Diversity is Profitable Management Plan
By Becky Talley
American Sheep Industry Association
(January 1, 2012) Looking back through the history of our country, family farms often ran on the principle of diversity: a variety of crops, a few cows, a few hogs, chickens and almost always, sheep.
While agriculture has changed significantly, and many farmers and ranchers focus on raising one crop or type of livestock, diversifying the operation has proven to be a profitable management plan that helps producers balance losses, preserve income and keep their operation sustainable.
For many operations, there is no better way to diversify than by adding sheep. They graze almost anything, complement grazing schemes of other livestock and currently have a solid and profitable market to help ease economic pressure in other sectors of agriculture.
The Royer family of Clinton, Ind., is no stranger to raising sheep on a diversified operation. Building on a lifelong love of agriculture, an interest in sheep and a farm in existence since 1874, Scott and Nikki Royer have created a direct-marketing business that is a prime example of how profitable a multi-species operation can be.
Building on a Foundation to Fill a Demand
Both Scott and Nikki come from an agriculture background. Scott was raised with and showed sheep while Nikki came from a purebred cattle operation on the same farm they live on today. Scott attended Purdue where he worked at the university’s sheep farm and later managed a feed mill and helped Nikki’s father on the farm before joining Pfizer as a research scientist. Nikki also attended Purdue for biochemistry and the University of Illinois for a master’s degree in muscle biology before becoming a pharmaceutical sales representative.
You can remove the couple from the farm but rarely succeed in removing the farm from the couple, and the Royers are no exception. Even while working off-farm, they continued to build their sheep flock for seedstock purposes as well as sold beef quarters to friends and family. After Nikki’s father passed away in 2000, Scott took over the farm full time, with about 200 cows to care for, they bought what they could afford at the time.
“At the time we were having a hard time making sheep profitable. We did not have enough to advertise for sale, but farmers markets were starting, and there was not much lamb in stores,” says Nikki, who came to work on the farm full time in 2005.
With some experience selling beef quarters, and the lack of availability of lamb in their area, the Royers decided to hit the farmers markets and take the product they raised directly to the consumer in 2003.
“I kind of went in blind,” Scott says. “We happened on the “buying local” and “all natural” markets just as they were beginning to pick up.”
He said he first tried selling half lambs but quickly realized that he had to offer individual cuts at first to draw the customers to the product. Now, according to Nikki, about 25 percent of the lamb they sell is by the half or the whole, and she expects that to increase in the next year.
“Many people want lamb year-round,” she explains.
Today, the Royers sell pork, lamb, chicken and beef at farmers markets in the Indianapolis and Terre Haute area, online and at an onsite store. They have about 30 cows, 100 ewes, 1,000 chickens and 100 hogs raised without hormones or antibiotics on their farm, all working together to promote a sustainable operation.
“Sheep and cattle complement each other. The sheep eat ragweed that cattle don’t, and the multi-species grazing helps break up the parasite cycle. The hens do a great job of fly control, and the meat chickens produce a lot of manure that is used for fertilizer. We try to for optimization and sustainability,” says Nikki.
Of the four species, the lamb sales come in after beef and pork. Last year they Royers sold about 40,000 pounds of beef, 10,000 pounds of pork and around 5,000 pounds of lamb. However, the other species often act as a “gateway meat” to lamb for consumers.
“They start with what they are familiar with and then are more willing to try lamb,” Nikki says, adding that the Royers sell their lamb frozen in a variety of cuts and specialty items such as ground lamb, lamb sausage, gyro meat and even sell the bones for dog treats.
Knowing the customer and the market is an important component to the Royers operation.
For example, each of their farmers markets offers a different set of clientele, which in turn will dictate the cuts of meat sold there. The Royers attend two different markets in Indianapolis, relates Scott, and each calls for different product.
“The customer buys very different products, so I send products accordingly. The Fishers market has higher-end income, upcoming families and Broad Ripple has more ‘foodies.’ They are interested in not just eating a meal but the whole food experience,” he says.
Nikki relates that people at their farmers markets are there because they are interested in where their food comes from and how it is produced, and it is important to answer their questions.
“They have natural concerns and questions. If people are interested, we explain why we feed grain, how we do things, how it benefits the animal, and how it benefits the food people eat,” says Nikki. “We want to be advocates for agriculture and we are advocates for choice. Consumers vote with their food dollar where they want their food to come from and how it’s raised.”
They are also advocates of providing local consumers with local food. Last summer, the Royers opened a shop where local people can buy the cuts directly from the farm, as the area does not have much lamb available.
“We needed to start having a way for people, on an even more local basis than the farmers markets, to purchase products. It’s been very good and not as volume intense,” says Scott.
In a further effort to allow the consumer to develop a relationship with the farm, the Royers also created a website, a Facebook page and send out a newsletter to customers who sign up at the various markets. Customers can also order product from the website.
“That’s how we do our communication. It’s such a great opportunity to connect with people,” says Nikki.
Genetics and Quality Management the Key
The Royers are not just concentrated on a good product … for them the quality of the lamb they offer and the genetics of their flock go hand in hand. From Scott’s previous experience with purebred sheep, the Royers have developed a love for Suffolks.
They have registered Suffolks that go toward seedstock sales and the rest go back into the farmers market sales, but no matter their end use, the sheep have to earn their own way.
“We have to worry about maternal traits and carcass quality. We want to make sure the ewes we have are productive. With the high feed costs and processing cost, you can’t afford to keep a ewe that doesn’t produce two big lambs,” says Nikki, adding that the Suffolk provides enough size and meat to offset the cost of processing.
The Royers try to minimize the use of hay, so graze as long as possible, and the lambs are born in January and March to give an ample supply of lamb for the May through October farmers market season. Last year they saw around 70 lambs processed.
In a stroke of fortune, the Royers are located a few miles from a state-inspected processing facility, Uselman Packing that handles much of the product and welcomes the Royers’ input.
“That’s a great advantage for us as they do three species for us. It’s nice because there is good quality control when the owners are involved in every step of the process,” says Nikki, adding she really appreciates her relationship with the packing company. “You just have to have a good processor. You do all the work on the front end, but a lot can go on in processing and the customer blames you and not them.”
As the Royer Farm label goes on all products, Nikki makes a point to ensure everything she sells is quality and inspects every carcass before it gets cut, as well as is very hands-on in the whole process, from the cuts to the sausage ingredients.
“Our names are on every package. There’s a real traceability and a real accountability, and in the end, customers like that,” she adds.
They must because according to the Royers, they could easily sell more lamb than what they currently have available. They say they plan to grow but want to maintain the integrity of their farm and their products above all else.