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Sheep Production Rises In Ohio

Raising sheep in Ohio is on the increase.  Sheep production is increasingly popular as growers enjoy expanding – and profitable – markets for meat and wool. 

On a bright green southern Ohio hillside, more than a hundred sheep graze peacefully.  The sheep belong to John Grice and Tracy Foy. They’re a father and daughter team that has been building up the size of their flock for the past several years. Tracy Foy says all but three of their ewes gave birth during this year’s lambing season.

“Currently there’s 125 ewes in the breeding program.  104 we used last year and we retained some ewe lambs to bring our numbers up,” Foy says.

Grice and Foy raise what are known as hair sheep. They’re sheep that don’t grow wool.

“We raise ‘em for the meat. That’s all a hair sheep’s good for, is the meat,” Grice says.

John Grice says the sheep have been financially rewarding.

“They’re more than paying their way as far as that goes. I mean, we’re not driving Cadillacs and we’re not driving big fancy pick-up trucks but seems like we get where we want to go,” Grice says.

Grice says he and Foy might eventually work their way up to a flock of 200. There are costs to raising sheep but there are the rewards, too, says Grice.

“You know you’ve got to buy different supplies, you have to replace the fence every now and then.  And you’ve got to put some money in your pocket.  And you might want to go out to eat and you might want to buy something that you don’t really need and you’ve got that money there to do it with,” Grice says.

The number of sheep in Ohio is increasing. The Ohio Sheep Improvement Association says that nationally, the sheep industry grew by one percent in 2014. That translates to 35,000 head of sheep. Of that 35,000, 3,000 were in Ohio.

Tracy Foy says that in spite of the long hours and the intensity of lambing season, sheep are a good investment.

“It’s a good time, the prices are good with sheep right now,” Foy says.

Henry Zerby is head of the Animal Sciences department at Ohio State University. He says even suburbanites are getting into the sheep business.

“Because they’re small and because we have a growing population density in Ohio we start to see not as many large operations.  We see a lot of people moving into suburbia having one- or two- or five-acre plots and sheep lend themselves to those acreages where you can have a number of animals operating in a small footprint like that,” Zerby says.

While they’re docile and beautiful creatures, Grice and Foy say they’re definitely not pets. In fact, Foy considers them employees who either contribute to corporate success or they’re shipped out. Foy keeps detailed notes on each member of the flock on a spreadsheet.  If the animal’s highlighted in red, it’s not pulling its weight.

“[Number] 224, she’s red-lined,” Foy says. “She had a single [lamb] and she wouldn’t raise it. She just flat wouldn’t raise her baby. And she only had one. And next year, what if she has three?”

“If they won’t raise ‘em, they’re out of here,” adds Grice.