Sheep Industry News Associate Editor
(November 1, 2011) Livestock producers who have been around a few years know that the markets are like a pretty huge roller coaster. They can be really high, they can hit some major lows and every once in awhile they throw in a huge curve.
Former hog producer Mike Mulligan, of Glennville, Ga., has had a front seat ticket on that ride.
“The hogs were good for me for a lot of years, but when they went bad, it just about broke me,” he relates.
Mulligan had raised commercial hogs since he was a youth, building his outdoor operation to more than 300 sows at its height, in which the sows had individual outdoor hutches for farrowing and open pasture for growing and finishing.
But the hog market bottomed out and Mulligan had to make the decision that every producer in his situation has spent many a sleepless night over: he had to sell the hog operation.
Building Again with Hair Sheep
When Mulligan reluctantly sold off his hogs, he still had a yearning to raise animals.
“I’ve looked after livestock all my life,” he says.
He also had a lot of equipment, including outdoor hutches and hog panels, which could be used in another operation. Sheep were a perfect fit for his next livestock venture, though not one that is very popular in Mulligan’s area.
“When I first got into sheep, people thought I was crazy,” he laughs.
He met with several area sheep and goat producers and decided that with his pastures and facilities sheep were a perfect fit. Being hot and humid in the South, a climate that is hard on sheep with wool and conducive to parasite growth, hair sheep are more common in the area, and while working for MoorMan feed business, Mulligan got called to deliver sheep mineral to a producer in the area who had Katahdin ewes.
“I just sort of fell in love,” he says, adding that ASI executive board member, Will Getz, Ph.D., was instrumental in providing guidance for raising sheep in his area and what breeds might work best.
“He just gave me piles of advice. I knew livestock, but I didn’t know sheep.”
As he was very conscious of using the best genetics available in his breeding sows and boars as a hog producer, Mulligan set out to do the same with the sheep he purchased, but it was not easy in the late 1990s as hair sheep were not raised by many at that time.
“I had a hard time finding significant amount of Katahdins, a lot of people had a few of them but usually just as a hobby or for border collie training,” he says.
In 1998, he first purchased six Katahdin ewes, some of which had lambs, and two rams from the Mississippi State University dispersal sale, as the university had a reputation for quality hair sheep production.
Mulligan then went about purchasing more breeding stock from regional producers until he had built his operation up to around 400 ewes. He learned about the White Dorper breed in 2001, and as he emphasized growth and muscling in his flock, he felt adding Dorper genetics would go further toward that goal. He purchased three white Dorper rams with the goal of creating Katahdin/Dorper crossbred for breeding stock purposes and for creating a purebred Dorper flock.
“When I bought the Dorpers, there were only about 200 White Dorpers in the United States,” he says.
Converting from Swine to Sheep
If producers exit one production sector, be it for market or personal reasons, ASI, as part of its Let’s Grow program suggests that they have a great chance to use their equipment and facilities to start raising sheep, or even just add sheep if they are just scaling back. It has been seen in conversion from the poultry industry, and Mulligan is a perfect example of how it can be done in conversion from the hog industry as well.
Because his was an outdoor operation, the individual farrowing hutches are the perfect size for shelter for sheep, and his hog panels are the right height to contain sheep as well. His outdoor lots are now used for pasture for sheep (he has added electric fence barriers and guard dogs), and in all, Mulligan has not had to put much capital into taking his farm from hogs to sheep.
He also innovatively converted the concrete self-feeding pads he had used for his sows to ramps (tilting each pad up and leaned against each other) that sheep have to walk up and down to move from paddock to paddock. The ramps save Mulligan a lot of labor; the act of walking up and over the concrete ramp keeps the sheep’s hooves worn down so he does not have to trim them.
Providing Breeding Stock for Hair Sheep Industry
As he got into the Katahdin/Dorper business when it was just beginning to grow and had built his numbers up enough, he was a go-to producer for a genetics base for other producers who were hoping to get into the breed. Mulligan says that people from Florida to New York come to his operation to purchase breeding stock.
“From 2000 to 2005, I couldn’t fill nearly all the people’s request who had called. They were as sold as quick as I could get them weaned,” he says.
Much of the sales occurred via video, which he would make himself and mail out to potential buyers. He says about 80 percent of what he sold happened in that way.
He said that from 2006 to 2009, orders decreased so he used the time to cull out old ewes, which is why his numbers are down a bit currently, but relates that in the last year and a half, his phone has been ringing off the hook again from producers looking for breeding ewes.
“To this day, I haven’t sold a ewe lamb for slaughter,” he adds.
He says he is hoping this year’s heat during his breeding season does not affect his lambing percentage, as he expects that producers are going to be looking to build their flocks and will be looking for replacement ewes.
“I feel like I am going to have a big demand for my ewe lambs coming up,” he says.
Overall, Mulligan clearly is a lifelong livestock producer at heart, and anyone who spends time with him or talks to him can tell he takes pride in selecting for good genetics and clearly has an affinity for sheep. While his hogs were good to him while he had them, his sheep are a profitable venture that continues to pay their way.
“I wouldn’t go back to hogs now. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the sheep. I really, really have.”