BROCKET, N.D. — The baby lamb — very small, born a triplet and prematurely — lunged with determination but limited success at the automated bottle-feeding machine. So Luke Lillehaugen, patient and experienced, carefully helped the lamb connect with the machine and begin sucking milk from it.
"Sometimes they need a little help getting started," he said. "But they're usually pretty quick at getting the hang of it."
Thanks to generally favorable weather conditions this winter, the lambing season was going well at Lillehaugen Farms near Brocket, N.D., when Agweek visited in early March. About 50 ewes had lambed, producing 103 lambs with only a few losses; 175 ewes will lamb on the Lillehaugen farm this spring.
Luke farms with his father, Maynard, 79, a true agricultural lifer who plans to keep farming as long as he can. The Lillehaugens also operate a small beef herd and raise wheat and soybeans.
They've sold their sheep to producers in nine states, primarily in the Upper Midwest, but also in Texas, the nation's leading sheep-producing state.
Great day in the barn
Contented "baas" from both ewes and lambs rang out repeatedly.
The pleasant conditions in the Lillehaugen barn were in stark contrast to the severe weather-related difficulties faced by many Texas sheep producers recently. Asked about that, both Luke and Maynard grimaced in sympathy.
"They just don't have the facilities to deal with it (the bad weather). We feel bad for them," Luke said.
Most of the Lillehaugens' sheep are white, but a few are some shade of black or brown or gray. Originally, the Lillehaugens preferred all their sheep to be white, but Luke and Maynard learned that some of their customers value other colors, too.
"So we want a little color now," Maynard said.
Sheep sometimes are reputed to be a stubborn, unintelligent animal. But Maynard's long experience tells him otherwise.
"They're plenty smart," he said.
Meat, wool, World War II
Texas leads the nation with 740,000 sheep. South Dakota ranks sixth with 270,000, Montana eighth with 220,000, Iowa 10th with 155,000, Minnesota 12th with 130,000 and North Dakota 22nd with 70,000.
Once, sheep were prized for both their wool and their meat, with meat seen primarily as a byproduct of wool. But the growing popularity of synthetic fibers cut sharply into the demand for wool, shifting focus from wool production to meat production.
Rising popularity of other meats, particularly chicken, also cut into lamb and mutton consumption.
As a result, American lamb and mutton consumption fell steadily to 1.4 pounds per capita in 1990 and then to 0.85 pounds per capita in 2011. But the rebound that began in 2012 has pushed annual per-capita consumption to 1.1 pounds.
It's important to understand that lamb meat and mutton are quite different. Lamb meat comes from sheep less than a year old that typically are slaughtered between the ages of 4 and 12 months. Meat from older sheep is called mutton; it is tougher meat and has a much stronger flavor than lamb meat. Today, mutton is sold primarily in specialty shops.
Another reason sheep are growing in popularity: Sheep are considerably smaller than cattle, which encourages some children and women interested in raising livestock to pick sheep, Luke said.
With more than two-thirds of their ewes still left to lamb, the Lillehaugens know they have a lot of work ahead of them. But the strong start to the lambing season — and the remaining ewes' generally good physical condition due to the mild winter — is encouraging.
"It's looking really good so far," Luke said.