LAKEFIELD — At Aries Acres near Lakefield, the first 36 hours of 2021 included the births of 32 new lambs. The bellering babes joined a burgeoning flock of purebred, registered Columbia sheep raised by siblings Louise and Charles Worm.
It was the start of what was to be a busy month of lambing, followed by equally busy lambing spurts in February and March. The lambing season is spaced to ensure quality show stock for the corresponding January, February and March lamb class competitions during the show season.
While the global pandemic greatly impacted the 2020 show season, the Worms are hopeful to return to the circuit this year, promoting their purebred, registered Columbia sheep not only as show stock, but equally for their meat and wool production.
A family tradition
The Worms were introduced to Columbia sheep at a young age. Back in 1952 and living in Chaska — at that time still a rural area, though now a metropolitan suburb — their dad bought four Columbia ewes from a grower in South Dakota, and brought them home essentially as lawn mowers.
“The sheep were always around, and we had a few cattle,” shared Louise. “One day, my mom took us to a 4-H meeting, and for a project we had Columbia sheep. It began as a 4-H project.”
In 1969, when Louise was in high school, she became the first of three females to join the then-Future Farmers of America organization in Minnesota. She’d done so primarily to show her family’s sheep in the FFA contest at the Minnesota State Fair.
Though their dad wasn’t a fan of competition, Louise and Charles worked with their sheep and learned a lot, both in 4-H and the FFA. After college and first jobs, the loss of their mom in 1984, and their dad’s decision to sell the farm, the siblings took the sheep in hopes of building upon the genetics of their fledgling flock.
At the time, Charles was working in Madelia as an adult farm management instructor, and Louise was teaching agriculture education in Truman. They rented barn space from a local farmer.
The arrangement seemed to work out well enough until, in February 1987, they lost some sheep to what was later determined to be pseudorabies. Hogs in a nearby barn on the same farm were infected with the virus, and they learned the farmer’s children had gone from the hog barn into the sheep barn to see the lambs.
“The kids rubbed the noses of the sheep and that’s how it was spread,” said Louise. “(The state veterinarians) prepared us that we could lose up to 70% of our flock. We lost two ewes.”
They relocated their sheep to facilities on four different farms for several months, and then Louise was offered a teaching position in the Heron Lake-Okabena-Lakefield school district.
“I said sure, but find us a farm place,” she recalled. “That’s how we got here. It was more sheep-related than work-related at the time.”
Louise said having a farm site of their own west of Lakefield offered the siblings an opportunity to focus on their sheep operation. Still, they both maintained full-time jobs — she notching 20 years teaching at HL-O-L and Southwest Star Concept, with her final three years at the Academy for Food Science and Agriculture in Vadnais Heights before reaching the Rule of 90 and retiring. Meanwhile, Charles continued to work in adult farm management, and from 2003 to 2012 also worked full-time as the controller at then-Heron Lake Bioenergy. Today, the two work as crop insurance specialists at EXTended Ag Services in Lakefield.
Keeping the Columbias
There was never a question that the Worms would continue with the Columbia breed after taking over the flock. The Columbias are a large, dual-purpose breed known to be exceptionally good mothers and produce a large amount of wool.
“They’re great in crossbreeding programs for rate of gain and feed efficiency,” said Charles, also noting the docile nature of the breed.
With a flock that numbers 75 ewes, along with numerous rams and a continually expanding lamb crop, the Worms have focused on genetics that create deeper-bodied, bigger-boned sheep.
“We’re raising them to be built right for show, but part of it these days is also wool quality,” said Louise. She and Charles shear all of their own sheep, due in part to the high cost of hiring a shearer.
“Shearers charge an arm and a leg because (our sheep) are heavier and bigger,” she said. “We started last year shearing our own.”
Because their sheep are halter-broke and used to being handled, shearing seems to go easier. They do so in smaller batches, getting 49 sheared over the holidays with the aid of their fitting stand.
“Doing (the shearing) ourselves has been a great management tool,” said Charles. “This way, you get a chance to look at them, evaluate their wool.”
“And trim feet,” added Louise. “We can take a look at udders and we do preg-checking, but we can tell if they’re on track.”
Noting the importance of marketing, Louise said she is currently exploring markets with small woolen mills across the country who might be willing to wash and card wool from a single sheep, allowing her to market the wool accordingly.
With a former student in a Twin Cities knitting club, Louise said consumers want that personal connection.
“If I can market skeins of yarn that came from a certain sheep, it’s a huge thing in marketing,” she added.
Meanwhile, the Worms also market their sheep to others specifically for the quality of the wool. They recently sold a ewe to a woman in Oregon who specializes in producing and selling quality Columbia wool fleece.
A market for lamb
Just as marketing their wool is integral to their business, so too is marketing the meat. Approximately 75% of the Worms’ ram lamb crop is sold for meat consumption, with the remainder saved back for breeding stock. Most ewe lambs are also raised for breeding stock.
The Worms have developed a lambing schedule that begins in October in order to fulfill demand for lamb meat.
“Following the ethnic holidays is huge,” Louise said, adding that the lambs they market for meat production are sold in Zumbrota. The sale lures buyers from large metropolitan areas including Chicago, Illinois.
“We were extremely lucky last spring to market sheep at Ramadan time,” Louise said.
“There’s also a good market just before Easter,” added Charles.
While lamb isn’t a popular staple in the Midwest — the land of beef and pork — Charles said 90% of lamb is marketed on the east and west coasts and to upscale Midwestern restaurants.
Building on success
When Louise and Charles began showing their Columbia sheep in 4-H, little did they know how the experience would blossom into competitions at shows not only in the Midwest, but across the country.
Charles, who currently serves as executive secretary for the Columbia Sheep Breeders Association of America, said getting to travel was an appealing aspect of being involved in the sheep industry.
“The people in the sheep world we’ve known forever and they’re still our friends,” he said.
Their relationships began at small county fairs — Carver, Dakota, Scott, McLeod and Wright — when they were younger, and now span regional and state fairs in multiple states.
“As we got better, we went to Wisconsin, Iowa, South Dakota and the Minnesota State Fair for decades,” shared Louise. “We go to Davenport, Iowa to the Quad City Fair and the (Clay County Fair in Spencer, Iowa) every year. That and the Minnesota State Fair are our favorite shows.”
The Worms also compete at the North American International Livestock Exposition in Louisville, Kentucky, as well as in the national show strictly for the Columbia breed.
“It’s another tool for marketing,” said Louise, adding that she and Charles have hosted national Columbia shows in Jackson, Fairmont and Spencer.
“We’re one of the very few breeds that run our own national show and sale in June,” shared Charles. This year, the National Columbia Show is in Ohio. It has been hosted as far west as Los Angeles County Fairgrounds. Their sheep have been sold from Massachusetts to Oregon.
The Worms typically show around 18 sheep when they compete in state, regional and national shows, trying to have one animal per show class.
“As the year goes, you lose rams because you sell them off,” Louise said.
While COVID-19 cancelled much of their show season in 2020, the Worms are hopeful they can be back in the show ring this summer and fall, showcasing their newest crop of Columbias.