Kelly and Gena Burch mentor youth with their club lamb knowledge
March 23, 2012
Over the last 30 years in the club lamb business, Kelly and Gena Burch have had their share of lambs pose in front of the championship banner for a picture. What many people may not realize is the amount of hard work and dedication the couple has put into developing a consistent flock of club lamb ewes that have rose to the top, despite years of changes and fads in the club lamb industry.
Kelly Burch got his start in the club lamb business as a 4-H and FFA member showing black-face market lambs and purebred Columbia sheep at his county fair. It became a life-long interest to Burch, who later became a high school ag teacher in Burns, WY, and eventually an agriculture instructor at Casper Community College in Casper, WY.
“As a high school ag teacher, we were always looking for good sheep for our students,” Burch explained. “We would travel the country trying to find some potential winners.”
Burch first became involved in raising the show animals himself, when one of his students graduated from high school. “He decided to sell his ewes, so we bought some of them when he disbursed, and that is how we got started. It was with six ewes back in 1978,” Burch explained.
From that point on, the couple selected only the best sheep to remain in the flock. In 1986, their son, Brock, won the Wyoming State Fair at age nine with one of the market lambs they had produced.
“From then on, we were hooked,” Burch said. Over the years, their sons Brock and Kolby went on to claim numerous championships with the lambs. Both boys are now grown, but remain active in the family business.
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“I think it is easy to get started in the club lamb business,” Burch said. “However, it is important to make sure you get started with people who have been producing winners. It is important to buy the right bloodlines, and get good sheep. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because they are black, they will make good show lambs. It is crucial to go somewhere where someone has been raising winners,” he said. “There are a lot of people out there raising some good sheep.”
To build a flock, Burch said the main thing to focus on is sheep with some meat in them. “They are a red meat animal like cattle, and they need to be stout and thick, and conservative in their frame,” he explained. “They don’t have to be the longest or the tallest, but they need to be stout, wide and correct in their rib shape.”
One of the hardest aspects of being a club lamb producer has been handling the fads that come and go. “The club lamb business seems like it always has some new fad, whether it is more emphasis placed on balance, or on looks,” he said. “Actually, most judges today are looking for a lamb that is as thick as you can make it, and is stout with a wide skeleton. However, they may not make the best replacements if they have too much muscle,” he said.
“As times change, emphasis is placed on different selection criteria,” Burch continued. “The slaughter weights and size of lambs have really increased in sheep over the last 30 years. Like cattle, that is how the industry has been able to keep up their meat production numbers, even though there are less sheep now,” he said. “The national average of most lambs are 160 pounds when they are marketed. Anything under 130 pounds today is considered a feeder lamb,” he added. “We are making them stouter, wider and thicker so they have more product in them.”
As far as their own ewe flock, the Burch family has tried to stay in the middle and be conservative when it comes to trends. “We have really tried to keep our base flock practical in their skeleton, and moderate in size,” Burch said. “They are low input, practical sheep,” he stated.
Any changes made to meet a current fad come from sire selection. “If we are going to make any changes in our flock, like chasing a fad or keeping up with the times, we do it by purchasing a new ram. We select rams for what we think we need, or where we want to go with our program,” he said. “Each buck is selected for certain criteria. If we find an area where we think we need to improve, we look for a ram that will help us in that area,” he said.
Nearly all the ewes in the flock have been home-raised. “I am a firm believer in raising your own replacements,” Burch stated. “I think we produce ewes ourselves that are just as good as anything we could purchase,” he said. “The problem with purchasing breeding ewes is you don’t always know what kind of genetics you are getting and how tight the gene pool is. By producing our own replacements, we can predict what they will produce because we know how they are bred, what their mama produced, and what their dad produced,” he said.
They have also worked to keep the ewes consistent over the years. “I don’t think our sheep have changed a whole lot in 30 years. We’ve always tried to raise meat sheep that were productive animals with some flank and body,” he said. “Our ewes haven’t changed a whole lot. They may be stouter in bone, shallower in the chest, more correct in rib shape, and dead level in the hip,” he said.
One thing that has changed about the flock is the percentage of Suffolk and Hampshire in the ewes. “Thirty years ago, we had a lot of ewes that were straight Suffolk, and now the bulk of the ewes are a high percentage of Hampshire. The trend today is towards shaggy-legged sheep that look like they are stouter in the bone,” he explained. “I don’t really think they are heavier boned than a Suffolk, but the wooly legs give the appearance that they are,” he said.
Some of the most enjoyable moments the couple has spent in the last 30 years involves mentoring youth. “When a youth buys a lamb from us, they are not just buying a lamb, they are buying a program,” he explained. “We have an obligation to pass on the knowledge we have to the next generation,” Burch said. “None of us can predict the future, but the youth hold the future, and if we are not willing to work with them then we are giving up on the future,” he said. “It’s all about passing on what we know to the next generation.”
In addition to club lambs, the Burch’s also raise quality hay, and crossbred club calves AI sired by some of the most popular club calf sires like Monopoly, One and Only, and BoJo. While the lambs are sold private treaty, 25 of the steer and heifer calf prospects will be sold in a spring online internet auction on June 5. Youth will take possession of these calves in September. For more information about the Burch family, see their Web site: burchlivestock.net. Kelly and Gena can be reached at 307-472-0993.