By Bill Lauterbach
Sometimes a newspaper writer is sent on an assignment, and from that particular story, emerges another fascinating topic worth covering. This was the result of our visit with Luke Thorne last week when The Exponent discussed the Jackson County Farm Bureau. Once the conversation switched over to the Thorne family sheep business, a secondary story quickly developed.
The current patriarch of Thorne Farms, Dale Thorne, gives us a timeline on how Thorne Farms developed over the decades. “The farm was purchased by my father, Warren, in 1979. I came back to the farm in 1994. And I was a hog farmer. In 1998 the hog market crashed, much like the dairy market is crashing now, and I had to get out of the hog business and I jumped into the sheep business in 1998. My uncle was a statewide sheep shearer, so everybody knows the Thorne’s as sheep producers.”
If you’ve ever watched television or movie westerns, you no doubt know that sheep farmers were not very welcomed in the old west. We asked son Cody if there was any truth to that legendary western plot. Cody replies; “Yep, we’re not the most modernized farming system, which was even true in those old westerns that you see. There are not a lot of major sheep farm producers. But a lot of the new sheep farms that are popping up are more focused towards hobby farms, for lack of a better term. Flocks of 10, 15, maybe 20 at the most, and they may raise sheep for pets, or for wool. We’re more commercialized; we have 1,200 sheep on the farm. There are not a lot of commercial operations our size east of the Mississippi River.”
Dale continues; “There is a hierarchy among livestock producers. And it kind of goes . . . the cattle guy is top, then there is a horse guy, then there is a dairy guy, then there is a hog guy, then there is a poultry guy and then there is a sheep guy. And there is only one other guy below the sheep guy, and that’s the guy that raises goats. But where this comes from is TV westerns and that is because of the way sheep graze and the way their mouth is made. They graze the grass much shorter and if you don’t keep moving the sheep, they actually graze the grass so low it kills the grass. So what would happen in the old west is some guy would come in with his sheep and the cattle guy would come in behind him and there would be nothing left for his cattle. In fact, it even did long-term damage to the grasses. Now, out west, there is a really good synergy between sheep and cattle. There are a lot of reasons why having both on the range is good for the grass if it is managed properly.”
The industrialized farms are putting many small family farms out of business. We wondered if there was a similar situation taking place with sheep farming. Dale replies; “Actually, it has been attempted several times to have sheep completely confined, much like they do on the big dairies, the big hogs, and the big poultries. Sheep do not do well in that type of situation. There are some very large sheep operations in the west that may have 10,000 ewes. But they are also grazing 20,000 acres, so large sheep operations are generally associated with large open range with arid types of climate.”
Cody brought up the topic of sheep predators. “Parasites. Sheep get worms very easily. And it usually kills them.” Other predators are coyotes, bobcats and stray dogs. The stray dog issue reminded us of the situation that happened in Grass Lake, with the two Huskies being shot by a farmer in order to protect his cattle. Dale adds; “Even if dogs are causing my sheep to worry, you are breaking the law. And just because you move out in the country, doesn’t mean that your dogs can run free.” There are some exceptions to the law. For example, using sheep herding or ‘working dogs’ out in the fields. Luke mentions that Farm Bureau was instrumental in getting legislation passed to protect working dogs. Farmers do protect their own, so Farm Bureau produced signs that are placed on farm property notifying neighbors that there are working dogs in the fields of certain farms.
Now we get to the crux of why Thorne Farms are sheep producers. They are not in it for the wool. They are in it for the lamb chops. However, many baby boomers have not had lamb chops or other lamb meats since our grandmother’s prepared dinner. Why is that? Dale answers; “It really started in the 1950’s after World War II. Soldiers were served canned old cull sheep rations. It was awful stuff. So hundreds of thousands of soldiers came home and vowed they’d never eat lamb again. So we have had several generations now of people who have never eaten lamb. And for some reason, they must think lamb doesn’t taste good. But what we are finding now is that the millennial generation is past the World War II generation don’t have these negative thoughts about it. In fact, they are very adventurous about what they consume and therefore lamb sounds exotic. So we are now seeing a growing demand for American lamb.” Dale says lamb is sold in several Jackson area groceries stores, “but you’ve got to go look for it.” Dale adds that you might just have to settle for imported lamb, too. “Half of our lamb in the stores is imported.”
Tours are given by Thorne Farms for various groups, especially schools. They were kind enough to give The Exponent a tour of the facility. It was very educational, and we learned something fascinating. When was the last time you saw a sheep with a tail? Answer; you don’t. That’s because the tails are removed as lambs for hygienic reasons. In fact, the situation can be very deadly for lambs if their tales are not removed soon after birth.
Most ewes give birth to a pair of lambs. Some only have one, while others have three. Very rarely does a ewe give birth to four lambs. We did notice ewes that were marked with a type of paint on their hindquarters. We were told that those ewes had lambs that died, and it was a reminder to keep those ewes away from other lambs because lambs will attempt to feed on any ewe they find. But the feeling isn’t mutual with the ewes. Any stray lamb attempting to obtain milk from a strange ewe might get a good swift kick from the non-mom, which could be harmful to the baby lambs.
You can contact Thorne Farms with questions about tours by calling – 517-250-1159.You can also take a virtual tour by checking out their well maintained and often updated Facebook page. Just give Thorne Farms of Hanover a Google.