NOFA-NY Workshop Covers Advantages of Raising Sheep

2/8/2014 7:00 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — To Maryrose Livingston, there’s something magical about the whole process of raising grass-fed sheep that produce a variety of products — milk, meat, fiber and cheese.

She was one of the presenters in a workshop, “Increasing Farm Diversity With Small Ruminants,” at the Jan. 24-26 Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York Winter Conference.

More than 1,300 people attended the conference.

Livingston owns Northland Sheep Dairy in Cortland County with her husband, Donn Hewes.

“The most enjoyable part of my day is shepherding my flock,” she said.

That’s just one of the advantages of owning sheep and goats compared with large farm animals, she and other presenters said.

Livingston came from a nonagricultural background in suburban Detroit and got her introduction to farming at a conventional dairy operation. She and her husband learned how to raise sheep in England.

Unlike cows, sheep aren’t milked year-round, so Livingston gets a break from the daily routine of dairy production.

Plus, sheep require much less infrastructure than cows and reach maturity quicker, she said.

“You can finish your meat animals in one season,” she said.

Lambs born in spring are grass-fed all summer before going to market in autumn, so she doesn’t have to store and feed grain during the winter.

“That’s why small ruminants are really great,” she said. “It’s a really nice way to get into livestock.”

Another advantage is that sheep are extremely weather resistant, thanks to their heavy wool fleece. She keeps them in a barn but said they don’t mind the cold weather at all.

“Our flagship product is our milk and European-style cheeses,” she said.

However, sheep are used for a long list of end products. The skins of animals sent for butchering are tanned and made into sheepskins that can fetch $100 to $150 apiece at an Ithaca farmers market.

“We sold eight in one day in August,” she said.

Workshop participants, from Buffalo to eastern Long Island, said they currently own vegetable, beef or poultry farms and wanted to learn more about sheep and goats as a way to diversify their operations.

Betsy Ho from Putnam County in the Lower Hudson Valley, was especially interested in learning how sheep and goats contribute to land management. It’s a valuable side benefit as these animals graze in places cows don’t go.

“Goats are definitely more manageable than cows,” said Joyce Henion, owner of Acorn Hill Farm in Ulster County. “They’re also easier on the land. They don’t churn up the ground. Plus, they’re great farm ambassadors. The first question people ask is, Can I meet the goats?’ I’ve met very few people who don’t want to reach out and touch them. It promotes connectedness with your farm.”

Milk and meat are her farm’s main products.

Lisa Ferguson, owner of Laughing Goat Fiber in Ithaca, primarily raises Angora and Cashmere goats for their fiber, along with two alpacas and two sheep. After fiber is processed at a mill, it is returned to her. She also dyes and weaves her own finished products that are sold at craft fairs, festivals and farmers markets.

As a somewhat smaller person, Ferguson said sheep and goats are much easier to work with than large farm animals such as horses and cows.

“I can grab an Angora buck and make him do what I want him to do,” she said. “An Angora doe weighs 80 to 100 pounds; bucks 150 to 175. And they’re gentle, gentle animals. I love every part of it. I love fiber and I love the people who buy it.”

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