Paul Weideman commutes between the 19th and the 21st century.
Along the route, he’s developing a flock of Scottish Blackface sheep, a breed that traces its origins to the 12th century, on the remains of an 1800s dairy farm.
His figurative time travel started on a small farm in South Carolina with nary a sheep in sight when Paul and his wife Marj began breeding Morgan horses.
After 12 years away, the call of their home state was too much for the Michigan natives and in 1997 they returned and bought a 12-acre farm in Lapeer, some 55 miles from Southfield where Paul, 46, worked until last fall as a creative director at a very 21st century advertising company.
Paul and Marj Leideman with some of the
Scottish Blackface sheep products they sell.
They brought three Morgans with them and installed the horses on the property they named Mirror Lake Farm, with its historic farmhouse built in 1870 and an even older hand-hewn barn.
“The first thing we did was over-seed the pasture with a seed mixture formulated by Michigan State University,” Paul says. “After a couple years, it was looking lush and green everywhere.”
But he also found the six Morgans they now have were not eating all the grass so he started mowing it.
“I was wasting my whole weekend mowing pasture,” Paul recalls. “I asked myself what a farmer would do, and the answer was to put animals on it. He would make money off that grass.”
Internet & sheep! Reveal Farm’s Problems; Potential Solutions
“When Google Earth started, I looked at the farm and I could see the huge circles in the back pasture. They looked like crop circles. That was the area where the horses were dropping manure and they wouldn’t eat that grass. The pasture looked terrible.”
On the Internet, Paul found a lot of farmers run sheep behind their horses because sheep will eat the grass and weeds that horses won’t eat. They don’t share the same parasite species and the sheep fertilize the fields they graze.
He researched every sheep breed there was and came up with a dozen options.
“Then the more I read about it, I thought it’s more than just pastures,” Paul says. “We could sell the wool and grow our own meat. We could start small and get two or three sheep.”
He talked to friends who used to run sheep when they were younger.
“They warned us there’s a lot of work,” Paul says. “You have to trim, feed, shear at least once a year, worm them, keep an eye on them and take them to market.
“We got sheep! and we started reading articles about people raising grass-fed animals, and they’re not using all these grains,” he says. “They are using rotational grazing and not worming and pumping them full of chemicals!”
Paul says the more he thought about it, the more he believed he could run his sheep this way.
“It would lower our expenses,” he says. “There would be healthier animals, healthier meat.”
Scottish Blackface Advantages
“Then I started reading about Scottish Blackface and found they were low maintenance,” adds Paul.
This was important because five days a week Paul and Marj, a data analyst with Michelin North America Inc. in Troy, located near Southfield, commute to their jobs. The 110-mile round trip doesn’t leave much time at either end of the week day for sheep maintenance.
Hardy Scottish Blackface sheep are easily recognized by their individual facial coloration.
Paul was also struck by the fact there’s never been a case of naturally-occurring scrapie in a Scottish Blackface sheep.
The breed originated in the borderlands between Scotland and England, and by the 12th century Scottish monks were raising what they called dun-faced sheep, which evolved into the Scottish Blackface.
James IV of Scotland established a flock of 5,000 Scottish Blackface sheep in 1503 in the borderlands area.
The breed reached the U.S. in 1861 with the arrival of a ram and two ewes.
Paul says Scottish Blackfaces fit the bill because they are a tough, hardy, breed that are easy to take care of and fiercely guard their lambs.
“They are smart,” he says. “They are a hill breed,’ and they have to be pretty smart. These sheep for generations were farmed without fences. They grow sizeable with very little forage. They will eat anything from grass to weeds, and they are highly valued for their meat.
“And they are cool looking. Every one is different. You look at other breeds and you can’t tell them apart.”
All this was well and good, but first Paul and Marj had to answer a big question—did they like lamb?
They bought three Polypays, liked the meat but not the breed.
“They looked like clones,” Paul says. “Give them red eyes and it’s like a horror film.”
There was another problem for Marj.
“I love animals,” she says. “I wasn’t sure if I could make the transition, take this animal to market; or are they all going to become pets? It was interesting. When they are lambs, and I handle them so much more, I get kind of attached and get to know them. But then they become bigger and they are sheep and I don’t have the affinity for them.”
Adding Llamas, Ducks, Geese
The llamas were added soon after the arrival of the Scottish Blackface, only partly as a guard for the sheep.
“We thought if we can sell sheep fiber, why can’t we sell llama fiber,” Paul says. “Plus, they are great looking animals.”
The guard role was a bonus.
“The llamas will move the sheep into the barn if they sense danger,” Paul says. “We have seen them do it. If the llamas get nervous, they hum. They use some sort of non verbal communication with the sheep.”
The farm now has six llamas, two born there.
Adding the llamas to the farm meant there also had to be ducks.
“There are snails that can transfer a parasite from whitetail deer to our llamas if the llamas ingest them while grazing,” Paul says. “This parasite can kill our llamas. The ducks eat the snails.”
They also added some geese to give the ducks some company.
Paul is center of attention when he walks the farm.
To boost their defenses against predators, the Weidemans upgraded their farm perimeter security.
“We had a two-wire electric fence that kept the horses in but didn’t keep anything out,” Paul says. “We re-fenced the entire farm with woven wire with electric on top and electric half way down—the latter to stop the sheep rubbing against the fence, because it’s a lot of work putting a fence up and they can knock it down pretty quick.
“We have seen coyotes and neighborhood dogs, but we have never had a predator problem ever,” Paul says. “We have never lost a lamb.”
The Weidemans started out naming the sheep but don’t do it any more—it’s difficult eating a roast from an animal you know on a first-name basis.
“The only sheep we name now are the rams,” Paul says.
He recalls he bought a ram and the previous owners e-mailed asking how it was doing, identifying the animal by its registration number.
“We e-mailed back and said, We call him Gus.’ We name our rams because they live on our farm for so long we get attached to them and they have personalities.”
Their flock went into last winter numbering 45 head, down from a summer peak of 55. This includes two active breeding rams. Paul has five ram lambs for sale and is keeping another two to see how they mature.
“We’re breeding 26 ewes and we’re getting a breeding rate of 180%, so we are hoping for close to 48 lambs next spring,” he says.
The sheep remain outside year round but have access to the barn. Paul says it’s amazing to see them happily out in the snow and ice-covered fields even on the coldest of Michigan’s winter days.
Profit Channels: Meat, Wool, Hides, Horns
Last season, the Weidemans sold all the meat they had on offer.
“It’s all grass fed and there’s a lot of people interested in healthier meat,” Paul says. Sheep meat revenue is easily paying for their hay. “The coming year we could end up selling 40 lambs and looking at $12,000 to $15,000 in income, so that’s not too bad.”
Marj says the aim is for the sheep to pay for themselves.
Gus, the ram, one of the farm’s permanent residents.
“We’re being pragmatic,” she says. “We’re not quitting our jobs.”
The Weidemans only have to sell two fleeces to pay for shearing. They are selling 25 to 30 fleeces on Yahoo! and the specialty wool takes about a year to sell.
“We haven’t sold any hides yet but we are going to,” Paul says. “We have a tanner lined up. We are going to sell them as crazy rugs. We will get them done when the wool is six to eight inches long. It’s pure white and it’s beautiful.”
Another revenue stream comes from the horns. Big ram horns sell for $40 a pair. The ewe horns go for $30 and are often used to make shepherd’s crooks. Head mounts including the skull sell for $100 and tanned hides for $85.
The Weidemans sell 25 pounds of lamb for $200. This usually includes four to five pounds of rib eye and tenderloins, a five-pound leg roast, five pounds of Italian sausage and 10 pounds of burger.
Blackface lambs yield meat that is known for its distinct flavor, free of superfluous fat and waste. Although they are not large sheep, they have enormous potential for the production of high-quality lean lamb for today’s health conscious consumer.
The Weidemans’ sheep meat is processed at McNees Meat Inc., a small family-owned, USDA-inspected, slaughter house just 20 miles away in North Branch.
An unknown number of chickens roam the farm, along with ducks and geese. The sale of the free-range eggs pays for the chicken feed.
“The key to running this with the horses, the llamas, the ducks, the geese and the chickens is organization,” Paul says. “It takes me seven minutes to feed them in the morning.”
Outlook & Publicity
Now the Weidemans are looking to expand.
“We have only 12 acres and close to being maxed out,” Paul says. “We don’t know if we are maxed out, because we had extra forage this year. We had good pasture because we had excellent rain compared to last year.”
They also plan to sell four horses, saying that would probably add three acres of grass for the sheep. They’ll keep two horses for pleasure riding.
“We rotate the sheep in a circle through five paddocks,” Paul says.
“We would like to go to a smaller house with more land. We are looking for 40 acres, preferably somewhere in the same area.”
He says for the moment, 100 sheep would be the most they would run.
Paul Leifeman checks out a head mount.
“If we were retired and felt like we weren’t satisfying the market and people wanted to buy more, then I would consider more sheep,” he says.
Paul says the Scottish Blackface is a small breed in the U.S., and there have been concerns about inbreeding with farmers all trading and breeding the same stock.
“Graham and Margaret Phillipson from Wisconsin, the premier Scottish Blackface experts in the U.S., imported genetics from the UK,” Paul says. “A year later, we went and bought one of their rams. We have new genetics and that’s why the ram is breeding 19 ewes right now.
“We started sheep farming for fun and for our own meat and now we are getting calls for our Scottish Blackface asking if they are registered. We are going to make sure we have them all registered with the Scottish Blackface Breeders Association based in Willow Springs, Missouri. Our ram is also registered in the UK.”
Last year, they were invited to include their farm in a fall farm tour sponsored by the Lapeer County Conservation District that allows non-farm people to see livestock up close and ask questions about farming and farm life.
“Marj and I were flattered,” Paul says. “This meant legitimate farm people we don’t even know are recognizing our farm as a real farm.”
Some 350 people visited.
“We sold lamb cuts from our freezer,” Paul says. “We gave away lamb recipes and tips for grilling and seasoning lamb. I wrote up a piece on grass-fed lamb, which is how we raise our Scotties.
“We did very well selling our lamb cuts. I made up some two-sided business cards with our e-mail address and logo on one side and what we sell on the other. I had serious customers write down their e-mail addresses and mark what they were interested in so we could follow up with them after the tour, which is an attempt to retain a customer base.”
Now that’s 21st century marketing out of a 19th century farmhouse.