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New Profits, Old Breed

By Tim King

There’s more than one way to make a buck from a flock of sheep. Actually, based on Robin Nistock’s experience, the number of ways for an entrepreneurial shepherd to make a profit is limited only by your imagination and the hours in the day.

Lots To Sell

“Right now I market the following,” Robin, a shepherdess from Prattsburg, New York, wrote in an email:

  • Raw fleeces exclusively to hand spinners
  • NCWGA and Cotswold breeding stock
  • Freezer lambs to local customers
  • ‘Other’ lambs to private lamb buyers
  • Roving for handspinners, including dyed and fiber blends
  • Quilt or felt batting
  • Drop spindle kits, with instructions, to learn handspinning
  • Tanned, machine washable sheepskins
  • Washed Cotswold curls for Santa beards and doll hair
Robin and Andy Nistock with a few of their sheep.
Robin and Andy Nistock with a few of their sheep.

By the end of the 2003 season Robin will have kicked off two new projects; natural colored and dyed Cotswold knitting yarn and a line of lamb sausage.

“I like to wring every little bit of income that I can out of my lambs,” Robin says. “But I’m pretty methodical. I won’t start a project until I’ve got another one under control. So far things have not gone awry because I’ve planned pretty well.”

Now, All-Lamb Sausage

The lamb sausage project is an example. First Robin and her husband approached their butcher about making some sausage for themselves. It tasted pretty good so they tried it out on their friends. They liked it and are still their friends! This fall they’ll start selling Italian, Polish and breakfast sausage to customers.

“The butchers use their own recipes which are probably based on beef and pork recipes,” Robin says. “They use my own fat trim because I have a couple Muslim customers who wanted to be really sure there was no pork product in there. The sausage is very lean. The Italian sausage comes in link form and I have to add a little oil in the pan to make sure it doesn’t scorch. The breakfast sausage is a bulk ground product. It can be made into patties and when I do then I don’t use any filler and it hangs together very well.”

Robin is going to use the sausage project to give some diversity to her existing work of selling boxed whole and half lambs.

“I’ll use the whole lamb for sausage,” she says. “With the box lambs I don’t market the cuts separately. The exception is if I know somebody who really likes chops I’ll tell the butcher to hold the chops back. A few people like liver. I try to juggle things around to please the customers but my objective is to sell the whole lamb and not separate cuts. I don’t want unpopular cuts piling up at the bottom of my freezer.”


Robin sells boxed half lambs for $2.75 per pound. She hasn’t settled on a final price but believes that sausage will sell for close to $3 per pound.

Robin jackets all her sheep except Cotswolds-their open fleece doesn't hold vegetable matter.
Robin jackets all her sheep except Cotswolds-their open fleece doesn’t hold vegetable matter.

“I’m probably selling myself short on my meat prices,” she says. “Our area is rural and economically depressed so I had to take that into consideration when I was pricing. I started by charging for the hanging carcass weight but that got confusing because of the trim loss during processing. Now I charge by the pound. They get what they see.”

Robin prices according to what she believes the market will bear. That goes for her sideline of meat as well as her core business-high quality fleeces for hand spinners and weavers. Most of the fleeces she has on her web site are $7 per pound. A few run to $7.50 and one, that took 1st at the 2002 Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival in the Natural Color Fine class, goes for $12.00 per pound. She does have one fleece that sells for $6 per pound.

“I look at what other people are getting for comparable fleeces and then price mine,” she says. “Hand spinners are pretty savvy and are more than willing to pay extra if a fleece has more of what they want.”

Finding Out What Customers Really Want

Most hand spinners know what they want. Sometimes it helps if the shepherd is a spinner and weaver (Robin is) and can help a customer figure out what they want. A potential customer from New York looked at the images of fleece samples on Robin’s web site. Then he e-mailed her.

“He started wanting a Cotswold fleece and then he e-mailed me back and said he realized Cotswold was a coarse fleece and said he wanted a fine fleece,” Robin says. “So we e-mailed back and forth and I finally realized what he really meant was soft. He didn’t care about color. I had to kind of walk him through it.”

In the last couple of years Robin has been setting aside some of her highest quality white Cotswold fleeces for use by doll makers. Doll makers have a different perspective than shepherds. She had to be walked through what they want.

“They want the product totally clean and they don’t want it to have a whiff of sheep left to it,” Robin says. “That means I have to wash the fleeces here and then sort through them. They want only those curls that have maintained their character and still look curly and they order by the ounce. Cotswolds makes the best curls. I washed and sorted through two fleeces and kept the very whitest and cleanest curls. I put the rest in another bag and that’s what I used for the yarn. The yarn came from the excellent quality fleeces whereas the curls came from the superlative quality.”

Shiny Cotswold Wool: Fewer Contaminants, Even Uncoated

Robin got her first batch of yarn back from Taos Woolen Mills in early July. She’s going to keep some of it colored natural and she’ll hand dye some. The mill spun the wool in a semi-worsted manner which Robin says shows off the Cotswold’s luster.

Robin’s Cotswolds-Super mild meat and strong, lustrous fleece for craft markets.

“I had Taos Woolen Mills spin it because it’s exclusively Cotswold wool and the fiber is between six and seven inches long,” she says. “They were the only mill that guaranteed they could handle the long wool with no problem.”

Robin's Cotswolds - Super mild meat and strong, lustrous fleece for craft markets.
Robin’s Cotswolds – Super mild meat and strong, lustrous fleece for craft markets.

Wool from skirted fleeces that doesn’t make the grade for yarn gets turned into batting or roving.

“For that I use the wool that might come from the under side of the throat that wasn’t jacketed,” Robin, who jackets all her sheep except the Cotswolds, says. “There’s beautiful fiber in that area but it might be a little dirty.”

Cotswolds, Robin says, tend to felt when they are jacketed. Their open locks don’t hold vegetable matter, however.

“Cotswold lock structure is so open that when they shake the vegetable matter that is in there flies right out,” Robin says. “A Cotswold fleece might look kind of dingy because of the dust but it washes out perfectly.”

Pelts & Hides

Like her fleeces, many of Robin’s sheep skins are also long fibered. Before she went to long fibered pelts a plant in Maine cleaned and tanned the hides. Then she sent two high quality long fleeced pelts to the plant. The long fibers got caught in the equipment and the pelts were destroyed.

“I read in sheep! of another producer who used Bucks County in Pennsylvania so I tried them and I was very pleased,” she says. “All the sheep skins that I have are from animals that went in the freezer. My lambs are born at the end of March or the beginning of April. I hate the cold. So when the lambs go in the freezer in October or November they have seven to eight months of fleece on their bodies. With the Cotswold and Border Leicester influence that’s a lot of wool.”

Like most farms, some of Robin’s sheep aren’t kept back for breeding stock and they don’t have the good fortune of being made into freezer lambs or sausage. These Robin calls “other” lambs. They are sold to an elderly neighbor who puts together truckloads of lambs for the New York City live market.

“Before I let them go to him I have the longer wooled lambs shorn so I have their fleeces to work with,” she says. “I try to get everything I can from my lambs. The buyer likes them shorn anyway so he can see them better.”

Robin Nistock can be reached at 10137 Mattoon Rd, Prattsburg, NY 14873, (607) 522-4374, e-mail: sheepmom@empacc.net or visit her website at www.nistockfarms.com^

How To Wash Fleeces At Home

Robin Nistock: A shepherdess with a lot of reasons to smile.
Robin Nistock: A shepherdess with a lot of reasons to smile.

Robin Nistock washes her own fleeces. She saves on shipping that way. Besides, some of the mills she works with don’t wash fleeces. She uses an old washing machine dedicated to fleece washing only. Here’s how she does it.

First turn your water heater up to 150-180 degrees.

Cycle #1: The first wash is detergent and a liberal splash of denatured alcohol. The alcohol helps cut the toughest ram’s fleece grease. Soak for 25 minutes and spin it out. Take out the fleece and rinse the drum.

Cycle #2: Refill with hot water and detergent and let the wool soak for 25 minutes. Spin, remove the fleece, and repeat the drum cleaning process.

Cycle #3: Fill with hot clear water, no detergent, and quite a lot of vinegar. Robin is in a very hard water area and the vinegar helps buffer out the detergent residue. Soak for 25 minutes, spin, remove fleece and clean drum.

Cycle #4: Just plain clear hot water for 25 minutes.

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