Kids’ Suffolk sheep hobby turns into long-term business for Wyoming man
Being in the Suffolk sheep business for 33 years is no easy feat.
But Larry Lofink of Lofink Suffolk in Cheyenne has tackled this challenge by determining what genetic improvements he wants to make in his flock and sticking with it.
“Years ago, I got into the sheep business to give my kids a project for 4-H and FFA,” he said. “I acquired some crossbred white face ewes that just wandered onto my property, and no one would claim them. When the owners finally came forward, they no longer wanted them, so I kept them. I decided if I was going to have a few sheep, I might as well have several, so I bought some Suffolk ewes. Then, I started going to some sales and buying ewes and rams that I thought would work for the kids’ projects.”
The kids have all grown up and moved away, but Lofink still has his small farm flock of Suffolk.
“The project grew into a small business over the years,” he said. “I started showing the sheep at Wyoming State Fair 30 years ago, and I have went every year since then. Now, I have about 30 head of Suffolk ewes. Most are frame-type sheep, although I do have some wether-type sheep that are shorter and meatier for youth projects.”
Over the years, Lofink has found adventure in just trying to determine what the customer wants.
“I really enjoy showing, but I have found it is also important to produce something that pays the bills, and is what the customer wants,” he said.
These days, Lofink travels to the Midwest Stud Ram Sale in Sedalia, Mo., where he shows some of his own sheep, and buys a few to improve his own flock. He also travels to Utah to participate in some shows and sales there.
“I have quite a few youth who come out here to buy project lambs,” Lofink said. “They call them club lambs, but I refer to them as project lambs because it is important for the kids to learn how to take care of their lambs and feed them properly.”
In the past, Lofink has hosted clinics teaching youth how to show lambs and how to take care of them properly.
In his own program, Lofink lambs in January, mostly so his lambs develop good size and frame to be competitive as 4-H and FFA projects. Some of the lambs grow up and are sold as rams and ewes for other farm flock programs or range operations, mainly in Utah and California.
“In the Suffolk breed, wool isn’t worth much since it is of medium to course quality, so the lambs are what we have,” he said. “The Suffolk breed has worked well as a terminal cross for market lambs. They are thriftier and gain faster in the feedlot, which makes the producers more money.”
Lofink tries to avoid fads, which are commonplace in the show ring business. Instead, he focuses on producing sheep with good breed character, conformation and structural soundness.
“They need to have a good back and legs,” he said. “It is just like building a house. If you don’t have a good foundation, the house isn’t worth anything.”
Staying on track with the breeding program can be a challenge for any producer.
“The sheep industry is constantly changing,” Lofink said. “Back in the mid 1900s, the old-style sheep were short and chunky. Then, the fad was tall, racy, streamlined sheep that looked like a small racehorse. Now, it is more middle of the road. The sheep are more moderate in size now. It seems like the type changes every six or seven years, and that’s what the customer wants to force us to raise.”
“I think it is important as a producer to not get hung up on fads,” he continued. “If you can just maintain a good, sound, middle-of-the-road sheep that can be used anytime or anyplace, the majority of the customers are happy with that. Consistency is also important. It is hard to stay true to your breeding program when the newest fad may have brought a lot of money the year before.”
Lofink also tries to maintain his home site, as well as his sheep.
“You only get one chance at a first impression,” he said. “I feel like it is important to keep up with the stock, and keep my place looking nice. If customers drive up, they want to see a nice looking place if they plan to buy breeding stock from you. I try to keep things looking good on the inside and the outside.”
The sheep are kept on a good feeding and health program.
“When I show customers my sheep, sometimes the depth in the flock means a lot,” he said. “Customers want consistency, not just one or two sheep that are exceptional.”
To produce these sheep, Lofink keeps good flock records and reviews them regularly.
“Culling is important,” he said. “I want to pick out brood ewes and rams that will help me build a bigger and better flock. Foundation is important, and it is not something you can cheat on. I keep records on my ewes from the time they are bred, and if they are having a hard time breeding, I want to know why.”
Lofink also keeps detailed records at lambing.
“I weigh the lambs at birth, and again at 60 days. I use that information to evaluate the ewes and determine if they are producing lambs with a good rate of gain. Milking ability tells me how good of mothers they are,” he said. “By keeping records, I can look over the years to see how consistent a ewe’s production is.”
Lofink is also a strong believer in the Suffolk breed, which he says is the “Cadillac of the sheep breeds”. He has served as a past director for the United Suffolk Sheep Association and was a past president and sales manager for the Wyoming Suffolk Sheep Association.
As a sheep producer for the last 30 years, Lofink still gets a smile on his face as he watches a new crop of lambs run and grow when they are about 45 days old.
“There is nothing that ever beats that,” he said. “That is the most joy I get out of my breeding program. I am very proud of what I have built over the years. I am at the point now where I am just tweaking certain characteristics. When it gets to the point you don’t think there is anything to improve, you are stale, and I think you’re done.” ❖
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