Fourth-generation Wyoming cattleman Eric Barlow knew he had to plan well when three years ago he decided to return sheep to the family property for the first time since the 1920s.
The reaction of his friends and neighbors in Wyoming cattle country ranged from a simple, “Why?” to “Have you gone crazy?”
The more positive commented, “You rarely see a cattleman buying out a sheep man,” or “Sheep paid for most of this country.”
History & The Move To Sheep
Barlow’s move was not exactly radical. He was joining more than 900 sheep ranchers in Wyoming caring for a state total of 460,000 head who have a long tradition behind them. The still very-active Wyoming Wool Growers Association was organized in 1905 toas members put itcombat masked raiders, fight sheep diseases and improve lobbying efforts.
Graham (12) and Kate (14) earned $100 for every lamb they producedin their first year in the sheep business!
Back in the 1890s as sheep numbers multiplied, range conflicts between cattlemen and sheep men threatened the peace and prosperity of many communities.
The violence escalated in 1902 when 150 masked men attacked 15 flocks of sheep. At least 2,000 sheep were destroyed, one herder was killed and the other herders were driven out of the area.
The range war peaked in 1909 when some 15 masked men attacked a sheep camp and killed two wealthy woolgrowers and one of their herders. Five people received jail sentences varying from three years to life.
The association then employed detectives, who acted as a deterrent to raids, and cattlemen quit murdering sheep men and herders.
Things are much quieter in Wyoming these days and Wyoming is the third-biggest sheep state in the U.S., behind Texas and California.
Barlow and his wife Kelly lease their 18,000-acre ranch southwest of Gillette, Wyo., from his mother Bernadette.
His family previously had produced only Red Angus cattle on the ranch, located in semi-arid sagebrush steppe country with rolling hills and a few rough breaks.
“My family hasn’t raised sheep for 80 years, but I like sheep and decided three years ago to do sheep,” Barlow says.
He knows he is a novice in the world of sheep.
“I’m not Basque, and I haven’t been running sheep for 40 years,” he says. “I have sheep on a cattle ranch. The only way I qualify as a sheep man is because I had a Basque man, Jason Rodriquez, working for me this past summer and he is a sheep man.”
New Sheep In Coyote Country
Once Barlow decided on adding sheep, he started off with 80 wool producerswhite-faced western range ewes that were largely Rambouillet and Targhee crossesas he assessed the predator risk and went about finding how sheep would work on the family ranch.
He also added two young guard dogsa mix of Maremma and Akbash breedsto the flock.
“It was a training session for the dogs; it was training for me and training for my family,” Barlow says of those first moves three years ago.
“Our biggest predator issue is with coyotes. We have no one bordering us with sheep, so it’s like throwing a piece of meat out there and hoping they survive.
Maremma-Akbash-mix dogs protect the sheep.
“The guard dog puppies grew up with the ewes; it’s inherent in the dogs to bond with the sheep, and they did. They are still with the sheep.”
Now, three years later, Barlow says he has never found evidence of predators attacking his sheep or a dead animal he thought had been killed by a predator.
“Either my guard dogs are working or the coyotes out here don’t have the taste for lamb,” he says.
That’s a message he gives regularly when other Wyoming ranchers comment on the difficulty of sheep farming in the state.
“The comment I hear most often is along the lines of, I would run sheep but there are too many damn predators’,” he says.
Learning From The Start
Barlowalso a practicing veterinarian specializing in reproductive ultrasound of cattle and sheepdecided right from the start that if he were going to get into sheep he would experience all aspects of the business.
He bought a group of bred ewes with bad udders and then, working with his children Kate, 14, and Graham, 12, learned how to raise the resulting bum lambsoffspring that either cannot be fed by the mother or are rejected by the mother.
“Raising bums has a lot of heartache because they often don’t survive or worse,” Barlow says. “It was a very educational experience for all of us. I learned by accepting as much risk as I could. I figured if we could all survive we could handle anything.”
The project was a success, and Barlow says his children ended up with a lamb check of $100 a head the first year.
With that modest success under their belt, Barlow made his next move. He bought a couple of White Dorper rams to breed to his wool ewes with the aim of producing a meatier lamb crop and at the same time not having the “flock of many colors.”
For Barlow, the attraction of the Dorpers is that he doesn’t have to find someone to shear his lambs; and he doesn’t have the heartache of trying to sell wool in a variable and often declining market. By the time sheep are 75% Dorper they shed fairly well, he says.
“Shearing is a hard, demanding job, and it’s getting hard to find a good crew,” he says. “There are those out there, but they are getting more few and far between.”
The hair has no value, but there is value in the leather and the lambs have commercial pelts.
As his sheep experiment progressed, Barlow added several more hair sheep and another set of wool ewes. The result was a good lamb crop of quadruplets, triplets and twins, with very few singles.
Now the flock has grown to some 700 sheep. They include 450 hair ewes and ewe lambs due to give birth in May and 200 wethers to supply discerning palates. Additions to the flock include beautiful Dorper females and rams from Leo and Jo Woodbury of Buffalo, Wyoming.
“These are the most gorgeous creatures,” Barlow says matter-of-factly.
Most of Barlow’s sheep are lambed out in the pasture during the warmer early summer months of May, June and July. He also has 50 wool ewes bred for a January drop that are lambed in the ranch shed.
“We hope to produce 750 to 850 lambs this year,” he says.
Getting Into Gourmet Lamb
Barlow once spent a year in Queensland, Australia, but the time there did not raise his interest in sheephis work Down Under was only with cattle.
But on his return home, the Barlow family acquired a taste for sheep meat long before the first animals arrived at the ranch.
“I started eating lamb when I started working as a vet,” Barlow says. “Every once in a while I would trade my veterinary services for a lambonce or twice a year. My family and I discovered we enjoyed how good it was. Now we eat lamb three or four times a week. We don’t save it for special occasions.”
With the sheep established on the ranch 27 miles southwest of Gillette, Barlow set out to create his own market.
He knew it is often difficult to buy lamb where it is raised and decided to open a gourmet lamb business focusing on local restaurants and stores.
“We started Gourmet Lamb of Wyoming,” he says. “We sell Wyoming family-ranched, grass-raised Dorper lamb, processed in a USDA plant. We’re offering it to restaurants and individuals who are willing to give it a try. We’ve sold lamb to individuals for almost two years now. We want to let other people experience really good quality meat.
Barlow sells his sheep meat through three outlets within 125 miles of the farm and also has ranch-gate sales.
Hardy Dorper and White Dorper crosses on Western woolies give fast growth,
but cut out shearing costs by shedding wool off.
“We are pricing the lamb at least at par with or above the commodity/national market, but below the premium or specialty outlets found on the Internet,” he says.
Hundreds of people have tried and enjoyed Barlow’s Dorper sheep meat with its mild flavor and consistently fine texture, and only one has rejected it.
These taste trials have included a local restaurant smoking a leg of lamb and offering samples to its diners.
“We take lamb dishes to all the social functions and potlucks we host or attend,” Barlow says.
The most recent promotion involved ground lamb.
“We experimented with baked meatballs, and my daughter Kate makes a barbecue sauce using her secret ingredientsshe hasn’t even told us yet what is in there,” Barlow says.
“We’re calling them Lamb Balls.’ We took them into a restaurant to see if they would be willing to sell them. I figured with the mystique of Rocky Mountain Oysters, people would order our Lamb Balls just to see what they are.
“The restaurant hasn’t added them to the menu yet. It may be that we have to open our own supper-club-type affair.”
But he says he has sampled 40 to 50 animals over the last years.
Random Samples Confirm Lamb More Reliably Good Than Beef
“We pull a set of lamb chops out of one or a leg of lamb from another and it’s always a good eating experience.”
Barlow says this gives Dorper meat an advantage over the beef from his family’s Red Angus cattle. He won’t be touting that to the local restaurants and stores because the meat isn’t as consistent. He does sell some grass-fed butcher beef to individuals and uses the ultrasound to select the best carcasses.
“I don’t think I can get my beef to be as consistently a good eating experience as with the lamb,” he says. “Sometimes the beef isn’t as good as you would like it to be, and sometimes it is unbelievable.
“The eating experience is more consistent with the lamb. For example, 10% of the time you eat beef you might enjoy every bite, but for lamb it’s 90% of the time if you like lamb.”
Barlow has even considered going 100% sheep and dropping out of beef production.
“However, we have good quality cattle and the country is best suited to run a mix of the two species,” he says. “I am even considering adding some meat goats.”
The next step for Barlow is to have his sheep judged against other producers’ animals.
“The January lambs this year are White Dorper/western wool ewe crosses which make a tremendous cross, so I hope to attract a few 4H/ FFA youth to show them,” he says.
“Additionally, we may take some of these same lambs to the state fair to compete in a Pen-of-Five live animal and carcass competition.”?