Mike Bronkema monitors a flock of about 100 sheep on Shady Side Farm in Holland. Photo by Johnny Quirin
Now in the midst of his eighth busy lambing season, Holland farmer Mike Bronkema has little spare time to dwell on the reasons he got into the sheep business.
“Both meat and wool together make the sheep venture profitable,” he said. Then he added, “I guess the truth is that the lamb market is the foundation, and the wool bumps us up into the ‘profitable’ category. Sometimes.”
According to the 2007 USDA Census of Agriculture, Michigan had 2,409 farms where lambs were being raised — an increase of 173 farms over 2002. Ranked by total sales, “sheep, goats and their products” were 13th in the state in 2007, at a little over $8.8 million. Of 14 categories, only “aquaculture” came in lower, at $5.7 million.
Total sales for Michigan agriculture were $5.75 billion, led by “grains, oilseeds, dry beans and dry peas” at $1.71 billion.
Even so, Michigan has always been among the states with viable lamb production, according to Jay Bonahoom, general manager of Wolverine Packing in Detroit.
The USDA census lists the top sheep states as Texas, Colorado, California, Iowa, South Dakota and Wyoming, in that order. Low humidity, cool temperatures much of the year (especially in the mountains) and grassland where sheep can graze year-round are the best places.
The USDA indicates lamb production in the Deep South is almost non-existent.
Over the last five or 10 years, the lamb market in Michigan has been fairly stable, but on a national basis, consumption of lamb had been declining steadily for about 50 years, according to Bonahoom.
“Lamb used to be very popular meat” before World War II, said Bonahoom. “Ever since, it’s just slowly eroded and eroded. It’s only about 1 percent of the meat case (in grocery stores) now.”
People in the Middle East really like lamb, he said, and Southeast Michigan’s large population of people of Middle Eastern descent turn to Michigan lamb producers.
“While demand in the general population has been decreasing year over year, demand from the ethnic population has been increasing every year — but not enough to make up for the losses,” said Bonahoom.
The history of Wolverine Packing reflects that trend.
“Now we do a lot more than lamb,” said Bonahoom. “Now we do beef, pork and chicken and everything, but back in 1937 when my grandfather started the company, it was lamb only.”
Bonahoom said there is “a ton of imported lamb from New Zealand and Australia” coming into the U.S. market. There had been no imported lamb until 20 years ago, but now the imported meat is almost 60 percent of the U.S. consumption. “So the farmers in Michigan have to compete with the global imports, mostly from Australia and New Zealand,” he said.
The climate in those countries makes their cost of production lower, said Bonahoom, because the flocks can live outdoors year round and feed on grass, while in Michigan that is only possible a few months out of the year.
“One neat thing about lamb compared to other meats: It’s almost all small family farms because a family can raise 10 or 15 lambs pretty easy,” Bonahoom said. “There are no big (lamb) feeding companies or corporations that have farms. It’s all family farms.”
Precisely like Mike and Lona Bronkema’s Shady Side Farm in Holland. Even with only 150 acres, they are on the larger side of sheep breeders in Michigan, with a flock that numbers about 100 head.
“At a hundred, you’re considered a big producer,” said Bronkema.
Most flocks in Michigan are probably 20 to 30 head, and he guesses that only a tiny percent of all the members of the Michigan Sheep Breeders Association are actually a full-time sheep business, focused on sheep alone.
Sheep, in fact, are only about 15 to 20 percent of Shady Side Farm’s annual revenue. The largest portion comes from raising pullets under contract to egg farms, and Bronkema said he also grows dry beans and corn.
One of the biggest flocks in Michigan that Bronkema knows of is about 1,000 head, on a farm south of Lansing. Bronkema guessed that there may be only a couple of dozen farms with 400 or 500 head in Michigan, and perhaps only 30 or 40 flocks in his size bracket.
The heaviest concentration of sheep farms seems to be in eastern and Southeast Michigan — perhaps because of the demand in the Detroit region. The 2007 agriculture census counted 143 sheep farms in Washtenaw County, the most among Michigan counties. There were 106 sheep farms counted in Lapeer County. Allegan County took the lead for West Michigan with 77 flocks. Ottawa, Kalamazoo and Kent counties had 45, 48 and 51, respectively.
Bronkema noted there is a significant population of Bosnians in West Michigan, and they are also mainly Muslim — and driving the lamb market here. According to City-data.com, Cutlerville and Kentwood are listed among the 101 cities in the U.S. with the most Bosnian-born residents. Hamtramck, a Detroit suburb, is No. 2 with 23,000.
Bosnians, in particular, prefer slightly smaller “roaster” lambs for their religious feasts, and they like to butcher them themselves following their religious traditions. Bronkema said there is a farm in West Michigan where Bosnian customers can purchase and butcher their lambs.
Besides the competition from Australia and New Zealand, there are a lot of hurdles to overcome to make a profit raising sheep, and when the lambs are being born, there can be a lot of future revenue riding on it. Shady Side Farm keeps two types of sheep: 20 Suffolk ewes, which give birth in February and March, and 80 Polypay, which give birth in April and May.
A farmer hopes for two lambs from each ewe in the spring — three is really good if the mother can raise them. When lambing season is on, the farmer is usually close by in case there is a complication with a birth, which happens about 5 or 10 percent of the time.
There really isn’t a market in the U.S. for mutton, which is the meat of older sheep, except perhaps as dog food, said Bronkema.
Successful breeding can be a roll of the dice on a lamb farm. Some of the ewes are just a year old when breeding season takes place in late summer/early fall, “and yearlings don’t always get caught (by a ram) that first year,” said Bronkema. “From a business standpoint,” he said, ewes that don’t breed “are the ones you’d rather not keep around. But you do the best you can.”
Hot, dry weather — like last year in Michigan — is not good for sheep farmers for a couple of reasons. One is because farmers need to raise their own hay or grain to hold down the cost of feeding the flock inside during the winter. The drought ruined a lot of crops last year.
“Hay is critical in the sheep industry,” he said, and high corn prices due to the ethanol subsidy has turned a lot of hay fields into corn fields. Meanwhile, “the horse people” are “shopping for hay all over,” competing with the sheep breeders, he said.
A hot summer or fall can also reduce the breeding potential in rams. Their sperm count may go down due to heat stress, and it can take weeks for them to recover. Parasites and diseases are another big headache for sheep breeders. Heavy dew can bring parasites up on the grass where they are eaten by the sheep and infect them.
But Michigan is still a good area for raising sheep, Bronkema said, noting that “having a processor here (Wolverine Packing) is very good for the industry in Michigan. We have a market for our finished lambs.”
He added that the Michigan Sheep Breeders Association is “a very strong organization” that helps keep its members informed on the latest information for successful lamb and wool operations.
The Suffolk sheep is considered more of a “meat breed,” said Bronkema, while the Polypay sheep are also valued for the fine quality of their fleece. Lately in Michigan, markets for lamb meat and wool both have been doing well, he said. He figures the recovering economy is driving both markets, and the increased interest in handmade crafts has helped the wool market.
A lot of sheep breeders do not handle their wool themselves; they sell to a wool handler who eventually resells it to a wool pool where similar types of fibers are combined and sold in bulk to processors.
Shady Side Farm, however, has some of its wool processed and then the Bronkemas sell it directly online as “roving” wool, bought by people who like to spin it into yarn. The Bronkemas also sell their own handmade wool socks and yarn ready for knitting.
Wool is also used in fine carpets, and a wool carpet made in Cascade Township three years ago got a lot of publicity. Made by The Scott Group, a Grand Rapids-based maker of custom floor coverings, it was a wool rug bearing the U.S. presidential seal and it is now the floor covering in the Oval Office in the White House, added when the room was redecorated in 2010.