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Shepherds again: Families mix lamb and off-farm goals

FLORENCE, S.D.—Larry Halse grows corn, soybeans and runs a beef cow-calf operation, and, for the past several years, is back into sheep.

His most profitable enterprise these days?

Sheep.

Halse (pronounced "Hals"), 54, says there are some very large sheep operations in his area of the I-29 corridor, but he's one of few moderate farms with sheep. The family has had at least two prior forays into sheep since they Halses came here in the 1880s.

Larry was born in 1964, the youngest of four siblings.

His father, Dennis, had sheep until the flock got out into a dew-laden alfalfa field, killing 25 of them with bloat. The rest of the flock "went to town" to be sold.

In the 1970s, Larry bought some bottle lambs from an uncle and slowly grew his flock. He graduated Florence High School in 1982 and farmed part-time with his parents on their 400 acres and worked in custom cabinet shops.

In 1984, Larry married Linda Paulson and they had three children. The Halses started out raising 125 bottle lambs at a time. They did custom-baling and he helped his father and an older brother build pole barns.

In the brutal 1996-1997 winter, Larry was working in town and no one could get to his 150-head flock of ewes during a three-day snowstorm. "We only lost one lamb in the whole deal but the next week they were (sold) at the sale barn and we got out of sheep," Larry rememembrs. "My wife was thrilled."

Cattle to sheep

Justin Weatherford of Florence, S.D., bunk-feeds an pen of sheep that are eager to get their daily rations. Daughter Jill, now 27, graduated from Florence High School in 2009. She'd been FFA chapter president and district officer twice. In high school, her FFA Supervised Agricultural Experience project was beef cows. It earned her the state FFA Star Farmer.

Choosing an education in medical work, however, Jill attended Mitchell Technical Institute to become an X-ray technician. In 2012, she married Justin Weatherford. Justin, now 29, describes himself as a "townie" from Woonsocket, S.D., who worked in auto body repair.

In 2013, the young couple moved back Florence and bought one of Larry's farmsteads.

They both have jobs at Webster, S.D.—Jill as an X-ray technician in the hospital and Justin works in auto body.

In 2013, crop prices skyrocketed. Justin and Jill were looking for pasture for cattle but pasture land was losing out to crop land.

"I told them, 'Why don't you get some sheep instead?'" Larry Halse says. The first year, they bought bottle lambs and sold them as fat lambs. "Who doesn't love little bottle babies," Jill says.

Sheep are a lot of work, she thought—a lot of vaccination shots, at birth, weaning and later—but they'd try it. (Her mother, Linda, who works as a pharmacy technician in town, still isn't thrilled about sheep.)

In May 2014, Larry urged the Weatherfords to join with him to buy 75 head of ewes that were about to give birth. They were Polypay, a white-faced breed. In 2015, they bought a flock of 80 purebred, black-faced Hampshire ewes. They increased to 300 head in 2016, to 500 head in 2017. At the end of f 2017, they split the herd.

Today, the Weatherfords have 160 ewes, bred to start lambing February to March. Larry has 400 ewes that are bred to lamb in March and April.

Larry believes in "plenty of buck power" to ensure conception—22 breeding bucks for 400 head of ewes. He runs a ratio of one buck to 20 to 25 mature ewes and one buck to every 10 ewe lambs (first-time mothers). This year, they had 450 ewes lamb in ten days.

"Pretty intense," Larry says, with a grin.

Justin weans in an average of 60 to 75 days.They send the ewes to grass and the lambs stay in the feedlot. This year, Larry also bought 1,100 head of other producers' lambs to add to his own feeder lamb flock. The Weatherfords also bought 180,

Justin is happy with the results. "With our 20 acres, we're probably making more than guys farming quarter (sections) of ground right now," he says. He's talked one friend into raising 60 head of sheep.

Larry may stand pat on his ewe numbers.

More than crops

Larry Halse and neighbor Tom Darrington sort sheep into weight classes."I'll make more money this year on my 1,700 lambs than I will on 600 acres of beans and my 250 acres corn," he says, with wonder and pride. "That's kind of why I've increased the numbers—to cover the bills, cover the shortcomings that the crops are causing."

Halse sells his lambs through the Glacial Lakes Livestock at Watertown, S.D., about 23 miles to the southeast.

The Weatherfords, on the other hand, for the second year are marketing lambs through the Pipestone (Minn.) Lamb and Wool Program, run by the Minnesota West Community and Technical College at Pipestone. The school has more than 100 members in South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska.

Laurie Johnson of Watertown, a lamb and wool instructor for the program, says enrollees have the option to contract as a group with a packer for the sale of lambs. The group markets thousands of lambs per year, but she declines to specify numbers.

"Justin and Jill are pretty typical of our members, younger producers willing to grow their operations, make connections with other producers," Johnson says. "We have operations ranging from 50 ewes up to 1,400 ewes."

Larry says he thinks his bred ewes can make money in one year while beef cows take three years to break even.

Justin Weatherford grew up in town but is with his wife Jill’s family in what is becoming a sizeable lamb operation.A bred ewe costs roughly $200, Larry says. If they produce a lamb, the lamb will bring almost $200 a head. He sells market lambs at about 140 to 150 pounds, for a 65 to 75-pound carcass.

Bred cows cost about $1,200. Calves sold at 700 pounds bring about $900 a head. "You're looking at two or three years with your feed into that cow before you're even breaking even," he says.

Jill says she hopes the family can continue to grow in the sheep business, and perhaps control some additional land for feed purposes.

Both farmsteads are now equipped with the distinctive blue Sydell working systems, manufactured at Burbank, S.D.

Ewes can be up to 250 to 300 pounds but are safer to work with than a 1,500-pound cow or a 2,000-pound beef bull, she says.

One important point about sheep: Jill says she's comfortable around sheep with her 2-year-old son, Kolt. "At 2, you can just already see that—that passion, being out with the sheep," she says. "I have a feeling it won't be long before he helps pull lambs."