By Jacqueline Harp
At the 2016 OkFiberFest in Okanogan, Washington, there was a vendor booth that exploded with quality wool products. The yarn was crisp, the roving clean, and all the labels prominently sported breed-specific information. Best of all, the raw fleeces offered at the booth radiated that special, spicy-fresh lanolin smell that can only come from happy sheep.
The masterminds behind this amazing booth are shepherds Jami Beintema, and her husband, Larry, of Cooke Creek Sheep Company, a thirty-three acre farm located in Ellensburg, Washington.
In the fourteen years since its beginning, Cooke Creek Sheep Company has built both a local and online reputation and presence that brings profits from all aspects of sheep: Raw fleeces, breeding stock, pelts, locker lambs, milled fiber products… even hay.
Breeding Aims Lead To Better Sales Results
Since starting Cooke Creek Sheep Company in 2002, Jami found that raising a single breed of sheep didn’t meet the demands of her creative nature and diverse customer base. Over the years, she has experimented with numerous breeds to achieve the nicest hand spinning fleeces while preserving other useful and profitable characteristics in her flock and calibrating for the conditions specific to her farm.
Today her flock consists of forty to fifty breeding ewes including Texels, Targhees, Border Leicesters, Blue-Faced Leicesters and their crosses, because these are the breeds that work for her. She prefers to have purebred rams, keeping from four to eight rams on her farm. Coopworths once graced her pastures, but due to their rarity, she hasn’t been able to restock them. Wensleydales are the newest addition.
Regardless of breed, Jami aims for sheep that are calm, easy to handle, prolific and sensible mothers. “The Targhees I raise never seem to stop being wild, and have the lowest lambing percentages,” remarks Jami, “But hand spinners like to buy my Targhee fleeces, so I keep a few for wool and crossbreeding purposes.”
The Targhees, like the rest of Jami’s flock, are excellent grass converters, requiring no extra inputs beyond grass in spring and summer. Grass-conversion ability is a key characteristic that Jami requires of all her flock.
How To Add Value To Wool
One of the main ways Jami adds value to her wool is by coating her best fleece producers to keep out vegetable matter (thorns, seeds, leaves, twigs, burs, hay chaff, etc.). At first glance, coating sheep seemed impractical, but once she tried it, it was wildly successful in keeping fleeces extra clean. “They only need coats during the winter months while hay is being tossed around,” says Jami. “It’s impossible to coat the sheep for the entire year, nor is it desirable for us to do so. I custom-make my wool coats for the best fit.”
When a sheep looks like a marshmallow about to pop, the coat is taken off to prevent on-body felting.
The environment of Jami’s farm is extremely windy, which keeps vegetable matter off of the sheep in the springtime when they move from barn to pasture. While useful, coating does require extra attention from the shepherd, to prevent felting, or tangled sheep.
It has taken many years for Jami to produce raw fleeces that hand spinners want to buy. First, raw fleeces must be clean, free of vegetable matter and have long, creamy, beautiful locks: Long-wool breeds with softer fleeces tend to be favored by hand spinners.
While she hires a shearer to shear her Texel flock, she hand-shears her best fleece sheep on a stand. Additionally, she has built a reputation for quality; her raw fleeces have won many prizes at fleece shows. Because of these factors, most fleeces are presold. Her success justifies the time Jami spends carefully skirting fleeces, and tucking them into boxes for shipping.
Not all fleeces go to hand spinners. Some fleeces go to a wool pool. For mill-processed products, she also provides breed-specific rovings for hand spinners, large squares of felt for crafters, and yarn for knitters. Lately, independent dyers have been buying large amounts of “blank yarn” for their dyeing projects. [Yarn blanks are plain, pre-knitted rectangles that are dyed by the buyer, unraveled and then re-knitted, often into fancy patterns, for a finished project.—Editor.]
In the past, Jami tried to process fleeces at home, but couldn’t make the volume or the quality for a salable product. Jami finds it worth the six-hour drive to take fleeces to Fiber First, Inc., in Post Falls, Idaho and another six hour drive a few months later to collect her milled fiber products.
Breeders, Or Meat Lambs?
Wool products and breeding stock sales comprise the largest percentage of profits from her flock. The fact that demand for breeding stock outstrips supply speaks to the quality of her efforts. She aims for and has achieved healthy, well-conformed lambs. Lambs that don’t meet her standards for breeding stock are sold as locker lambs (whole lambs to fill buyers’ freezers).
Locker lambs are just a small part of farm sales, but are a great way for Jami to move extra lambs. She used to be much more involved in selling custom cuts, but she has found a much less time-consuming way to handle locker lambs. Now, she sells a live lamb, and arranges the appointment with a butcher willing to hang and age the carcass. From that point forward, the customers deal directly with the butcher, placing the order for their custom cuts and picking up their order when ready.
Jami has found that her “magical aging time frame” for lamb carcasses is nine days, and has always received an excellent product back. She’s a regular at her local farmers market and people regularly seek her out for locker lambs. “I have a lot of repeat customers, so I don’t have to educate customers who already like eating lamb,” says Jami.
Pursuing Perfection In Pelts
Pelts from Jami’s flock are in high demand and bring in solid prices, as they compete head-to-head with big box store pelts. While her prices are higher than those found in typical retail outlets, pelts from her flock surpass her competition in quality. Only certain pelts meet Jami’s standards, because of the high cost to process and the time investment.
“Pelts normally come from locker lambs that are between six to eight months of age,” she says. “I don’t even bother with the ones that don’t have beautiful character to them—long and crimpy (well defined curls). Otherwise it’s not worth it because it’s expensive to even have it shipped and processed. And it takes six months to get it back. I always use the longer wools, so I rarely process Texel pelts.”
Jami looks for large pelts (40 to 50 inches long, 35 inches wide), with creamy, white fleeces, with five-inch staple lengths. The rich plushness of the five-inch staple draws customers.
Her best sellers, oddly enough, come from the occasional passing of an older sheep that might have a full winter fleece.
She may begin to incorporate colored pelts in the future, as demand dictates.
Haying Up A Side Job
They’ve been haying from their own fields since the beginning and occasionally do custom haying for others.
In a good year, they may sell excess hay to horse-minded clients, but generally the hay stays home. Jami notes their machines are older. And Larry maintains them himself. Even with a short growing season due to geographical factors and water restrictions, they’re able to produce enough hay from one cutting to keep their flock comfortably fed through winter. The only time they supplement with outside feed is during lambing season, when the ewes need the extra nutrition.
At Cooke Creek, Larry focuses on pasture management. He likes to experiment with alfalfa-timothy blends, but prefers to cultivate the native grasses that naturally thrive in their farm’s ecosystem.
Invasive weeds and thistles can wreak havoc in the fields by choking out good grasses. And they can also contaminate the sheep’s fleeces with seeds and burrs. Mowing before weeds turn to seed has helped combat this problem.
Boosting Grazing Output
Six fenced-in grazing pastures line the sides of the main driveway to their house. Multiple gates provide ease of movement between pastures. Even the driveway itself can act as a seventh paddock for the sheep to graze.
They no longer keep livestock guardian dogs because the dogs used to often escape, causing problems with the neighbors. Their style of management allows the sheep to remain close to the house, keeping predators at bay.
The maximum grazing period for each pasture is about one-and-a-half weeks, depending on the season. Pastures are gravity fed by a creek that runs along the property. Some pastures remain green longer than others, and Jami knows her property well enough to eyeball which pastures can be grazed longer. Jami has also noticed different sheep breeds favor certain grasses over others.
Jami has made it a point to take classes regarding parasites particular to her region. Multispecies grazing helps break the parasite cycle. Chickens once filled that role on Jami’s property, but they had a tendency to completely destroy the grass. Now horses also graze on the property.
Marketing the Products
“Once fiber artists find you, they want your next fleece. It grows from there.”—Jami Beintema, Cooke Creek Sheep Company
Cooke Creek Sheep Company’s online presence is critical to moving products.
Jami designed her own website—CookeCreekSheep.com—with clarity and accessibility in mind; she also keeps it up-to-date.
Facebook has also become a great tool, since there are pages dedicated to selling raw fleeces and customers can easily find her.
While Jami deliberately seeks to serve hand spinners, her customers are so varied that it is hard to pin down what they want: Jami makes it a point to watch for trends in the fiber arts community. She does not however, jump at fads.
Her milled fiber products are the slowest to move, and she has found that fiber arts festivals help move those products. Jami is a hand spinner herself, and is able to answer most questions knowledgeably.
The Cooke Creek booth is chock full of information without being cluttered. Jami has observed that many potential customers want to browse, touch, and see products without having to ask any “dumb” questions, or feel like they’re under pressure to buy anything. Even if a fiber artist doesn’t buy anything at a show; they’ll often go online later to purchase her products.
“Pure Wool from the Pasture”
Fourteen years ago when Jami started, there was no discernable sheep community in her county. The number of shepherds had dwindled to a small handful. Jami, at the lead of a few enthusiastic individuals with motivation and good ideas, changed all that. A pivotal event in the growth of their sheep community was the group’s efforts in bringing an American Sheep Industry (ASI), professional wool classing and handling class to their tri-county area.
The ASI Certified Level I Wool Classing School seeks to “provide the U.S. sheep industry with trained wool classers who can assist in improving the quality of the domestic wool clip.” The organization says this is “imperative to American wool becoming more competitive and available in the international as well as domestic markets.”—SheepUSA.org.
Becoming an ASI Level I Wool Classer has helped Jami hone her wool management skills, and learn the proper terminology to better maneuver in the wool market.
The cottage wool industry, made up of mostly small producers, is different from the commercial wool industry, which tends to have large producers. There’s a huge difference in not only the size of the sheep operations, but the business models are radically different. Still, both share a critical, common goal: To produce pure, uncontaminated wool. Both must solve this problem—vegetable matter, poly-twine debris, hair sheep genetics, etc.—to maximize profits.
Yes, Jami experiments in all aspects of her farm. But she uses the power of observation and targeted education to help move her business forward. The motto, “Pure Natural Wool from the Pasture,” really captures the vision for her farm. As Jami aptly states, “Bloom where you’re planted. Be a mentor and resource—and a friend to fellow sheep producers. Don’t be afraid to continue your own education, and to accept good advice.”
Originally published in the January/February 2017 issue of sheep!.