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Lambing time keeps Van Roekel busy

By Renae B. Vander Schaaf

Date Modified: 03/05/2013 9:13 AM

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ORANGE CITY, Iowa — A chorus of baaing lambs and ewes greet Mark Van Roekel each time he steps outdoors.

From late January to the middle of May, this shepherd's life is devoted to caring for 700 ewes as they lamb.

However, he will take time to vote "Yes'' on the Iowa referendum to increase the state sheep assessment checkoff rate. Involved in the sheep industry on many levels, he sees the importance of the lamb checkoff.

"The checkoff has been the same since 1985," said Van Roekel. "What took a penny then now takes 46 cents. If we are not going to promote our own product, who will?"

The referendum states that the checkoff rate can't be lowered and it cannot be raised by more than five cents once every three years. The maximum rate is capped at 50 cents per head.

Voting takes place in Iowa's county Extension offices Feb. 25 to March 15. To be eligible, producers have to provide an ID and have a receipt of either live animal or wool sales.

Van Roekel once farrowed sows on his diversified livestock and grain farm. He got out of farrowing but continues to feed pigs and cattle. He found he missed farrowing. Sheep filled that void.

Every three weeks a new bunch of ewes begin lambing in the heated barn. Most days the heat of the ewes is enough to maintain the temperature they are most comfortable at.

At one week of age, the lambs and their ewes are moved to a hoop building. Right now, his lambing percentage is at 180 percent, but he expects that to improve as the flock consists of less Western ewes and becomes more Polypay.

"The Polypay breed have a moderate size," said Van Roekel. "They have a reputation of being easy keepers, are fairly prolific with excellent mothering instincts."

He does have bottle lambs. In the past he has used a bucket with nipple feeders. Each day those are cleaned and sanitized. This year Van Roekel has an automatic lamb feeder, which should save on labor. Bottle lambs are on milk replacer for 28 days.

Theoretically, feeding gestating ewes between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m each day reduces overnight lambing.

"It does somewhat," said Van Roekel. "My last trip through the barn, happens at 10:30 at night. I am back out there at 5 the next morning. Any later, and I might find confusion with a lot of newly born lambs."

Meat lambs are sold to Superior Lamb. A percentage of ewe lambs are saved for increasing the flock and for replacements.

Van Roekel is vice president of the Northwest Iowa Sheep Producers, regional director of the Iowa Lamb and Wool Promotion Board, a member of Iowa Sheep Industry Association and the Pipestone Lamb and Wool Program.