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Hasselstroms run unique sheep enterprise in Idaho

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Sheila and Eric Hasselstrom have a dryland farm in north central Idaho, originally Eric’s grandparents’ farm. 

 “My husband has been farming here since he was in high school. We have expanded the farm to 3,500 areas and grow dryland wheat, canola, barley, garbanzo beans, black peas and 800 acres of hay,” Hasselstrom says.

She continues, “We originally had cattle. About 10 years ago we were expanding our farm ground, and the cattle numbers were down to 150. We hadn’t planned to get into sheep, but a rancher owed us money for hay and paid us in 50 head of sheep. That was the start of our sheep operation, and we eventually sold the cows.”

Utilizing sheep

Hasselstrom notes their sheep enterprise has grown because of the way they are able to utilize the sheep.  

“We had always been cattle people, but there’s a lot of area on our farm that could be grazed more readily by sheep. As we got into it more, we also began to use the sheep to improve our cropland,” she explains.

The Hasselstroms’ has been a no-till farm for the past 30 years. Sheep grazing the fields helps to keep the soil healthier, while also helping with weed management. On pasture ground too rough for growing crops, the sheep reduce brush and weeds.

“We originally considered sheep because they might make more money than cattle. We can run seven ewes for each cow. They also have multiple lambs,” Hasselstrom says.  “Being able to use sheep on the farm as a soil health program makes them even more beneficial.”

“I took over the sheep and made it my own enterprise because it was easier for me to handle the sheep than the cows,” she notes. “Every year I nearly doubled the flock. Last year was my largest flock. I purchased another group of sheep and ran them all summer and through the winter. I lambed in March, and my 650 head of ewes lambed out 950 lambs.”

Rotational grazing

Last summer the Hasselstroms made another change to their operation.  

“We do a lot of cover cropping and have a lot of farm ground we move the sheep across for rotational grazing. Last year, we put all the ewes and their lambs on 110 acres of different cover crops including mixes of clovers, oats, black peas and barley,” she explains.

“As the herd began growing, I took an interest in how we were rotating them around the farm, and started paying attention to the time it took me to put up electric fence. I realized if I was going to grow the flock any larger, I needed a herder,” Hasselstrom adds.

“I hired a gentleman from Peru on the H-2A program. He took down all my electric fence and started moving the flock around the farm ‘on the free’ without having to worry about fences,” she explains.

This year with ewes and lambs together, she ran 1,400 head for the summer.

Backward operation

“Our program with the sheep is to run them on our place in Idaho until October, grazing all of our property. Then we wean and market the lambs. In mid-October, we take the sheep to the Columbia Basin in Washington and graze some grass seed production fields,” explains Hasselstrom. “We graze there until February until the sheep are sheared. This is a great program because the grass seed growers want their fields grazed after they harvest the seed.”

“We partner with a really great farmer and keep the sheep there until the end of February, then they are sheared and ready for lambing,” she adds.

In years past, the Hasselstroms have brought the sheep back to Idaho to lamb, and Sheila managed the lambing operation from home starting the first of March. 

“However, this year my herder and I took the sheep to some wheat stubble near Touchet, Wash. to lamb. There was a small barn and clean ground. The weather was fabulous and the lambing went much better,” she says.

“We’re a backward sheep operation. Most sheepmen run their sheep in the valley in winter and haul them to the mountains for summer. We live in the mountains and bring our sheep home in summer to use on our farm for soil health and cleaning up our weeds and brush. They are a multi-purpose crop,” she says.

Maintaining the herd

Hasselstrom says she plans to grow the herd to 800 head and it at that number for a while. 

“There are so many additional challenges when growing larger. Sheep are very labor intensive and must be handled more than cattle. I think I’ll just see what the capacity is on our farm to run the flock on all of our acres,” she says.

“We are also hoping to get certified organic on some of our cropland, so we can grow organic wheat and barley,” Hasselstrom adds. “We want to figure out how to use the sheep on those crops to clean up the ground. We are working at this 100 acres at a time, learning how to use the sheep as a tool on the ground and change the soil profiles with the sheep.”  

Marketing lambs

This year is her largest lamb crop, and marketing them will be a new experience. 

“The way everything is right now, I am not sure what the markets will be like. I was planning on doing an online video sale and trying to pre-sell my lambs for September/October delivery, but I don’t know how it will work this year,” she explains. “In the past I have sold lambs to local buyers who buy lambs for the big feedlots. One year, I sold lambs to an ethnic market in southern California, 100 head at a time. That was a good market.”

“I have done it several different ways. I also sell about 10 to 15 butcher lambs locally each year,” she adds. “I’m looking toward doing a little more of that – learning how to sell direct to consumers.”  

There is a growing interest in buying meat directly from a producer as more consumers are interested in knowing where their food comes from.

“Our social media capabilities have grown, and our ability to ship to most areas has opened this market. With the current pandemic, if a person has the opportunity to tap into direct marketing, this is the time,” she says. 

This situation may encourage producers to explore more options and get more diversity in marketing again.  

“It will also push the consumer into looking at different ways to acquire their meat. I think people will start paying attention to the label,” Hasselstom notes. “We need mandatory country of origin labeling because people want to know where their food comes from.”  

“Most of the lamb purchased in the U.S. goes to restaurants for fine dining and cruise ships. I didn’t realize how much went through these markets, and with those shut down, our U.S. lamb is not moving,” she states. “But, New Zealand has been continuing to ship regular amounts of lamb into the U.S. All of our storage is being filled by foreign meat, and it’s something that needs to be resolved.”

Heather Smith Thomas is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to roundup@wylr.net.

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