By Judy Malone
September 2005 - The Helle families in Dillon, Mont., are feeling the ease of a severe drought that has covered many of the western states over the last ten years. One of the biggest problems brought on by the drought was the in-ability to provide consistent feed for the livestock.
?We know the drought is not over but rains this spring did provide some relief and provided good grass growth for the sheep this summer,? comments John Helle, sheep producer and member of the American Sheep Industry Association?s Wool Council.
Two generations and three families work the Helle Ranch. Parents, Joe and Aggie, along with their two sons, John and Tom, and their families, call the ranch home and are fully engaged in the day-to-day management.
Wool Council Tour
In June, these leaders donated several days out of their schedules to the industry to host an American Wool Council visit to the ranch with military procurement officials. The Helles provided a lamb barbeque and complete ranch tour, which included seeing sheep on the range, introductions to their herders and providing a unique look at sheep ranching in the United States. The Helles were anxious to provide their guests an appreciation of a sheep operation and to share their excitement of the wool industry.
Two personnel from the Soldier Systems Center at Natick, Mass., attended: David Audet, senior systems integrator in the individual protection directorate and Scott Gaumont, program manager for cold weather clothing.
?Montana wool growers supported the Helles and the event with attendees from six different ranches and staff from both U.S. Senator?s offices,? states Bob Gilbert, executive secretary of the Montana WoolGrowers Association. Two Montana producers traveled more than 300 miles to attend the tour and visit with officials.
John is a firm believer in supporting the U.S. military and its efforts to provide the highest-quality, cutting-edge products for our men and women in uniform. The U.S. military is an important and critical market for the U.S. wool industry and is the largest, single domestic consumer of the U.S. wool clip, consuming up to 25 percent of the annual clip.
?It is a good idea for the American Wool Council to bring key customers to a sheep operation. While already knowledgeable about the quality aspects of wool garments and apparel for the military, it helps for customers to identify with actual sheep producers and the country in which the wool is produced. This type of tour reaffirms for our customers that wool is a natural, renewable product,? John comments.
The Helles run 4,000 ewes on both private and public land. Their sheep spend up to three months in the summer on high-country forest allotments. Over the years, the forest permits have been extended from 60-day permits to up to 90-day permits. Since the sheep must be trailed quite a distance to get to these allotments, it is beneficial to have a longer grazing window.
?Most of our operation is geared toward the utilization of our forest-allotment permits,? comments John. ?This high- country ground is an integral part of our feed and is where our lambs put on most of their weight.
?The lamb production could be done without the permits but the high country is a great way to put the bloom and weight on our lambs. Nothing else will utilize these forest land grasses, so we have the opportunity to turn these resources into a highly valued product.?
It is a goal of the Helles to grow all of their own winter feed for their sheep. Using crop rotation on their 1,000 acres of irrigated land, they grow barley, wheat and alfalfa, and this year, experimented with soybeans.
With limited water, low wheat prices, high labor costs and the need to replace expensive farm equipment, John is considering ways to use the sheep as a harvesting tool on the operation. One consideration is to place forage grasses into the crop rotation with the grains.
?Grasses are permanent vegetation, which take advantage of all the natural growing conditions in this part of the country. Sheep could be turned out onto the grass, eliminating harvesting equipment,? states John.
Continuous improvement is a common thread throughout the daily operations on this ranch. Whether it is in the area of lambing percentages, carcass quality or wool grade, the Helles believe it is important to engage all involved individuals in the process, as well as build measurement tools that will provide quantitative data for evaluation.
With the advancement of high-tech wool measurement equipment in the United States, the Helles have done a lot of genetic selection in their flock for wool quality.
Decreasing the variability of their wool clip is just one example of how measurement data has improved the end product. Since the market is favorable to finer wools, the Helles have utilized the services of the Montana State University Wool Lab to evaluate their wools. The lab brings its portable Optical Fiber Diameter Analyzer (OFDA2000) wool-testing machine to the ranch during shearing, making it possible to test each fleece as it is sheared. The fleeces are then sorted into lots according to micron. Classing out the different wools allows them to target markets accordingly.
Wool is an important quality in the sheep that are raised on the Helle ranch but they also use measurement tools to select for efficiency and adaptability. Pounds-per-lamb weaned is extremely important in this area of the country where they have experienced several years of drought and where the growing season is relatively short.
?One factor that we are particularly proud of is that at 120 days our top producing ewes average 170 pounds of lamb weaned,? states John. ?This is a testament to the 25 years of records we have maintained on the ewes that we have kept in our flock.?
Belonging to Mountain States Lamb Coop. has also given the family a perspective on the carcass quality of their lambs.
?Our lamb carcasses are hitting the coop grid respectably and we are being paid a premium on them. This helps us to determine what qualities to look for in our carcasses since we have not had this important information in the past,? continues John.
The Helles believe that their ewes are genetically capable of higher-production rates. Measuring lambing percentage outcomes is easy, however, finding additional ways to improve percentages has been challenging. A couple things they have looked at include:
With year-round, full-time herders, the operation has moved from range lambing to shed lambing.
John is also working to devise a plan that will give their herders a bonus based on lamb production and number of lambs saved. The idea is that the herders, who work closely with the ewes during lambing time, will have an incentive to increase production numbers. This concept capitalizes on the skills of the herders, some of who have been with the Helles for nearly 15 years.
Expansion and Progress
With the livelihood of three families relying on the success of this operation, the Helles are always looking for the right opportunity to expand and progress, yet they are cautious. Land is expensive, and the markets fluctuate. However, there are other ways to expand the size of the ranch.
According to John, there are a number of people who need sheep but who do not want to own sheep. As ranches change hands and are being bought by non-ranching families, there are opportunities to educate owners of the advantages of running sheep. Leafy spurge is a problem weed in this part of the country. Owners have the option of using a lot of expensive chemical to control its spread or let sheep control it naturally. Sheep are a resource to be utilized that will make this weed a viable product.
For the last three years, the Helles have run up to 2,000 sheep at Deer Lodge, Mont., to assist in controlling weeds and in expanding plant diversity for wildlife habitats. This is an area of the industry that merits additional resources to educate the public about the positive ecological impact of grazing sheep.
?We don?t expect people who visit the ranch for a couple days to understand all the production aspects of raising sheep, but rather gain an appreciation of the labor and management issues that must be dealt with to produce a great natural product,? John concludes.