Sheep breeder-leader optimistic for opportunities in the business
By Frank J. Buchman
“Sheep offer a great opportunity for youth show projects, and families with small acreages to have a small flock for extra income.”
“I have an inborn love for sheep. I have a love for the sheep industry.”
Jeff Ebert at Ebert Sheep Farm near St. George, Kan., has a strong belief in sheep as an important part of the livestock industry, and one that has potential for growth.
“There has been profitability in sheep production, and I expect it to continue, because we offer such a quality, nutritious product for consumers,” contended Ebert, a leader in both the Kansas Sheep Association and the American Sheep Industry Association, working to see that happens.
Sheep became a part of the Ebert family farm in 1957 when Ebert’s older brothers bought their first ewes in 1957. “I grew up with sheep, actually, but bought my first ewe in 1966, and have had sheep ever since,” Ebert reflected.
The flock has ranged from 75 ewes to 250 ewes, with the present inventory of 150 ewes.
“We are a purebred operation with registered Hampshire, Dorset, Suffolk and Shropshire ewes,” Ebert said. “Heavier end of the flock is Hamps and Dorsets, but the girls wanted something different, so we got into the Shrops and have a nice flock of them as well.
“There are very few crossbreds, even though sometimes a ram might jump over the fence where we don’t want him,” Ebert admitted.
Ebert and his wife, Kerri, have two daughters, Christine and Monica, who have followed in their dad and his family’s traditions showing sheep.
“My brothers and I always showed sheep, and we had four grand champion lambs at the Kansas Junior Livestock Show in Wichita,” reminisced Ebert, who had the top winner there in 1975.
“Our daughters, now students at K-State, started showing in 4-H in Pottawatomie County, and continued showing at state and national competitions,” Ebert said.
Breeding sheep have annually been exhibited by Ebert Sheep Farm at the Kansas Junior Livestock Show; state fairs in Kansas, Nebraska and Tulsa, Okla.; several years at the Ak-Sar-Ben in Omaha; and one year at the American Royal.
They’ve been regular exhibitors at the annual All-American Sheep Show, which is in various locations around the country, and the North American Livestock Exposition in Louisville seven years.
“We exhibit all four breeds and have been taking about 40 head of sheep to most of the shows,” Ebert tallied. “We do show our sheep slick shorn, which makes fitting some easier.”
An impressive collection of championships have been accumulated by Ebert Sheep Farm, with major class wins at all of the competitions at one time or another.
But, to make this all worthwhile, it’s essential to merchandize sheep. “We sell about half of our lambs as club prospects,” Ebert said. “That is a niche market, but everybody on the street corner is in the show lamb deal these days, so we really try to push our seed stock.”
“We sell about 20 rams a year,” noted Ebert.
Ebert’s spring sale is the oldest annual sheep sale in the country. “Well, we started out as a part of the Tuttle Classic Sale at Manhattan, which included pigs, too, at the start. But, we’ve continued every year since, on our own here at the farm since that original group decided to not have sales,” he clarified.
There is also a market for lamb meat. “We have some lambs processed at Frankfort and sell whole lambs and cuts,” said Ebert, noting that lamb is often hard to find in super markets.
While sheep are occasionally sold at the Clay Center auction barn, the packer, Superior Farms, buys groups of his finished lambs at Seneca.
Sometimes opportunities come up for ethnic sales, but Ebert deters away from that for the logistic problems which often can arise.
Admitting that for some breeders the wool from sheep can be more of a nuisance than it is worth, Ebert said the price per pound is typically low; it can be difficult to find a shearer.
“However, the price of wool properly marketed has gone up in value,” Ebert added. “Furthermore, we work with a few local hand spinners, and we get a premium for some of our better quality wool from them.”
Conscientious in selection and progress of the breeding flock, Ebert admitted, “There have been considerable changes in type, but the quality has gone through the roof, getting better and better every year.
“My Wichita champion weighed 113 pounds, and most top lambs today will weigh 150 pounds; the Louisville champion was 165 pounds, last year. Lambs in the ’90s were slimmer and more ‘tubular,’ while today’s lambs are bigger and heavier muscled,” Ebert described.
Production ability of his ewes is essential to Ebert. “I really stress mothering ability and lambing ease. I don’t have time to be with the ewes, and I want to sleep at night; there (are) seldom any problems,” he contended.
These are prolific ewes, too. “We like twins, but I don’t care for triplets, because it’s hard for three mouths to eat on two plates,” Ebert said. “We generally have a 150 percent lamb crop, but this year was about 165 percent.”
Obviously, ram selection is a major task. “We are on the constant search for the next piece to improve our breeding puzzle,” Ebert remarked. “We try to buy a new ram every year, but sometimes it just isn’t possible to find the right one.
“We have some rams we’ve raised in use, too,” he continued. “Our planned mating of half siblings can work, but sometimes it doesn’t.”
Although artificial insemination is being used by a few sheep breeders, Ebert has not gone that route. “However, I am interested in doing some embryo transfers, with a proven mating, but I don’t have the details worked out,” related the breeder, who said from six to 12 lambs might be produced from one ewe through embryo placement.
Optimistic for the future of the sheep business, Ebert’s enthusiasm is most apparent as he looks to continual advancements in quality of production in his own family’s flock, and he encourages others to get involved.
Chairman of the Kansas Sheep Council, which governs the sheep promotion checkoff, Ebert said, “At the recent Sheep Day, we selected three youth to receive ten ewes as starter flocks to help expand the industry.
“The sheep business offers an opportunity for youth and those who would like to have a profitable sideline livestock enterprise,” Ebert concluded.