McGeary Ranch is owned and managed by Mike and Judith McGeary. Our trip into sustainable farming began academically, with Dr. Dick Richardson introducing Judith to holistic management and Acres USA. Inspired by what she read, Judith traveled to Wyoming for a seminar and came back filled with wonderful plans. Top among them was that we should get goats for “natural weed control” (at the time, we had only horses, who disdain weeds in favor of grass). So, when we moved back to Austin, we promptly bought several goats. Within 3 months, Judith was nagging Mike to sell the dratted animals because they were escaping from all the fences and breaking into the barn on a regular basis. Mike held out longer, but finally agreed.
Having failed miserably with the goat experiment, our next foray into raising animals other than horses was with chickens. We researched genetics and nutrition, and came to the conclusion that we did not want to feed soy-based feeds. Chickens will avoid soy if given a choice, and the phytoestrogens that concentrate in the yolk are not healthy for the people who consume them. (You can read more about the issues with soy at http://www.westonaprice.org/soy-alert) But farming without soy is very difficult. Back in 2003, we were the first and only chicken producer in Texas going soy-free, and it was impossible to find pre-mixed feed for our chickens. We also knew that we would face significantly reduced production because modern chickens have been bred to perform on a high-protein diet premised on cheap soy. So we started our farm by hatching 200 eggs from Beneficial Farms, a biodynamic farm in New Mexico that had been breeding chickens to do well on non-soy feed: http://mesatopfarm.com/bepa.html. We worked with a local organic farmer to develop our own soy-free feed and watched the chicks thrive on it.
After our initial success with the chickens, we decided to expand the farm to ruminants again. As with our chickens, we wanted to be breed our own animals so that we had control over the conditions from the first day of their life and could select for animals that would do well in our conditions. A breeding herd of beef cattle required more acreage than we had at that time. So we looked at sheep, small ruminants who are very efficient at converting grass to meat. And while they might not be the weed-eating machines that goats are, they do eat a fairly significant percentage of weeds, making them an excellent choice for a multi-species farm with horses. But what kind of sheep? If we raised traditional breeds, we’d either have to learn to sheer (which neither of us was inspired to do) or pay someone more to sheer the animals than we’d get from selling the wool. We soon discovered that there are breeds of “hair sheep” that shed out their wool every spring. As a significant bonus, these breeds have a milder tasting meat than the traditional wool sheep because they don’t develop as high levels of lanolin in their skin (lanolin is what gives wool sheep that strong and often greasy flavor).
There are two common breeds of hair sheep used in this region — Dorpers and Katahdins. We chose Katahdins because they have better parasite resistance (making it easier to raise them without chemical wormers) and because they typically finish better on grass (while Dorpers are more often fed grain to put on weight well). After learning a lot of lessons with our first two batches of lambs, we bought 5 ewes and a ram and started breeding in 2004. “Baa-Baa” the ram is still the head of our flock today, and he was joined by “Big Guy” last year to bring in new genetics. Our Katahdins are a joy to raise. They are much calmer than many other breeds of sheep, a trait we encourage by handling the lambs as much as possible. Both rams and many of the ewes will walk up to us to ask to have their heads or backs scratched. The best time of year is when we have new lambs, who seem to develop springs in their legs around the second or third day of their lives and go bouncing around with unadulterated joy of living. Mike in particular has a talent for gentling the lambs and coaxing the braver ones to play with him as if he were an overgrown lamb himself. Each year teaches more about these animals and how to be good caretakers.
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