Saturday, April 25, 2009
Shepherd's Night Out
Tonight I attended the Annual Mercer County Sheep and Club Lamb Sale. Traditionally, the sale served two purposes, for shepherds to buy breeding stock, and a place for the 4H youngsters to buy club lambs to show for the summer fair season. Over the years, the breeding stock sale has diminished to a shadow of its former self. I believe there were only 68 head this year. I remember over 250 head for sale in the past. The breeding stock sale was over by 8:00, but in years past could go past 10:00 pm.
Some of this is reflective of declining sheep populations. Lamb consumption has declined significantly and a larger share of the lamb eaten by Americans is meat imported from Australian and New Zealand. Ironically, the number of US sheep are in decline, but sale barn prices remain pretty good. At least in my part of the World, sheep are about the last livestock that can reliable make a little profit for a small farmer in a conventional manner. If the lamb crop is OK and the shepherd watches the markets before sale day, he can make a bit of money. By comparison, cattle are like a wildly fluctuating stock market, sheep are like a low interest savings account. A flock of sheep was once common to every farm, but few farmers today seem to want the considerably greater trouble in raising them today. This can create some opportunities for the small farmer; though shepherding has its own set of troubles.
another reason for the shrinking sale is that show breeders do not get prices that meet their expectations. I am sympathetic to this,especially when I see a nice yearling ewe bring less than a market lamb. This means the breeder fed the animal for a year and got less than a 6 month old lamb. Show breeders from western Pennsylvania typically do better taking their stock to big national shows and sales in other states. I also sympathize with the attitude of the local buyer at this sale. A Ewe that might fetch $400-$500 at a big Midwest sale will still only make so many market lambs in her life, and he has to watch the dollars and cents of how much he can afford and still profit. At its worst, the show sale circuit is like the two peddlers in prison selling the same hat back and forth to each other, and inflating the price each time.
I did not go to buy anything, just to eat lamb sandwiches and visit. We live in the northern end of the Pennsylvania sheep belt, but its still a pretty small world. I saw most of the other sheep raisers I know from within a 50 mile radius. The lamb sandwiches are excellent-- $3.00 buys a big roll slathered with tender meat stewed in juice. Some people drive 80 miles just to eat there. After that I like to see what everyone is breeding, especially Cheviots, which we raise. Excuse the Cheviotcentric bias that follows on the breed commentaries.
These are some nice Cheviots from the Misty Acres flock. If I was there to buy, I would have bid on these.
A yearling Cheviot ram from the Diamond C flock. Diamond C used to be our nearest sheep raising neighbors and their adult son now carries on the tradition about a half hour north of us. Another animal worth owning.
This Diamond C Ewe wonders why I am bothering her with a camera
I am personally not a big Hampshire fan, but these are nice ones from the Clark Family's Sonshine acres near Meadville Pa
These Dorset lambs will grow to be good milkers and good mothers. We have had trouble with the breed in the past having bad feet. In my opinion, Dorsets also tend to be a little dumber than other breeds.
This skilled shepherdess shows a club type lamb, that might be bought for breeding stock or a 4H project. Note her control of the animal in the sale ring. These Suffolk type lambs are the most common breed in the US by far. They grow big but require mountains of feed. I like to cross them with Cheviots to produce bigger Cheviot type Ewe that eats less than a pure Suffolk.
This is the head of a Merino buck. The Merino was once the king of sheep in these parts, but that was when wool was worth considerably more. This guy's lambs will make wool soft enough for baby blankets.