|Once a Sheep Man, Always a Sheep Man
By BECKY TALLEY
Sheep Industry News Associate Editor
(August 1, 2010) It is an industry that gets in your blood and never goes away. Nowhere is this more apparent than in an interesting development in the north Sacramento Valley where two longtime area farming families have come together to integrate sheep into a diversified farming operation.
This is not new territory for either party. Each family has a long tradition in sheep production, each had previously gotten out of the business and now each see the benefits of re-introducing the animals back into their operations.
Rominger Brothers Farms, of Winters, Calif., is a diversified farming operation growing a wide variety of crops including grain, vegetable and fruit through various organic, sustainable and conventional practices. Current owners, Rick and Bruce Rominger, are the fifth generation of the family to farm in the area, and were the drive to re-introduce sheep into the operation, which had previously been a part of the farm until the 1980s.
They teamed up with Nick and Louise Charles of F & F Stephens Ranch to make that happen. Louise’s family is longtime farmers and shepherds in the area – involved with sheep for more than 150 years, including milking and making sheep milk cheese during that time. Nick learned the sheep business from Louise and her family. In fact, in 1858, the family had enough sheep to warrant the purchase of a Southdown ram for $2,000. To get an idea of the value of the ram, $2,000 could also buy 8,000 acres of California land where they lived.
“It gives a sense of what people valued, and where their money was going,” Nick says, adding that while the family sold out of sheep in 1974, he and his wife started rebuilding the flock in 1984.
Today, the value of sheep to the Romingers and the Charles is still clear. Rominger Brothers uses the sheep as a part of their production system, and lease land from Louise, while Nick puts the sheep company together. The sheep are an integral part of the farms, providing a function that has previously been done by tractors, diesel fuel and chemicals.
“The object is to cut down overall input costs for the farms with a profit opportunity,” Nick says.
Sheep as a Production Tool
Interest in getting back into the sheep industry revolved very much around economics for the Romingers.
“Rick and Bruce saw what was happening with diesel. They looked at the cost to fertilize, and they looked at the economics of using sheep as a fertilizer and to reduce tillage operations. The value of manure from one ewe equals the value of a lamb when costing organic amendments,” he says. “We realized if we put 3,000 ewes out in a field we can do a lot of good.”
From that, a flock of young ewes was purchased from Richard Hamilton last summer and bred to his white-face rams. Next, a truckload of quarter Finn and three-quarters Targhee ewe lambs where purchased in the fall. They are currently being bred to half Finn and half Targhee rams. The ultimate goal is to have a five-eighths Targhee/three-eighths Finn crossbred, which will allow for prolificacy as well as fall lambing ability, necessary in California, and a good uniform medium wool clip.
The flock will enter their first crop residue-grazing season this summer.
“The idea is to have the sheep follow the harvesters and have the tillage equipment follow the sheep,” Nick relates.
The sheep graze in the hills surrounding the farm until July. From there they will graze wheat residue, move next to safflower residue and then onto sunflower and tomato residue. As irrigation generally stops in the area in mid-September, sheep will then move onto alfalfa fields until mid-January and are moved back to the hills as necessary. Nick also has plans to add energy to the hill country by planting legumes and rye grass, barley and oats, as well as institute a strip grazing approach in that area.
In addition to providing a steady supply of grazing for sheep, this system also benefits the farm. As the sheep move from the hills to the fields, they transfer fertility through their manure that will be tilled in after they move on. In addition, the grazing helps control weeds and pests. The sheep are grazed in the Rominger’s vineyards to keep the rows clear, grazed on alfalfa to control weevils and grazed along the irrigation canals to keep them clear.
In fact, the sheep have currently been running on leased land exclusively kept in California native grasses and have been able to demonstrate the benefits of using sheep for targeted grazing.
“It’s a really important project for me. We have been able to hear what’s important for the grass owner, and demonstrate the benefits of using the sheep. I have a test project on canals for the water district – utilizing targeted grazing to eliminate the herbicide costs and contamination issues.”
While the operation is currently breeding around 750 ewes, if the grazing goes well and economics hold, Nick says the plan is to buy two more truckloads of ewes this fall.
“The idea is to stabilize at around 1,700 ewes, have enough sheep to begin the work we need to do, and allow the crew enough time to learn their work at scale,” he adds.
Nick says he is open to all marketing opportunities, sending lambs into the convention channels, all-natural channels or direct to consumer, and as some farm ground is in organic production, there may be a future in organic sheep production as well. But, no matter the market, the lamb fits perfectly into Rominger’s production plan “…if we concentrate on keeping our direct costs and overhead about 40 percent of the gross income.
“We are trying to have something for every course in the meal. The whole trend is to really think about how to produce less commodities and more food,” he says.
Keeping the Knowledge Alive
“The sheep business is an acquired set of skills. It’s a trade you can practice and the more you know, they more you can learn,” he says.
The Charles and the Romingers are firm believers in keeping the skills and knowledge of the industry intact and passing it along to the next generation. Nick is quick to point out that the prior sheep knowledge of his family, and of Montana sheep producers Art and Marge Christensen who provided the foundation for his first flock, were crucial to the success of his operation.
“When we build these enterprises, we need to make sure we keep the equipment, talent and skills,” he says. “We are at a time that life is changing so quickly, but I sense from young people that they want to get in the ball game. They want the skills.”
The Charles are planning a program to bring young people out to the farm to learn shepherding in a combination of internships and paid work positions, gaining skills that will give them the foundation for starting their own enterprises.
“I would like to try to put together enough knowledge and involve older people who have knowledge in shepherding, management, etc., to provide them a foundation that is useful to get in the business,” he adds.
“The sheep really are a school, an entry opportunity. The exposure to the work, the culture, they can take that everywhere.”
However, says Nick, passing on knowledge of raising sheep first requires having an industry that is viable.
“We have to build our infrastructure. We need that infrastructure to get youth in,” he relates, adding that lamb-processing companies have a great opportunity in regional food systems, especially if they expand their capacity to include local beef, pork and poultry while the numbers for lambs available are contracting.
He says he sees a big push toward consumers wanting to know where their food comes from, which may present some opportunities for all livestock industries and for processors, as well as points to other growth industries that could be tapped into to keep the processor up and running. He feels there are several options, but the industry has to come together to stay afloat.
“We all have to work together to make sure we keep our business alive,” he says.