Sheep farming a niche tradition
After more than 50 years raising sheep, Marilyn Jones knows the animals are as much a necessity as anything else.
“We always had sheep,” she said. “I always loved them and took care of them. I couldn’t stand it the year I didn’t have any. Right now I guess I enjoy looking at them more than anything else.”
Getting into the business is easier if there’s a family connection, Goessel-area farmer Anson Burns said.
“My dad had sheep and my grandfather had sheep, so it’s been in our family for a few generations,” he said.
Burns keeps 200 head of sheep, which provide eight or nine pounds of wool each. Despite shearing around a ton of wool annually, he said the wool is secondary.
“It’s not what we depend on for income, but it’s a little bonus,” he said. “I’d say 90% of the income is from selling the lamb for meat.”
Shearing sheep, however, isn’t a common trade and it requires a deft touch, Jones said.
“There’s a definite technique, and you have to be good,” the Peabody resident said. “If you’re not good, you cut them up.”
As a family farm, Burns’ children all learned to shear, but they had to be big enough to handle the animals.
“I learned when I was 14, but any younger than that and you’re hardly big enough,” Burns said.
It only takes five months for a ewe’s gestation cycle, as opposed to nine months for cattle, but Burns said its best for sheep to give birth once a year.
“Sheep breeding better for a spring lambing, whereas cattle can be any time of the year,” he said. “Sheep are a little more seasonal.”
Jones used to keep many black sheep, and said she may have had the largest flock of black sheep in the U.S.
Sheep with white coats are usually preferred because their wool can be died any color, while black wool will stay its natural color or go darker, Burns said.
Jones’ husband, Gary, was an ag teacher before his retirement, which gave them an excuse to keep buying new breeds. At one point the couple had 23 or 24 breeds, she said.
The most sheep they kept were 250, but that didn’t last long, Jones said.
“When Gary retired and found out how much work that was, we cut back quickly,” she said.
Despite having so many breeds, Jones said getting rid of the lambs was never an issue.
“I’d always have a market for butcher lambs,” she said. “I’d take them up to the slaughter house here and we’d sell them. You’d want one so you’d order it for Christmas or whatever, and I was always able to sell out of those.”
One trade-off of keeping sheep is that they need more protection from predators than larger livestock, Burns said.
In addition to raising sheep, Jones enjoys spinning wool.
“It’s just nice and relaxing,” she said. “You don’t have to think or do anything else. You’re just sitting there spinning.”
Jones and her husband had been raising sheep since the mid-1960s, but her interest in spinning wool was inspired later on at Hillsboro’s arts and crafts fair when she met a Russian immigrant who spun wool.
Last modified May 13, 2020