Farm Horizons, August 2011

Sheep farm numbers decline, while market for lamb meat continues to grow

By Kristen Miller

Since sheep farmers Doug Rathke and Connie Karstens began their operation in 1990, it has grown considerably due to an ever-increasing demand for locally grown, organic lamb meat.

“Every week, we are turning down restaurants,” Connie said during a Land Stewardship Project’s tour on their 180-acre farm west of Cedar Mills (10 miles west of Hutchinson).

This is due to a recent shift in the number of sheep farms in the US and an increasing interest in lamb by consumers. “There is an extreme shortage of lamb,” Connie said during the tour, adding that more and more people are also looking for grass-fed meat.

Lamb is the easiest meat to digest and is high in iron, Doug said.

Both Connie and Doug grew up on sheep farms, so their experiences and interest led them into the sheep business. In addition, Doug is a world champion sheep shearer, which is his primary job.

The couple breeds Dorsets year-round, which Doug said is the key to running a successful sheep operation. Their meat is USDA-inspected, 100 percent natural, and free of hormones, antibiotics, herbicides, and pesticides. It is not irradiated, no animal by-products are used, and no GMO (genetically modified organisms) grains are used.

With their location being directly on Highway 7, they began having people who saw their sheep stop by their farm looking for lamb chops to purchase. This interest encouraged them to build an addition to their home in 1996, to include their own processing plant and small retail store.

“We wanted to take everything from beginning to end,” Connie said, meaning they would do everything but butcher the animal.

Presentation was important to the couple. “We wanted a product that looked really nice that we could sell for a good price,” she said.

Having their own processing center allows them to keep costs down, control the quality of the product, and provide a nice presentation.

The house also needed a USDA-certified kitchen. For 21 years, the couple has been selling their lamb meat at the state fair food building, offering such things as gyros and lamb on a stick.

Connie said they often get thanked at the fair for being a “real” farmer by using the very meat they raise on their farm. Their tagline is “Meat raised nature’s way.”

They are also in the business of selling breeding stock and lamb meat to restaurants, such as Zellas in Hutchinson, and natural food co-ops like The Wedge in Minneapolis.

Last year, they expanded the retail end of their business and built The Lamb Shoppe – apart from their house – complete with a variety of cuts of lamb meat, along with other meat, produce, and organic foods.

Currently, their flock consists of 350 ewes and 200 lambs, and it is expanding.

Each week, roughly 10-15 are butchered. Overall, they sell about 800 lambs a year at roughly 100 pounds a piece. At the state fair alone, they go through one ton of meat.

A heart for sustainable farming

When it comes to farming, Doug and Connie believe in the holistic approach to farming and have embraced sustainable farming practices to ensure safe, healthy meat for their consumers.

“Knowing we are raising healthy meat so people can become healthier is of utmost importance to us,” Connie said, who also is a nutritionist with a practice within The Lamb Shoppe, as well.

Connie has a biology degree, along with a strong interest in taking good care of the land.

The Rathkes believe that healthy livestock (meat) begins with nutrient-rich soil. To ensure there are plenty of nutrients in the soil, the couple uses natural fertilizer such as fish meal and kelp (seaweed), rather than chemical fertilizer.

“If you take care of the soil [and the microorganisms in it], the plants take care of the animals and provide for us,” Connie said. “It’s a holistic approach to farming, where you really build from the ground up. It’s really important to our system.”

The goal is to have hay that contains high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids, which Americans don’t get enough of, Connie said. Proper storage is also important to maintain Omega-3 levels in the hay. To do so, they keep it sealed so it won’t mold.

They also feed their sheep barley along with the hay, which helps keep the meat lean.

All of these practices have helped maintain healthy livestock, which, in turn, has kept the veterinarian bills down, Connie said.

Keeping the sheep safe from predators is also key to maintaining a good-sized flock. Predators like coyotes can be hard to defend against, but Doug suggests that a number of the sheep in the flock wear bells around their collars, with the sound keeping coyotes at a distance. He also suggests fencing that is low to the ground since coyotes crawl under, rather than jump over it.

To help round up and control the herd, they have Sam, a New Zealand Huntaway dog breed that is bred for its barking and herding. He prefers this breed rather than other herding dogs like the collie, because they aren’t as hyperactive. “[Sam is] like our hired hand,” Doug said.

They raise their sheep to about 6 to 10 months of age, when they are almost full-grown and weigh roughly 100 pounds, Connie said.

The name “lamb” is misleading, giving sheep farmers a bad reputation. “We’re not eating the babies,” she said in defense of the sheep industry.

At that stage, they are full-grown, but the word “lamb” throws people off a bit, Connie added.

For more information about The Lamb Shoppe, visit the website at or call (320) 587-6094. The Lamb Shoppe is located at 61231 MN Hwy 7, Hutchinson, MN 55350.

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