
But production of this jack-of-all-trades livestock remains lackluster in North Dakota, where Bob Hewson is one of only a few sheep producers he knows of in the Billings County area.
He raises about 200 ewes on his Belfield area farm.
“My folks had a few sheep when I was a kid,” said Hewson, a southwest director for the North Dakota Lamb and Wool
Producers Association. “They gave me bottle lambs and I saved one and I have stayed with it all these years. I always felt on top of the world raising sheep.”
According to the American Sheep Industry Association, the U.S. had 81,000 sheep farms and ranches last year.
ASI reports that North Dakota had 73,000 sheep and lambs as of Jan. 1. That makes it 21st in the nation in the total number of sheep and lambs.
The state also had 680 sheep operations as of 2008, according to the ASI. Texas ranks No. 1 in both sheep operations and sheep and lamb populations.
Hewson said it is a necessary for anyone pondering a plunge into the sheep industry to have a love of the animal.
“The No. 1 thing is that you have to like sheep and want to be with them,” he said. “But if you’re raising sheep just to get rich, I don’t know how well that will ever work for you.”
Christopher Schauer, director of the North Dakota State
University Hettinger Research Extension Center, seized the chance to raise sheep five years ago.
“As an animal scientist who works with sheep and cattle, I saw an opportunity to get in at a small level,” he said. “I started at 10 head and didn’t have the expense of a large facility and have been able to grow slower.
“Sheep are also a great introduction into agricultural for youth, and as someone with family, my kids will be able to get into
Schauer said North Dakota’s sheep industry is similar to what is found in the eastern part of the country.
“North Dakota is kind of a transition state,” he said. “In the east, a large percentage of sheep producers have other day jobs, but if you head west and southwest you run into flocks that people use to make their entire living from. More North Dakota farmers are now trying to make a living off the animal.”
Hewson recalled a time when the sheep industry in the Dakotas was booming.
“When I was a kid, a lot of sheep were raised in South Dakota because it was hot and dry there, and the sheep had big, open areas to roam in, which is what sheep like and they did really well,” he said. “Unfortunately, times have changed and predators have come into those big, open areas and done damage.”
With predator problems and changes in history and topography, Hewson said most sheep raised in southwest North Dakota today are “more yard-type flocks that prefer to stay close to buildings.”
“There just aren’t too many sheep in North Dakota,” Hewson said. “The sheep industry here holds steady, but it’s just not an up and growing business. The sheep market was good for a while and it was easier to attract new producers, but it fell this year and it’s hard to get people to jump in when the market is on the downslide.”
But it isn’t for a lack of trying, Hewson said.
“(North Dakota Lamb and Wool Producers) started a program that gives 10 lambs to juniors (youth) to raise.” he said. “We’ve done it for the last four or five years to get young people interested in the sheep industry.”
As an FFA advisor and ag teacher at Scranton High School, Misty Steeke of Rhame, who is also a southwest director for NDLWPA, said the sheep production in North Dakota hinges on youth involvement.
“Along with producers, we are trying to educate youth about the sheep industry and get them to become advocates for the
industry,” she said. “It’s a matter of teaching them about
management and care of the animals, while trying to get all people to eat more lamb.”