Even if you didn’t grow up on a farm… springtime seems to bring with it thoughts of baby chicks and spring lambs. Maybe it was those cardboard cutouts on the bulletin board in grade school. But it’s not as common to find sheep on the farm today. Farming is different. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham found some spring lambs… and a man who still thinks sheep have a place on the farm:
Even if you didn’t grow up on a farm… springtime seems to bring with it thoughts of baby chicks
and spring lambs. Maybe it was those cardboard cutouts on the bulletin board in grade school.
But it’s not as common to find sheep on the farm today. Farming is different. The Great Lakes
Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham found some spring lambs… and a man who still thinks sheep
have a place on the farm:
It’s chilly and it’s raining outside. But nestled in the straw, three newborn lambs are snuggling for
warmth in the barn. George Good is milking their mother. In farm parlance she’s called a ewe.
He’s inserted her teat directly into a green Mountain Dew bottle. After getting a little of the
ewe’s first milk, he holds the plastic bottle up the the light to see if he’s got enough. Then he
twists on a screw top nipple and picks up a newborn lamb. It’s weak, kind of floppy, too wobbly
to stand on its own. But it eagerly takes the nipple and the first milk – called colostrum.
“I’m gonna give these lambs a little bit of supplement, you know, to get them started. About two
to three ounces of colostrum so they’ve got some strength to get up and go. It’s really rich, high
energy. And this ewe, anything she’s immune to, the anti-bodies are in that first milk. So that
gives that lamb a boost to get off and is really healthy.”
Good is dressed to ward off the chill of the day…insulated overalls, stocking cap and a pale blue kerchief
around his neck. His easy going, warm way of talking belies his quickness as he nimbly picks up
another lamb to give it a bit of the first milk.
Sheep used to be common on family farms. That’s when farming meant a balance of different
kinds of livestock, crops and income. But that’s pretty rare these days, and this isn’t a family
farm. George Good is the farm manager at the Michigan State University Sheep Teaching and Research Center. But Good himself was
raised on one of those family farms.
“You know, they used to milk a few cows, have a few laying hens, and a flock of ewes that
they’d lamb in the spring. And lambing in the spring, that’s a good time because it’s just before
they go to the crop, to do the field work, see?”
The lambs were born in the spring, just before it really got busy. Then, after the crops were
planted, it was time to shear the sheep. The wool meant income that came at a pretty good time.
Farming used to be all about timing. After going all winter with little to sell, spring offered a
chance for some income. Selling lambs for meat. Selling wool. And then raising different livestock to
sell at different times of the year. Farmers would grow hay and wheat to bring in money during
the summer… tiding the family over until the corn crop came in during the fall and with it more
“And I can remember a lot of people telling me – old farmers – that their flock of sheep really
kind of help to make the farm payments. They may not have been necessarily focused largely on
the flock of sheep, but it was something that fit in, that was compatible, you know.”
But, today farms usually are not that diverse. They specialize. Livestock farms often raise just
one kind of animal. Hog farms with tens of thousands of pigs. Cattle farms that concentrate the
animals in feedlots. Or farms that don’t raise livestock at all. Just crops. Modern farms count on
the efficiencies of mass production rather than the balance of the cycles of nature and husbandry.
Good says even sheep farms have to raise hundreds of sheep to make enough money to support a
family. But good says sheep are great if they’re thought of as they once were on traditional
the traditional farm as a little supplemental income.
“If you have a flock of sheep or a group of sheep it’s a great family project. It’s something the
wife and children can help, labor-wise, take care of. They’re smaller. You got the wool crop. If
you have some hilly land or rough area that you don’t farm, they graze it and you end up
with a nice product to sell. But, the family, the thing about sheep is the family can really do a lot
of the work, your children and your wife and so on.”
Good notes that there’s been increased demand for lamb from growing Middle Eastern and
Mediterranean populations in cities such as Detroit and Toronto. Lamb prices are higher, making sheep worth the effort. But then, Good seems to be partial to the animals. He gives
you the impression that nursing these lambs has to do with something more than just profit and
product. Maybe it’s just a reminder of how it used to be on so many family farms.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.