Sheep growers benefit from hands-on learning during 77th convention

Farm Forum

SDSU Extension provided a diverse line-up of educational programs for sheep producers in conjunction with the 77th Annual South Dakota Sheep Growers Association (SDSGA) Convention on September 26 and 27 in Brookings.

About 140 growers from South Dakota and other states including; Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and Montana, were in attendance for the weekend event.

Several months of planning led up to this event. SDSU Extension Sheep Specialist, Jeffrey Held and SDSU Extension Sheep Field Specialist, David Ollila worked closely with the SDGA to provide relevant hands-on and informational workshops for growers. The topics presented at the event were intended to serve all sheep growers, help them gain a clear understanding of the value of lamb and wool products and provide ways sheep producers can add value to their operation.

“We wouldn’t be able to offer the resources and programs that we do without SDSU Extension,” SDSGA President, Max Matthews explained. “This is the third year that we have made this into a two-day event. This has allowed us to provide more hands-on experiences for producers. It is good to provide information, but it is even more valuable for growers to try something hands-on that they can bring home to their operation.”

A real-life example

A highlight of the convention was a tour of the Tom and Marilyn Schwebach sheep operation near Egan, S.D., where growers saw a real-life example of how Ovine Progressive Pneumonia (OPP) can impact an operation.

“The set-up was selected because it presents a first-hand story of how OPP can be managed,” Ollila pointed out.

In 1994, the Schwebachs were faced with a decision to sell their entire flock of sheep and start over after they realized the damages OPP was causing. Due to the effects of OPP, Tom noted that they were raising 150-250 bottle lambs every year. As a result, they decided to sell their entire flock and start building a completely OPP negative herd. Growers who attended the tour learned from the Schwebach’s experience with OPP.

“We sold everything off,” Tom Schwebach explained. “We were convinced OPP was the problem. We tested the ewes that we brought in and had 30 positives. We decided to keep the positives in a separate flock. Out of that flock 20 of the 30 positive ewe had their lambs removed and bottle-fed. That is when we decided we wouldn’t keep any positives.”

Today, Schwebach takes measures to be sure no OPP positive rams are brought into the flock. In addition, he tests his entire flock for OPP every five years. He stressed how important it is to take management measures to eliminate OPP.

“If everybody knew what the problem was, there would be a premium for OPP-free animals. Unless you have a major shipwreck, you won’t understand its impact. We had a major shipwreck,” Schwebach said.

Despite the challenges, Schwebach said that the work they did in keeping OPP out of their herd is worth it.

“Now it is not bad lambing,” Schwebach said. “We actually kind of enjoy it.”

Valuable education and networking

In addition to the tours, growers had the option to take part in hands-on sessions on the campus of SDSU. Topics presented included lamb fabrication and retail value, sheep care and handling, improving wool clip value and selecting replacements. Ollila also led a session, which allowed growers to make a lamb warmer and other handy items to bring home to their operation.

“Having SDSU here as an institution to provide these lessons is key. SDSU Extension is a staple for providing information across all ag industries,” Matthews pointed out. “We have visitors here from other states because they know the value of information SDSU can offer.”

Lealand Schoon is a commercial sheep producer from White River, S.D., who has been bringing his sons, Seth and Adrik, to the convention for the past four years. Schoon said this event is a big part of his sons’ homeschooling education.

“We keep coming back because it is beneficial every year. It gives me a chance to talk with my peers about meat, wool and management plans,” Schoon explained. “I bring my boys every year so that they can learn with me.”

What if you didn’t attend?

While growers are strongly encouraged to attend next year’s convention to add value to their operation, Ollila noted that SDSU Extension offers many educational opportunities throughout the year.

“Sheep by nature are very adaptable livestock and will respond well to different levels of management. Educational programs such as this provide insights for producers in understanding how to develop a production system that best fits their feed resources, labor resources and capital resources,” Ollila noted. “A number of educational programs, events and activities will be offered throughout the state and in cooperation with neighboring states during the year.”

To learn more about upcoming events, sheep producers should contact Held,, Ollila, David. or SD Sheep Growers Directors or visit