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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 and cattle.
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
High expenses, low returns … but it’s in their blood

For the Capital Press

John 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 born!"

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 January.

"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 year.

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 coyotes."

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 predators.

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."

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