Kelsey Gibbs competes in World Young Shepherds Challenge Nov. 1-2 in New Zealand |

Kelsey Gibbs competes in World Young Shepherds Challenge Nov. 1-2 in New Zealand

For Kelsey Gibbs, the path from Glendive, MT, ranch kid to a possible rendezvous with ovine destiny at the upcoming World Young Shepherds Challenge – set for Nov. 1-2 in Oamaru, New Zealand – began simply enough.

“It started out with a couple of 4-H lambs in third grade,” Gibbs said.

Despite growing up on what had become predominantly a cattle ranch, Gibbs’ love of sheep continued as she grew her flock lamb by lamb through high school and continued until she left for the animal science program at Montana State University (MSU).

Gibbs, now 23 and a 2010 MSU graduate, said by the time she sold it at the end of high school, the flock her mother helped her nurture throughout her youth had grown to more than 100 ewes.

Those early experiences combined with her time in college and beyond should help Gibbs when she’s competing in a variety of events – picture stopwatch-timed shearing and fence building – that will determine who holds the title of world’s best young shepherd.

Of course competing is built into the raising of 4-H animals, and, as the professors in the College of Agriculture point out, it is an integral part of marketing livestock.

That Gibbs had such success with her first agricultural venture comes as no surprise to Patrick Hatfield, animal sciences professor of range sheep nutrition and Gibbs’ advisor at MSU.

“She works well with livestock,” Hatfield said. “When she walks into a pen of sheep, she is calm and moves with purpose without upsetting the animals.”

Gibbs credits Hatfield for helping her earn a trip to New Zealand’s South Island – he wrote her a letter of recommendation for the prestigious Howard Wyman Sheep Industry Leadership School.

With programs covering all aspects of sheep husbandry and marketing, the annual four-day workshop gathers select groups of the most committed people in the sheep industry.

Gibbs said she came away from that experience with a better understanding of all things sheep related, and, as it turned out, a nomination to join the competition for world’s best young shepherd. While other countries host national shepherds’ championships to determine their representatives, no such competition exists in the U.S.

“It means a lot that I’d be even considered to compete,” said Gibbs, who will be joined by one other U.S. representative.

Given New Zealand’s reputation as a top per-capita producer of sheep, Gibbs said the trip and its tours of historic agricultural sites should be quite amazing.

“I’ve actually been trying to get over to New Zealand or Australia for a little while,” Gibbs said. “And this is an even better opportunity than I could have had otherwise because it’s an all-expense-paid trip.”

As for preparing to compete, Gibbs she has been working on her shearing skills while moonlighting for a local wool outfit when she’s not busy helping her father with the Gibbs family’s 500-head cow-calf operation.

Still, she’s realistic about how she might fare during two days that will pit her against competitors hailing from sheep producing giants like Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and Scotland. The competition – 11 nations will send two representatives each – consists of events covering everything from shearing to electric fence building to a four-wheeler obstacle course to the shepherds’ practical knowledge on everything from different breeds to specific cuts of meat.

“We don’t really use electric fences for sheep in Montana, so I’ve never really done that,” she said. “But I’ve pretty much grown up on four-wheelers.”

Taking nothing away from her skills piloting a four-wheeler, Kelsey Gibbs’ father Rod Gibbs, who spent some time in his youth working on a wheat farm in Australia, was even more realistic about the level of competition she would face.

“I was joking with her and asked her if she was old enough to remember the Jamaican bobsled team,” Rod Gibbs said. “But, I’m really eager to see how she does…. It’s a grueling business and the people who are in it are in pretty great shape.”

Kelsey Gibbs said the knowledge she gained at MSU could level the playing field somewhat.

Gibbs said she’s already seen her MSU-schooling mature into real-world benefits on the family cattle ranch, where her first brood of calves produced with techniques she learned in courses on artificial insemination and bovine reproduction weighed more than usual.

“They weighed 150 pounds more than average,” Gibbs said. “I was not really expecting that because those calves are coming from our two-year-old heifers that are still growing themselves. That they could grow a calf that’s that much heavier, we’re pretty happy about that.”

Those gains have led to her to joking with her dad that she’s ready to take over the reins of the family ranch.

Lately, as her departure for the opposite side of the globe approaches – she flew to Christchurch on Thursday, Oct. 27 – Gibbs has been channeling her sheep courses, not to mention pondering whether or not this could be a launching point for a career in sheep.

“Right now, I’m just going through all my old notes from the sheep management classes I took and from my time with the wool lab, in addition to stuff from the shearing school and my time at the Howard Wyman school,” Gibbs said. “I’m just hoping that all that stuff will help me out.”

Gibbs said she has even been in touch with some of her professors at MSU.

The people on the other end of those calls are obviously eager to see how well she’ll do, said Rodney Kott, MSU Extension sheep specialist. Kott said he worked with Gibbs over a couple of years in the wool lab and in the field.

“She’s one of the most promising young folks we’ve got coming through the sheep industry,” Kott said. “Kelsey was always game for everything.”

Game enough for a shear-off?

“It’s going to be pretty interesting,” Gibbs said.