Even though 1976 may seem like ancient history to some, George Wherry remembers it as if it were yesterday.
He had just taken over the family sheep farm from his <\h>just-retired father, and he and his wife, Patricia, had their first “good crop” of lambs.
Gunning for the popular Easter sheep market, he wanted to get his animals sold as soon as possible. So he targeted a local auction, hoping it would give him a good price.
What he found, though, was disappointment. Too many lambs were being sold during the auction, flooding the market. Instead of getting a good price for his lambs, they were being sold as feeders, bringing him a much lower price.
“I remember my wife came home and cried over that. From then on, I decided I was never going to go that route again,” Wherry said.
Nearly 40 years later, Wherry has kept his word, at least for the most part.
“My thought is, why work yourself to death all year and then you finally decide to load them up, take them in and take what they’ll give you. No, that’s not the way I do business,” he said.
He’s found his own niche, selling to various meat markets in New York City as well as to buyers who come to his 360-acre farm near Scenery Hill in Washington County, just south of Pittsburgh.
He maintains a flock of around 580 ewes, although that number can vary from year to year, depending on whether he can get replacement ewes and whether the market is good.
“We’re almost all in one basket with the sheep, basically,” he said, although he also raises 20 head of beef cattle for some extra income.
Wherry raises a Dorset-Texel crossbreed, something he’s been tinkering with ever since he took over the farm in the mid-1970s.
“I want a lamb that is good and meaty, with plenty of muscle,” he said.
Lambing occurs during fall into winter and spring. He doesn’t lamb over summer because he said it brings too many flies and potential issues with heat.
He times the lambing so a third of the flock is giving birth at a given time, which he said reduces the pressure from all his ewes giving birth at the same time.
That timing is also good when it comes to marketing the lambs.
Different buyers have different tastes, and Wherry has found that when it comes to Easter, and then Greek Easter a month later, size does matter.
Easter buyers, he said, prefer a lighter animal, which matures at around 60 pounds, resulting in a dressed weight of between 20 and 30 pounds. But Greek Easter buyers prefer a little heavier animal, one that dresses out to 40 pounds or more.
Wherry credits the growing ethnic market for a recent boom of lamb consumption in the U.S. He said he started noticing more ethnic buyers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with many coming from nearby Pittsburgh.
“They would come to the farm for lambs. A lot of times they would kill them here on the farm and take it as it is,” he said. “The other end is the Muslim market. There is now more of an influence from them. They’re not afraid to travel a great distance to get what they want.”
Only 20 percent of his lambs are sold at the farm. Meat from the remainder go to various markets in New York City, which in turn sell the lamb to high-end restaurants and businesses in the city.
Wherry ships his lambs to a local packer, 84 Packing Co. in Eighty Four, Pa., where they are slaughtered and then trucked to New York.
Even though some of the state’s livestock auctions offer some of the highest lamb prices in the country — New Holland in particular — Wherry said direct marketing saves him from having to pay commission and yardage costs, which can be up to 10 cents per pound.
He said he gets 40 to 60 cents more than the auction average of $2.50 per pound.
“I like to negotiate with the buyers. Once they see the quality of what these lambs are, they’re impressed,” he said.
The ewes are raised mostly on pasture, as long as there is grass growing. Wherry said the animals are fed forage and hay in the winter, along with a little bit of grain prior to and just after lambing.
Bales are placed in homemade pipe feeder wagons, which he makes from stripping down a pickup truck, leaving just the chassis, and then putting a steel pipe rack around it.
He said he can fit three to five bales in a wagon, depending on its length, which saves him from having to bring hay bales to the pasture every day.
Once a lamb is born, it is usually tail-docked and vaccinated, and some of the males are castrated.
Wherry keeps ewes up to seven years, depending on their condition. All of his replacement ewes come from within the herd.
Now 73 years old, Wherry is still going strong. He runs the operation with a daughter who lives on the farm — one of his six children. He also has eight grandchildren. Patricia, his wife of 48 years, died in 2009.
A longtime employee of his, who is 86, just retired due to health issues, which leaves Wherry and his daughter, along with a grandson, to run the farm.
Wherry said he is still open to new opportunities to improve his production and profitability.
He is working with researchers at West Virginia University on an accelerated breeding program, which he hopes will result in more lambing during the offseason, mostly in late spring.
He also sees an opportunity marketing his lamb to more local businesses. Some of his lamb can be found in local Giant Eagle supermarkets.
His approach is “just getting out and meeting the available market that is close at hand,” he said. “Meeting and letting them get the taste of what is really produced here, qualitywise.
“Many of the stores I sell to, they now know where the lamb comes from. It’s the difference in how we try to raise these lambs and what I’ve bred into them,” he said.
But the future is also bringing potentially dark clouds.
Wherry said that between 1995 and 2004, he lost a total of 242 lambs to predators, mostly coyotes. It almost put him out of business.
He got help through USDA’s Livestock Protection Program, where various specialists would come to the farm to try and take care of the problem.
“They have different ways and different resources to go about combating them that we as farmers or normal trappers don’t have,” he said.
But the recent government sequestration cuts have threatened the program, resulting in a reduced number of specialists able to meet with individual farmers.
Wherry said he’s used llamas, donkeys and certain dog breeds to try to combat the coyotes, but none of those methods has worked for an extended period of time.
He said he hopes the predator threat won’t get as bad as in the past so he can take advantage of a lamb market that’s doing very well, so long as grain prices don’t get too high.
“I feel very strong right now. It has improved tremendously over the last five years,” he said.