GREENVILLE, W.Va. — It was not Aaron and Tara Helmick’s dream to have sheep, let alone several hundred of them, although the ewes and lambs call home on the grassy slopes from their farm in southern West Virginia.
The dairy was Aaron’s dream and, on paper, it was the most profitable part of their operation.
Continuing to milk made financial sense, but other aspects of life for first-generation dairy farmers didn’t add up.
“It wasn’t like, it’s awful and we hate it, but we were exhausted and we didn’t really see it because we had been doing it for so long and we had been in the industry for so long, we didn’t didn’t know what anything else was like,” Tara Helmick said. “We place a lot of importance on our faith in God to guide us through these things.”
They bought their first 50 mated ewes in January 2019. end of the year they had 500 sheep. They stopped trafficking in January 2020.
The number of sheep made sense for the budget and for the vision of what their life should look like.
“Part of my wife’s dream was that she wanted her kids to grow up on the farm with their parents there, not working off the farm,” Aaron said. Sheep allowed them to do that and more.
Aaron and Tara met in college at West Virginia University. She was a freshman and he was a senior when Tara took a job at the college dairy.
“They were looking for a sucker to take the cows to the state fair,” she said. “I didn’t know why nobody wanted to do it, so I said I would.” Aaron was a sucker too, apparently, and also went to the fair with the college cows. This is how the two met.
Tara grew up near Morgantown, West Virginia on a small commercial cow-calf farm. Aaron didn’t grow up on a farm, but he was always around them. He worked on nearby farms, eventually earning enough money to buy his first show calf when he was 12 years old. He worked for calf board at a dairy up the road. After college, he worked in local dairies.
They married in 2009. The newlyweds rented a dairy in Hans Creek Valley in Monroe County and began building a life, business and family together.
Their dairy was a low-input pasture system because they had the land base for it, Tara said. They went organic in 2015, selling their milk to Organic Valley. The highest number of cows milked at one time was around 120, Tara said.
The couple rented an apartment at the dairy and then moved into a trailer on the property. When the opportunity arose to purchase a small farm just minutes from the dairy, they took it.
“The dairy has been very good to us,” Aaron said. “It really helped give us a stepping stone to equity. It got us into land ownership and home ownership.
Their son, Andrew, was born in 2011. He is almost 11 years old now. Three other children would follow: daughter Lainey, 7; son, Graham, 5; and his son, Emory, 2.
Things started to change in 2018. They were nearing the end of their 10-year lease on the dairy. It was time to reevaluate. Would they continue to milk there or would they try to find another land and build a new facility? At the same time, they needed to grow.
“We had to increase the size of the dairy to maintain the standard of living,” Tara said. “We are not rich and fancy people by any means, but we are able to earn a living and help ourselves.”
Help was already becoming harder to find. Aaron was taking on more and more work at the dairy and was slowly wearing himself out. He was physically present for all the major events in his children’s lives, but he was not mentally present, he said.
The straw that broke the camel’s back came when they thought they had found a man to take over the daily dairy operations. When he backed down at the last minute, they realized how much they relied on this new person being there for relief.
They were already looking for other agricultural opportunities that would bring a similar income to their land. Something with more flexibility and less work. Something their children could be involved in. Something to solve their “people problems”, as Aaron called it. Sheep seemed to be a solution to these problems.
The sheep arrived at the farm a week before Aaron and Tara left for two weeks to attend Ranching for Profit School in South Dakota in early 2019. They left Tara’s parents and their children behind. take care of the lambing, which they did with relative ease.
Everything went so well that Aaron decided to have more sheep. They mainly obtained Katahdin hair sheep from various herd dispersals or other sales. Buying from a large group often gave a better deal per head. Slaughtering could be done gradually. By the end of the year, they had about 500 ewes.
Unfortunately, subsequent lambings were not so painless.
“It’s more like what didn’t go wrong,” Aaron said.
They lost a bunch of lambs to parasites. Another time they had burning problems in their mouths and feet. Their second big lambing, in February 2020, it looked like things were going well until the rain fell. Their valley received 8 inches of rain in 30 hours. The stocked pastures the sheep were on turned to mud. They lost a few hundred lambs and dozens of ewes during and after this weather event.
After that, they purchased Easycares, a breed of composite hair sheep developed in Nebraska, to replace many of their Katahdin ewes. It helped some of their issues with mothering ability and hardiness. They have also improved their feeding and lambing systems.
The Helmicks went to Ranching for Profit School in an effort to help solve their dairy problem. They always treated the farm like a business, but they wanted to take it to the next level. Ranching for Profit helped them do just that.
“I tell people, don’t go there unless you’re ready to change your life,” Aaron said.
While the dairy paid the bills, it did not help them achieve the mission and vision for their life and family. They left the dairy for a year, breeding the dairy cows into beef bulls and eventually selling the cows. The lessons they learned in school helped shape their new sheep business.
It is primarily a grass and pasture based system. Ewe lamb on pasture in spring with minimal assistance. Aaron or his employee check the herds and feed the cattle guard dogs once a day.
Some of their lambs are finished like feeders in the former dairy barn. The lambs are weighed once a week. If enough reach 70 pounds, the target weight for their local market, they send a load. Instead of targeting the Easter market, Aaron sells lambs the rest of the year to avoid the flooded market that drives prices down. He mainly markets lambs from November to March. They send lambs to auction about 40 weeks a year.
They also market “events for people”.
“We had a barn full of lambs last summer,” Aaron said. “We wanted to go on vacation. We had other people who wanted to go on vacation. I called a buyer and said, ‘What’s your price? We negotiated.
They were down to about 700 ewes, but they sold some recently because they had a buyer and the price was right. Even with all those sheep, they still have extra grass, so they bring in stockers and purebred cows if priced right to create extra income.
“I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface of the pasture with the sheep, because we’re still trying to understand the infrastructure,” Tara said. “We could support several hundred or a few thousand more head with improved grazing.”
Sheep are the centerpiece of their operation right now, but they’re still flexible. At the end of each year, they take stock of their overall activity.
“If we could leave today, how much money would we have and what would we do with it?” Aaron said. Would they buy their business again next year?
Then they lay out their options on a flipchart page, which they learned from the Ranching for Profit school. Rental, mutual, feeder lambs, buy more ewes, settle all operating debts. The page shows that flipping houses would bring the greatest return on investment.
“But you can’t eat assets,” Tara said.
The sheep business remains a winner for how family, life and business intersect
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be reached at 800-837-3419 or [email protected])
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