Young Entrepreneurs: Gary & Heidi Todd, Big Timber, Mont.
Gary and Heidi Todd might have inherited a love of sheep from their families, but they didn’t inherit any actual sheep or the ground to run them on. That didn’t stop the young Montana couple from getting into the business when they returned home to Big Sky Country seven years ago.
Gary: We bought 20 head of ewe lambs from my uncle when we moved back in 2009. The first night, a coyote got in and killed one. I asked my uncle if he had a return policy and all he said was, “Welcome to the sheep business.”
I was around them as a kid. My mom and dad had about a hundred black-face sheep when I was 4 or 5 years old. They sold all of those, but raising sheep goes back generations on both sides of my family.
Heidi: I came from a sheep background, too. My mom had sheep, so I guess you could say I had a passion for it from a young age. A big reason why we have the sheep is for them (son, Garrett, and daughter, Anna). I learned a good work ethic and about the cycle of life at a young age because we had sheep. We think it’s important for the kids to learn those same things.
There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with having the sheep, and every year we’ve seen Garrett be more and more help. I know it won’t be long before Anna is right there with him in the middle of it all. We have some cattle too, but the kids like the sheep because they can do more to help.
Gary: When we moved back to Montana, we started helping her parents a little bit with their sheep. We loved it so much that we wanted to get into it a little bit ourselves. We got lucky enough to buy those 20 ewe lambs and lambed them out. Then, we bought some short-term ewes and there were pros and cons to that. We got some good ewe lambs out of them. It was kind of a wreck, but kind of a good thing. They were probably kept about a year past when they should have been, but it was an adventure.
My dad has the hay contract on this place we’re running sheep on now and the guy who owned it asked if we’d be interested in leasing it to run our sheep. We jumped all over it because it’s hard to find ground to lease around here. When you find a lease that’s already fenced, it’s usually in a high-coyote area. Or you can find a place without a lot of coyotes but it probably isn’t fenced. It’s a double-edged sword when everything you do is on a lease deal. There’s a lot of sheep in this area, but it’s tough to find the ground to run them on if you don’t own it. We barely own the dirt on our shoes.
We came to this place with 20 ewes and 30 ewe lambs and now we’re up to about 130 of our own sheep. We also have about 50 of the owner’s sheep on the place. Our numbers are way up, but it’s still at a manageable level for us.
Heidi: Pretty much what we do as production is sell the lambs in the fall. Our main goal is pounds. We keep a percentage for replacements in the fall, but our ultimate goal is to increase pounds every year. I think we’ve seen that. Hopefully, we’ve been selecting rams more carefully and will continue to see increases in that area. Every year, we learn so much.
Gary: But it’s not usually because we do something right. We’ve had some learning experiences that have cost us a few bucks, but we learn from it, grow from it and move on. I would love for this to be a full-time thing at some point.
I currently work as a meat grader for the state of Montana. Out of college (Montana State University in Bozeman), I worked for USDA as a grader. Initially, we were in Liberal, Kan., for five months. Then I took a transfer to Greeley (Colo.) and we were there about a year and a half. When a job opened up in our hometown, I jumped at it. That allowed us to move back to where we grew up. We knew each other in school and started dating in high school.
Heidi: We both did livestock judging in college and that allowed us to see a lot of different things. So, we wanted to try our hand at sheep production.
Gary: I’ll shed lamb here. I pull my trailer down to the land we lease and live in it for three weeks. Garrett is at an age now where he can do more to help, so I’m going to put him to work this year. I get three weeks of vacation, and I take it all to lamb.
Heidi: That’s a true love, when you take your whole vacation to lamb.