Raising Sheep – Things ‘Ewe’ Should Know with Ollie King
We recently interviewed Ollie King who raises sheep and beef on his farm in Doylesburg, PA. During the interview, Ollie shared about his operation and strategies for raising sheep and marketing their products.
Our listeners can probably tell from your accent that you aren’t a Franklin County native. Share with us about your story and how you ended up being a farmer here in south-central Pennsylvania.
I'm clearly not from Pennsylvania nor America. I served 22 years in the in the British army, which now I'm retired. During my time in the army, I was serving in Afghanistan and I was in a U.S. army base when I met my soon to be wife, Megan. She was in the U.S. army. We met there and then we continued to see each other.
I'm from a farming community in the UK. I always kind of wanted to be a farmer or wanted to have some land because all my friends growing up were from farming families.
We really wanted to have some property at least, but we couldn't afford to buy any land in the UK. We started our search more in America, and Megan is from Pennsylvania. Megan's parents had a farm in Franklin County, so we looked around there and found our farm, which is a 90-acre farm. We bought it with me being in the UK and Megan being in Afghanistan. So that was quite a challenge. We did see the farm before we bought it, but we basically bought it via an online contract. And so that's what brings us to Franklin County.
We have a mixed farm. We have beef, sheep and as I said, Megan has horses. We did have some arable crops to begin with before we got the livestock. As the livestock population has grown, we've reduced down any cash crops. Now the whole farm is in pasture or hay land, which is basically the same thing because we use rotational grazing.
Let’s talk a bit more about your sheep operation. Tell us about the sheep you raise, how you’ve grown your flock and what you’ve learned over the years about raising sheep.
As I said, we are a mixed farm. We have sheep and cows, but I'm completely new to agriculture as an owner. I thought we should start with something not as big as a cow. And so I thought sheep would be a good way to start.
We started with five ewes and three ram lambs. That was in the spring. Two of the ram lambs went to butcher that autumn and the third was kept to be a stud ram. We had lambs in the springtime that following spring, and we had some lamb in the freezer and that was the beginning.
We have a bank barn on the property and so I just used the base of the bank barn. It's quite an old bank barn and it is in relatively good shape, but it's not like a new construction. It was somewhat damp and it was somewhat cramped and there wasn't any lighting in there. That first year was quite a challenge. I learned quite a lot.
Thankfully, in that first year I didn't lose any of the five ewes but because they were yearling ewes, only three of them had lambs.
I thought we needed to look at some different breeds. What we got originally was just a white, fluffy sheep. It’s a Cheviot cross. It’s not a pure bred, and it's got a mixture of bits and bobs in it. So I thought it was probably wise to go with one or two purebred breeds. On the farm now we have Shropshire, Clun Forest, and the Cheviot crosses.
I emailed a couple of people on the Clun Forest registry and one really nice chap got back to me from Maryland. I bought two ewes and the ram from him.
From that relationship, I bought a couple of more sheep from him, but also became involved with the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival for which now I'm a board member. I really enjoyed the contacts and the friendships I've made as a result of that first meeting with the chap that sold me the Clun Forest.
So we bought five Cheviot crosses, two Clun Forest ewes and then over the next three years bought six, six and six of Shropshires, each of the groups coming with their own ram. We run three breeds. So they've got five groups with five rams come autumn time, because they're running those separate groups to keep the purebred and registered ones in their own line. Now we're now up to 60 odd sheep on the farm.
So we have 54 using the barn now for lambing. We choose springtime lambing so that when the grass comes in, which is almost now, the mothers can go out on the fresh pasture, almost straight out of the barn.
They sheared the end of February and then they stay in the barn until the beginning or middle of April. So we have basically four weeks, just with new shorn coats and then they start lambing and they go through the general population in the lambing barn.
Then they go into mothering pens for a couple of days, and get sorted to a maternity wing where all the ewes and the lambs are together. Now the grass is coming in, they will start dashing out onto the fields and enjoying the grass.
Importantly, on our farm, we practice rotational grazing. The whole principle of how we run our beef and sheep is on rotational grazing because we only have a relatively small farm at 90 acres. Grass pasture is at a premium. I use electric netting for the sheep and hot movable electric wire for the cows.
We rotationally graze them, moving them every few days. In Pennsylvania, the stocking rate is one animal unit per acre. One animal unit being a 1,000 lb. animal, and a 1,000 lb. animal in beef terms is equal to five sheep. So if you do the math on that, we will very quickly run out of space on 90 acres.
The rotational grazing makes it much more efficient because you can put more hooves on the ground. Because you moved them frequently, the grass grows and so therefore soil quality and regeneration is enhanced and it allows for a better stocking rate and being a better custodian of the pastures, I feel.
The ewes and the rams stay with their mothers. We do what we would call a soft wean. At four months, the ram lambs do get taken away from their mothers, but they can still see them. The ewe lambs stay a little bit longer with their mothers. The ram lamb continues to graze in rotational grazing until they go off to the butchers in the autumn.
Now, let’s talk about the marketing of products from your sheep. How do you approach the marketing side of your business and what strategies do you use?
One of our biggest marketing tools is me being British because I've noticed that most Americans don't eat lamb. Where I live, all the producers around me are beef producers.
Those that do have sheep, and there are a few up the Valley here that do have sheep, none of them eat their own product. If I ask them why they don't eat lamb, nine times out of 10, they'll say they don't know how to cook it. For me lamb is a staple that we've always grown up with being from Britain in Shropshire.
I encourage people to start trying it. So that's helping.
Megan, my wife has a full-time job and she works for Highmark, the health insurance provider. She’s not in the office now because of the pandemic, but her office is in Camp Hill and it's a relatively big office. Many people there have become customers. She's managed to make a lot more contacts that way.
We have begun to serve ourselves in that way through Megan. I'm at a bit of a disadvantage because I have no social network in America because I'm new to the country. Most Americans have a network of friends. Of course I don't. That made it quite difficult.
The marketing from our perspective has been very slow because we've been A - learning and B - growing the business.
We started selling to friends and family and for the first four or five years. We had more people wanting to buy lamb than we could produce lambs. 2020 was the first time we people wanted and we had lambs. We sold three separately this last year, direct to a meat producer.
This next year coming up, we will be positively marketing. We've been kind of passively marketing in the past, but obviously our network of friends and our network of people that have bought and passed it on to other people is increasing.
Two springs ago, we started a Facebook page and we have a Facebook farm page, which is every week growing more followers. It’s not perfect marketing but it kind of is surprising how fast word of mouth spreads. In fact, we took a photograph of one of our steers in a feeder just a few months ago and it went all around the world. The power of Facebook marketing is extraordinary. Last year we did sell two half lambs as a result of Facebook. So this year we will be putting more on Facebook. At some point, we would like to get a webpage put together to orders represent ourselves with a web presence.
We sell the wool and the pelts also through the Facebook marketing strategy, because we try and use as much of the animal as we can. The wool and the pelts is a whole network of other people. The people that use the wool might not necessarily even eat lamb. A person might buy some wool of ours and then come and visit and then think it might be nice to have a half of lamb.
Selling to cities is somewhat more challenging because people don't have such big freezers, but that's something we will be looking forward to looking into in the future - the selling and the marketing of individual cuts of lamb.
As we wrap up today, if any of our listeners have an interest in starting their own sheep operation, what advice would you give them?
I think the most important piece of advice I can give, which we have adhered to purely by luck rather than any calculated judgment on our part, is start with good stock. Now I'm kind of addicted to YouTube channels because I'm trying to learn as much as I can, how to be a farmer. If any farmers are listening to this, they'll just roll their eyes and think, "Oh my goodness, how is he learning to be a farmer from just watching videos." But I've obviously had to start somewhere being in the infantry for 22 years.
A lot of YouTube channels will often do ‘Top 10 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me’ or ‘Top Five Things I Wish Someone Had Said to Me.’ In all of those different YouTube videos, in the top 10 of that their list will be ‘starting with good quality stock.’
And so having fallen into that by accident, we started with registered Shropshires. We started with a good stock from the Cluns, and it just happens that we were lucky that the Cheviot crosses were a good standing. It makes such a difference in what you do, because if you buy from the sale barn, you don't know what you're getting, where they're coming from, what they're bringing with them. The good stock means that they will be more hardy. It means that they don't bring problems onto your farm. And it means that they take less of your time with the husbandry.
I've learned so much from different visits to different farms, and hand in glove with that, do get some YouTube videos under your belt. I know it sounds silly, but no matter how many times I watch new and old videos on YouTube, I always spot something I didn't see first time or I’ll always learn something on each episode.
Make sure your handling systems are safe and that works, I think, two ways. It keeps the handlers safe and it keeps the animals safe. Low stress handling and low stress animal movement is hugely beneficial to the animals but also for the farmers or the others working with you on your farm, and oftentimes that's family. The less stress the animal is up against, the better they will feel and the better they will work with you.