The sheep at Janet McNally’s farm live in a northern paradise. Thick stands of poplar and pine make their walls. Emerald green splotches of native prairie grass six feet tall make their rooms. They bob like white boats through seas speckled with bright red seed heads, yellow sparkles of bittersweet, and dusty puffs of bluestem as dragonflies the size of hummingbirds patrol the area above their heads. They bleat and baa, and glance around moon-eyed in the way sheep do—vulnerability incarnate.
You’d never guess that they are surrounded by wolves. The wolves moved in during the 1990s; 1999 was the low point. “We lost 75 lambs in 10 days,” McNally remembers. The lambs weren’t lost in the Mary had a little lamb way; it was gorier than that.
Like most shepherds, McNally routinely ultrasounds her pregnant ewes to find out how many lambs are coming. The ewes would be pregnant and ready to go; the next day—nothing. The sheep had obviously given birth but there was no newborn lamb. “We walked through miles of woods and found nothing. With wolves, anything under 30 pounds disappears.”
McNally is strong and sturdy with clear blue eyes. Tamarack Lamb & Wool, her ranching operation of 150 sheep, is not far from the iconic red-and-white Tobie’s rest-stop sign that marks the halfway point for travelers heading to Duluth from Minneapolis and St. Paul. She typically can be found riding her ATV through the woods around Hinckley, her sheepdog Odie perched behind her, his snout on her shoulder, ears streaming back. Together, they have a playful, madcap air, but McNally, more than anything, is a problem-solver driven to work as much as she can out of doors.
She grew up in Connecticut and Pennsylvania, and came to the Midwest in the 1980s to learn farming at Iowa State when women were seen as farmers’ wives, not farmers. “My counselors would tell me, ‘Why don’t you just marry a farmer?’ They never looked at me as having the ability to farm myself.” After repeatedly being refused a student job at the school’s sheep farm, McNally found a male farmer with five daughters to lobby on her behalf. She got hired.
She also found a husband, one who grew up on a farm and wanted to be done with all that, but was on board with her goals. After she graduated, they moved to Minnesota because it was a better place to be a female farmer.
“Minnesota is a much better state for women,” McNally says. “I think it’s the history of dairy farming here. Dairy farms are an all-hands-on-deck situation, which led women to a cultural advantage.” The young couple moved north, bought land, and McNally bought some sheep. Wolves were nowhere in her plan.
Wolves never have been much in any American farmer’s plan. A little wolf history: Wolves once inhabited all of North America, from down around Mexico City all the way up to the Arctic. They were in Miami and New York City, and every place where currently stands a Galleria, a McDonald’s, or a mini-mansion—everywhere. Their food source? The biggest grazing mammals.
Wolves can take down a bison—and routinely do, today, in Yellowstone National Park, where both species have been re-introduced. Elk, moose, caribou, deer—no matter how big, all are wolf food.
When the first Europeans came to North America, they followed the farming patterns of western Europe, where wolves had long been hunted to extinction. The pattern was this: Group the people in the center of a settlement; set up crop farms around them; and farther out, or on fallow fields, let sheep, cows, and pigs run free.
The wolves found this a fine idea. Then the settlers started poisoning wolves with strychnine-laced animal carcasses, and hunting them to extinction. David Mech (pronounced meech) is one of the world’s most-respected wolf biologists, a research scientist with the Biological Resources Division and the U.S. Geological Survey, and an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota in the Departments of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology. He works out of St. Paul.
In the 1850s, Mech says, there were probably 10,000 wolves in Minnesota. By the 1960s, wolves were extinct most everywhere in the Lower 48. Big sheep ranches, the kind seen in old Western movies, with thousands of sheep doing their own thing while John Wayne sat at a campfire, were only possible because of wolf eradication.
The wolves are out there: McNally collects images of the predators in her midst on a hidden camera.
Photo by Leo McNally
“Minnesota was the only place with any wolves left, because we had so much wilderness, but more because we were contiguous with Canada, which had not killed off their wolves.”
Then in 1973 Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Preservation Act, which established the first process to halt and reverse the extinction of species. That act included a provision making it illegal to kill any species officially recognized as endangered—that soon included several species of wolves. American ranchers have been predicting situations like McNally’s dire and unsustainable lamb loss ever since. (In Idaho right now, a fight is raging over the state’s wish to reduce the current wolf population from 650 to 150, largely to “save” elk for lucrative guide-led human hunting.)
Today, Minnesota still has the most wolves in the Lower 48, as many as 2,500 all told, a number that Mech estimates will remain stable for the foreseeable future. Wolves have a lot of pups; Mech estimates that every spring the number of wolves in Minnesota doubles to around 5,000. Then that number is brought down by hunting, getting hit by cars, and so on.
Still, that many wolves would seem a literal death knell for Minnesota lambs living out of doors. Not so. This year McNally barely lost any lambs to wolves, and hasn’t in many years. How’d she do it? Safety in numbers. Picture 150 ewes and 250 lambs in a tight flock, with a couple sheep guard dogs, all confined to a space about half the size of a football field. This is called mob stocking.
• • •
Mob stocking is not new, but it went by the wayside long ago. A little sheep-ranching history: For nearly all of human history, sheep ate pasture. Their role in farming was two-fold: to eat the rough areas that weren’t good for human-food crops, and to eat the green tops of the nitrogen-rich plants such as clover used to restore fields and improve soil health during the fallow years.
During the 1920s through 1960s, when North American wolves had been eradicated, a new standard for raising sheep out of doors—called drift lambing—was created. It was perfected in New Zealand, where the only native land mammals are two smallish sorts of insect-eating jungle bats. In this process, which requires minimal human intervention, the sheep and lambs are released into a large paddock of a few acres, and moved every month or two. Any heavily pregnant sheep are moved into a small maternity area in advance of the rest of the flock, so they have some privacy to bond with their lambs, and eat all the tasty treats to nourish themselves before the crowd shows up. (Good mothering, bonding, and nursing are key to a successful flock, and sheep are bred for it. Ranchers hold strictly to family values; ewes who aren’t good mothers get eaten.)
Drift lambing is what made McNally’s sheep sitting ducks; it’s what made all of Minnesota sheep sitting ducks once the predators returned. Before then, in the 1950s and 1960s, northwestern Minnesota had extensive sheep operations. “My dad talked a lot about the good old days,” says Jim Ostlie, a Livestock Development and Planning Specialist with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture with an expertise in sheep. His father traveled around the state buying sheep as a division manager for Central Livestock. Tens of thousands of sheep could be found on any given day in the St. Paul stockyards, then the largest in the world.
“In the 1960s, there were a lot more opportunities for marketing lamb,” Ostlie says. “There were many more sales barns that took sheep, and if you got the sheep to the St. Paul Union Stockyards, there were 20, 30, 40 commission firms with little offices that would buy lambs and ship them to packinghouses. In the 1960s a sheep producer could work with neighbors and ship 400 lambs to St. Paul and work with whatever commission firm would give the best price. All that competitiveness has gone away.”
It went away largely because of wolves. “The decline was mainly because of predatory issues,” explains Ostlie. “Not just wolves, but bears, coyotes. When the law came in, there was just nothing they could do.”
One of the distinct characteristics of a pasture-based sheep ranch is that there is no real infrastructure. Sheep can live outdoors in winter so farmers don’t need much for barns. They don’t need milking machines, or grain-hauling trucks, or really much of anything. All of the money tends to be invested in the purchase of the animals, their medical upkeep, and, if there’s a drought, hay. Sheep raised for meat are very close to a liquid asset. And so northern Minnesota sheep farmers considered the wolves, and liquidated their sheep. And soon enough the local lamb packinghouses were gone.
• • •
Janet McNally was not in the mood to give up. She had fought for her dream sheep operation. She had combed the world to breed the perfect sheep, which could gain weight exclusively on the particular wild forage of east-central Minnesota. McNally had perfected her own breed, which she calls Tamarack sheep. It has not been easy. Since World War II most sheep have been bred for their ability to gain weight on grain, or to win blue ribbons for the way they looked in specialty sheep shows.
Her sheep were part Merino, a wooly sheep that is highly adapted to pasture and tends to have twins and triplets; part Ile de France, a well-muscled sheep prized for its meat and strength; and part British Dorset, another good gainer on grass. She had also selected sheep for good mothers and Minnesota-winter hardiness. Just when she thought she had cracked the code for the perfect all-winter-outside Minnesota sheep, the wolves came.
Here’s where mob stocking entered the picture. To protect what remained of her flock, McNally turned to something fairly radical and untried at the time. She huddled all her sheep into two compact groups, each protected by three or so enormous sheepdogs, and each contained in a paddock with square footage not much bigger than an urban house lot, about 165 by 165 feet. These paddocks are established by sinking moveable fenceposts into the earth, which are linked by electrified wire powered by solar panels. A new paddock is extended from an existing paddock simply by connecting two more fenceposts as you might doodle a square into a rectangle by adding three lines. They stay in their tiny paddock for a day, sometimes two, three days tops. In that time they eat and trample the prairie grass down from a five- or six-foot-tall waving sea to a flat green rug. Then they leave. They don’t return for months, when the plants have returned to their full height.
To see the sheep move paddocks is incredible. The flock of around 80 animals all start maa-ing and baa-ing when they see McNally, because they know her arrival with Odie the black-and-white border collie signals a fresh salad buffet. Sheep love fresh paddocks the way human kids love ice cream. McNally wades through the happy sea of baas and maas, turns off the electricity, takes down the two wires which form one wall of the paddock, and the sheep surge into the new, typically contiguous paddock, except now and then when she herds them down a road to another group of pastures. Odie runs in ever-shrinking arcs hemming in the edges of the flock, driving any stragglers toward the new green pasture, and each and every sheep and lamb dives into a space high with native grasses—red top, white top, June grass, Indian grass, little fescue, big bluestem, and all the rest. The sheep bound in and disappear beneath the grass tops like seals in the sea, their happy bleats the only sign of their existence. McNally then closes them in with the electric wires. Once inside the new paddock, the sheep eat and trample until the next day, when they are moved along another 165 feet.
If it has occurred to you that this tight cluster of animals is how grazing animals led their lives before human intervention, you are right. Mob stocking is what bison, pronghorn sheep, and caribou all did naturally in a world with vastly more wolves, coyotes, mountain lions, cougars, bears, and so on.
Why are wolves scared off by a mere concentration of sheep? Mainly because they can’t be bothered, and also because of the dogs. “Wolves don’t want to get in a fight with the dogs,” McNally says. “I’ve seen them. They look at the dogs. They’re not afraid. You can tell they’re basically thinking, ‘not worth the hassle,’ and they move on.” (Coyotes are another matter, McNally is convinced that they spend a lot of their time taunting the guard dogs and trying to get them to run into the road to get hit by cars, in a long-range plan to get the lambs. She even made a recording of the coyotes taunting the dogs with calls from the far side of a busy road, howling on hour after hour.)
• • •
McNally hasn’t lost a notable amount of lambs to wolves or coyotes since she started mob stocking. And it wasn’t just that the mob stocking solved her wolf problem; it solved almost all her problems. She was shocked.
Behind predators, the second-leading economic problem for sheep ranchers is parasites, especially worms, which get into the sheep’s intestines and prevent them from gaining weight. Sheep medicine for parasites is easy to administer, just a few drops on the tongue, but it is expensive, and catching sheep so you can administer the medicine is none too easy. “If you ever want to catch 80 sheep on a 90-degree day, let me know,” McNally says dryly.
Worse, many of the parasites are now resistant to the medication. To her great surprise, when McNally started mob stocking her animals, they became naturally parasite-resistant, no longer requiring medicine. Why? She thinks it has to do with the sheep not eating near their waste, as they would have on a field where they were kept for a month or two, and with parasites dying off naturally in fields while the sheep are in other paddocks. She also thinks it has to do with a native prairie grass that acts as a natural antiparasitic, and grows in prairies that are allowed to go natural, as hers have.
Another unexpected benefit was that her fields, intensely grazed but then left alone for months, have now revealed themselves to be drought-resistant, because the native prairie plants develop vast underground root systems, so that they don’t actually die during drought, they just go brown up top, and then shoot back to life when water comes. McNally also thinks the undisturbed root layer is host to beneficial fungi, microorganisms, worms, and insects that all work against the death of the field, as happens in many intensely grazed fields during drought.
McNally shows side-by-side pictures of her neighbors’ traditionally grazed fields and her own mob-stocked ones after a rain following a drought. They look like they were designed to illustrate the phrase “the grass is always greener.” One side is all emerald green life, the other all burnt mud. McNally also has charts showing that she has saved dearly on hay she would have had to purchase, as her neighbors did, during drought years. Her sheep ate the pasture which sprang back; her neighbors purchased hay.
The mob stocking has also drastically reduced erosion. McNally discovered that she can run a healthy, grass-pastured, all-outdoor sheep farm on less acreage than any of the farming models taught in school would have predicted. Between the decreased need for medicine, decreased need for supplemental hay, and decreased lamb loss, McNally guesses the wolves have now saved her thousands of dollars a year.
“This method of sheep grazing is actually 6,000 years old,” she says. “A shepherd, a flock, 10 dogs: That was standard in, say, Poland 3,000, 4,000 years ago.” But McNally’s rediscovery may have come too late. The greatest enemy to McNally’s business ended up being not actual wolves, but her fellow ranchers’ wolf-panic. “Since the wolves came back, we’ve lost 77 percent of sheep production in the northern counties,” she says. “Every single person but me who encountered wolves called up the truck,” to take the remaining sheep to slaughter. All the local small-scale slaughterhouses shut down. McNally now has to ship her grass-pastured, entirely sustainably raised sheep to Wisconsin for processing.
In 1967, wolves were declared an endangered species. In 2012, they were declared no longer endangered. They’re back, and hunted with an official season to control the population. Editorial writers have written again and again that we Minnesotans were embarking on a great experiment and, at the end, we would learn much that the wolves had to teach us. No one guessed that wolves could teach us how to save money, combat pharmaceutical-resistant diseases, ameliorate drought and erosion, and restore native plant communities. And no one guessed that when they did, we’d be too scared to see or hear any of it. Or most of us would be. But almost everyone is not everyone. Janet McNally, who moves sheep through the northern forest while wolves howl in the hills, is living proof of that.