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From-scratch sheep farm thrives with intensive grazing

Slideshow: A Mineral Point, Wis., couple are raising 600 sheep all on grass on their 180-acre farm. Learn how they got started and how they achieve a higher-than-average lambing rate.

Jim Massey

July 9, 2024

6 Slides

When newlyweds Jeremie Favre and Ellen Geisler began looking for a place to raise sheep and a family a few years ago, they began their search in Favre’s native Switzerland.

But after striking out on the expensive and scarce land in the smaller European country, the couple turned their attention to Wisconsin, where Geisler had grown up near Ripon. They made six offers on land from far northern Wisconsin to the southern border before they were successful in bidding on a 180-acre crop and beef farm near Mineral Point that they bought sight unseen.

During the two and a half years since they made the purchase, the couple have been converting the farm into an intensively grazed sheep farm. Today, they have more than 600 sheep on the property, including 120 lactating ewes, 220 May-born lambs, 100 January-born lambs and 160 ewes that are due to give birth this fall.

The flock also includes six rams, which are brought in new to the farm every two years.

They have converted most of the cropland to high-quality perennial grass and plan to seed down the last 20 acres of corn ground into grass next spring.

“What we do here is important for our family, the great community and the environment,” Favre said at a recent field day on the farm. “That’s why we wanted to share.”

The field day was sponsored by the Sand County Foundation, which has a national scope but is based in Madison, Wis. About 65 people attended to learn about “Starting a Commercial Sheep Farm From Scratch.” Other partners in sponsoring the event at Laxey Creek Sheep Ranch were the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Southern Driftless Grasslands, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Iowa County Land Conservation Department.

Brianna Schnelle, an agricultural conservation consultant at Sand County Foundation, said she met Favre, 31, and Geisler, 39, when they were looking for someone to help them write a grazing plan for their farm about two years ago.

“I’m amazed at what they’ve been able to do in such a short amount of time,” Schnelle said. “Here in the Driftless Area we have really old and shallow soils and steep hills, so that’s why we want land in grasslands and perennial agriculture.”

“Nothing’s flat on this farm,” Favre said. “The erosion on the cropland is horrible. I look forward to the day when corn from highly eroded fields will not be taken up at the elevator.”

Favre and Geisler met when Favre came to Wisconsin to attend graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, pursuing a master’s degree in agronomy. Geisler was working for the city of Fitchburg at the time.

The couple returned to his native Switzerland, where they were married and Favre taught and worked in Extension, with an emphasis on grass-based livestock systems. They then began their search for farmland, which eventually led them back to Wisconsin.

“We did a lot of the same things as many of our ancestors — we came to the U.S. looking for land,” Favre said.

Their seeded pastures include a mixture of kura clover, orchardgrass, meadow fescue, ryegrass, Kentucky bluegrass and alfalfa. They disked the former cropland and planted the seed mix with a no-till drill on loan from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Favre said a sizable grant from NRCS was helpful in their startup efforts, helping fund a 240-by-42-foot structure to house and handle sheep, as well as five-wire high-tensile fences and water lines. The funding also covers the per-acre cost of converting cropland to grass.

The pasture is managed essentially the same as it would be for a grass-based dairy, in terms of quality forage.

“I often hear this pasture is too good for sheep, but we want productive animals,” Favre said. “This is a production farm, and we need digestible grass.”

The health of the pasture is a work in progress every year, Favre said.

“Every year we will see what it looks like, what [our animals] need,” he said. “We might have to seed some of it down some years and fertilizer is fully on the table in the future. But before we spend thousands of dollars on fertilizer, we will see what we can do with management.”

High lambing rate

The high-quality forage allows the couple to achieve a lambing rate about double the national average of about one lamb per ewe per year. The lambing rate is a little more than two on Laxey Creek Sheep Ranch.

“A lot of farms that do what we’re doing with numbers do it in a confinement situation,” Favre noted. “This is all on grass.”

About half of the ewes give birth to twins, while 25% give birth to singles and the other 25% produce triplets. The ewes are exposed to rams every eight months, rather than every 12 months like most sheep farms. Thus, the ewes give birth to lambs 60% more often than on a once-a-year lambing farm.

Favre and Geisler purchased 200 Polypay ewes from a large commercial farm in Colorado to start their flock. They wanted to start with a group of ewes from the same farm, and they wanted the source to be a commercial farm.

They decided on the Polypay breed because of its reputation for breeding anytime throughout the year and being highly prolific animals.

Hay is harvested off the pastures in large bales following grazing and is used for winter feed. After they had trouble getting custom work done in a timely fashion in the past, the couple purchased a baler this year to preserve the crop’s quality.

Letting the grass rest or be harvested for hay between animal grazings also limits the spread of parasites, Favre said. They try to wait at least eight weeks between grazings.

Sheep keep moving

The flock is moved between paddocks every other day during the heavy grazing season, Favre said.

“I enjoy that part of the work very much,” he said. “I get an opportunity to learn every day. Every time the sheep are moved to a new paddock, I get a new data point.”

“The kids come with us when we move the sheep,” Geisler added. “[The sheep are] the right size for all of us.”

The loss of sheep to predators has been limited, as two Great Pyrenees dogs are penned with the animals as guardians at all times. Only one lamb was lost to a bald eagle last year, Favre said.

Direct sales of meat from the farm have been growing in the farm’s early stages, but most of the marketing of their animals has been through auctions thus far.

“Direct sales are great, and they are a separate enterprise, but right now time is a problem,” Favre said. “It will be important moving forward.”

Sheep are sheared about four weeks before lambing. The shearing helps Favre and Geisler monitor body condition and has been shown to boost the metabolism of the ewes, Favre said.

As for the wool, there isn’t much of a market for the fabric these days.

“If we’re lucky, the shearers will take it and sell it for a few pennies per pound,” he said. “On one hand, that is sad, but on the other hand, every livestock operation has costs. Getting our sheep sheared is one of ours.”

 Very few feet are trimmed on Laxey Creek Sheep Ranch, as foot rot hasn’t been a problem.

“You can keep foot rot out as long as you don’t bring sheep in and out of your farm,” Favre said. “We are very diligent about being a closed farm.”

About the Author(s)

Jim Massey

Jim Massey writes from Barneveld, Wis., where he grew up on a family dairy and hog farm. He is the third generation to live on the farm with his wife, Anne.

Before returning to the farm in 2003, Massey earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in ag journalism. In 1983 he was hired by The Country Today, a weekly farm newspaper headquartered in Eau Claire, Wis. By 1995, he became general manager and editor. He retired in 2017. He has been freelance writing for Wisconsin Agriculturist since 2019.

Massey was recognized in 2018 at the Wisconsin FFA Convention as the Wisconsin FFA VIP.

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