A start-from-scratch sheep farm finds success in southwest Oklahoma
Photo by Gail Banzet-Ellis
Sheep farms are less common these days across the country, but in 2012 John and Mistie Lee relocated to Oklahoma to build one from scratch. John, a software developer, and Mistie, a registered nurse, lived in North Canton, Ohio, and wanted to find a piece of land that would work best for their planned operation. After some searching in other states, the rolling hills and native grasses of Tillman County, Oklahoma, called their names. Today, the husband and wife team are members of Southwest Rural Electric Cooperative and raise primarily Katahdin sheep for breeding stock and meat outside Tipton.
“We were complete novices,” John said about those first few years on the farm. “When we came here, basically all we had was an RV and the barn. Like anything when you start a new business, it’s a lot of trial and error.”
John and Mistie rebuilt the fences, divided up their one large pasture into smaller paddocks for rotational grazing and added doors to the existing barn. Mistie researched the potential sheep they would raise and initially chose the Dorper and Katahdin breeds for their maternal skills.
“We got the 20 hardiest ewes you could ever start with,” she explained. “We were lucky in that regard because our ewes are some of the best moms taking care of their babies—they have lambed on pastureland. It’s pretty amazing.”
That small flock, which has grown to 116 ewes and three rams, is now made up of mostly Katahdin sheep except for a couple of Dorper ewes. They are closely managed by Mistie who enlists John’s help when needed. Over time, the Lees decided to expand their herd with Katahdins because of the breed’s parasite resistance and larger size.
“We want a larger-sized lamb than a typical market lamb, and the Katahdin ram lamb will hit our 140-pound goal for slaughter as early as 5 months,” Mistie explained.
A farm girl at heart, Mistie has returned to her rural roots with Limerick Farms. She grew up on a swine operation in Kansas and cherished her childhood surrounded by animal agriculture. When she and John moved to Oklahoma and established their operation, she also worked as a nurse until three years ago when she turned her sole focus to the flock. Mistie suffers from Parkinson’s disease and when the demands of her health and two careers became overwhelming, she chose the farm.
“Limerick was the name of the street we lived on in Ohio,” Mistie said. “We wanted to bring the old with the new, and when I was a kid, I always wanted to raise sheep.”
The availability of high-speed internet in remote areas gives John the freedom to work from anywhere, and his employer understands the unexpected demands of life on the farm.
“Sometimes, I’ll be in a conversation with my boss and say, ‘Oh wait, I have to go deliver a lamb, I’ll call you back,’” he said.
Fortunately, very few Limerick Farms ewes need any help
delivering their babies. Most of the operation’s original ewes are still lambing, and the Lees have found some innovative ways to combine their herdsman skills with data mining technology from the livestock management program Ranch Manager.
John devised an algorithm that provides insight into which ewes and rams will produce the best lambs, but Mistie’s management style also contributes to the flock’s productivity. She knows the bloodline of each lamb born on the farm and is fascinated at how genetic traits strengthen the herd.
“I like studying the different genetics and seeing how they combine to make some of the best ewes for our flock,” she said. “It’s exciting to see how they improve.”
Some Katahdin rams can exceed 300 pounds, siring large, healthy lambs. John said Limerick Farms is primarily a breeding stock business with Mistie traveling year-round to parts of the Midwest and South. She attends major shows and sells sheep to customers in Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia. Selling meat is a smaller portion of their enterprise but has resulted in happy customers. Limerick Farms lambs are processed at 5 to 7 months of age and result in what the Lees describe as a rich and tender cut of meat. John sells lamb at the Lawton Farmers Market every Saturday and encounters a lot of return customers who say they love the farm-raised product.
“Our lamb meat is incredible and great tasting,” he said. “Customers obviously have cheaper alternatives, so I want them to enjoy our product and say it’s the best lamb they’ve ever had and know they got their money’s worth.”
Like all business owners, John and Mistie hope their operation thrives and turns a profit, but more than anything they are focused on customer satisfaction—whether that involves a breeding stock buyer or someone buying lamb chops for a fancy dinner.
“Our goal is to see our customers succeed,” John said. “Mistie is constantly in contact with former and current customers because she wants those ewes or rams we sold to them to be the best and highest quality for their farm.”
Between John, Mistie and the help of one hired hand, everyone at Limerick Farms endures their fair share of hard work. Successful livestock management requires careful planning, an open mind, basic knowledge, a lot of determination and a little luck, but raising a quality product that customers prefer is worth all of the sacrifice, Mistie said. Returning to the rural livelihood is a dream realized and a way to revisit her fond childhood memories of life on the farm.
“I can’t imagine living in the city,” she said.