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Unlikely Shepherds at Long Rifle Farm – Door County Pulse

Amanda and Joe Brooker walked through their property near Potawatomi State Park to the pasture where their flock of sheep was grazing. Buck, the resident cattle guard dog, announced their arrival with a deep, ringing bark that would keep any potential four-legged or two-legged predators at bay.

If you had asked Amanda, who has a background in marketing, and Joe, a high school principal in Green Bay, if they ever saw themselves becoming shepherds, the answer would have been yes — and no.

“Amanda had floated the idea of ​​having goats, and I always said, ‘No way. We’ll never have goats,'” Joe said.

But buying your dream property in rural Door County — coupled with the months spent at home during the pandemic and the free time it has provided to brainstorm new project ideas — has a way of providing the catalyst to do things you said you would never do.

“So I found goats on Craigslist,” Joe laughed at the irony of his purchase.

“But the idea,” he added in his defense, “was that we would use the goats to clear brush around the property. But then I saw another ad on Craigslist for sheep.

This ad sent Joe down a rabbit hole of researching sheep – the different breeds, uses and care requirements – and it eventually led him to Icelandic sheep: one of the oldest and most popular breeds of sheep. pure in the world.

“What you see here is basically what these sheep have looked like for a thousand years,” he said.

The medium-sized, cold-hardy breed has a short, stocky build, and their faces and legs are free of wool. In fact, at first glance, their primitive appearance may cause someone unfamiliar with the breed to mistake them for goats, especially if the sheep have recently been sheared. Their double-coated fleece comes in a range of colors including white, brown, gray and black. Rams average between 180 and 220 pounds and ewes between 130 and 160 pounds, so although they are substantial, they are still a manageable breed for beginning herders.

The more the Brookers researched the breed, the more they realized they were a perfect fit for their property, location, and farming goals.

“Knowing that we didn’t have a barn and weren’t experienced farmers or herders, we needed something sturdy that would thrive in our climate,” Joe said.

Icelandic sheep are also naturally short-tailed – another mark under the “for” column as this feature eliminates the need for tail docking for all lambs born on the farm. The breed also has horned and polled (hornless) strains. The Brookers’ first herd was questioned, “but personally I find the horned variety more aesthetically pleasing,” Joe said.

Thus, this initial herd was sold and replaced by the current horned variety. Rams, as they grow, develop an impressive full double curl, while ewes’ horns create a half-circle shape.

Getting started — then restarting — with their herd was just one of many lessons the Brookers learned on their journey. And while the learning curve isn’t without hours of hard work (and a few tears), the opportunity to grow as a shepherd is also part of the appeal.

Before the sheep, keeping a few colonies of bees and tending a small vegetable garden was the extent of the couple’s farming skills. But a sense of curiosity, a willingness to learn and a taste for adventure inspired the couple to take up not only herding a flock of sheep, but raising them for meat, wool and breeding.

For Amanda, marketing the breed is the easiest part of her new role – not only because of her previous career in marketing, but also because Icelandic sheep are a triple-purpose breed.

(Left to right) Joe and Amanda Brooker. Photo by Rachel Lukas.

“You can make milk, meat and fleece,” she said, “so sell the fleece, then for the meat sheep, we have the hides tanned.”

The hardest part about as planned is when things don’t go as planned.

“Those are the sad parts,” Amanda said. “When lambing goes wrong, or someone gets sick.”

There is also a balance to be found in raising any type of livestock, from how many animals a space can safely and adequately care for, to how many you, as a herder, have the time to to take care of you.

“Last year was our first year of lambing, and we went from 12 sheep to 22 sheep very quickly,” Amanda said. “We were trying to balance the pastures, trying to protect them from coyotes that you could hear at night.”

To help maintain this balance, the Brookers use rotational grazing, rotating the herd between three fenced paddocks, in addition to other grazing around other areas of the property using portable electric nets.

Learning about the animals’ diet, including grazing requirements and specific mineral needs of sheep, was another learning curve. The soil in Door County and Wisconsin as a whole does not contain large amounts of selenium, a mineral needed for overall sheep health. Thus, because the animals are not able to obtain sufficient amounts from the soil through grazing, their diets require mineral supplementation.

Then there is the shearing of the animals twice a year.

“Fall fleece is what’s considered the ‘silver fleece’ that you sell for spinning,” Amanda said.

Because of this, the Brookers, after two seasons of trying to shear the sheep themselves, decided to hire a more experienced shearer. But from there, Amanda has been busy learning new ways to use and market her wool products.

Icelandic sheep are available with horns or horns (without horns). The Brookers’ original herd was questioned, but they have since sold those animals and started a new herd of horned sheep. The horns of rams produce an impressive curl, while the horns of sheep take the shape of a half moon. Photos by Rachel Lukas.

“With the internet, you can learn anything, and one of my mentors really likes fibers,” said Amanda, who taught herself how to wash wool and then use it to needle felt or , in the case of lesser quality wool, make dryer balls.

Although Wisconsin is home to only a handful of Icelandic sheep farmers, the Brookers hope to be part of a movement to raise awareness of the breed they have fallen in love with.

“We try to come together to network, to buy from each other and mentor each other,” Amanda said, because if there’s anything a beginning shepherd needs to have in the toolkit, it’s resources. reliable.

“It’s so important to find a mentor who can help you learn,” Amanda said. “And then once you’ve done that, you can’t be afraid to learn and ask questions because every year you learn more.”

Visit theongriflefarm.com to learn more about Icelandic sheep at Long Rifle Farm.

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