By Alan Harman – Karen Valley’s flock of 21 sheep, consisting of two sheep breeds (Shetland and colored Cormo cross ewes), tend to stay close to home during the winter. That’s a good thing because the snow on her property in Michigan’s remote Upper Peninsula builds way higher than the fence lines. Valley operates her 50-acre farm in a backwoods area outside Marquette, 455 miles northwest of Detroit, very much in the pioneering ways of early settlers, seeking to be as self-reliant as she can.
The weather and isolation may be why this northern frontier of Michigan has almost one-third of the state’s land area but just 3% of its population.
“We get 200-plus inches of snow every year and it settles but doesn’t truly melt completely until mid to late April,” Valley says.
“Our 4-foot field fencing gets buried most winters, but I’ve found the sheep don’t roam outside of their paddocks even when the snow is hard enough for them to walk on.
“Our lowest wintertime temperatures have been around 30°F below zero at night, with a daytime temperature of ‑10°F,” Valley says. “We don’t get the worst of the frigid temperatures where we live.”
Valley’s main barn has screened windows along one side for ventilation.
“When it was a goat barn, those windows had double-pane glass in them, but the first winter when I found the walls sweating from the sheep during one of our below zero days, I broke them all out and installed screens,” she says. “The sheep have been much more comfortable ever since.
“Now my only problem is the amount of snow they can bring in the barn during blizzards. So I often lock them out during the day and then make sure I brush their coats off before they come in for the night. It keeps everything a bit drier inside.”
The summers can be idyllic.
“I’ve left plenty of trees standing out in their fields so even on the hottest days they can graze in relative comfort in shady areas,” Valley says. “They actually follow the shade on the 100°F days we can get in late July or August.”
“We have black bears, wolves, coyotes, and some people have sighted cougar,” Valley says. “I put all my livestock away at night before dark and have had no problems with any predators. I have had some dogs come on the farm, but have a small Terrier-cross who alerts me to any trespassers.”
Swapping Goats For Sheep
Valley switched to raising sheep in 1992.
“Before that, I raised dairy goats for about 10 years but found they required too much coddling and grain and they did little to improve my gardens or pastures,” she says.
“A friend of mine from Ohio, who also had been raising goats, told me I should get sheep. She said they were much easier to raise and care for, but I didn’t really like the sheep breeds that I’d seen at the fairs I had attended. They seemed large, somewhat odd smelling and not the brightest.
“At my friend’s suggestion, I checked out Shetlands. There was a large farm near my parents’ home in Kalamazoo, where I fell in love with a small, dark blue-grey ram called Jack Benny. The first breeding pair of Shetlands arrived on my farm right around Thanksgiving of 1992.
“The flock grew in size and their beautiful, natural-colored fine fiber became the impetus for my new business, Winter Sky Wool Co.,” Valley says.
“Now our main business is breeding sheep and producing soft wool in a wide range of colors for my yarn business.
“My flock of sheep breeds right now consists of 16 Shetlands here on the farm with an additional four colored Cormo-cross ewes and one gorgeous Cormo-cross ram. I have seven other Shetlands down at a friend’s farm in Lower Michigan as I need to keep the numbers at home around 20 to ensure adequate space for the hay and the sheep.”
The Importance Of Fleece
“All my hay has to be in place before the first real snowfall when our driveway gets snowed in. I also store most of our grain for the winter in 55-gallon drums. Oats are my feed of choice for all our animals. Bedding is stored in our greenhouse during the off-season.”
These particular sheep breeds are sheared at the end of May when David Kier comes north from Wisconsin to do all the Shetland flocks in the area.
“With lambs and heavy fleeces, the barn gets cramped by spring,” Valley says.
The shorn fleeces are carefully skirted and shipped to fiber mills to be washed and carded before Valley spins it into bundles on her wooden spinning wheel.
Valley has been breeding for the finest fiber possible in her Shetland flock since she started with the breed.
“I believe their heritage as a fine, ‘kindly’ fleeced animal that can produce next-to-the-skin products needs to be preserved,” she says. “I don’t show my animals because I feel the judges in this country, for the most part, are looking for large animals with large fleeces.
“Shetlands are supposed to be refined, smaller, thrifty animals under 100 pounds with 2 to 4-inch fleeces that above all are soft. It is difficult to educate judges along these lines.”
The Shetland’s roots go back more than 1,000 years, probably to sheep brought to the Shetland Islands by Viking settlers. The sheep belong to the Northern European short-tailed group of sheep breeds that also contains the Finns, Norwegian Spaelsau, Icelandics and Romanovs.
The Shetland is the smallest of the British sheep breeds and it retains many of the characteristics of wild sheep.
Valley does show some of her Shetland fleeces. “I have a particularly nice ram that has won reserve grand champion fine fleece at Michigan Fiber Fest,” she says. “And this year my yearling colored Cormo cross Raggedy Ann won best in show with her first fleece. I will undoubtedly continue to show fleeces, since I now am coating my animals and don’t have to contend with a lot of debris in their fiber.”
Late last year she traveled to Kentucky to add two new sheep breeds to her flock: a registered Cormo ewe and a colored Cormo-cross ram that had arrived from California.
“It looks like I’ll be working pretty seriously with two sheep breeds from now on,” Valley says.
“The Cormo crosses like my rugged pastures and rough grazing, and the cold winters just produce more of their fabulous fiber. We will have our first lamb crop soon and are looking forward to seeing what colors we get from these sheep breeds.”
Key: Growing What LocalCustomers Want To Buy
The majority of the wool produced on Valley’s farm is used for handspun yarns that are sold at a larger farmer’s market in Marquette during much of the year.
“I occasionally sell roving from some of my fleeces, or raw fleeces,” she says.
Valley uses most of the wool she produces to make her own handspun yarns.
“I don’t dye my wool. I do purchase some dyed rovings from other small businesses to ply with my natural colored yarns as the mood hits me.
“When I have the time, I also knit socks, hats, mittens, scarves and other items for show and sale. The majority of my sales are through the farmers market. I am not doing any heavy marketing through the internet at the moment. I do have one local shop that carries my products during the off-months.
“The spinning and knitting are definitely keeping the farm profitable,” she says. “I would say at least 90% of my sales are through the farmer’s market or to folks who have taken business cards during the market and contact me later.
“I work too hard to consider myself a ‘hobbyist,’ although I am too small-time to be considered a commercial sheep farmer,” Valley says.
Excess ram lambs go to friends to be raised for meat along with any ewes that don’t meet her standards for fleece, conformation or temperament.
“We don’t have a way to keep meat on the farm,” she says, “We use an ice cooler for just a few perishables during the summer, so I am not butchering any of our animals for our own use at the moment.
“My main income is from these sheep breeds with some additional income from the sale of my daughter’s Nigerian Dwarf goats.”
Land Reclamation With Sheep Breeds
Valley moved up to the wilderness in 1980. The land is rugged with granite ridges running east-west on the northern boundary. Red and white pines grow on the ridges. The bottom is hilly with mixed hardwoods and a spring-fed stream that cuts along the base of the main ridge.
“The pasture was established by clear-cutting about five acres of lowland near the stream, mulching with old hay and liming once,” Valley says. “The area had been heavily logged so it was more of an act of reclamation. “I recently limed all the fields again and will lime yet again next spring—by hand using a wheelbarrow and lots of elbow grease.”
The farm covers 54 acres with only about 10 acres cleared for pasture. The rest is being used as a woodlot that has been left unimproved for the wildlife.
“I’ve been using these sheep breeds to expand some of the pasture areas and improve the soil,” Valley says. “I’ll fence a wooded/brushy area and then graze the sheep in it; cutting down saplings for them to browse and then eventually removing the stumps after the roots loosen up.
“Eventually, you end up with a nice grassy area with a few trees scattered around.”
When pasture is sparse, which Valley says is much of the year, she feeds hay out in the field on bare areas to help mulch and seed new grass.
Close To Nature
Valley grew up in an “upper middle-class family that relocated often” during her childhood. But she had always wanted to live in the country.
The idea of living a simpler, more environmentally conservative life evolved over time.
“I was a suburbanite with a horse as a teenager and only came to the U.P. after graduating from college,” she says. “I’ve been on my own with my daughter on the homestead since 1992.”
Valley’s farm is run in a sustainable, environmentally conservative and natural way.
Any bedding is returned to the fields after composting to improve the soil or is used in the gardens for a deep-mulch/no-till system.”
Excess produce and weeds from the garden are fed to the animals along with household scraps.
She uses herbal methods for treating her animals whenever possible.
“We do have a problem with liver fluke in our area, so we have to use some chemical wormers at specific times of the year,” Valley says. “I use homeopathic methods for ‘vaccinating’ the flock and herd. I tend to let most things run their course in our flock, but do use antibiotics if I have a lambing problem or an animal that is in dire need or has had to have an assist during a lambing or kidding.
“I am not trying for organic certification on the farm. It would be too costly and difficult to find feed in our area that was organic.”
Most of the farms in the area go for “Naturally-Grown” status.
“I always had a yen for gardening and planted something at every house I lived in growing up,” Valley says. “My favorite times as a teenager were spending time at a farm where my horse was boarded. I enjoyed helping them with their chores.
“I found my homestead in 1980 knowing little or nothing about what I was getting myself into. It has been an intensely long labor of love and I’ve learned a lot about what is important (and not) in life.
“When I got the opportunity to put down roots and have my own place in the country in such a beautiful setting I couldn’t resist. The sheep have only added to the quality of my life.”
Originally published in the May/June 2010 issue of sheep! and regularly vetted for accuracy.