Let me introduce myself. I am Jeremia Markway, a rancher from central Missouri.
I know… when most people think of ranching, they think of vast spreads out west with lots of sky, country, some cattle and maybe a few horses. Call it a ranch or farm, we don’t do any row cropping or hay baling. Ours is a grazing operation. We’ve always raised cattle and horses and more recently, 11 years ago to be exact, we added hair sheep to our ranch. Our passion has always been using the livestock to graze our land and improve it. I’ve always been a diehard cow man and loved horses but now I’m a dyed in the wool sheep man, pun intended.
I’d like to share my journey thus far in hopes of helping others shorten the learning curve on raising sheep in a grazing operation, and maybe give those who don’t wish to raise sheep but are just curious about them a look at what life on the ranch is like. There’s a lot to talk about and I plan to do so in future articles. Topics such as raising adapted animals, how to graze 365 days a year, breeding stock selection, guardian dogs, stock dogs, silvopasture, custom grazing other animals, parasites and predators, the art of grazing, sheep nutrition, grazing cover crops with sheep, etc. The list is endless. But first let me start at the beginning so you understand my point of. Hopefully you’ll see that my experience and background makes my information worthy of your time it takes to read it.
I was raised in St. Thomas, a small town in central Missouri with a population of 337 people. My dad was (still is) a veterinarian and my mom heroically managed the household and the clinic (still does). Both came from agriculture backgrounds, my mom’s family farm being what used to be very common in our area. They raised hogs, turkeys, chickens, beef cattle, hay, row crops and milked cows. My dad’s grandpa had a similar farm. Dad grew up milking cows, starting at the tender age of 7. So the agriculture vein runs deep in my body. Other than a few thoughts of wanting to be a bush pilot in Alaska or a professional hunter in Africa, I’ve always wanted to farm or ranch. About the time I was 18 all I could think about was a grass based seasonal dairy with a herd of beautiful little Jersey cows. But it was not meant to be. I’ve jumped a little ahead here so let me digress.
From little on I had a fascination with animals and plants and learning. Really, thankfully, it’s a fascination that has never left, a thirst that has never been quenched. I would read books and magazines and watch shows to learn all I could. Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom”, the “Ranger Rick” magazines, “Outdoor Life” and “Sports Afield”, “National Geographic” …and so many more. Dad taught me to identify the different grasses and legumes and trees in the woods on walks in the field or when we went hunting. I loved knowing what they were and took pride in being able to identify things that many adults couldn’t. I think just as importantly, he taught me how to observe and to appreciate nature and to be a steward of the land.
Somewhere around 1983, Dad got interested in rotational grazing. He and mom built the first electric fences around that time after studying up on the concepts explained in books such as Voisin’s “Grass Productivity” and “The Stockman Grass Farmer” magazine. I was intrigued by it as well. Moving the animals to new grass, watching them flourish and the grass rebound, growing back thick and verdant – it just felt natural, felt right. I gobbled up all the information I could about managed grazing. After graduating high school, I went on the University of Missouri to pursue a degree in Agronomy. I think I was the only one that was mildly interested in corn and soybean production. My shtick was forage and how I could grow more of it or better quality forage for my livestock to graze. While everyone else was trying to get jobs with Monsanto and Pioneer, I wanted to be an extension agent so I could help people with the problems they faced on their farms. That didn’t work out either. But I think I landed where I was supposed to for the time being in the role of an Adult Ag Educator.
With my position as such, I could help people in more ways than one. I helped farmers balance rations, set up grazing systems, analyze their farm finances, market livestock, and many other great things. It was during this time that I was introduced to hair sheep by one of my client and friend. No matter what I came to the farm for to discuss with him the conversation always drifted towards his sheep. Again, as I was in the past with so many things, I was fascinated by them. I wanted to try them but was hesitant. What if I couldn’t keep them in? I’d never raised sheep, could I care for them properly? What if they all died? What if the coyotes got them? On and on… Encouraged by my friend and still another friend that had had sheep for many years, I finally decided to jump in. In my search for seedstock to start my flock, I was encouraged to find the best I could. I was directed to Joe and Hoss Hopping, Hopping Bros. Livestock in northeast Oklahoma. The Hoppings are no longer in the sheep business, but they were long known by many as having some of the best grass adapted hair sheep in the country. Their closed flock of sheep included the blood of Katahdins, Dorpers and Florida Natives among others. With similar philosophies on grazing management and animal genetics and husbandry, I knew I’d found the right place to start. So in the fall of 2011, we came home with our first 130 ewes lambs, a couple of rams and a borrowed guard dog.
Since, getting those first ewe lambs, I took and have since left a job at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri where I managed two research farms. Small ruminants, both sheep and goats, were a big area of focus there, where they were used in students’ classes, research and as demonstration. It provided some very interesting opportunities such as taking a flock of sheep that came from show genetics and trying to make them thrive in a grass-based pasture situation. I learned a lot there and value the experience.
Now, I am a fulltime rancher, raising Corriente cows, Quarter Horses, and hair sheep. We also custom graze dry cows for part of the year. We have had stocker, commercial cows, and registered cows but nothing has done as much for us as the sheep. They are gaining popularity and rightfully so. At nearly $4/pound for market lambs, it makes it hard to find anything else so profitable. And with the US importing over 400% of domestic production and a growing ethnic population to serve, the future of lamb looks bright.
Next time, since lambing season is almost here, I’ll talk about lambing on pasture.