ND Starter Flock Program Starts Youth in Path to Sheep

ND Starter Flock Program Starts Youth in Path to Sheep

By  Becky Talley
American Sheep Industry Association

(February 1, 2012) Producers all across the nation are doing their part to help increase the national flock size through ewe retention, genetic improvements and the use of proven management techniques. In addition, they are spreading the word of the value that sheep can have on a farm or ranch and encouraging new producers to get started with their own flocks.

Sometimes the best way to get new producers into sheep is pretty simple:  Get ‘em while their young.

As those of us who grew up with sheep know, once you raise the wooly animals they are in your blood forever, and it’s this premise that make the many youth starter flock programs across the nation so successful.

One program, offered by the North Dakota Lamb and Wool Producers Association (NDLWPA), is a shining example of the value and popularity of youth opportunities. From its inception, the program has grown in leaps and bounds, and there seems to be no end in sight to the youth that are clamoring to be a part of the sheep industry.

The Making of Young Producers
 “The Starter Flock Program was initiated by the NDLWPA and the North Dakota State University (NDSU) Extension Service with the intent to encourage and assist young people to enter the sheep and wool industries and to help sustain this important food and fiber industry and our American culture,” states the mission of the program.

Now in its fourth year, it is apparent that the program is a success – every year there is a growing interest in the sheep industry from the youth across the state.“The program gives sheep to 10 kids, but we had just under 20 apply this year. We had pages of applicants,” says Wyman Scheetz, president of the NDLWPA.

That’s a big step from the program’s humble beginnings with one participant back in 2008 and a testament to the increasing interest in the sheep industry.  That first year got the attention of an outside organization that saw the success and importance of the program and has since been instrumental in donating funding today.

Today, that funding helps provide Rambouillet yearling ewes, all from the same ranch, to the youth to begin their experience in the commercial sheep industry. 

“A lot of our kids may have only had experience with sheep in the show ring, but when we get them, we stress commercial production. Seedstock producers have stepped up and offered rams, and I cannot commend them enough,” says Scheetz.

Those that participate in the program come from a variety of livestock and agriculture backgrounds.

“We have some kids that haven’t raised sheep before,” says Reid Redden, NDSU sheep extension specialist. “We also get a lot of kids who come from a cattle background and a lot whose families left the sheep industry but are now coming back. We see a lot of siblings. You see one come in, and then the siblings will come in the years after.”

North Dakota youth ages 10-18 are eligible for the program, but as it is a four-year commitment, Redden says that they see a lot of kids around age 12 apply, as they can use income from the flock to build a college fund.

To be eligible, participants have to show a strong desire to be involved in the sheep industry, provide two letters of recommendations from persons who are not family members, receive a letter of support from a parent or legal guardian proving they have facilities and help available and must join the NDLWPA and attend the annual convention to give a progress report.

In addition, participants accept help from a mentor, a current member of NDLWPA, to help guide them as they work with their flocks.

“The mentors will help these kids with securing a ram, help them through shearing and help them on how to market their lambs,” says Scheetz. “We stress to the kids to not be afraid to call their mentor for anything.”

The youth are also supported through the sponsorship of various sheep-related entities, which provide valuable information and equipment. This year, Scheetz relates, Oakes Veterinary Clinic, from Oakes, N.D., provided health products for participants, Pipestone supplied books and lamb survival equipment and Range Magazine also donated books and other personal items.

In an effort to make the program sustainable, those that receive sheep are expected to pay off those initial 10 ewes over a period of four years. Twenty percent of the original cost of the ewes is due to the association in the second, third and fourth years of the program.

“It’s a self-sustaining program. We can use those funds to perpetuate the program for many years to come,” adds Redden.

Youth see Value in Sheep Industry
For the Lagein sisters, Jill, 13, and Jessi, 15, of Rock Lake, N.D., the program is giving them a wider experience with raising sheep. They both have worked with sheep before, but the program was a chance to take on more responsibility for their own flocks.

“Mom wanted us to take on the project ourselves,” says Jessi, with Jill adding, “I am looking forward to working with a breed of sheep I have never worked with before.”
The Lageins were in the most recent crop of recipients and attended the starter flock school at the Hettinger Research Extension Center in October to receive their ewes. 

This educational program is another requirement for participants where they get a chance to learn more about breeding, lambing, wool and meat marketing and get hands-on experience in handling and managing their sheep.

“The program gives them a lot of good information, as well as provides them with resources where they can find more information when they need to,” Redden says.  In addition, NDLWPA provides the recipients with a copy of the SID Sheep Handbook.  

Jess Sanders, 12, of New Salem, N.D., is a participant whose prior experience with sheep made him want to participate in the program to start growing a flock of his own.

Last year, his family bought some Montadales from a producer who was selling his flock, and it lit a spark in Sanders.

“This year, I decided I want to try more sheep,” he says. “It’s an animal that’s easy to put up with and I can maneuver and they are worth a fair amount. This is something that I want, and I am looking forward to getting up to 300 head,” he relates of his future plans for the industry.

And plans to grow, like those of Sanders, are entirely common within this program. It has a great success rate and seems that once youth get into raising sheep, they aren’t quick to get out.

“All but one participant has gone through the program and kept their sheep after four years, and that one participant sold his sheep to his brother who was also in the program,” says Scheetz. The program has included 31 youth in its existence.

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