For Rhode Island couple Don and Debra Hopkins the decision to start a sheep farm was an easy one to make because sheep had always been an important part of their lives.
As a youngster growing up in Storrs, CT, Debra used her small flock of Southdowns to help her with various sheep projects while participating in 4-H and FFA. Just 40 miles west in Scituate, RI, young Don used his Southdowns and Shropshires in the same two organizations.
As fate would have it the two ended up crossing paths one day at an agricultural event. From there they eventually got married and established a 40-acre sheep farm in Scituate, RI. They appropriately named their farm Hopkins Southdowns because their flock consists entirely of Dorsets and Southdowns.
The thing that makes Hopkins Southdowns unique, said Debra, is that the focus is on producing sheep that are functional and structurally sound.
“When we selected our breeding stock we always cared about the breed character of the sheep and that they were structurally sound and had good body conformation,” Debra said. “We didn’t crossbreed our sheep just to gain frame size. Our goal was to keep them what they were supposed to be for their breed and be functional in the lambing barn and have adequate size while still being efficient feed converters.”
The decision to follow this standard was largely shaped by Don and Debra’s past experiences in the sheep industry. While showing their sheep during the 1980s and 1990s both of them noticed that exhibitors were focused on the size of their sheep rather than the natural purity of the breed, structural soundness and proper body conformation. Furthermore, said Debra, this new focus in size was also influencing the decisions of some judges during sheep shows.
“Trends in the show ring change over the years and always have,” Debra said. “For a while the emphasis in the show ring was more on size and the judges were selecting sheep heavily based on this one trait. Today in many parts of the country…the focus is on wether type sheep.”
According to Debra their flock of sheep at Hopkins Southdowns has grown to as many as 90 with their brood ewes producing more than 120 lambs each year. In order to effectively support their breeding stock, the couple regularly rent other farm property for additional barn space and pasture.
“We normally have 80 to 90 brood ewes which is a lot for the size of this property so we rent another farm,” Debra said. “Right now at the other farm we have 50 head. Those are mostly open mature ewes, coming replacement yearling ewes and four stud rams. Over here on the home farm we have the other 30 ewes because they still are raising their baby lambs, and all the lambs being raised for meat production.”
There are several management practices that take place at Hopkins Southdowns to help ensure that the final product is the best that it can be and it starts with the birthing process.
According to Don and Debra the birthing process on their farm regularly takes place during the cold winter months which requires them to administer a lot of special attention and care.
“We are lambing in cold weather so we have to make sure that the lambs are cleaned off by their mothers and they nurse right away to get their bellies full,” Debra said. “We lamb outside in the barn area and then put the lambs in a lambing pen where they are with their mother for a 48-hour period before going out again into the big pen in the barn with the ewes and older lambs.”
To further ensure a successful winter lambing Don and Debra shear their sheep in the fall. Sheared ewes have cleaner fleeces, allow for better observation during birthing and make it easier for lambs to nurse.
Don and Debra point out that the young stock and market lambs, which are more sensitive to cold temperatures, are kept in the barn until they reach maturity or are processed for meat.
Protection from extreme temperatures is something that continues throughout the year for the rest of the flock as well. In the winter the sheep have the option of staying in an unheated barn or outside in a three-sided shed. Debra says during the warm months the sheep spend most of their time out in the pasture but a stand of trees offers them a nice shady place to escape from the heat of the sun.
Finally, with so many animals roaming around on their property Don and Debra have to keep a wary eye out for predators such as coyotes. They say that they have maintained a perfect track record over the years thanks to necessary precautions.
“We can hear and see coyotes roaming between our barns,” Debra said. “We have not lost a sheep here due to coyotes. We have high tensile electric fencing around the whole property. We’ve also kept two llamas for the past 20 years.”
To help get the word out about their purebred stock Don and Debra spent a lot of time and effort over the years promoting their animals at various sheep shows around the country.
“We used to travel to six sales a year promoting the breeding program,” Debra said. “We are now down to two shows per year. My daughter and her husband do most of the showing now.”
In 2011 Don and Debra began diversifying their farm operation. In their case, they obtained a market license from the Rhode Island Department of Health which allowed them to sell lamb meat at various retail market outlets, their farm store, at local farmers markets and directly to restaurants. The end result of all this is that they have been able to increase their overall farm income.
Debra notes that the recent rise in consumer demand for lamb has been a major reason that their meat has been selling so well. Debra says the reintroduction of lamb meat back into U.S. culture is thanks in part to the current health conscious generation. Consumers are now more informed and aware that lamb is a healthy source of protein with a wide range of health benefits. This was not always the case says Debra.
“During World War II the armed forces had to eat a lot of canned mutton which left a negative experience for that generation and gave lamb a bad reputation,” Debra said. “Lamb has come back in the last ten years due to local food movements. This younger generation is health conscious and really into locally grown and sustainable products like lamb.”
The couple says that they will continue to breed and raise sheep on their farm because it is something that they enjoy doing.
“Nobody makes us do this,” Don said. “It’s a passion and it’s our choice. It’s the satisfaction that we get from our customers that makes us the happiest.”
For more information about Hopkins Southdowns visit www.hopkinssouthdowns.com.