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Sheep Gone to The Dogs?

Border Collies Ease The Way
to $4.75/lb. Locker-Lamb Sales

By Nancy Lybarger

Some might say Bill MacKenzie has gone to the dogs. With a degree in ornamental horticulture and a good life in California, he and his wife, Dee, moved to North Liberty, Indiana, almost 11 years ago, with a Border Collie.

Bill MacKenzie's sheep work  is a lot easier with his top-notch sheep dogs' help
Bill MacKenzie’s sheep work is a lot easier with his top-notch sheep dogs’ help

To train the dog to field trials, he bought some sheep. Another dog came along and he bought more sheep. More sheep came along and he bought another dog. See a pattern?

“I wanted to train sheep dogs, so I had to have a few sheep. My wife always asked the same question, ‘Why do we have sheep?’ My answer, ‘For the dogs.’ Then she asked, ‘But why do we have so many dogs?’ And I said, ‘For the sheep.'”

The MacKenzies operate Sycamore Farm Dorpers, a 20-acre grass-based system on which they run a small Dorper sheep flock. Because Dorpers are a hair sheep they don’t need to be sheared, a plus for MacKenzie, who grew up on a Blackface sheep farm in Scotland.

Demand For Breeding Stock Even Better Than For Meat

When they started the Indiana flock, they built a private client base for the meat. He said the operation has grown to the point now where they sell more breeding stock than meat.

He doesn’t take their six dogs to trials any more, either. There’s just not enough time.

“I was quite successful when I was trialing…. I did a lot of the competition work in Kentucky and Michigan, and a couple in northern Indiana,” he said.

Four of the six dogs placed in the top five in the Kentucky Stock Dog Trials several times.

“We’ve had a few second places, but could never quite get into first spot. Considering we were running in a field of 30+ dogs, I guess we didn’t do so bad,” he said.

Grazing Improvements

Pasture improvement is an ongoing effort, MacKenzie said. Initially, he put in hybrid ryegrass mixed with timothy and brome grass. After the first season, he overseeded the 17-acre pasture with an Alice white clover-alfalfa mix.

One paddock was sown with a bluegrass mixture and is still holding up well, he said, after five years.

He is considering adding orchard grass this spring, “as it seems to hold up better.” He purchases hay for winter-feeding in an alfalfa/orchard grass mix.

Grazing Rotations

“Pasture rotation is never a cut and dried situation,” MacKenzie said. “It all depends on how the forage is growing, which is dependent on weather conditions and time of the season.

“So, I can be moving animals any time from daily to weekly. It all depends on the pasture growth. I guess it’s a ‘feel’ thing.”

He uses a flexible paddock system. Approximately two acres each, the paddocks are divided with two strands of poly wire hooked to a high tensile live wire that runs the length of the property.

Bill takes great pride in his well-trained dogs.
Bill takes great pride in his well-trained dogs.

“It works for this breed but not for others,” he said. “I know it won’t work for wool sheep and I wouldn’t want to try using it to separate a ram from a ewe in heat or a mother from her lamb.”

The sheep graze down to about six inches, MacKenzie said, and then they are moved to another paddock. The dogs help him move the sheep.

“The dogs are my work force. They know the sheep and the sheep know the dogs,” he said.

Before this next round of lambs arrives, the flock stands at 35 breeding ewes-25 bred to lamb in late January and early February and 10 bred to lamb late May to early June. By the time the January lambs are ready to wean, the pasture should be mature enough to support the ewes, he said.

Dorper Character

Most of the ewe lambs are sold for breeding. He says lambs typically gain a pound a day.

He has lost only two lambs in three years, MacKenzie said. Dorpers are a hardy breed, he noted, usually giving birth to twins and sometimes triplets.

“They can adapt to our circumstances,” he said.

That’s a good thing, considering the severe winters that are the norm in northern Indiana. MacKenzie admitted his pastures are less than perfect-quite weedy, in fact.

“I would never make it if I were raising dairy cattle, beef cattle, or even the more traditional breeds of sheep,” he said. “But then, that is why I chose this particular breed of animal. They aren’t too picky about quality.”

He said the sheep are not only able to survive on mediocre pasture, but they produce a high quality meat and breeding stock. For the last four years, he has been charging his clients $4.75 per pound for lambs, plus a processing fee for the custom butcher.

He aims to increase the breeding stock to 50 ewes, as he continues to look for niche markets for his lambs.

More sheep. More dogs.

For more information on Dorper sheep, or on Border Collie sheep dogs, contact: Bill and Dee MacKenzie, Sycamore Farm Dorpers, North Liberty, Indiana 46554, Phone: 574.656.3357, E-mail: dillnbee@yahoo.com

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