Field Day Recap: Lamb Production at Three Sisters Farm
Three Sister’s Farm, located outside of Williams, Iowa, is named after Ortrude and Gary Dial’s three daughters – Jessica, Ursula, and Claudia. Ortrude and Ursula work on the farm full time with the help of two employees, Carrie and Victor. The farm was started in 2003 and consists primarily of 400 Polypay ewes and 700 acres at the headwaters of the Skunk River. 330 of the acres are used for non-GMO and organic grain production and are under a four year rotation of corn, soy, oats and legumes. The livestock are fed only home-grown grain and hay. The remaining 370 acres are rotationally grazed.
500 lambs are born and raised each year to be marketed through Superior Farms, the largest supplier of American lamb. 75 to 100 of the ewe lambs born are kept as replacement ewes, allowing the Dial’s to keep the herd closed. The lambing barn is an old turkey facility, retrofitted into group pens and lambing jugs, and ventilated by fans. Lambing jugs, small pens for a ewe and her newborn lambs, are used to promote bonding between mother and babies. Sheep will stay in jugs for three days, and then will move to group pens. Lambs are vaccinated for Vibrio and CD&T. For coccidiosis prevention, feed is medicated with Rumensin and Deccox.
The jugs each have a hay/grain feeder, are bedded with a straw pack and water is delivered to each jug through a PVC pipe that runs the length of room with head holes cut in it. To clean the waterer, bleach is poured into the waterer, flushed through the pipe and emptied by unscrewing a cap on one end. Each jug is collapsible and the entire pen system can be broken down and removed in order to clean the barn and remove the bedded pack four times a year.
A large, naturally ventilated addition was added on to the existing turkey barn to create an L shape barn that houses groups of fattening lambs. These group pens each have a creep feeder where lambs can nibble on grain and huddle under a heat lamp. The creep feeder is set up in a way where only lambs, not adult sheep, can access the feed.
After touring the barns, the group gathered in the shade to discuss marketing strategies. Lambs are finished around 100 pounds and are purchased by a lamb buyer in Iowa who arranges for them to be transported to the Superior Farm’s processing plant in Colorado. The meat is then marketed under the Superior Farms label and distributed to grocery chains nationwide. Rob Rule, one of the Superior Farm’s lamb buyers in Iowa, spoke the crowd about the variety of purchase contracts available to producers and about their loan/advance payment program to purchase breeding stock. For more information about raising lambs for Superior Farms, contact Lesa Eidman at email@example.com.
Gary Dial brought up the issue of limited infrastructure. In Iowa, there are no longer many processing plants that harvest species other than pigs and cattle. With more accessible infrastructure, they Dial’s think they would be able to capitalize on certain premiums and niche markets. Currently, there are few buyers that are willing to pay non-GMO feed premiums. The Dials feed non-GMO grain and are not receiving a premium for their product. They feed non-GMO for the health of the animal and improved meat quality. If the Dial’s could deliver large loads of lambs to more local processing plants themselves, they may be able to sell their product to Whole Foods or other markets that pay premiums. At this time and at their scale of production, it makes the most sense to supply to Superior Farms.
Hayrack Ride, Dinner & Dancing
Attendees then loaded two hayracks, one of which was pulled by an antique Cockshutt Tractor. On the tour we visited the eight rams of the herd, Ortude’s hobby herd of Coopworth sheep and passed by fields of oats, alfalfa and corn. We stopped to visit and talk crops at Rose Grove Lutheran Church, built in 1890. On our way back to the home farm, we passed grazing paddocks and the Skunk River riparian area.
Upon arrival, pork loin from Truebridge Foods and Three Sister’s lamb burgers were put on the grill. Guests brought side dishes to share and we socialized over a delicious meal. I spoke with four farmers who said this was their first ever PFI field day! The good times didn’t stop there… after dinner, David and Mary Losure, of Flying Pig Fiddle and Banjo picked up their instruments and kicked off the barn dance. PFI members do-si-doed and the children loved playing the washtub bass. What a fun ending to a beautiful day! Thank you to all of those who made this event possible!
Photos courtesy of Todd Schuett, Creative Technology Corp