Dairy Goat Journal. Presenting information, ideas, and insights for everyone who raises, manages, or just loves dairy goats.
Tell a Friend about sheep! Magazine
Back Issue
Current Issue
Past Issues
About Us
Contact Us
Breeders Directory

Playing For Profit

The (Sheep) Numbers Game

By Rhonda McClure

In the Midwest, the “small farm flock” is rapidly becoming a rarity. Once a regular part of a diverse family farm, flocks that were formerly relied on for bonus supplemental income are increasingly hard to find. The disappearance of these flocks has been a significant part of the overall decline in sheep numbers in recent years. The drop in wool prices along with the increased cost of feed grains and the difficulty and cost of shearing have made many believe keeping a small flock is no longer financially feasible.

Despite all that, our small family business—Ewe And Us—has been doing well. Notwithstanding the limitations of available land, our family is managing. And it’s management that is the key to the bottom line.

This needle felted sculpture by sheep and wool entrepreneur Rhonda McClure won the Black Sheep Gathering’s Black Sheep Cup for Fiber Arts last June.

With a mere five acres, we’ve always been faced with challenges, public perception being a continuing one. To be considered a viable farming operation in eastern Nebraska, tillable acres normally must tally in the hundreds or thousands. So it has often been difficult to be recognized as a “real” farm.

Yet for us, that reality has never been in question. From the beginning, the goal has been to maintain a working family sheep farm. And although off-farm income has always been necessary, the farm itself continues to provide a reliable contribution.

In the Beginning…

The first home flock was a mix of Don’s share of McClure Hampshires, and my spinner’s flock of Corriedales and mixed-breed natural colored ewes.

Over the years, the makeup of the flock changed with needs. The spinning flock aged, and was gradually replaced with black-faced ewes kept to provide 4-H lambs for the growing children. However, the flock was always managed with a view toward profit.

Sustainability has always been practiced on the farm, but recently has become more recognizable and defined. The large garden that always supplied food for the family always added to the diets of the sheep, too. Some of the produce is now diverted to the local farmers market, but plant residues, pulled weeds, and other “waste” material is put through the sheep and ultimately composted.

Management is key to efficiency.

Pasture is divided into small paddocks, allowing controlled grazing. This in turn supports more ewes per acre. Lawn clippings are bagged and used as a feed source.

Because forage is limited, feed for lambs and the ewes in the winter season must be purchased. Locally grown grain and hay are used as much as possible to minimize processing and transportation costs.

Corriedales returned to the farm, as did sheep with colored wool. And a new tool: Sheep covers that protect their top quality fiber.

The Numbers

With the children grown, new careers, and new and renewed interests and goals, it became time for some flock changes. Feed costs were rising. Lamb prices were good, but due to the physical limitations a rise in flock numbers wasn’t an option.

The balance sheet needed to stay in the black, so we took a careful look at the numbers. As production costs rise, so must the gross revenue. If you can’t increase ewe numbers, you must increase the profit per ewe.

But how?

More lambs per ewe? Sure, if you can. But isn’t there anything else that can add income? What about wool? The concept of a value-added product was brought back into the picture. The success formula was now in place; it just had to be worked through.

Yarn with hand “painted” wash-fast dyes in unique tones—a big seller!

Progressive Farmers

With reawakened memories of the profits we reaped years ago through specialty wool sales, I jumped at the chance to return to fiber as an art medium. What once had been dismissed by friends and family as an “unusual hobby” once again blossomed with renewed passion. At Ewe And Us, sheep and wool have never been a hobby. They’ve always paid their own way—at the very least breaking even (which is more than can be said for a lot of “real” agricultural enterprises).

The flock focus returned to wool production, concentrating at first on spinning and now, felting. Corriedales returned to prominence and favor, and natural color came back. Management practices were altered to accommodate increased quality expectations. Fleeces were jacketed. Feeding methods changed, as did the feed itself—the grass hay we feed today has bigger and fewer leaves to get into the wool than the legume hay of the past.

In studio and shop, the years of experimentation and study were paying off. Self taught in the wool crafts, I was intent on refining the various wool working skills and techniques I’d been using for years, and on learning new ones. The newly acquired skill of needle felting added qualities and products I couldn’t previously have achieved.

Needle-felted miniature animals, and felted leaves, handbags, pillows and scarves fly off the shelves and have no mass-produced competitors.

Quality & Quantity

As with any product in a specialty market, quality of the goods is an essential part of success. Award ribbons at wool shows, pinned to fleeces from Ewe And Us, were encouraging. Judging standards were available for wool, but standards for finished handmade pieces and artwork are much more in depth. The quality of work was visibly improving with each piece, but was it good enough?

Having few places to go locally to study and compare wool crafts, we sought outside opinion and critique. Competitions seemed a likely option, and the respected Black Sheep Gathering in Oregon was chosen for a test. First place ribbons in the Needle Felting Sculpture class three years in a row—and the Black Sheep Cup for Fiber Arts in 2011—were encouraging endorsements of the caliber of my work.

When we couldn’t hand spin enough to keep up with yarn demand we began offering commercially produced color fast wool yarn from Brown Sheep Company, another family-operated business in Nebraska. Their yarns, made largely from fiber supplied by growers in the region, retain as much handspun character as possible by hand painting of colorfast dyes onto the yarn in one-of-a-kind colors. Their hand-wound skeins have become a top-seller.

Our farm directly fills a demand for wool of a suitable quality for needle felting—a product unavailable in the retail market. We shear the wool from our flock; then we clean it, card it and dye it for use in needle felting creations.

Requests for instruction soon started coming in, so we began to offer instruction at nearby festivals and occasionally, at the farm. We added a line of needle felting wools put up in small quantities, then needles and foam boards for students to use and purchase, all under the Ewe And Us label.

Paintings on wool: Creating valuable artworks using flock products.

Keeping It Green

With the durable quality of wool and the appeal of the “Green” movement, our line of finished gift items expanded to include recycled wool. Garments are “re-ewesed” to make handbags, accessories, and jewelry items, many of which feature needle felted design elements. Hand felted, hand dyed scarves, hats, and children’s clothing are designed, assembled, and embellished using a variety of techniques.

Realistic miniature needle felted animals are a steady seller, both “stock” (excuse the pun) and commissioned.

While sheep and Border Collies are a specialty, cattle, horses, goats, and a variety of other animals are now frequently found on our farm—in small wooly form. But seriously, requests for a tiny likeness of the family pet have meant briefly keeping llamas, rabbits, and a number of dogs of various breeds, in order to fill custom orders. As an offshoot of many years as a professional painter/contractor as well as other traditional media, I’ve recently turned to “painting with wool.”

Using felt or wool fabric as a base, Ewe And Us is now marketing matted and framed paintings of landscapes, farm scenes, animal portraits and floral vignettes as traditional artwork. The farm, garden and the shepherd’s lifestyle serve as inspiration and subject matter for many of these creative works.

Ewe And Us now offers a full line of sheep and wool related products and artwork. Our farm’s goods are being tapped from every stage of production and processing for sale: Locker lambs, replacement stock, raw fleece, washed/carded/dyed wool for spinning or for wet felting and/or needle felting, and of course finished items and supplies. Customers can be sure personal knowledge and service go with the sale. The supplies and goods are marketed on-line and in brick-and-mortar shops; on consignment, wholesale, and retail in various respective venues.

A small farm, perhaps, but productive: Ewe And Us continues to adjust the numbers—physical and financial—according to need. It’s a small family farm, but we’re still in operation despite changes and challenges in the agricultural economy. Our sheep are maintaining their vital role in the sustainable lifestyle of the people who care for them.

Financial gain aside, there is another form of profit. Our family enjoys the opportunity to share the history, tradition and lifestyle sheep have always given. To witness the moment a visitor makes the connection between the sheep and the finished product is one of those gifts. Ewe And Us has a motto—”Wool makes a gift that’s felt.”

You can visit the McClures’ online home at www.eweandus.com, and the blog at www.eweandus.blogspot.com. Or contact them directly by e-mail rhondamcclure@gmail.com.

Home | Subscribe | Current Issue | Library | Past Issues | Bookstore
Links | About Us | Contact Us | Address Change | Advertise in sheep! | Privacy Policy | Terms of Use |