Shannon Creek Ranch
Production-Focused Facilities & Genetics Key to Profit Margins
By Alan Harman
Deep in the heart of cattle country, Joseph Hubbard, at age 30 a 20-year sheep-producing veteran, is helping groom a new breed of sheep producers.
Unit manager of the Kansas State University’s (KSU) sheep and meat goat center, he takes his work home as co-owner of a family run operation, Shannon Creek Ranch.
It’s a 500-acre property that has been in the family for three generations.
Kansas ranks third nationally with 6.4 million cattle, dwarfing the 57,000 sheep in the state. So what attracted him to sheep?
“I was really young when I first started with sheep and it was something I could manage on my own,” Hubbard says. “As I expanded, the profit margin was much greater with sheep than cattle on my operation.”
His farm runs a composite breed first established at the Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Nebraska. The breed’s original composition consisted of 50 percent Romanov, 25 percent Katahdin, and 25 percent White Dorper.
“This cross creates a very maternal, prolific ewe with nice rib shape and bone density,” Hubbard says. “They are also able to breed out of season very easily, which is perfect for our accelerated program.
“We have some ewes with different percentages of the cross and some that have St. Croix replacing the Katahdin. They have all proven to be excellent mothers, but among the ewes that can stick to our very strict breeding program, the best are our true Easy Care cross.”
Hubbard has no regrets about opting for a hair-sheep operation even though global wool prices have been hovering around record levels.
For much of his career wool prices had been so low that the cost of shearing was more than the value of the wool.
“We’re glad the wool market is thriving because it’s helping our fellow sheep producers, but we started our operation specifically with hair breeds in mind,” Hubbard says.
“We’ve found that producers are more successful by sticking to what works with their personal operations rather than jumping around with the market trends.”
Breeding Schedules & Costs
The farm’s accelerated breeding program produces three lamb crops every two years and that means extra work compared to once-a-year lambing.
“We have to be very strict with our breeding schedule because not only are we doing three lambings in two years, but we have two separated breeding groups doing it,” Hubbard says. “The benefits of the accelerated program and confinement are that it makes feeding much easier and more efficient.
“We are able to maximize the efficiency of our ewes and have lambs consistently available year-round. This program is very appealing to our buyers, especially those wanting to expand, because they can get ewes in large quantities and know the history on every one of them.”
If a ewe slips out of the program schedule for more than two cycles it’s culled to maintain efficiency.
Hubbard created his present operation three years ago, to expand his business from the 600 sheep he had previously farmed.
After building a 200-by-80-foot sheep barn, he initially stocked the farm with almost 2,000 sheep, but then lowered this to about 1,600 head to focus on solid white ewes and the Easy Care cross. This main lambing facility houses about 1,000 of their mature ewes on about seven acres.
“The majority of our ewes are kept in large pens with runs allowing about 50 square feet a ewe,” Hubbard says. “We have a couple pastures we can run some miscellaneous stock and have run some on a neighbor’s property to help manage the undergrowth in their wooded areas.”
Dividing the ewes into the pens helps reduce confusion during peak lambing, when an average 150 ewes are giving birth each day.
This means about eight ewes lamb a day in each pen.
Hubbard recently leased a former hog operation’s retired hoop barns. Once bunk lines were added with large runs attached the facility was ready for stock. That facility now is occupied with 600 open ewes, with the ability to hold 800.
With this facility being off site—about 15 minutes away — Shannon Creek opted to obtain custom care and feeding though a good friend, Jones Feeders.
Hubbard pays a lot of attention to feed at both locations, providing each ewe access to a total mixed ration (TMR). Depending on which stage of the lambing cycle they are in, they will receive a specific feed ratio containing ground prairie hay, alfalfa haylage, wheat haylage and whole corn a day amounting to around 6.5 pounds per ewe.
The estimated cost of maintaining a ewe is $100 to $125 in feed and medication a year.
Feeding a consistent TMR diet helps with a breeding regimen that sees the ewes back in with the rams just 30 days after weaning their lambs. The ewes will be exposed to rams for 30 to 45 days every eight months.
The farm is located in the northern part of the Flint Hills, about 20 miles north of Manhattan, Kansas.
Flint Hills is designated as a distinct region, because it has the densest coverage of intact tallgrass prairie in North America. Due to its rocky soil, early settlers were unable to plow the area, resulting in a predominance of cattle ranches, which are in turn largely benefited by the tallgrass prairie.
“We have livestock guardian dogs at each of our locations,” Hubbard says. “Just their presence alone is usually enough to deter coyotes. We haven’t had any coyotes come near either of our sheep facilities.”
There are two six-year-old Great Pyrenees/Anatolian Shepherd littermates at their open ewe facility. There is a three-year-old Great Pyrenees/Anatolian Shepherd, a two-year-old Akbash, and an 11-year-old Akbash that watch over their lambing facility.
Records & Markets
The average annual lambing percentage for the state of Kansas is about 120 percent. Hubbard’s operation is averaging 194 percent over eight-month intervals, giving them an annual rate of about 290 percent.
In the years ahead, Hubbard aims to maintain being a seed-stock operation and continually improve on his elite line of genetics.
“We have started the process of implementing Shearwell RFID tags in our operation to further our data collection efficiency,” he says.
“We are most excited about how easy this will make analyzing both past and future data and help us continually find our top and bottom 10 percent.
“We are open to any chance we have to improve on our management scheme, whether that is genetic improvement, animal husbandry, feed efficiency, time management, etc.”
The Shannon Creek ewe lambs are sold directly off the property at 75 to 100 days of age. They cater to all sized operations, but most recent sales have been to larger scaled operations that breed them to terminal rams with all their offspring sold for conventional meat markets. These conventional commercial market streams seek heavier weights of around 140 pounds.
Hubbard’s ram lambs are grown until they reach 50 to 65 pounds, when they’re sold at market price to East Coast outlets, where Muslim and Spanish consumers prefer the lighter weights.
Labor, Land, & the Future
Hubbard, his wife Shelby, and full-time employee, Danielle Stuerman, do a daily health check on the sheep, feed them, make sure they have clean water and remove any feed left over from the previous day.
Hubbard says working a “seven days a week” operation of almost 2,000 sheep is not for everyone.
“It’s chores every day,” he says. “Sometimes those chores only last a few hours and then other times they last the entire day.”
Stuerman worked with Hubbard at KSU’s Sheep and Meat Goat Unit. The summer before she graduated, she asked Hubbard if he knew of any local producers hiring someone to help manage sheep. He was beginning to think about his expansion and asked if she would be interested in helping.
She has been working with the sheep now for almost three years.
“My job now is to take care of day to day operations on the ranch, help establish and implement the lambing cycle schedules, track animal health, care of bottle lambs, maintain an online presence, and collect and evaluate animal data,” Stuerman says.
“I never saw myself working with sheep. I just kind of fell into it — now I can’t see myself doing anything else.”
The farm operation is regularly used as a teaching tool.
“We have used our operation as a model for a potential commercial sheep operation in the sheep-focused classes at KSU,” Hubbard says.
“We have also given many tours to those classes, agriculture clubs, and judging teams, both from K-State and abroad. We recently presented hands-on learning experiences for KSU veterinarian students to help build their skills and — for many of them — getting to work with a new species.”
The farm has also seen many scheduled tours for producers from all over the country who are either just curious about the sheep industry or looking to use Shannon Creek as a model for their home operation.
Hubbard is a full-time sheep industry enthusiast.
“Opportunity is out there,” he tells university students, “Expansion in the sheep industry is happening all across the country, which has increased the need in the workforce.
“With land prices on the rise, sheep are a good substitute for smaller ranching operations wishing to run livestock. Conventional ranching methods in our area allow for about one cow for eight acres, whereas we can run 1,000 sheep on seven acres in a confinement scenario.”
Hubbard’s purely commercial operation keeps a close eye on animal quality.
“With our intense data collection process and multiple pens, we’re able to maintain multiple lines of genetics without having to turn over our ram investment too often,” he says.
“Most of our breeding rams are kept from our lines, or we’ve purchased from MARC. We also have a handful of our own replacement rams that we have kept back for other producers.”
You can learn more about the Hubbard family’s operation via Facebook at Shannon Creek Lamb. Or phone: 785-565-1040; or e-mail: J_hubbard1@hotmail.com.
Originally published in the September/October 2018 issue of sheep!.