Raising Sheep for Meat – Flavor-Based Success
Icelandic Sheep Prove To Be the Perfect Animal for Both Meat and Wool
By Alan Harman – Raising sheep for meat that are from the “land of fire and ice,” Barb Gunness’ flock of Icelandic sheep are right at home close to the menacing beauty of boiling mud and searing steam of one of the largest active volcanoes on the planet. Her flock of Icelandic sheep can trace their ancestry back from her Wolf Ridge Farm on the edge of Yellowstone National Park in Montana — site of the world’s most famous caldera — to Iceland, an island nation still being molded by volcanism on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. One of the most popular meat sheep breeds, the sheep originally came out of Europe carried by Viking settlers who set up shop in Iceland 1,100 years ago. But the history of this heritage breed wasn’t what attracted Gunness.
“They Taste Good!”
She found this out when friend Barb Sene suggested she get into raising Icelandic sheep for restaurants. “She had a few of them and served me some of the lamb,” Gunness days. She was hooked. “It then led to my folks buying some land, as we all enjoyed the flavor of Icelandic lamb so well that we felt it was a unique venture for direct marketing locally raised lamb,” she says.“Over time, I have put my life-long experiences and love for genetics into the raising sheep for meat through breeding and a healthy meat production program.”
That good taste has visitors to Yellowstone National Park flocking to three fine dining restaurants at Lake Hotel, Snow Lodge at Old Faithful, and Mammoth Hot Springs where the Icelandic lamb is featured on the menu and whose popularity is such that at times Gunness struggles to meet the demand. The restaurants regularly feature the source of the lamb on their menu or on a flyer at the restaurant entrance. Gunness usually delivers the lamb to the park restaurants, but sometimes the chefs visit the farm to select their own.
“The park now is serving year-round since we have increased our volume,” she says. “Some local restaurants and Livingston Hospital serve year-round too. We promote our lamb by explaining the breed and its traits. Sometimes they use the term ‘Icelandic lamb’ on the menu and I do want to see that emphasized more in the future.”
The park restaurants have been her main customer since 2006, thanks in part to an organization called Western Sustainability Exchange that helps connect local producers to local buyers. “I would say about 80% of my lamb goes to the park, 10% to other restaurants and the rest to individuals,” Gunness says. Internet sales account for less than 5%, Gunness says, conceding online marketing has been a struggle. “I need to be more creative in this area.”
Gunness started her operation 150 miles northwest of Helena, the Montana state capital, in 2000 with just four Icelandic ewes bought from Sene. Her 135-acre farm is in the heart of Paradise Valley, near the towns of Emigrant and Pray, and 25 miles north of Yellowstone Park. She married husband Per just a few years after getting her first sheep and the farm is a partnership.
Barb does the sheep breeding and wool management, while Per “is my right arm in maintenance and problem-solving.” The farm is on dry ground, with a spring-fed creek running on to and ending at the property. Geologically, it appears to be a river bottom from a retreating glacier from nearby Emigrant Peak. There are only a few inches of sandy soil with a deep bed of rocks.
The home pastures consist of native bunch grasses, sagebrush, junipers, currant bushes, and some stands of cottonwood and pine trees along the creek as well as some invasive weeds such as knapweed and mullein. “There is an upper bench to our property that puts us at 5,000 feet above sea level,” Gunness says. “A couple of transient wolves were on the bench the first year we had sheep, and hence the name Wolf Ridge for our business.” She also has access to about 80 acres of irrigated hay fields of various 10- to 20-acre parcels belonging to a variety of landowners about seven miles from the farm.
Breeding Stock, Goals & Attainments
“It was Icelandic sheep right from the start,” she says of her breed selection. “If you’re raising sheep for meat, they have a wonderful flavor, and we are told this all the time. Icelandic sheep are so pretty and that alone has gotten us land to graze. People like the look of them, all those colors and the lambs are so cute. Traffic stops all the time to figure out what they are. Their wool stays ‘clean’ looking. We bought a purebred ram from Walker Forks Sheep Camp, and in hindsight, he gave us some wonderful fleeces that helped me succeed in the world of wool — of which I had little to no knowledge.”
The breed’s mothering ability is a plus. “We do not shed-lamb, but let the ewes lamb in the pasture like cattle,” Gunness says. “They isolate themselves to lamb and we manage the new family groups with electric netting.” Barely 5% of the flock has problems delivering or mothering, and the first-time yearling moms are natural mothers.
“If we have to help, we can maneuver the mom into a catch area to assist,” Gunness says. “Lambing in late April and May, the weather is just right and with little effect on the newborn lambs. Not one Icelandic ewe here has ever prolapsed and well over 95% have had normal-positioned lambs, even in triplet situations.” She has grown the flock with her own lambs, both purebred and crossbred, and by making strategic ewe purchases now and then.
“Still, even in the last few years, we have made leaps and bounds in improving the flock by knowing what to look for in rams we purchase,” she says. “This has come through some helpful Icelandic breeders such as Laurie Ball-Gisch and Alan Leighton who have done artificial insemination from the improved rams of Iceland or who have similar goals as ours in meat traits.” Gunness prefers to bring in outside rams to put over the ewes. “We do keep our own replacements of both,” she says.
“We are enrolled in the National Sheep Improvement Program (NSIP), as the size of the flock is difficult for me to keep track of who is doing what. We have also begun loin-eye testing to improve meat traits.” The NSIP offers in-depth estimates of each animal’s ability to pass superior characteristics on to its lambs, based on the degree to which these traits appear in the flock and their statistical degree of inheritance. These mathematically based forecasts are called “expected progeny differences,” or more commonly, “EPDs.”
“Since Iceland is progeny testing, I thought it was important to try a similar program,” Gunness says. There are lots of Icelandic sheep out there now, with breeders having a jumble of differing goals.
“We’d like to be a source of rams for others since we can test our rams on a good number of ewes,” she says. “Having EPDs on our sheep just adds one more tool of selecting good sheep.” EPDs provide authoritative verification of the genetic value of an animal as a parent to those trying to decide whose or which breeding stock offerings to buy.
An important aspect of farm sales comes from the fleece. “When you’re raising sheep for profit, this part of the business does better when we get the advertising out there,” Gunness says. “I’d like to get bulk raw wool into a co-op — even on an international basis — or find a yarn producer to take it on. We produce over 600 pounds of just lamb wool alone in the fall. We can get quite a backlog of stored raw wool.” For the past three years, she’s been breeding 215 to 220 ewes a year and this year she is raising this to 254. In the process, she hopes to increase her lamb crop from about 380 to more than 400. “The average age of our flock is just under three years, as we’ve kept more ewe lambs for replacements,” she says. “It seems for us that it takes the Icelandic ewe until three years of age to reach prime production.”
Until now, she’s been processing about 200 lambs a year as she retained many ewe lambs to grow her flock. “We are at our ewe goal now, so we hope to process close to 400 lambs a year,” she adds. The lambs are processed at USDA-registered plant about two hours from the farm. The meat is returned to the farm for direct sales. Gunness advertises with the trademark: “The Home of Paradise Valley Gourmet Lamb.” Demand has been good and she says it gets better every year, with many repeat customers. “We have a surplus of riblets and organ meats, and I wish there were four racks to a lamb, but all in all we move inventory pretty well.”
Natural & Artificial On-Site Green Fodder Production
Gunness says the farm now is at its capacity for ewes, and she doesn’t think she can go higher with her current land base.
A new fodder system is planned for the farm. “Since we are 100% grass-fed, we do not feed grain,” she says. The “fodder” is sprouted grain, harvested as a young grass shoot. “This is a brand new adventure for us as a way to expand our grass-base,” she says. “We intend to keep more sheep on our dry land so the animals can impact our soils, but we need good energy food — like sprouted grains — to reduce the hay costs we would have here at home.”
Dryland in Montana is sensitive to overgrazing. “We have multiple grazing cells here at home, and we’ll feed fodder and rotate through these paddocks,” Gunness says. “With low rainfall, it takes time for the native grasses to recover, so we’ll be doing grazing plans to minimize overgrazing these pasture divisions. With heavy animal impact and proper rest, we hope to improve this rocky soil, improve the water and nutrient cycle for the land, and thus grow more grass. We want to limit our dependency on leased land for the sake of fuel costs to travel there each day.”
Gunness still has to figure out the volume of fodder she’ll need to produce, at the start using the suggested feedings based on data with cattle. “There’s not a lot of info for use in sheep when you’re raising sheep for meat,” she says. “It’ll be another thing to figure out for at least a full year before having a clue as to its value. The theory seems to make sense. One benefit is that it may minimize the internal parasite load for the lambs, which will get parasite-free ‘grass’ post-weaning.”
Gunness has wolves and coyotes in the area but says the predator problem is surprisingly not so bad, possibly because she uses yaks to guard her flock. “We think they help keep predators out, as they are very curious animals and alert to changes in their environment,” she says. “This year we had one known coyote kill. There was no yak with those sheep, and no coyote returned after putting a yak with them.”
She also had four badger-kills in 2012 for the first time; they took small, young lambs at the beginning of summer. “Electric netting helps deter many things,” she says. Summer field temperatures range (in degrees Fahrenheit) up to the low 100s in August to below zero in winter, although it can reach into the 50s even in January. “It is quite variable,” Gunness says. “It’s rarely humid — if ever! — year-round. Annual rainfall is less than 15 inches, so we cherish those irrigated fields.” The sheep are outdoors year-round but are provided wind protection.
Future Plans & Hopes
“We’d like to do more farmers’ markets, which surely helps move product,” she says. “(But) it is time-consuming in the summer when we have other daily chores like irrigation and moving sheep in controlled grazing paddocks.” Gunness has toyed with the idea of working with another Icelandic producer who is raising sheep for meat to fill her growing order book. “We have thought of buying up their surplus lambs as feeders,” she says. “We did a bit of this early on, but it was risky to the health of the flock to bring in so many out-sourced lambs. Still, if we can work with just one or two folks, we may keep a handle on biosecurity.”
Her flock started with crossbreds and a purebred ram but has grown to more than half being purebred, and not one ewe is less than 75% Icelandic. The Icelandic traits are very strong. “We experimented with crosses from ewes such as Karakuls, Border Leicester and Katahdins,” Gunness says. “A couple of years ago, we were told specifically by our meat processor that he thought our higher percentage Icelandic carcasses were superior to the hybrid group we brought to him.”
The Icelandics had more meat per bone and were not nearly as fatty. “We couldn’t argue with his opinion and made it a goal to quit messing around with crossbreds,” she says. “This has made our lamb crop more consistent.”
In the beginning, her biggest problems in starting a business were fencing, marketing, knowledge of genetics, and herd health. These problems were solved first by hiring fence builders instead of trying to do it herself, and by consulting with fellow Icelandic breeders, especially on herd health advice. But Gunness’ biggest problem these days when raising sheep for meat is finding land to be able to graze year-round in order to limit hay feeding. “Many of the places we graze could sell, and the new landowner may not want sheep grazing there,” she says. “We’re trying to secure multi-year deals for grazing.”
Another problem is setting up the adequate electric fencing for sheep. “We have many landowners who want our sheep there, but have cattle fences or no fencing. Electric netting has worked well for us, but not as a perimeter fence. “We don’t sleep at night or go anywhere if sheep are only held by electric netting.”
The next goal is to finish turning the farm’s meat room into a commercial kitchen so lamb can be prepared to sell as ready-to-eat meals at farmer’s markets to move things such as lamb riblets. “My folks are retiring part-time here in Montana and I’ll then have the help for the farmer’s market,” she says.
Gunness, who has had a lifelong love for dogs, started out as a dog groomer and veterinary technician, and has used her grooming experiences to take on the task of learning to shear. “Per and I both have learned to shear with the help of professionals who do our flock and we are getting better at it each year,” she says. “Shearing helps me learn more about wool traits, too.”
On the farm, they added Border Collies to the picture. “With the help of neighboring friends in sheep, my husband and I have learned to train our own dogs and rely on them heavily for sheep chores,” she says. They have seven of the dogs, all from litters that they have raised. “Having sheep and herding dogs to boot is a dream come true if I look back at what I wanted to do as a young girl growing up,” Gunness concludes.
Originally published in the March/April 2013 issue of sheep! and regularly vetted for accuracy.