Pine Knob Farm
100 Ewes and Climbing
Bonnie Wideman has been raising sheep for 40 years, the last 25 on her 160 acre farm in Southwest Wisconsin near Soldiers Grove. Many farmers would have settled into a familiar groove, but Bonnie is a continuous experimenter- you have to be when you raise sheep organically. “ The biggest problem with sheep is parasites. The sheep industry has become dependent upon synthetic wormers. People stopped using natural selection to raise naturally resistant sheep,” noted Bonnie.
She accomplishes natural parasite control through a combination of techniques. First, by purposefully understocking her farm, she can allow a full three month rotation between pastures. “Most farms have a 30 day rotation, which is not good for parasite control. There is not enough time for the parasites to hatch and die between grazings”. Secondly, she chooses to raise a high percentage of hair sheep, which are much more resistant to parasites. “My biggest task is finding parasite treatments and management techniques for wool sheep. I am a culler. I use the “Famacha System” for identifying sheep with parasites- barber pole worms are the worst one. With the Famacha System, you look at the sheep’s inner eye membranes for anemia. This way you only treat the animals that need it. This also leaves a refugia of worms that don’t become resistant to being killed by a paraciticide. It also allows me to identify and cull sheep that are more prone to problems.”
Bonnie uses a combination of treatments. For those animals that show anemia, she treats them with copper oxide wire particles. She tracks effectiveness by sending out fecal samples for testing. All animals get drenched with “Garlic Barrier”. “Garlic doesn’t kill the worms, but makes the gut more resistant to attachment.” Bonnie also uses diatomaceous earth (DE) in their free choice mineral. “It is unfortunate that more research isn’t being done on DE. Mostly what we have is anecdotal evidence. My mineral is one third kelp, one third Redmond salt, and one third DE.”
Bonnie only feeds a little grain to ram lambs that didn’t put on enough weight late in the season to be marketed before winter. Otherwise, the only feed is pasture and hay from the farm. “A real turning point was when I stopped feeding grain to pregnant ewes. If you feed them grain, the lamb gets too big and you get lambing problems, plus the ewes tend towards metabolic imbalance and pregnancy diseases.”
Bonnie has also found that lambing a little later, and on pasture gives much better results. “For decades we lambed in the barn- in March. That is truly an unhealthy environment. We had a lot of lung issues. The mother can’t go off on their own to lamb and form bonds. That is natural behavior. Now the sheep are never in the barn except for special events like shearing and sorting.
This also applies to her overwintering program. All of the sheep are kept out on pasture and fed dry hay. “We feed in different locations throughout the winter so we can spread the fertility in the pastures. You shouldn’t only feed in one location,” said Bonnie.
To keep lambing to a tight April window, Bonnie sorts all of the sheep into five groups (breed and age) and introduces rams. “The sorting isn’t so bad, but keeping them in place is tricky,” noted Bonnie. “Lambing is now timed for when pasture and milk production are peaking.
The flocks’ lambing percentage is around 180% for mature ewes and she sells around 100 meat lambs per year, primarily Katahdin and Dorpers, with Clun Forest and Polypay ewes recently added to the flock. Ideally she wants to butcher lambs at 100 lbs. “My current fascination is with the Cluns- a breed that hasn’t been tampered with much.”
If you raise sheep, you will have to manage orphan lambs. Inexperienced ewes, or ewes with triplets will sometimes abandon their lambs. “Raising lambs by hand was always very sad, because of the high death loss. This year I read about a New Zealand procedure of making yogurt out of high quality milk replacer. I make my own and my death losses have been greatly reduced,” remarked Bonnie (Note: Lambs fed milk replacer cannot be sold as organic). “I have four gallons going at all times. I mix and replace as I use it. You go through a lot feeding as many as 20 orphans three times per day. I have less than 10% death loss now.”
Pasture is the foundation of Bonnie’s management. “With a three month rotation, I give up a little quality in forage, but get much better parasite prevention. Pasture management with sheep always has to be a compromise.”
Bonnie does reseed pastures with clover and will also let pastures go to seed from time to time. “Mob grazing can sequester more carbon, but it is much harder to mob graze with sheep due to their size. Cattle will trample everything, but sheep will not. I try to treat fields a little differently each year. I like that I get more leafy forbs in my pastures. They can select what they need and they are good for the sheep.”
At weaning, ram lambs are put on the best pasture, often the ones that have been recently reseeded. Ewe lambs stay longer with their dams on the rougher pastures. “If money wasn’t an issue, I would reseed all of my pastures to native prairie,” said Bonnie.
Bonnie has taken advantage of a number of NRCS conservation programs over the years. She has gotten Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) cost share money to help with waterway and road improvements, and also with fencing and water lines. “I encourage everyone to look into the EQIP and the Conservation Stewardship Programs. That money has allowed me to make improvements that I never would have been able to do otherwise.”
Most of Bonnie’s lambs are sold direct to individuals and restaurants. She also sells retail cuts at the Viroqua Farmers Market, along with sheepskins and wool rugs that she weaves herself. Unfortunately, the two local meat processors that were certified organic have gone out of business, so Bonnie uses an uncertified local locker instead. This means she cannot label her meat as certified organic despite raising them all organically. “I really miss Black Earth Meats. I just don’t care to transport animals two or three hours to another processor. I know most of my customers, so selling direct without the organic label works, but I would rather have an organic option locally.”