My wife, Holly, and I are new farmers. After long careers in the financial and consulting world, we left the concrete jungle of Manhattan for the agriculturally oriented North Fork of Long Island. After one season working as an apprentice at a local organic vegetable farm, we launched Browder’s Birds Pastured Poultry Farm in early 2010. This year marks our fifth season raising certified organic, pastured egg and meat chickens. We were enamored with the rotational grazing model Joel Salatin made famous and was so eloquently discussed in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Salatin’s own books, Pastured Poultry Profits and You Can Farm provided further detail into the system. We were determined to mimic his system as best we could given our situation. We started with absolutely nothing in terms of infrastructure and leased a 5 acre parcel as part of a New Farmer Initiative created by the Peconic Land Trust. The only problem with our poultry rotational grazing model was we didn’t have a lead herbivore. At Salatin’s Polyface farm, his cows mow down the pasture and leave behind plenty of cow pies that a few days later generate maggots. Chickens love maggots, so he grazes the chickens on the mowed down pasture and they feast on the forage and maggots.
In our case, we were having to mow our pasture routinely because in the spring, early summer and fall, our pasture of perennial rye, fescue, timothy grass, orchard grass, clover and alfalfa was growing so rapidly it became too tall and thick for our egg layers and meat chickens to navigate. We felt we needed an animal that could act as our lawnmower to save us from spending so much time mowing and so much money on gas. But what kind of animal? Our first requirement was that we wanted an herbivore, a true blue ruminant. Chickens are expensive to manage, they require chicken feed in addition to the forage they eat. We wanted an animal that could thrive on pasture alone with minimal inputs. We were hoping to find one that kept the pasture mowed as part of a rotational grazing system, maintained a symbiotic relationship with chickens, was fairly simple to manage, could provide a source of value added income to our farm, and one that we felt comfortable handling. Keep in mind, we had zero experience handling anything other than dogs, cats and chickens. Finally, we wanted an animal that we enjoyed.
What about sheep? We knew other small farmers who used sheep as their lead herbivore with their chickens with good results. They were animals that could thrive entirely on pasture forage with the addition of some free choice salt, mineral mix and water. They only needed a three sided rudimentary shelter which I already had in the form of our chicken tractors. They could handle the cold weather and storms we deal with on Long Island. Depending on the breed of sheep, they often possess a docile nature and generally are easily handled. Perhaps best of all, they are herd animals. If they were to escape our portable electric netting (more on this later), they likely weren’t going to run away like a dog might. They want to stay with their buddies and many venture slightly, but not far from the herd. Finally, generally speaking, chicken diseases and lamb diseases are not easily passed to one another, so disease management appeared to be something we could manage.
From a market standpoint, sheep create potentially numerous products for a farmer. Wool can be turned into yarn and other products, local lamb meat is highly sought after here on the East End of Long Island, and pelts can be tanned and sold. So, lambs/sheep looked like the perfect solution for us. Now what?
Here’s where we got a bit lucky. It so happens that the Suffolk County Farm and Education Center on Long Island has a small flock of Cotswold sheep that they raise for educational programs with children and for teaching vet techs how to clip tails, castrate males, etc. Once the educational programs are completed each spring, the spring lambs need to be sold. Our first year we purchased five. One farmer friend suggested we start with 20 lambs. If there is one thing we’ve learned in farming it is that under no circumstances should you ever take on more than you can handle. Start small and build a bit each year. Since we had zero experience with sheep, 20 seemed entirely too many. So, we started with five lambs, all wethers (castrated males).
We didn’t know much about Cotswold sheep, but we’ve learned a lot over these past three years. Cotswold descended from a long-wool sheep introduced by the Romans in the first century A.D. They flourished in the hills of the Cotswolds in England near the Welsh border and by the 15th century were responsible for generating great wealth in England. Many of the great cathedrals and churches in England including Gloucester Cathedral were built from the wealth created by Cotswold products. They were introduced into the US in 1832 and by 1879 were the most popular breed in America. By 1914, over 760,000 were recorded here. Unfortunately, once the Merinos were introduced in the US from Australia, Cotswold began declining in popularity and nearly became extinct. In 1993, fewer than 400 lambs were registered in the US and England. Thanks to many conservation groups, Cotswold have been removed from the rare breed list and are enjoying a resurgence due to their lustrous fleece and mild flavored meat. For spinners, the fleece has a micron count in the 40s and one sheep can generate 15 lbs of wool per shearing with curly fibers up to 12” long. The fleece is often referred to as poor man’s mohair.
As advertised, Cotswolds have been a true joy to raise, even for a beginner. We received our first batch of lambs in May and each weighed approximately 30 lbs. We put them into our rotational grazing plan complete with portable electric netting, moveable shelter, water, salt and mineral mix. They demonstrated voracious appetites and mowed down our pasture to the perfect level for our hens and meat chickens. We moved them to fresh pasture once every 1-2 weeks and they quickly learned to respect the electric currents flowing through the fencing. We found that the lambs didn’t require significant management time other than rotationally grazing them and we certainly enjoyed seeing them daily. Cotswold are docile sheep, generally friendly with humans, curious and easy to handle. So we were thrilled with having them on our farm and appreciated the job they did for us. We grazed them all summer and fall on our pasture and in early December, when they reached about 100 lbs each, we had them slaughtered for meat for our customers.
Our second year we followed the same game plan except this time we purchased 10 lambs in the spring instead of five. We received them in May, grazed them until December and sold them for meat for the holidays. This season (2014) marked our third raising lambs, and we again purchased 10. We decided that we were ready to make the leap and try our hand at breeding Cotswold. After searching the US, we found a prize winning 300 lb ram in Massachusetts and purchased him for around $400. We also purchased two excellent 2 year old ewes that hadn’t been bred from Suffolk County Farm. We put all three of them together on pasture and we hope to have baby lambs from them this winter/spring. Of the lambs we purchased this season, several are fine looking ewes, so we will retain at least two of them for our flock. The remainder will be processed for meat before the holidays. We are entering this winter with excitement and some level of angst regarding the possibility of birthing our own lambs this winter. We will be as prepared as possible, but to say we are a tad nervous is a bit of an understatement.
As beginners, we wanted to successfully develop a market for as many parts of the lambs as possible. Each fall we have our lambs sheared and sell the raw wool at markets and online. We sent some of the raw wool to Battenkill Fibers in Greenwich, NY and they converted it into fine, beautiful yarn that we also sell. For those lambs that we had slaughtered, we saved the pelts and sent them to Bucks County, PA for tanning. The end product was breathtaking and we had no problem finding willing buyers for these beautiful pelts. In fact, it used to be in England that you were considered wealthy if you owned a Cotswold sheepskin. Finally, we sold the meat from our lambs to our existing poultry customers. Many of them have raved about the mild flavored meat and have thanked us for thoughtfully and carefully raising their meat.
We’ve had a few challenges along the way, so we would be remiss if we didn’t mention a few of them.
- Plan for ample food – These animals eat a tremendous amount of forage in a short period of time. Last year we had a dry summer and no pasture irrigation. As the fall approached, it was obvious that we were going to run out of good forage on our pasture. We realized that we needed to get quick access to a lot of hay or find a new pasture on which they could forage. Hay is expensive here on Long Island so I wanted to avoid digging into our profits if possible. One of our friends/neighbors was willing to take our lambs for a few months. She had plenty of pasture and better fencing than we did. We were fortunate to have someone willing to assist. We learned from this experience that we need to insure plenty of pasture to factor in the weather and have some hay on hand if it gets bad.
- Portable electric netting is good, not great – It’s great for rotational grazing sheep. Nevertheless, we recommend that any pasture with sheep have a permanent perimeter fence. Some of our lambs have gotten wise to the fencing and learned that the bottom line of netting on the fencing isn’t electrified. There is always one who learns he can stick his nose under the bottom and squeeze his body under the fence. Unfortunately, this is information the other lambs learn by watching. There have been plenty of times I’ve gone out to our pasture and all of the lambs are grazing outside of the fence. There are two things we’ve learned to keep this activity to a minimum. First, keep a fresh battery on the electric netting. They seem to be less inclined to push under if they think they will get zapped. Second, rotationally graze them sooner than you would like. Often, the pasture they see on the other side of the fence is more enticing than what they have in front of them. If the scale tips toward taking the risk, the lambs will seek out the fresh pasture.
- Disease management – Like all other animals, lambs can and do get sick. Sheep are extremely sensitive to copper and can die quickly from copper toxicity. One of our lambs did. To determine the cause, we tested the forage, the salt and the mineral mix and none showed copper issues. To this day, it remains a mystery how the copper was ingested. We also struggle with meningeal worm of white tailed deer on Long Island. This worm is potentially devastating to sheep as it impacts their nervous system and can make them lame or crazy. For the first time, we’ve begun deworming our lambs since we have tremendous deer pressure here. The risk is too great otherwise. While sheep and chicken diseases are not generally passed to each other, pathogen issues need to be considered. We are careful to graze our lambs ahead of the chickens and let the pasture rest before bringing the lambs back through.
- The emotions associated with slaughtering lambs – This has been particularly difficult for us. These lambs are wonderful creatures and it’s very easy to become attached to them when you care for them daily. Taking them to the slaughter facility can be heartbreaking. I don’t know of any easy way to deal with this. For us, we take comfort in the fact that our customers greatly appreciate the meat we provide them and thank us for how we take good care of the lambs. One of the reasons we wanted to breed Cotswolds is so we would have sheep year round even after we take some in for slaughter. It was an empty feeling having lambs one day and none the next. We hope this will ease the sense of loss we feel.
As a new pastured poultry chicken farmer and a very new lamb/sheep farmer, we’re happy with our lead herbivore for our pastures and what a wonderful experience it’s been. We love the beautiful Cotswold sheep with their docile and friendly demeanor. If you are thinking of a few sheep for your farm, you should take the leap. If you are like us, you will find it incredibly rewarding.