Shearing sheep for five generations
If Carvel Cheves ever wondered if he was in the right profession, he got his answer with some “homegrown archaeology.”
“I am the fifth generation to raise sheep on this property,” Carvel says. “I found my great-great-grandfather’s journal under the steps at the old homeplace [across the road] and found out we sheared sheep on the same day, 150 years apart.”
Carvel, along with his wife, Carol, runs Clover C Farms in Bunn, N.C. As sheep growers go, they have a large operation, with 150 breeding ewes, five rams, 16 wool sheep and 180 lambs. In addition to their own herd, they finish about 500 animals through their feedlot for other producers.
Carvel’s father passed away in 1959, and members of the family sold off part of the acreage. Carvel and his mother kept the last 50 acres and rented it to another family member until 1979 when he and Carol took it over.
• Clover C Farms raises dual-purpose sheep as well as wool-only breeds.
• Rotational grazing helps with feed costs and protects pastureland.
• The number of paying customers has taken a hit from the weakening economy.
“We made the decision to not be in tobacco,” Carvel says. “We tried black Angus and red Angus, and we always had sheep. We decided that with sheep the size and ease of handling the animal made it the right choice for us.”
“We made lots of road trips and visited producers,” Carol adds. “We did a lot of reading and tried different cuts of meat to see what would work.” The Cheveses settled on Suffolk to make up the bulk of their herd.
“It’s a combination breed,” Carvel says. “You get meat and wool. It’s a good-size animal, it has good composition, high-yield, and it is mild-mannered. We’re also heavily involved in 4-H, and Suffolk sheep show well.”
Clover C is also home to some commercial crosses, as well as registered polled Dorset (no horns), Katahdin (hair instead of wool) and Border Leicester, a breed raised strictly for wool.
The farm cycle starts in late August to early September, a narrow window when sheep are bred. Lambing begins roughly five months later, and the newborns stay with their mothers until they are weaned around 8 weeks old. The animals then head to the feedlot where they get pelleted ration and hay, females are selected to be kept for breeding, and the 4-Hers come in to pick their show animals. Commercial ewes can produce for seven years or more. The rest of the animals are slaughtered when they reach 80 to 120 pounds, usually around 6 to 12 months of age.
The Cheveses sell only live animals, directly off the farm.
“Our clientele is as varied as the population,” Carvel says. “Some are ethnic, some are longtime buyers, and some are just regular shoppers who like the fact that our animals are antibiotic and hormone-free.”
May of each year brings “Shearing Day.” About 80 sheep are sheared, one right behind the other. Another shearer comes in to help, and customers who make wool clothing come to make their selections, as well as folks who just want to see the process.
“We can shear one in about four to five minutes, and it all comes off in one piece. That took a learning curve of years,” Carvel says, laughing.
Carol uses the wool to make an impressive line of hats and other items, including hats she gives away to cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Clover C offers raw wool, washed fleeces, whole fleeces, and material already washed, carded and ready to spin. Wool not considered top quality is used for bedding or insulation, and makes an excellent erosion-control material.
“Historically, sheep producers have always been stewards of the land,” says Carvel, who serves on the Franklin County Soil and Water Conservation Board. “Most do this on a small scale, especially on the East Coast. They are looking to preserve a way of life. They’re not big corporations; they’re self-sustaining operators, preserving the land for the next generation.”
Clover C uses rotational grazing on its 50 acres and leases another 75 acres for hay production to supplement. Each paddock is around 1½ acres, with the largest just 2½ acres. An extensive solar-powered water system, installed with the help of a federal cost-share program, reaches all areas of the farm. Five-string, high-tinsel electric wire helps keep sheep in the pasture, but mostly serves to keep predators out. In addition, flock health requires constant monitoring.
“All small ruminants have parasite problems,” Carvel says. “Keeping them dewormed is a challenge. The parasites mutate, and they become resistant. We rely on pasture rotation as a big part of keeping this under control.”
Like most livestock producers, sheep producers have been hit hard by the economy. The Cheveses say their gross in 2009 was 50% of what it had been in the previous three years.
“The economy has hit the ‘salt of the earth’ people hard — those who make up most of my customers,” Carvel says.
He adds that the price of lamb has remained consistent at above $1 a pound, with spikes related to various holidays when demand increases. However, customers are not able to buy as regularly in the current economic climate.
As a man who appreciates history, Carvel knows that the farm has been through it all before, cycle after cycle — that his great-great-grandfather experienced business cycles of his own a century and a half ago. He clearly enjoys his profession and is optimistic that, unlike many longtime family farms, his will not end with his generation.
“Our grandsons, teenagers, work here, and they already have their own sheep,” he says.
Brantley writes from Nash County, N.C.
This article published in the October, 2010 edition of CAROLINA-VIRGINIA FARMER.