DANVILLE, Iowa — Sheep are more than a business for the owners of Prairie Farms Woolery. They’re also pets.
When Rhonda Foster and her husband, Doug Foster, moved from Burlington to their rural Danville home four years ago, Rhonda Foster knew she wanted some kind of livestock to graze in the 2.5-acre pasture and barn accompanying their property. It was at the encouragement of her knitting group at the At Home Store in Fairfield, where she sells her yarn, that she decided on sheep.
“I knew from the people who have knit there for like 20-plus years that they’re always on the lookout for exotic different fiber, and now the push is to slow fashion and knowing where everything comes from,” Rhonda Foster said, gazing over her flock of 22 sheep as they munched on pumpkins, their favorite treat.
She knows them all by marking, name and personality.
“They’re calming,” she told The Hawk Eye, adding that friends of hers have asked to visit the flock after a hard day. “They get their emotional cues from people’s faces. ... They kind of are a barometer for people’s feelings.”
Though she knows much about sheep now, Foster’s background was in nursing, not shepherding. So, to prepare for the venture, she took lamb and wool management courses online through Minnesota West Community and Technical College’s Pipestone campus to learn the trade and sought out livestock veterinarian lectures to attend.
With the knowledge that diet affects the quality of the wool, Foster looked around for a local, high-quality hay provider, which she found in JD Stucker of rural Danville. The alfalfa and timothy hay blend provides a high level of protein for the sheep.
“If you have a low-protein diet, you’re going to have a lesser-quality wool,” she said. “The wool tells the story of the animal’s health. It represents a whole year of work.”
The Fosters also have partnered with the Department of Natural Resources for pasture and woodland conservation efforts. Invasive honey suckle that grows in the woods around their home also is high in protein, so they cut it down and feed it to the flock to help eradicate it from the woods.
In deciding what kind of sheep she wanted, Foster, a retired nurse and longtime knitter, attended fiber and wool fairs, such as Iowa Sheep and Wool in June and Wisconsin Sheep and Wool Festival in fall, in search of the perfect texture.
“I wanted something that was next-to-skin that wouldn’t scratch,” she said.
She wanted a small, hardy, exotic breed in need of conservation efforts. She found all those things in Shetlands.
Having found a Shetland breeder in Waverly, she and her husband brought home 10 3-month-old lambs descended from a 4,500-year-old breed indigenous to the Shetland Islands. Foster gave them Scottish names, such as Finsla and Faegan James.
“I didn’t know much about how to manage them, so I kind of trained them like I do my dogs,” Foster said.
She used a bell and treats to train the sheep to come in the barn at night. They are given free rein of the fenced-in pasture and barn, which is left open throughout the day but closed at night to protect them from coyotes.
Word of her flock spread, and it wasn’t long before she was contacted by a woman in northern Illinois who needed to downsize her Shetland flock. Foster agreed, and she took in four more sheep.
After the first sheering, done by Justin Shau, Foster shopped around for someone who could spin the wool into yarn, sending wool to several Iowa spinners so she could get samples of each. She settled on Round Barn Fiber in Rockford. Rather than dye the yarn, it is left the color of the sheep from which the wool came, resulting in a range of white, brown and black hues.
“It comes back and it smells like the sheep and it still has little pieces of hay, which reminds you that it’s a farm product,” she said.
It’s also an Iowa product, with everything from the hay the sheep eat to the logo design, done by Jennifer Bell of Fairfield, coming from Iowa residents.
The first batch of home-grown yarn sold out within a day during a Meet the Sheep event at the At Home Store, during which Foster and three of her sheep visited the store to greet customers and show them where the product came from. Each skein of yarn is tagged with the name of the sheep from which the wool used to make it was shorn.
“I picked the colors (of sheep) that I thought the knitters would like,” Foster said.
She will have more yarn to sell this year as her flock has grown by eight sheep.
Last year, at the advisement of a woman Foster met at the Wisconsin Sheep and Wool Festival, Foster decided to expand her flock to include Gotland and Finnish sheep.
“She said if you love the Shetlands, you’ll really love the other guys because they’re mellow,” Foster said.
Not only are their temperaments desirable, but the Sweden and Finnish breeds can be sheered twice a year, once in early spring and again in fall.
She and her husband set out to get four sheep, but, at the suggestion of her husband, they brought home eight, raising their sheep count to 22 and resulting in a wider range of colors and textures.
Those textures and colors help knitters like Foster decide what it will become.