Vet raises sheep in Eastern Washington

The Swannacks have 700 ewes on their historic farm.

By Heather Smith Thomas

For the Capital Press

Published on November 30, 2017 11:35AM

Lamont, Wash., veterinarian and Washington State Sheep Producers president Jill Swannack.

Capital Press File

Lamont, Wash., veterinarian and Washington State Sheep Producers president Jill Swannack.

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Homesteaded in the 1800s by the Feustel family, this farm near Lamont, Wash., is now owned by Art and Jill Swannack.

Jill is a veterinarian — she graduated from vet school at Washington State University — and raised sheep growing up in western Washington. She married Art in 1987 and brought her sheep to Feustel Farms.

“Those original six sheep were North Country Cheviots, a very hardy breed, but portable electric fences weren’t great at holding them in,” she said.

They looked at other breeds and chose Polypays, which are prolific, easy to handle and their udders hold up over the average lifespan of eight lambing seasons.

“And they stay inside the fences,” Jill said.

She and Art have three children. Carmen is 21 and at WSU majoring in ag biotechnology. Leah is 19, attending Montana State University at Bozeman, and planning to go to vet school at WSU. Son Owen is 16, and his interest is raising pigs and playing basketball.

Currently the Swannacks have 700 ewes, a few goats, pigs, chickens, ducks, horses and alpacas — a little bit of everything. The kids are in 4-H and FFA and have been showing sheep since they were young. Sheep are great because they are small enough for kids to handle, she said.

The sheep graze crop residue and wheat stubble part of the year but some of their pasture is rough country.

Predators, including wolves, are always a problem. They’ve had some wolf kills in their flock. Coyotes are the other big challenge.

“We use electric fencing to keep coyotes out of the sheep, and we hunt coyotes. We also use guard dogs. We have some Anatolian dogs and our pup is a Maremma,” Jill said. “We worked with USDA on bringing some newer breeds to this country, including Karakachan — the Bulgarian Shepherd.”

It was interesting to see various dogs, but Swannacks have been happiest with Anatolians and mixes.

“Their short hair coat means less maintenance (brushing/clipping) and they can travel. We graze on the edge of Palouse farmland in rocky areas where it’s hard to see all the sheep. You need a dog that is willing to travel, keeping track of them,” Jill said.

Sheep work well on the rough pastures, and are a good tool for weed and brush control. They eat many things cattle don’t eat; you can run a sheep with every cow and this increases stocking rate on the same number of acres.

“I grew up on a diversified farm, so I know these species work well together. We don’t have cattle, but we have horses, and we rotate the horses and sheep,” she said. This also reduces parasite contamination because internal parasites won’t survive in the wrong host.

Jill is president of the Washington State Sheep Producers, and her focus is producer education.

“I do a lambing school, and a skill school where we teach producers how to draw blood, deal with sick sheep, et cetera.”

“We recently purchased and installed the Te Pari HD-3 sheep handler and auto-drafter and a Shearwell Stock Recorder electronic records system to reduce labor — following the New Zealand/Australia pattern,” she said.

The Te Pari sheep system can auto-catch, auto-weigh and auto-sort sheep. The operator just has learn the system and one person can work more sheep.

She also raises and trains Tennessee Walking Horses for trail and ranch work and has 20 horses.


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