A Look into the Michigan Sheep Industry

A Look into the Michigan Sheep Industry

By AMY TRINIDAD

Sheep Industry News Editor

(Sept. 1, 2013) Members of the American Sheep Industry Association’s (ASI) Executive Board got a sneak peek into the upper Midwest’s sheep industry in July through a tour organized by the Michigan Sheep Breeders Association (MSBA). The state’s producers and businesses play a critical role within the industry and one that has the potential for growth in the eastern United States.

Sheep farming is widely distributed throughout Michigan, with the largest concentration in the southern counties. The key aspects that Dale Thorne, MSBA president, wanted to expose the ASI board to was the abundance of grass in the state, the prolificacy of ewes and the numerous and varied marketing options available for producers. “Most importantly, I hoped that the tour would advance the communication avenues between producers, packers and ASI,” says Thorne. “I think we achieved those things.”

“By increasing production proficiencies, Michigan producers are participating in the Let’s Grow initiative and it is great to see that the state’s producers are profitably raising sheep in corn and bean country,” relays Clint Krebs, ASI president, who thanks the MSBA and the businesses that were visited along the tour for their hospitality.

Wolverine Packing Co.
The first stop on the tour and a business that many of the executive board members were excited to learn about was Wolverine Packing Co. Aaron Robinson, general manager; Bob Braeckman, lamb and veal plant sales manager; and Dale Brooks, livestock buyer, provided an insight into the largest processing facility east of the Mississippi River. 

“Lamb and veal are the seed of our business,” says Robinson, who explained that when the company was started in 1937, Wolverine was exclusively a lamb and veal slaughter company. 

Although the lamb portion of their business has remained consistent through the years, the company’s other ventures have grown up around the lamb and veal business. Robinson explains that now a large part of their business is making hamburger patties and boxed beef distribution. Their distribution strategy, which covers the lower 48 states, has enabled their lamb and veal business to withstand itself according to Robinson.

Unique in the fact that Wolverine is housed just a mile east of downtown Detroit, Robinson says the company’s location is “kind of an accident of history.”

“We are in what used to be a major food area on the east side of the city. Fifty years ago, there would have been 30 to 40 slaughter plants surrounding us,” explains Robinson, saying that their nationwide distribution strategy in addition to a high ethnic population in the Detroit area allows them to remain in that location. In fact, 30 percent of the lamb product stays in the Detroit metro area and another 20 percent is shipped east.

Braeckman says Wolverine’s average slaughter of lambs is about 3,000 per week, in addition to 150 head of ewes. For their kosher business, a 70 lb. dressed, yield grade 2 or 3 is desired. “Consistency is important for this market,” he says.

About two-thirds of their lamb slaughter is considered Halal. “These customers prefer a little lighter and leaner carcass,” says Braeckman.

Dale is the one in charge of buying lambs to fill Wolverine’s orders. Although he prefers buying lambs out of the Midwest, he does use lambs from all over the country to find their average 125-130 lb. live-weight lamb with a yield grade 2 or 3. 

“We have these selective populations, the local Muslim community, our kosher customer and the foodservice/retail business. They all want specific things and if we can’t supply that, we don’t sell any lamb,” says Robinson. “Dale plays a big role in selecting that product and bringing in what we need. He is the one with the most experience in our company running a kill floor. He knows what to put in, how to put it in and how to keep the line rolling.”

A great deal of the discussion during the meeting at the facility centered around lamb prices both at the meat counter and at the farm gate. According to Braeckman, the chief impediment to selling more American lamb comes down to price. “Looking at red meat, there are less expensive options for protein.”

“We are not without empathy for our business partners,” says Robinson speaking to the executive board, “and that is what each of you are. On the other hand we face the reality of what our customers buy and what the market will bear. In terms of the way our business has developed, we didn’t shrink lamb as a percentage of what we are doing, everything else grew around it for a host of reasons and one of them that can’t be ignored is price.”

Lamb Feeder
Scott Finkbeiner manages a lamb feeding operation in Saline and feeds about 9,000 lambs a year. The unique part of his business is that he sells a significant number of lambs – approximately 2,000 every year – to ethnic buyers direct to consumer.

The Muslim holiday of Eid Al-Adha occurs mid-October this year, in which Muslims usually sacrifice an animal and distribute its meat among family, friends and the poor. Finkbeiner has been selling lambs for this holiday for the past 30 years and has grown his consumer base through word-of-mouth. During the holiday weekend, he will sell approximately 700 lambs direct to consumers.

United Producers Inc. Auction Barn  
Built in 1972, the United Producers Auction Barn in Manchester sells more sheep out of its facility than any other species and is the largest sheep and lamb sale venue in the state thus playing a key role in the regional industry. According to, Doug Brooks, manager, 155,000 to 160,000 sheep were run through the barn last year, which is up 20,000 to 30,000 from 2011. The reason for the increase is due to a couple of factors.

With two sales a week, 52 weeks a year, Dale says, “We have stretched out to do more business in farther places, although sheep numbers in the area are holding.” In addition, the barn is receiving more orders from buyers, although the orders tend to be smaller in nature.

What makes this auction barn unique is that buyers walk from pen-to-pen to bid on the sheep, instead of the sheep walking through a ring. The reason for this is time, says Doug, as he can move through his sale sheet at a faster rate via this method.

The twice-a-week sale allows the buyers an opportunity to fill their orders at the end of the week for Friday and Monday orders. In addition, the barn has the ability to hold animals which serves as a valuable service to the buyers.

Richard Ehrhardt’s Farm
Richard Ehrhardt, Ph.D., is not only the small ruminant extension specialist for Michigan State University (MSU), but he also runs an accelerated lambing program on his 40-acre farm. His 150 ewes lamb every eight months which average about three lambs per ewe per year.

Before his career took him to MSU, he worked at Cornell University and had a 350 head ewe flock. He says, “I downsized a bit but kept the sheep to keep me honest of what I’m recommending to producers and because we enjoy it.”

Ehrhardt took advantage of the Natural Resource Conservation District’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQUIP) to help build a barn for his farm. This is not only where he lambs in the winter, but he also added a “sacrifice paddock” to serve as a feeding area for the sheep in the winter.

What makes this farm unique is that Ehrhardt moves his two flocks of sheep daily to fresh pasture for grazing. What has allowed him to move the sheep every day is time.

“We have a water line that is sunk into the ground. We can just snap into the water line which allows us to move the water just as quickly as we can move the sheep,” he explains. “This system allows us to use the forage much more efficiently. I think it has really helped us manage the grass better because it has reduced the labor.”

Ehrhardt further explained that with moving sheep daily, there is about a 20 percent forage waste which compares to a 35 percent waste moving the sheep every three days and a 60 percent waste with a set stock. “Your utilization is quite a bit higher if you move them every day and the animal’s performance is greater.”

Not only do they not waste as much forage moving them daily, the movement is also good for parasite management as the sheep don’t get that rapid reinfection cycle as parasites don’t hatch in a day.

One management practice that Ehrhardt utilizes to produce a successful spring mating is what he referred to as a light protocol. He brings the ewes off cover crops around Feb. 1 to start breeding in the barn. To help stimulate the process he keeps the barn’s lights on throughout the night through early March. Although he says the procedure hasn’t carefully been studied, the ambient lighting makes it feel more like fall to the ewes. This practice results in a majority of the ewes cycling about 50 days after turning the lights off. 

“We are already feeding the sheep in the winter so why not leave the lights on,” he says.

Dale Thorne’s Farm
The final stop of the Michigan tour was in Hanover at the farm of Thorne and his wife Janet. They run a 900 head accelerated lambing ewe flock with their son Luke and are preparing to expand their flock. This father-and-son team lambs 300 ewes three times per year (in February, spring and fall) with the help of a barn that is more than a century old turned into a lambing facility.

Although more labor intensive than other flocks, the Thornes continuously move the sheep during lambing, from a small jug at birth to smaller group pens of 10 to 15 ewes, then finally into a hoop barn that contains 150 to 200 lambs and ewes. The drawback Thorne says they are experiencing is that as their flock has become more prolific, they are running into problems of having too many sheep in jug pens at once.

According to Thorne, the key to a successful accelerated lambing flock is feeding the ewes a really high-energy diet when lactating. He uses a forage-based total mixed ration for his ewes and feeds his lambs a combination of soy hull pellets and corn. The lambs are fed through a bunk from February until April; however, grass is typically available from the middle of April until late November.

Dale’s typical lamb marketing scheme is to sell lambs from 80 to 90 pounds which he says works well based on where he lives and the ethnic market. The majority of his lambs move through United Producers; however, he does take advantage of the large ethnic population by selling a few lambs direct to consumer each year.

In closing, Thorne says, “In the future, I see a shift from the traditional western sheep culture to the East where grass is abundant and the customer base is close by. The modern meat consumer wants to have a closer connection to the producer and there is a certain ambiance for the public to see sheep production up close.”

With a state sheep association that is 450 members strong, with a number of producers in the 1,000 to 2,500 ewe category, actively promoting lamb consumption, the Michigan sheep industry is positioning itself to meet the lamb demand in the area.

Menu