‘Come on girls! Tulip! Come on lambies!” John Steitz hollered.
“Cash, you’re missing dinner,” his wife, Carol, yelled toward a reluctant sheep.
As the couple continued to shake round bins of barley, the flock of Australian Merinos picked up their heads, and upon realizing dinner was served, bounded over the hill at a full-out run.
The sheeps’ coats were a medley of brown, gray and black, though most of those hues were hidden beneath protective coats. The garments, which looked like miniature horse blankets, helped keep the sheep clean — well, as clean as one could keep a farm animal.
It’s a necessary step in raising sheep for wool. The Merinos, with their variety of colors and fine coats, are ideal producers, especially for the art-wool market that the Steitzes target. The couple are in a state of semi-retirement — caring for a flock of 25 Merinos to keep them busy and rejuvenate their land, which had been overgrazed by its former equine inhabitants.
The couple sells full fleeces, which average about $125 to $150 each, directly to craftsmen and women as far off as New Hampshire, Texas and even Spain.
The operation, situated on five acres in Whitefish, is a far cry from John’s Pennsylvanian roots. He grew up on the family farm in the western part of the state, where he started a production sheep operation with his sister. They ran 100 head — quadruple John and Carol’s current flock — but didn’t enjoy much success.
“We didn’t make any money at it, and there were big losses — sicknesses came through,” John said. “I love the animals but the risks were really high where we were. I lost to some predators, I lost to a poisonous tree.”
But when he and Carol retired, John wanted to find a way to have sheep in his life — just not 100 of them, and not in Pennsylvania.
They relocated to the Big Sky state in the fall of 2011 and bought their first sheep in 2013, starting the Steitzhof farm (hof means ranch in German).
They grew their flock slowly, buying the best genetics they could to ensure higher quality in the long run.
John said he also relied on help from other area farmers, namely Julie Robinson of Dubeau Farm in Kalispell and Diane Ward of Round Prairie Farm, west of Whitefish.
“That was the key to starting a small farm was finding somebody you could work with and share some genetics with,” he said.
John will share rams with Robinson to increase the diversity in both of their respective herds and avoid inbreeding.
The Steitzes said the most difficult part of their operation is choosing which sheep to keep and which to move on after lambing season. Due to the dry climate, their land can only accommodate 25 sheep, so growing their flock in not an option.
“We’ve gotten to the point now where we don’t really have any bad animals — we have ones that we are choosing instead of,” he said. “If you want to have that experience of having lambs, you have to create the room.”
The couple prefers to sell their offshoots to other producers as breeders, but sometimes have to make the difficult choice of sending an animal to market.
“Being able to go from 100 sheep to 20 sheep, they all now aren’t just numbers, they’re names and personalities,” John said.
“We try to name them based on their personality,” Carol added. “We try to wait for a couple of days sometimes a week, before one sticks. Sometimes we go through several names.”
The flock includes characters such as Rosi, a bottle-fed lamb known for her friendly demeanor, and champion show lamb, Captain Jack — named for John’s father, not the fictional pirate. There’s also the multi-colored Mr. Cool, Sirprize and Feldman, among others.
The couple’s favorite time of year is lambing. Carol helps make sure the lambs are properly bonded to their mothers. Newborn lambs and mother lambs are housed in small corrals inside the couple’s barn for a few days to solidify their relationship before being released into the flock. Sometimes when a sheep gives birth to twins, she’ll kick off the weaker baby, which is then known as a bottle baby and fed by John and Carol.
“It’s hysterical — they come running up to the house, go flying up the stairs, crash into the door, knock the bottle out of your hand,” John said.
“They get so fast and sneaky,” Carol said. “You open the door and they’re just pshhhht they’re in there — OK there’s a lamb in the kitchen. It’s hard to resist, really.”
For the Whitefish couple, the experience of raising sheep and selling a quality product is the biggest reward.
“Our sheep essentially pay for all their feed,” he said. “It’s as sustainable as that.”