Yesterday I had the privilege to attend an event put on by our local chapter of Slow Food USA. In its 5th year, the event was called Lambstravaganza. It took place way out in Missouri farm territory, about 2 hours west of our BIG city of St. Louis, at the farm of Dave and Barb Hillebrand. Surprise: the Hillebrands raise lambs. The little one in the photo above had been born just that morning – mom and baby were clearly doing fine by the time we arrived around 3 pm. The Hillebrands also raise chickens (for eggs), a few goats and a few cows (both for their own consumption).
The business, called Prairie Grass Farms, comprises about 540 acres when you combine a number of different locations the Hillebrands are using. They have roughly 700 sheep. The family has been in the farming business for generations. Up until 9 years ago or so, they raised “row crops.” This term is the farmers’ euphemism for corn and soybeans – commodity crops which the government subsidizes. Raising row crops requires lots of inputs (aka chemicals), crops are not rotated and only the chemical companies really believe this is ok for the earth. The Hillebrands know better.
Now they only have animals and grass. It is all very symbiotic, sustainable, good for our earth. Their sheep are kept in relatively tight groups for grazing – protected by movable fencing and some wonderful and devoted working dogs. The dogs keep away the predators: mostly coyotes and fox. The sheep munch up an area of “salad”, trample what’s left as they go and leave their waste to fertilize and regenerate what they have eaten. Other than the sun, the rain and what the sheep leave behind, there are no inputs on the land. The creatures in the soil go to work on the waste and the left over roughage. It all gets mixed in with the soil naturally.
Nature takes care of the regeneration of the herd, too. Dave and Barb have a small number of rams who are able to service the girls. The rams are given full access to the ewes for 60 days a year. One ram can handle about 50 ewes (nice work). The timing of the rams’ access to the ewes is meant to enable, for the most part, the lambs to be born all around the same time of year. They are born naturally, in the field. Dave says he is trying to manage it so that when the ladies are with child and need it most, there is plenty of nutritious fresh grass around to so that they will thrive. Otherwise, during the harshest of winter months, the grass may be sparse, the rain or snow may be heavy and the ladies will be hungry. As needed, Dave brings in some hay and supplemental grain to help the ladies out. But, if most of the lambing can take place in the late spring or early summer, the diet of the pregnant mother can be of the best spring grasses. Also, the lambs will be able to grow and fatten up just on mother’s milk and the grasses.
If a ewe does not produce, she is “retired.” (Hillebrands’ reputation for their lamb bratwurst is legend.) This is genetic management at the farm level. At first, it sounded harsh to me but then when I thought about it, it made perfect sense. The sheep have a job to do and in exchange for their job they are managed responsibly and with respect for them and the land. If a particular animal cannot do its job then room is made for one who can.
At Prairie Grass Farms, nothing is wasted, except the wool. And that really is not wasted either. The wool is useless to Dave and Barb. It is not fine enough to sell for anything worth the effort of getting it – they have too many other things to take up their time. So, they give it away for the shearing. The person who does the shearing takes the wool and makes use of it. A good deal for all.
Prairie Grass Farms sells its lamb and eggs at our local farmers’ markets and to many restaurants throughout the area. A number of their best restaurant clients showed up and gave their time and resources to cook for those of us who attended Lambstravaganza. It was a feast of extravagant proportions, as the name suggests, with a host of fine chefs showcasing their creativity in a kitchenless environment. We ate in a barn, open on two sides, with an old tarp covered truck behind us, looking like the perfect set piece. It was a beautiful, blustery day. I ate fabulous food, met friendly and interesting people and (my favorite thing) I learned a whole lot.