A rarity in his neighborhood
Raising sheep has been a tradition at Mark Mudder’s farm for nearly 33 years. The Avon, SD farmer said his father began raising sheep and kept between 150 and 200 head on the farm all the years that he farmed.
“I learned the business from my dad and learned a lot from other people in the area who raised sheep,” Mudder said. “For all those years, the market has its ups and downs, but since dad passed away I’ve pretty much kept the same number of sheep and sell lambs every year. My mother and step-dad help with all the chores and I wouldn’t be able to have the sheep if they didn’t. So it’s still a family project.”
While he’s maintained most of the practices his father used to produce sheep, Mudder did add a new element to his herd a couple of years ago – a donkey and her colt.
“I had to do something to control the coyotes down in the ravines behind the pasture,” Mudder said. “The best way for me to protect the sheep and the lambs from predators is with the donkeys.”
Use of donkeys as guard animals is a longstanding practice. Because of the donkey’s herding instincts, they bond with the sheep if they spend sufficient time with them. Because of their inherent dislike of coyotes and dogs, the donkeys work well to protect sheep. Mudder discovered that his donkeys also developed a strong bond with one another and for that reason they are both in the same pasture.
“I tried to split them up, put the mother with one group of sheep and her daughter with the other herd,” Mudder said. “That didn’t work at all. They were so unhappy about being separated they didn’t take care of the sheep.”
Both sight and sound alert donkeys to the presence of predators. Sheep have a natural tendency to put a guard animal between themselves and predators, so the donkey’s size is an advantage for them. The bray of the donkey and the powerful blows they can deliver with their hind feet are strong deterrents to any kind of predator.
Some donkeys can be overly aggressive with sheep, chasing them, nipping at their ears or wool, preventing them from reaching feed and water or even maiming or killing the lambs or sheep.
“I’ve gotten along with these two real well,” Mudder said. “They’ve kept the coyotes out of the pasture for me.”
Because he holds a fulltime job at the locker in his hometown and serves as the town’s public school football coach, Mudder hasn’t enlarged the sheep production his father maintained for so many years. However, he is working to reorganize some of the production methods he and his father used a number of years ago.
“I’m working toward lambing during the ethnic trade seasons, which are Easter and Christmas,” Mudder said. “My goal is to get half my lambs coming in during spring and half in the fall. That way I could hit both those markets.”
Like his father, Mudder has a mix of sheep breeds in his herd. Suffolks make up about half the herd. Other breeds include Dorsett, Barbados and some crossbreeds.
“I’m more partial to the blackface sheep than the whiteface,” Mudder said. “I guess I can’t give a good reason why. I like the Dorpers too, because you don’t have to worry about shearing them.”
Mudder said he and his father never found profit in the wool and he feels fortunate to have a shearer who purchases his wool at the shearing site.
“When you shear, you always hope you at least break even with wool prices what they are,” Mudder said. “Last year I think the wool for the Suffolks was 25 cents a pound. The white sheep wool was about 40 cents. That’s one reason I like the Dorpers. I don’t have to deal with shearing.”
Mudder is becoming a rarity in his neighborhood because the majority of neighboring farmers who raised sheep in the past no longer find it profitable.
“A lot of the older farmers who had sheep have retired from farming,” Mudder said. “I had a friend here who ran as many as 300 head every year, but he moved to Rapid City and sold all his sheep. It comes and goes, but there aren’t as many now as there used to be.”
As long as he’s on the farm, Mudder expects he will continue to raise sheep, even though profit margins are not great.
“Sheep are easier than cattle,” he said. “They’re not as hard to handle. You have to have good fences for sheep. You might get along with a hotwire if they get used to it, but woven wire fences are better. It’s something that I enjoy and I have a good griend, Jerry Stoebner, who has sheep sales at Tripp. Another good friend, John Vacek, does all my shearing. It’s all working okay so I’ll keep it going.”