Raising sheep in the Genesee Valley
Century-old oak trees dot the lush, green pastures along dirt roads winding through the Genesee River valley between Geneseo and Avon, NY. It’s easy to imagine what it was like here one hundred years ago as not much has changed, especially now that the pastures are filled with sheep again.
Kyle Farms, owned by brothers Matt and DJ Kyle and their cousin, Nathan Hatch, reintroduced sheep to the fields of this valley in 2006. They improved the pastures through crop rotation and the use of natural, organic fertilizers and installed waterlines to deliver fresh, clean water from spring-fed ponds.
And the best part . . . this beautiful, pristine farmland will remain green forever since it is part of the Genesee Valley Conservancy, a local organization with the mission of protecting the habitat, open space and farmland of the Genesee Valley. Kyle Farms feels a strong sense of responsibility to this mission, which is why they place utmost importance on being stewards of the land and the environment in order to preserve it for generations to come.
Sheep farming is more than a business at Kyle Farms, it’s a family tradition, a way of life, and a passion – it’s their heritage.
The partners’ grandfather, Selden Chase, was a sheep farmer. His children, including DJ and Matt’s mother, Jeanne, and Nate’s mother, Barb, grew up raising sheep as 4-H projects. John Hatch, Nate’s father, was raised on his family’s sheep farm about 40 miles away. He and Barb met at a NY State sheep and wool marketing cooperative meeting. Jeanne met David Kyle at a sheep tour at Cornell University. David had begun his sheep flock as an entrepreneurial teen when a neighbor gave him a couple orphan lambs to raise. Tragically, both John and David lost their lives to different forms of cancer when their families were still young.
DJ, Matt and Nate are carrying on the family’s shepherd legacy and making the way for their young children, the fourth generation of this family farm.
Breeding, Genetics and Nutrition
Kyle Farms sheep obtain superior genetics from the world’s best sheep breeds. The Dorset breed is known for its quality meat and the ewes’ mothering and milk producing ability. The Finn breed is known for multiple births and their ability to lamb out of the normal lambing season. Il de France is a breed known for its high-quality meat and feed efficiency. By crossing these breeds, Kyle Farms is able to have high quality lamb available year around and a productive, prolific flock that thrives on the local forages and climate of the Northeast.
Food safety is of ultimate importance at Kyle Farms and that is why they like to keep it local when it comes to feeding the flocks. The ewes’ entire forage diet is produced within a 10-mile radius and contains no antibiotics, growth hormones or animal byproducts. Twelve hundred acres of lush pastures provide the bulk of the diet. Hay is harvested from some of the pastures in the summer and stockpiled for the dormant months of New York’s winter. Vitamins and minerals are supplemented as needed to make sure pregnant ewes and growing lambs are getting the nutrients required for optimum health.
– Living in harmony with nature
Flocks are monitored closely and rotated from pasture to pasture to prevent over-grazing and to make sure the sheep have an abundance of fresh forage each day. Border Collies and local horsemen help move the sheep calmly and safely from pasture to pasture. Great Pyrenees dogs live right with the pastured flocks and provide effective 24/7 security, guarding the sheep from natural predators such as the coyote.
Sheep are purposely fenced out of streams and waterways to prevent pollution. Instead, waterlines have been installed to carry fresh, clean drinking water from spring-fed ponds to the sheep in the pastures. Water is transported through these waterlines via gravity and solar-powered pumps.
The Kyle Farms farming practices have a beneficial impact on the environment, including the land, the flora, the wildlife and the watershed.
The Need For A Nursery
--Special care for mothers and babies
Mothers matter at Kyle Farms so providing extra-special care to pregnant ewes through lambing and post-partum is a priority. A ewe lambing in a beautiful, green lush pasture on a warm, sunny day sounds picture-perfect. But consider the comfort of the ewe and newborn wet lamb out in an open pasture on a frigid January day, or chilly, rainy April day, or blustery, cold October day that are common in upstate New York during those months. That’s one reason why Kyle Farms stepped away from tradition and built USDA-inspected, climate-controlled barns to house ewes and their baby lambs.
Nutrient requirements are greatest during late gestation. Feed and water intake can nearly double in the last four to six weeks of gestation. Meeting these requirements helps ensure the health of the ewes and optimum birth weights and survivability of their lambs. At Kyle Farms, ewes are moved to the barn about a month before they are due to provide all the extra feed and water these pregnant ewes need. This also allows them time to acclimate to their new surroundings before lambing. Shearing is part of the pre-birth preparation too and provides a cleaner, drier, more hygienic environment.
As due dates near, the groups of pregnant ewes are monitored hourly, day and night, for signs of lambing. Once a lamb is born, the ewe and lamb are put in a separate area alongside the group pen for several hours. This allows the ewe privacy and bonding time with her newborn to get it cleaned off and up and nursing, while allowing her to stay close to and feel the security of her flock.
Ideally, lambs should be up and nursing within 30 minutes after birth. The quicker the lamb gets the nutrient-rich colostrum delivered in the mother’s first milk, the stronger and healthier the lamb will be. Assistance is provided if necessary because if a lamb does not nurse within an hour after birth, its survivability decreases drastically.
Generally ewes have their lambs on their own, but occasionally, just like with humans, there are complications. The round-the-clock monitoring at Kyle Farms allows quick observation and assistance in difficult births and results in saving the lives of ewes and lambs in these situations.
Ewes and lambs continue to be monitored closely during the weeks post-partum. They remain in the barn until weaning. The ewes are provided a diet to meet the additional nutritional demands of lactation and feeding their nursing lambs. The barns become a nursery, providing open-air shelter and spacious, group pens where lambs have plenty of room to bounce around and play together.
-- Doing their part to make a difference
DJ, Matt and Nate view Kyle Farms as a small part of a much larger community. They try always to focus beyond the boundaries of their farm and consider the impact they will have on the world around them.
Kyle Farms is part of a rural agricultural community. They understand that supporting small, local businesses is critical to the economic health of their community. They view the few extra dollars spent in a local store versus a big box or online establishment as an investment in the future of their community, rather than a cost of doing business.
They see themselves as stewards of the land they control and the environment they impact. They continually use sustainable, responsible farming practices that minimize the use of fossel fuels, improve the soils and increase biodiversity.
At Kyle Farms, quality of life of their sheep and lambs is of utmost importance so they strive for excellent husbandry practices, nutrition and comfort of their flocks.
Most importantly, they understand they are part of the food system and therefore, providing a safe, quality, healthy product to consumers is their number one priority.