Growing Sheep Gains Popularity
By Deborah Horn
Photography By Katie Childs
SHEEPISH: Arkansas farmers are growing more sheep every year.
It’s early morning near Greenbrier, cold but clear, as Mike Reynolds makes his way to check on his ewes, most only weeks from lambing. This is perfect birthing weather. A 34-degree rain can kill a newborn, while a lamb’s wool coat is the perfect protection from dry freezing temperatures.
As Reynolds and his border collie, Patches, ever on the lookout for predators, enter the fenced area, the ewes turn toward them, softly bleating their welcome. Some even run in his direction.
Forget commercial farms and feedlots; most of Arkansas’s approximately 22,600 sheep are raised on small farms like Reynolds’.
Arkansas’s Greatest Generation was reluctant to embrace mutton, because it had been served on the battlefield by Australians to American soldiers during World War II, and it was often described as having an unpleasant “twang.” That earned mutton a bad rap that continues today.
James Morgan, of Round Mountain Farm near Fayetteville, would often counter any customer’s objection to lamb by saying, “It’s the red meat with flavor,” and perhaps adding, “Beef is boring.” He recommends starting with a lamb chop and following the cooking instructions carefully or grilling a lamb cut like a shank or ribs, saying, “It really enhances the flavor.”
Grass, non hormone fed
“I’ve seen a lot of changes. …These days there’s a willingness to explore new foods,” Morgan says about his 22 years in the business. Lamb is an easier sell these days, because shoppers are more likely to give it a first bite. And now, Morgan sells all the meat he raises on his 15-acre farm about 10 miles east of Fayetteville. Most of the year, he has as many as 30 Katahdin ewes, but during lambing season his herd swells to about 90 (yes, sheep often deliver twins).
Unlike large commercial livestock operations, Morgan relies on his pastures to keep his sheep fed. Of course, he supplements their diet when needed, but doesn’t use medicated feeds or hormones. Ultimately, he is able to offer his customers—many are loyal fans—quality lamb or ewe meat at grocery store and competitive prices.
That’s important, he says.
In Arkansas, Morgan’s operation’s size is typical with nearly 800 farms each raising under 24 head, while only about 300 farms have up to 100 heads. According to the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, there are 33 operations with more than 100 head and only two with more than 300.
Growing sheep, growing markets
According to 2017 UA stats released in mid-April, the number of sheep raised on Arkansas farms has grown by about 3,800 head since 2012. Chelsey Kimbrough, a Specialty Livestock/Youth Education Specialist with the UA System Division of Agriculture, says, “We’ve seen an increase, with more producers in south [Arkansas]. Dr. David Fernandez is interim assistant dean for academic programs’ School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. He also raises about 25 ewes on 20 acres near Grapevine in Grant County. He says there’s a growing demand for lamb in some of Arkansas’s ethnic communities, including Jewish, Hispanic and Islamic.
In the Hispanic community, both lamb and sheep are popular, while in the Jewish and Islamic communities, lamb is served during certain religious holidays.
Reasons to raise ewes
Besides lamb being “tasty and nutritious, and a lamb chop is the perfect serving size for a child,” Fernandez says sheep are relatively easy to raise, even during the hot summer months. Fernandez says because the animals are inexpensive to buy and feed and are small, sheep are well-suited to grass-based and small-scale agriculture. Sheep can digest weeds and other vegetation that cattle can’t, and are excellent at weed and brush control, and can actually improve the quality of a pasture. Sheep can also co-exist with cattle. As importantly, a farmer’s rate of return on an investment is quickly turned around because ewes reproduce at a young age and have a high twinning rate. A lamb can be marketed at 6-10 months. Even grown sheep are not intimidating or dangerous and, as such, are good enterprises for women, youth and aging farmers.
Reading, writing and a’raising sheep
Not all of Arkansas-born lambs end up as Sunday dinner, but as many as 400 sheep are sold to kids and entered into the Arkansas State Fair competitions through the Future Farmers of America and 4H youth programs each year. Most of Mike Reynolds’ lambs, born in late winter, are sold to students through 4H. “It’s a great livestock animal for kids,” he says.
Reynolds is a Central Arkansas farmer raising sheep under the name Pin Oak Club Lamb and is the Arkansas State Sheep Council president. Reynolds runs about 65 adult Suffolk Hampshire cross ewes on his 64-acre farm near Greenbrier.
“My lambs are weened at 60 days,” and ready for sale by April, Reynolds says. The kids then raise the lambs to about 60 pounds, and that’s big enough “to compete at county and state fairs by summer,” Reynolds says. A number of Arkansas youths have competed and won at the national level. Each year, the Arkansas State Sheep Council awards about $15,000 in prize money to students members of the Arkansas Junior Sheep Council, Reynolds says.
“The youth gain life skills like time management and fiscal responsibility. … They learn about themselves,” Kimbrough adds. The students grow professionally and personally, and, she says, many who raise sheep may impact the future of the state’s agriculture preferences.