4-H project grows into full-time operation for Simpson
What started out as a small hobby on the Colorado Plains has turned into a full-time profession for Jason Simpson. Like some sheep producers, the Ault, Colo., man got his start through the 4-H and FFA programs back in the 1980s. “We were showing a few lambs as 4-H projects, and then we started saving a few of the better ewe lambs we were showing as breeding stock. We kept those around and started breeding them,” he said.
Simpson said they continued to acquire more sheep, getting a big boost from his uncle, who gave him 25 Suffolk-based ewes to help him get started in the sheep business. It has taken several years and lots of work, but Simpson has grown the operation up to 350 ewes. “When we first started, it was more of a hobby-type deal. Now, it has become a full-time operation,” he said. Simpson’s wife, Marinda, and brother, Lenny, help out. The couple’s son, Cade, who is 11, is also an important part of the success of the operation.
Most of the lambs are marketed as either show lambs for 4-H and FFA projects or as breeding stock. “We probably sell as many for breeding as we do for wether lambs,” Simpson said. “About 80 percent of the flock is registered Hampshires. We also have a handful of registered Dorsets that we market for breeding stock.”
As a producer, Simpson has grasped new technology available in the sheep business by using artificial insemination and embryo transfer techniques to quickly improve his genetics. “The AI and embryo side of the sheep industry has really grown in the last seven or eight years. We started using that technology in 2011,” he said.
Simpson said that they use AI and embryo technology on the top end of the ewes in the flock. “We try and get as many offspring out of the top 10 percent of our ewes as we can. It has allowed us to improve the quality of our flock a lot faster than we could by using traditional methods,” he said.
But using the technology has come with a cost. Simpson said it is probably one of the biggest inputs in their operation. “Seven or eight years ago, it was harder to find sheep genetics in this country, but in today’s world, there is a lot more available across the country.”
Finding a technician to do AI and ET work in sheep can be difficult. There’s a lot more involved to AI a ewe than a cow or a sow, Simpson said. “Right now there are only 10-12 people across the country who do 90 percent of the AI work in sheep. It’s the biggest holdup in the business.”
Even though it’s one of their bigger expenses, Simpson shared how much it has improved the quality in the flock. “There are probably other ways around using it, but we think there is a lot of benefit to it for our operation. We select for quality, but I’ve always been a person who has structure at the top of my list. I like sheep that are good on their feet and legs. We are at a point in the sheep industry where mass and muscle are becoming more and more important, but I don’t want to sacrifice feet and leg structure. When I am judging a show, sorting through animals, I look for ones that are built right and then have as much muscle built into them as possible. In the end, they are a meat product, so you want to provide an animal with as much meat as you can,” he explained.
Sheep are probably becoming thicker and more muscular than they ever have in the past, and Simpson said they are probably leaning that way with their own flock. “We don’t vary too far from what we consider an ideal animal. We want to stay in the middle and not lean too much from one side to another where fads are concerned.”
They are always looking for new genetics they could use to improve the flock. “We don’t hold anything back. We get out on the road and look at different genetics and see if or how they could fit into our flock to make it even better,” he said. Their work has paid off with previous winners in youth shows at Houston, and at the Colorado and Wyoming state fairs, just to name a few.
One of the biggest challenges of producing wether lambs for youth projects is keeping the costs down to a manageable level. “With input costs going up every year, it is getting harder for us to make things work without offsetting those costs,” he said. “It is a challenge to market these animals to 4-H and FFA students, and keep the costs practical with input costs the way they are.”
Working with youth is one of the highlights for Simpson. “There are a lot of challenges in today’s world, but these young kids involved in agriculture are already one step ahead because they learn work ethic at such a young age. They learn responsibility by caring for and feeding an animal every day.”
“I think there are a lot of good opportunities in agriculture,” he said. “I think the sheep business could be a good start for young people, but you have to be ambitious and get out there and work at it. You have to be willing to put in the time and work to make your animals better. There is a lot you can learn if you are willing to put in the time, and eventually you will reap the benefits from that.”
Learn more about the Simpson family at simpsonlivestock.com. ❖
— Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.