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Lambs on the ground in northeast North Dakota

The Agweek livestock tour continues with a visit to a Brocket, N.D., sheep operation that's off to an excellent start this lambing season. And nationwide, there's reason for optimism for the sheep industry overall.

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The lambing season at Lillehaugen Farms, which includes these two baby lambs, is faring well. (Jaryn Homiston / Agweek)

BROCKET, N.D. — The baby lamb — very small, born a triplet and prematurely — lunged with determination but limited success at the automated bottle-feeding machine. So Luke Lillehaugen, patient and experienced, carefully helped the lamb connect with the machine and begin sucking milk from it.

"Sometimes they need a little help getting started," he said. "But they're usually pretty quick at getting the hang of it."

Thanks to generally favorable weather conditions this winter, the lambing season was going well at Lillehaugen Farms near Brocket, N.D., when Agweek visited in early March. About 50 ewes had lambed, producing 103 lambs with only a few losses; 175 ewes will lamb on the Lillehaugen farm this spring.

Sheep often give birth to more than one lamb. Twins are desired, though triplets are not because three offspring can put too much stress on the mother. So the Lillehaugens typically separate one of the triplets and bottle-feed it; the small, born-prematurely lamb that Lillehaugen helped was one of them.

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Luke farms with his father, Maynard, 79, a true agricultural lifer who plans to keep farming as long as he can. The Lillehaugens also operate a small beef herd and raise wheat and soybeans.

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Maynard Lillehaugen, left, and his son, Luke, raise sheep near Brocket, N.D. They also have a small beef herd and raise wheat and soybeans. (Jaryn Homiston / Agweek)

Maynard got out of the sheep business in 1993, but the family reentered the industry in 2005 with the Katahdin breed. Today, the Lillehaugens still raise Katahdin sheep, a breed of hair sheep — named after Mount Katahdin, the highest peak in Maine — that sheds wool naturally over time without shearing. The Lillehaugens receive no payment or compensation for the wool, which they don't even collect.

They've sold their sheep to producers in nine states, primarily in the Upper Midwest, but also in Texas, the nation's leading sheep-producing state.

Great day in the barn

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Sheep often give birth to multiple offspring. Twins are desirable, though triplets can put too much stress on the mother. (Jaryn Homiston / Agweek)

The day of Agweek's visit wasn't particularly cold, but overcast skies and a stiff breeze made conditions outdoors raw and unpleasant. So the Lillehaugens' sheep were inside their tidy, efficient barn: bottle-fed lambs in one pen, the rest of the youngest, newest lambs in individual pens with their mothers, the main pen holding most of the animals, and a transition pen with ewes and lambs that no longer needed individual pens but weren't quite ready for the main pen. Each pen, big and small, was lined with fresh, clean straw.

Contented "baas" from both ewes and lambs rang out repeatedly.

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The pleasant conditions in the Lillehaugen barn were in stark contrast to the severe weather-related difficulties faced by many Texas sheep producers recently. Asked about that, both Luke and Maynard grimaced in sympathy.

"They just don't have the facilities to deal with it (the bad weather). We feel bad for them," Luke said.

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Luke Lillehaugen looks over his flock, which is inside the barn on a raw, unpleasant early March day. (Jaryn Homiston / Agweek)

The Lillehaugen sheep were going outside when the weather improved. Outdoors, coyotes remain a concern, as they are for many if not most area sheep producers, but the predators haven't been particularly troublesome this winter, Luke said.

Most of the Lillehaugens' sheep are white, but a few are some shade of black or brown or gray. Originally, the Lillehaugens preferred all their sheep to be white, but Luke and Maynard learned that some of their customers value other colors, too.

"So we want a little color now," Maynard said.

Sheep sometimes are reputed to be a stubborn, unintelligent animal. But Maynard's long experience tells him otherwise.

"They're plenty smart," he said.

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Meat, wool, World War II

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Lillehaugen Farms raise the Katahdin breed of sheep. The breed is valued only for its meat, not for its wool. (Jaryn Homiston / Agweek)

The sheep industry, formerly a staple of U.S. agriculture and food production, contracted sharply after World War II. U.S. sheep numbers now stand at about 5.2 million, down from the 1945 peak of 56 million.

Texas leads the nation with 740,000 sheep. South Dakota ranks sixth with 270,000, Montana eighth with 220,000, Iowa 10th with 155,000, Minnesota 12th with 130,000 and North Dakota 22nd with 70,000.

Once, sheep were prized for both their wool and their meat, with meat seen primarily as a byproduct of wool. But the growing popularity of synthetic fibers cut sharply into the demand for wool, shifting focus from wool production to meat production.

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These baby lambs on Lillehaugen Farms are gaining experience on using the automated bottle-feeding machine. (Jaryn Homiston / Agweek)

The role of meat from sheep shrunk, too. In 1945, Americans ate an average of 7.3 pounds of lamb and mutton annually. But canned mutton — which by all accounts was unappealing — was fed during World War II to millions of U.S. military personnel, many of whom banned it from their own dinner tables after they returned home.

Rising popularity of other meats, particularly chicken, also cut into lamb and mutton consumption.

As a result, American lamb and mutton consumption fell steadily to 1.4 pounds per capita in 1990 and then to 0.85 pounds per capita in 2011. But the rebound that began in 2012 has pushed annual per-capita consumption to 1.1 pounds.

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Maynard Lillehaugen, left, and his son, Luke, raise sheep near Brocket, N.D. They also have a small beef herd and raise wheat and soybeans. (Jaryn Homiston / Agweek)

Sheep industry advocates note that lamb meat is popular with some religious and ethnic groups, whose numbers are growing in the United States, and that lamb is one of the candidates for the many Americans interested in eating new and different foods.

It's important to understand that lamb meat and mutton are quite different. Lamb meat comes from sheep less than a year old that typically are slaughtered between the ages of 4 and 12 months. Meat from older sheep is called mutton; it is tougher meat and has a much stronger flavor than lamb meat. Today, mutton is sold primarily in specialty shops.

Another reason sheep are growing in popularity: Sheep are considerably smaller than cattle, which encourages some children and women interested in raising livestock to pick sheep, Luke said.

With more than two-thirds of their ewes still left to lamb, the Lillehaugens know they have a lot of work ahead of them. But the strong start to the lambing season — and the remaining ewes' generally good physical condition due to the mild winter — is encouraging.

"It's looking really good so far," Luke said.

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