John and Gail O’Keeffe admire one of their newborn
lambs. Gail assists her husband in much of the work.
While she pulls the haywagon with a tractor, John
O’Keeffe pushes the hay off the wagon for the sheep
Ewes and their newborn lambs rest for some rays of
sunshine after an extremely cold, harsh winter.
Sheep ranchers work hard just to break even
expenses, low returns … but it’s in their blood
O'Keeffe prodded the 22-pound newborn lamb to stand up, but it
didn't cooperate. "That's the largest lamb I've ever seen
And that's saying a lot from someone who has seen thousands of
sheep. His uncle emigrated from Ireland to the United States
in 1898 and became a sheepherder, his father came in the 1920s
when he was only 16, and they all raised sheep. New lambs
normally weigh 12 to 14 pounds.
O'Keeffe and his wife, Gail, raise Columbia sheep on the
Oregon-California state line near Malin, Ore. They have 500
lambs from 300 ewes, with several yet to be born. "There are
twins, triplets and four sets of quads," he said.
"We started calving the first of February with 4 inches of
snow and ice in the fields. We had 90 cows in the shed to
calve. Then we brought the sheep in after calving."
Lambing began on March 10. He said if they were to lamb in
February, they would have to feed them more, and by lambing in
April, they don't gain enough weight by fall. If they are born
now, they will weigh the same by fall as lambs born in
"I am a hobby farmer," he said, explaining that he doesn't
make a profit from raising sheep, so it must be a hobby. "It
isn't good for anything else."
"Operating expenses eat you up," he said. "Last year lambs
sold for a dollar a pound. I got that price in the '70s." He
pays $10-per-hour wages and fills his pickup with gas
sometimes twice in one day. The price of corn went up to $255
per ton, and hay went from $85 per ton to $120 per ton in one
The shearer and help cost $4 a head. In 1950 wool would bring
$1.30, and now it's 86 cents.
When his father and 14 brothers came to Lakeview, Ore., they
could run sheep just for their wool. He said there were a
million sheep in the Lakeview area, and now there is not one
band of sheep left. "The sheep paid for the ranches."
He said there were 24,000 fleeces in the wool pool in the
Klamath Basin then; now there are 1,400.
Predators have a large impact on the sheep industry. Each year
O'Keeffe loses approximately 50 sheep to coyotes and some to
cougars. He said there used to be trappers, but now California
hires "wildlife specialists with brand-new pickups with a
brand new four-wheeler in the back. And they won't kill
Kathy Lewis, who owns a ranch with 1,000 White Dorper sheep
with husband Paul in the Langell Valley, said they are
fortunate because Oregon trappers actually control predators.
And the Oregon Hunters Association helps pay for predator
control so they don't eradicate the game animal herds.
Lewis had a tough winter, with temperatures 10 degrees below
average, and she and her husband had to use a tractor to get
feed to the sheep through 7-foot snowdrifts. The sheep ate
more hay since they couldn't graze with all the snow. Because
the sheep got less exercise, she had to pull more lambs.
She doesn't have shearing expenses because White Dorpers have
hair instead of wool. And they have eight Maremma guard dogs
to keep away the coyotes on their 1,500-acre ranch. She
attributes much of the regional sheep business decline to
O'Keeffe said another challenge is finding available grazing
land: "Now they are haying all the land that has good clean
grass." He said environmentalists don't want livestock to
graze on public lands; however, he sees grazing as a benefit
to the environment. He grazed sheep in one area, and only
three acres burned from a wildfire. Years later when grazing
was not permitted, fire burned the entire mountain.
Sheep ranchers also must contend with international issues.
Formerly much of the sheep market was from local sources.
O'Keeffe said the U.S. now imports most of its lamb since
Canada and other foreign countries are heavily subsidized.
In spite of the difficulties, raising sheep is in O'Keeffe's
blood. He's up before dawn and comes in at dark. He elaborates
on the joys of living in the country. He finds it remarkable
that after he puts all the lambs and ewes together to feed,
the ewes know who their own babies are.
O'Keeffe doesn't plan to give up raising sheep in the near
future; however, for anyone thinking about going into the
sheep business, he said, "I wish them the best of luck."