Social isolation is not so bad on the sheep farm

Standing outside Birch Cove Farm, it’s easy to forget the horrors that fill the news.

Dozens of sheep graze in the lush green fields, calling out to each other with baas ranging from soprano lamb to tenor ram. Two incredibly large and fluffy cattle guard dogs keep an eye on the herd. Birds are singing in the nearby blooming red buds. It’s like a living page from a children’s coloring book about spring.

It took more than two decades of blood, sweat and – yes – manure to produce this idyllic scene, co-owners Carol Fulkerson and David Coplen said.

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The couple moved to their land near Fulton in 1991. Fulkerson taught social work at William Woods University, while Coplen worked in Jefferson City.

“We just wanted to be in the country,” Coplen said. “We weren’t thinking about agriculture.

Two luck factors combined to spark their interest in sheep: They started an organic garden, and Coplen’s lawnmower broke three times in a row.

“I was working (in) budget and planning at the time, and I realized, ‘I treat weed like it’s a liability – what if I treat it like an asset? “” said Coplen.

He thought that a few sheep would keep the grass short while producing manure for the garden and meat for the table. Fulkerson took a little more conviction; having grown up around cattle, she did not immediately see the attraction of sheep.

“I realized that the sheep weighed on what I was doing,” so they would be easier to handle, she said. “Then I went out and bought every piece of lamb I could find and it was fantastic.”

Americans don’t eat or raise as many sheep as they once did. Currently, the country has about a tenth more sheep than in the late 1940s. Fulkerson said World War II is to blame: American soldiers in Europe ate too much tough mutton and returned home in vowing to avoid this substance altogether.

As the tastes of America have turned from sheep to beef and chickens, efforts to improve sheep breeds have lagged behind, Coplen explained, as have efforts to develop new deworming drugs. Continued use of older dewormers made the parasites resistant to drugs.

“Most herds now have resistance to deworming,” Coplen said.

This is especially serious in a place like Missouri, where parasites such as the blood-sucking barber perch that live in the stomach can cause a sheep to go from health to death in a matter of weeks.

As Coplen and Fulkerson learned more about the issues facing American sheep farming, they decided to form a herd of Katahdin sheep. These hardy meat sheep don’t require shearing – they shed clumps of hair that drift through fields like tiny tumbleweeds.

The couple also had to face their own land. The area had been opencast for coal. What was not sterile was riddled with thorny and invasive multiflora roses.

“It looked like a lunar landscape,” Fulkerson summed up.

This is where the blood, sweat and manure come in. The couple worked to remove invasive plants, later making the pleasant discovery that sheep are happy to munch on rose bushes. Sheep dung has helped renew the soil in arid areas. It also helped them raise a better sheep.

The couple joined the National Sheep Improvement Program, a group of sheep farmers dedicated to improving profitability through genetic information. Along with half a dozen other Katahdin farmers, they bred to improve the breed’s pest resistance and meat production. This involved collecting thousands of samples of fresh lamb stools – a process about as unpleasant as one might imagine.

But the effort was worth it.

“Now our rams have 1% as much worms as the average ram,” Coplen said.

This made them highly desirable, he added – in addition to selling lambs for meat, Birch Cove Farm also supplies breeders to other sheep farmers. The current flock is about 100 ewes and produces about 200 lambs each spring.

Pastoral quarantine

The spread of COVID-19 has allowed the couple to see their farm in a new light, they said.

Fulkerson’s asthma means she is at risk of getting seriously ill if she does contract the disease, so Coplen manages all the trips to town that they can’t avoid. Both have a freezer full of lamb and their personal garden is already full of spinach, peas and other fresh vegetables. They have also resupplied themselves with feed for the herd and will rely as much as possible on their own experience and advice over the phone for veterinary care.

Ideally, both are already working from home – they retired from their day jobs a long time ago and are now fully focused on their herd.

“My father was born in 1909 and was at least a fourth generation cattle rancher,” Fulkerson said. “During World War II he was not drafted because they did not recruit farmers. His job was to feed people.”

More than ever, she sees her job as the same, especially as grocery stores place purchase limits on certain items and large farms worry about workers’ illnesses.

“It’s an interesting community service, making food for people in difficult times,” she said.

She suspects that as the pandemic continues, demand for local produce and interest in small-scale agriculture will increase.

Anyone interested in purchasing lamb can reach Birch Cove Farm at 573-642-7746.


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