Oliver Farming in Mower County, Minnesota (Part VI): The Korean War

Oliver Farm Equipment in Mower County Minnesota (Part V):

The Korean War


Brian Wayne Wells


By the spring of 1950, our particular farmer in Nevada Township located in Mower County Minnesota had realized the benefits of his attempts to modernize his farming operation. Ever since the summer of 1947 he had been combining his oats and his soybeans with his own Oliver Model 15, Grain Master combine. This machine meant that he now had control over the harvesting nearly all the crops on his farm.  He able to harvest his corn, soybeans and oats on his own farm when they were ripe rather than having to wait on custom harvesters to finally reach his farm. Thus, during the last two bountiful years of 1948 and 1949, our Nevada Township farmer had been able to raise the crops on his farm with maximum efficiency. The proof was in the numbers yields of his two cash crops—soybeans and corn—for those two years. The year 1947 had presented problems for the farmers in Mower County, Minnesota, including our particular farmer in Nevada Township in Mower County. This farmer had been attempting to avoid the pitfalls of occasional falling prices and bad crop years by diversifying his farming operation a number of different products and crops on his farm. First he had added a sheep raising operation to his farm. The he had begun raising soybeans during the recent war. Through diversification our Nevada Township farmer had been able to maintain a relatively steady income despite falling prices for some farm products. When some products fell in price, it was likely that other prices would hold steady or even rise to make up the difference.

A 1945-1949 map of Korea showing the 38th Parallel as the dividing line between the separate countries of North and South Korea.

Then like a bolt out of the blue, on June 25, 1950, the North Korean Army invaded South Korea which started the Korean War. The United States led a United Nation’s effort to resist this invasion. Soybean prices rose to $2.80 per bushel as an average for the month of June and rose to $2.94 per bushel as an average for the month of July, 1950. Corn prices rose to $1.34 per bushel in August 1950 and $1.35 per bushel in September, 1950. However, most surprising to our Nevada Township farmer, as he listened to the local farm reports on KAAL radio at 1480 kc on the dial, broadcasting out of nearby Austin, Minnesota (1950 pop. 23,100), was the increase in lamb prices at the Hormel meatpacking plant in Austin.

The Hormel plant in nearby Austin, Minnesota began to offer higher prices for lambs and sheep following June of 1950.

Since 1944, lamb prices had been languishing around the $7.00 or $8.00 per hundred weight (cwt.) range for market lambs. However, in June 1950, the price of lamb rose to $10.40 per cwt. To take advantage of this spike in lamb prices, our Nevada Township farmer was tempted to sell a great deal of his flock to Hormel’s before the spike in prices disappeared. However, he delayed his decision on this matter. When he had begun raising sheep, he had realized that raising sheep for market was one thing, but he could make more money by raising breeding stock for other sheep farmers. Good breeding ewes (female sheep) could bring 6 or 7 times the price of common market sheep if they had been properly registered and had their papers in order. Registered Purebred Rams (male sheep) could bring even more money than ewes. This led him into raising purebred sheep—purebred Suffolk sheep. (See the previous article in this series called “Oliver Farm Equipment [Part I]: Suffolk Sheep Raising.”) Soon he was registering his sheep with the National Suffolk Sheep Association (N.S.S.A.) and showing his sheep at fairs like the Mower County Fair in Austin and like the Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul, Minnesota (1950 pop. 311,349). He had spent many years building his purebred Suffolk flock and was reluctant to sell off all his best ewes to Hormels, if he could make more money raising breeding stock like he used to do during the recent world war.

Perhaps this was not a mere spike in the price of lamb. He had struggled along with his purebred stock during the intervening post-war years, always hoping for better days ahead. This might be the start of the “better days” for his purebred flock. If so he did not want to miss the boat by selling off his whole flock to Hormel’s for a quick profit. So he waited.

In July, the average price for lamb rose to $10.90 per cwt., In August, the price rose again, to $11.10 per cwt. and in September, 1950 the price climbed to $12.60 per cwt. Whether the war or more correctly “police action” in Korea was causing the price of lamb to rise or not, the high price of lamb was no temporary apparition. Our Nevada Township farmer did not, however, understand why the military action in Korea was causing this escalation of the price of lamb. He remembered that something like this price rise had happened in 1940 which had caused him to get into the business of raising sheep in the first place. (See the previous article in this series called “Oliver Farm Equipment [Part I]: Suffolk Sheep Raising.”) At that time, the government had purchased lamb to put in military C-rations. That decision, he remembered had turned out to be disastrous. American soldiers during the recent world war had strongly disliked the lamb in the C-rations. As a result the government had ceased buying mutton in 1944 and the price of lamb had languished. Our Nevada Township farmer could not believe that American soldiers, just five years later, had discovered that they now liked lamb in their C-rations.

Our Nevada Township farmer knew that the United States was the primary western super power in the world concerned with the Pacific Ocean affairs, the United States bore the brunt of armed forces resisting the North Korean invasion of South Korea. The United States supplied about 203,000 troops for the Korean War. Still the resistance to the North Korean invasion of South Korea was officially a United Nations effort, involving not just the United States alone. There were smaller military contingents from twenty (20) other nations around the world fighting in Korea. There were 14,200 British troops, 6,150 Canadian troops, 5,460 Turkish troops, 1,390 New Zealand troops, 1,270 Ethiopian troops, 1,260 Greek troops, 1,120 French troops, 1,070 Columbian troops, 900 Belgian troops, 820 Dutch troops, 300 south African troops, 170 Swedish troops, 105 Norwegian troops, 100 Danish troops, 72 Italian troops, 70 Indian troops and 44 troops from Luxembourg.

Part of the contingent of Turkish troops fighting in the Korean War. Turks were just one part of the United Nations force in Korea that traditionally enjoyed lamb as a regular staple of their diet.

Most of the public of the United States did not know immediately that the task of supplying food to all the troop contingents in Korea had been centralized and assigned to the United States Army Quartermaster Corps.  The Quartermaster Corps purchased the food products they needed from the United States market. Because of the various international contingents fighting in the Korean War, the Quartermaster Corps had to buy a wide variety of food products–including lamb.  This buying created a strong demand for farm products and farm prices rose almost immediately after the June, 1950 invasion.  Our Nevada Township farmer could not understand why lamb prices rose with all the other farm prices.  Surely, lamb was  no more popular among the U.S. troops (and probably not much more popular with the Canadians) than it had been during the Second World War (see the first article in this series of articles called “Oliver Farm Equipment in Mower County, Minnesota [Part I]: Suffolk Sheep Raising”).  As a result he felt the rise in lamb prices was a temporary spike that would not last long.  Only later did he become aware that the palates of many of the international soldiers fighting in Korea preferred lamb as a part of their diet. This meant that Quartermaster Corps needed to purchase substantial amounts of lamb from the United States market. This purchasing by the Quartermaster Corps, our Nevada Township farmer learned, had caused the rise in lamb prices immediately after the North Korean invasion of the south in June of 1950.

During the Korean War, the attempt was made to have fresh cooked meals available to the soldiers on a regular basis rather than C-rations.

Additionally, during the Korean War, the U.S. Army began the policy of serving fresh hot meals to their troops rather than cold C-rations.   servingQuartermaster Corp made a conscious effort to supply as many troops as possible with fresh cooked food served in field canteens, rather than relying on C-rations to feed the troops in the field. Consequently, lamb prices in the United States rose dramatically, breaking all previous records. Rising up out of the usual doldrums price range of $7.00 to $8.00 cwt., the market price of lamb shot up to $10.50 cwt. in July of 1950. By December of 1950 the price of lamb had reached $14.80 cwt. and by March of 1951 the price was $18.50 cwt.

The rise in the market price lamb had an immediate effect on our Nevada Township farmer.  He noticed that it was much easier to sell his purebred ewes (female sheep).  Traditionally, he would show his prize ewes at the Mower County Fair during the first full week in August and again at the Minnesota State Fair which ended on Labor Day in early September. The ribbons he won at these fairs served as advertising for his purebred flock of Suffolk sheep. During and after these fairs, he could expect to sell some of his purebred ewes and bucks or rams (male sheep) as breeding stock to other farmers seeking to improve their flocks. In 1950, he now sold more ewes than he had in any year since 1944. Many farmers, it seemed, wanted to start raising sheep or to increase the size of the small flocks they already had on their farms. This increase in flocks of sheep was reflected in the 1950 Minnesota sheep population figures. To be sure, the 1950 figures reflected another decline of sheep to 571,000 head of sheep. However, this represented only a 1% decline from 1949. The massive decline of sheep populations that had occurred since 1945 had finally reached bottom. Even here in Mower County, the end of the precipitous post-war decline in sheep population was evident as the population of sheep in Mower County declined again in 1950 by only a 2.8% to 10,300 head for the county as a whole. Clearly, better times were ahead for sheep farmers in the Midwest.

Demand for lamb for the international contingent of troops in Korea meant that raising purebred Suffolk Sheep became popular among farmers again.

The ewes that he sold after the Mower County Fair and the Minnesota State Fair, were not bred ewes. Usually, he released the rams to graze with the ewes even the young ewes after he returned home to the farm from the State Fair following Labor Day in September. Generally, within thirty (30) days all the ewes would be pregnant. In this way, every ewe in the flock would be bred during the months of September and October. Thus, he could expect that most of the new lambs in his flock would be born in the months of March and April of the next year.

Generally, after Christmas, in January each year there would quite a few organized annual “bred ewe” sales held around the Midwest. These auctions were a good chance to sell even more breeding stock. Since the ewes at these sales were already pregnant, the ewes would usually sell for even more money than the un-bred ewes he sold after the fairs. In 1950, however, our Nevada Township farmer was receiving higher prices for his both his pregnant and non-pregnant ewes, than ever before.

Bred ewe sales of all breeds of sheep are popular starting in the late autumn and extending through the winter.

This was fortunate, because the summer of 1950 had been a dry growing season.  Thus, our Nevada Township farmer suffered a 13% decline in the soybean yield in 1950 in Mower County.   The , but the resulting high price he had received for his soybeans had more than made up for the loss of yield.  Thus, in 1950 both sheep and soybeans were helpful additions to the family income. Not only did the high price of soybeans save them from a loss in income caused by the low soybean yield, it also helped recover some of the losses in the corn yield in 1947.

Ewes that he sold after the Mower County Fair and the Minnesota State Fair, were not bred ewes.  Usually, he released the rams to graze with the ewes even the young ewes after50he returned from the State Fair following Labor Day in September.  Generally, within thirty (30) days all the ewes would be pregnant.  In this way, every ewe in the flock would be bred during the months of September and October.  Thus, he could expect that most of the new lambs in his flock would be born in the months of March and April of the next year.

Generally, after Christmas, in January each year there would quite a few organized annual “bred ewe” sales held around the Midwest.  These auctions were a good chance to sell even more breeding stock.  Since the ewes at these sales were already pregnant, the ewes would usually sell for even more money than the un-bred ewes he sold after the fairs.  In 1950, however, our Nevada Township farmer was receiving higher prices for his both his pregnant and non-pregnant ewes, than ever before.

However, there had been a 13% decline in the soybean yield in Mower County, but the high price he had received for his soybeans had more than made up for the loss of yield.   Once again soybeans had saved the family income.  Not only did the high price of soybeans save them from a loss in income caused by the low soybean yield, it also helped recover some of the losses in the corn yield in 1947.  Our Nevada Township farmer recognized that once again diversification of his farming operation had saved the day.  Specifically, diversification into soybeans appeared to be work not only in drought years like 1945, but also in wet years like 1947.

Mower County, Minnesota is located on the southern border of the State of Minnesota, adjacent to the State of Iowa.  In 1953, Mower County was a predominately rural county.  Topographically, Mower County is located in a transition area.  Starting in western Mower County and extending into Freeborn County to the west the land becomes very flat.  However the land in eastern Mower County and extending east into Fillmore County the land becomes increasingly more hilly.  Additionally, the soil itself in the eastern part of Mower County is sandy and is not as rich as the darker humus soil in the western part of the county.

Located in the extreme southwest corner of Mower County was Lyle, Township.  Immediately, to the east of Lyle Township was Nevada Township.  In 1953, on one particular farm in Nevada Township, lived a man and his wife and one adult son.  Our Nevada Township farmer had lived on this farm all his life.  Indeed, his parents had owned and operated the farm before him.  As he had come of age on the farm, he had gradually taken over more responsibility for the farming operation from his parents.  In 1924, he had married his wife and together they had moved into the same large house with his parents.  In 1925, when his wife had become pregnant with their son, his parents had decided to officially retire and move into Austin, the county seat of Mower County.  Austin (1950 pop. 23,100) was located in the middle of Austin Township, northwest of Nevada Township and straight north of Lyle Township.

Like many farms in the Midwestern United States, the 160-acre farm on which our Nevada Township farmer and his family lived was “diversified farm.”  Diversified farming operations were those farming operation that raised a variety of crops and animals rather than specializing in only one crop or one type of livestock.  Faced with the typical market fluctuations for the various farm commodities, our Nevada Township farmer, like other diversified farmers sought to avoid “putting all his eggs in one basket.”  Rather than growing only one cash crop or raising only one type of livestock on the farm, our Nevada Township farmer raised corn, soybeans, oats and hay.  And he milked dairy cows raised pigs, and had about 200 laying hens in his chicken house.  In this way, he hoped that if there was a “softness” or decline in the price of one of these commodity markets, the other commodities would help him maintain a near stable cash income for the year.

However, not all of the crops on the farm could be sold for cash.  When our Nevada Township farmer had taken over the operation of the farm from his parents, he had used horses, exclusively, for power on the farm.  Accordingly, one field on the farm had been set aside for raising hay for the horses and the dairy herd.  Another field had to be set aside each year for the raising oats for feed for the horses, cattle, pigs and chickens.  Therefore, these crops were not cash crops.  These were crops were raised for animal feed only.  Corn was, therefore, traditionally the only “cash crop” of the farming operation.  However, not all of the corn could be sold.

Some of the mature corn plants were chopped in late August while they were still green and blown into the silo to be fed as “ensilage” to the dairy cows during the winter time.  The rest of the corn was allowed to ripen and the ears of the corn were harvested in October or November each year.  This ear corn was stored in the corn crib to dry in the cold winter air.  In February the dried ear corn would be shelled.  Most of this shelled corn would be sold to the Hunting Company grain elevator in the small village of Lyle, Minnesota (1950 pop. 609), located about 9 miles to the southwest of the farm in neighboring Lyle Township.

However, some of the shelled corn had to retained on the farm as animal feed.  A large portion of the shelled corn would be ground and fed to the feeder pigs.  Grinding the shelled corn in a feed grinder allowed the pigs to digest the corn easier and more efficiently.  The concentrated calories in corn quickly brought the feeder pigs up to market weight.  Another portion of the corn retained on the farm each year would be fed to the chickens.  The calories in corn and the protein in oats would provide a balanced diet for the chickens and kept their egg laying at a maximum.  Because chickens have gizzards, which can digest very coarse food, both the shelled corn and the oats could be fed to the chickens without grinding or other processing.  A portion of the ear corn retained on the farm was ground in the feed grinder—cob and all—to become feed for the milking cows.  Our Nevada Township farmer provided a scoopful of this ground corn to each lactating cow at each milk time.  This small amount of ground corn fed to the lactating cows twice a day allowed the extra calories that the cows needed to continue supplying milk.  Furthermore, since most of the cows were also pregnant, the additional calories in the ear corn also supported the growing unborn calf the cow was carrying.  The cow feed was not as rich in calories as was the pig feed.  Our Nevada Township farmer did not want the dairy cattle to become fat—like beef cattle.  He wanted a balanced diet.  The cobs in the cow feed provided a certain amount of roughage for the cattle.  Furthermore, when grinding the ear corn for the cows, our Nevada Township farmer added oats to the ear corn he fed into the grinder.  The oats added protein to the cattle’s diet.  The milking cows needed the roughage and protein more than they needed concentrated calories.  They did not need to put on a great deal of weight like pigs or beef cattle.  Even after sufficient corn had been retained on the farm for all these animals, a large amount of shelled corn could be hauled off the farm and sold to the Hunting Company elevator in Lyle.  The sale of this remaining corn supplied a large part of the cash income for his farming operation each year.

When our Nevada Township farmer had taken over control of the farming operation from his parents in 1924, horses provided the power for field operations, exclusively.  Accordingly, in addition to feeding the cows, pigs and chickens on his farm, a great portion of the oats and hay, he raised on the farm fed the horses he used on the farm.  Although the horses were used primarily only in the summer, they had to be fed all year long.  He had been aware, for some time, that he could increase the efficiency of his farming operation by mechanizing the power source on his farm.  Subsequently in 1940, Our Nevada Township farmer obtained a used 1937 Oliver/Hart-Parr Model 28-44 tractor.  This tractor was also called the “3-5 plow tractor.”  The Model 28-44 certainly was a great improvement to his farming operation.  The tractor performed all the heavy duty field work such as plowing and discing much more quickly than with horses.  Previously, these heavy duty field tasks had required the use of four or six horses harnessed together.  As time went by, our Nevada Township farmer even began using the Model 28-44 for lighter duty field work.  He had shortened the tongue on his Oliver/Superior horse-drawn two-row corn planter so that he could use the tractor to pull the planter across the field in the spring.  Our Nevada Township farmer found that he was able to reduce the number of work horses he kept on the farm.  Soon the only field task, which he not able to perform with his Model 28-44 tractor was the cultivation of corn.  As a “standard” or “four-wheeled” tractor, the Model 28-44 was not configured to be fit with a cultivator.  Accordingly, our Nevada Township farmer had to retain some of his horses for this single field task—the cultivation of corn.

The cultivation of corn to control weeds was a task that dominated all his summers from June until the latter part of July.  Even now in the post-war era, he was still cultivating corn, one row at a time with his horses and horse-drawn one-row cultivator.  Cultivating corn was the most time-consuming activity on farm.  Hours, days and weeks of time were spent by our Nevada Township farmer riding the cultivator behind the horses watching the tiny shoots of corn pass between the two horses and slip between the two shields positioned on the cultivator to protect the young plants from being covered up by the dirt that was being stirred up by the shovels of the cultivator.  Our Nevada Township farmer vowed each spring to cultivate the entire corn field three times before the middle of July.  The first time, the corn was cultivated lengthwise.  This cultivation attempted to eliminate the weeds between the rows of corn.

Our Nevada Township farmer used the “check-wire” type of planting when he planted his corn each spring.  He stretched a wire across the length of the field.  Spaced along the wire at every 40 inches was a button.  The wire was attached to a tripping mechanism on the side of the corn planter during every trip across the field.  As the planter progressed across the field the wire would slide through the tripping mechanism on the corn planter.  As each individual button on the wire, the button would cause the planter to trip and both planting units on the two-row corn planter would plant corn seed at that location in the field.  Thus, when finished the entire field was planted in a “grid” of 40 inch rows and the individual corn plants within each row would each be 40 inches apart.  This grid allowed the corn to be cultivated cross-wise as well as length-wise.

Thus, the first time over the field with the cultivator, our Nevada Township farmer drove the horses and cultivator lengthwise across the field.  The shovels dug out all the weeds in between the rows of corn as the cultivator moved along.  However, this grid allowed the corn field to also be cultivated in a crosswise pattern.  Cross cultivating allowed the cultivator to dig out all the weeds had not been dug out in the earlier lengthwise cultivation—in particular those weeds which were growing up between the corn plants within the rows.  Consequently, in addition to the first time lengthwise cultivation of the corn, our Nevada Township farmer always wanted to complete a second cultivation of the corn in a crosswise pattern.  Ideally, the corn should be cultivated a third time.  Every spring our Nevada Township farmer pledged to cover the corn three times with the cultivator.  However, between the slow progress of cultivating with the horses one row at a time and the rainy days which prevented any field work, his plans were usually went awry.  Usually by the end of July the corn was too tall to fit comfortably under the frame of the cultivator and besides the corn was already to the “tasselling” stage.  Cultivation at this stage would do more harm than good to the corn.  Most years, our Nevada Township farmer found that the corn was already too tall before he had finished third cultivation.  Thus, our Nevada Township farmer would be forced to cease cultivation of the corn before he was done with the third cultivation.

For some time, our Nevada Township farmer had been aware that if he owned a tricycle-style tractor, he could mechanize his entire farming operation—including the cultivation of corn.  He might then have no need for horses at all on his farm.  The elimination of horses from the farm would allow our Nevada Township farmer to decrease the number of acres used for raising oats and hay on the farm.  Thus, more of the arable acreage on his farm would be available for cash crops.  This meant that he could derive more income for his farming operation.

However, in late 1941, about a year and half after he had purchased the Model 28-44 tractor, The United States found itself thrust into the Second World War.  Farm machinery of any kind and especially tractors became extremely difficult to obtain.  All farm tractor production was severely restricted as the industrial capacity of the United States was funneled entirely to the war effort.  Thus, for the duration of the war our Nevada Township farmer was required to continue using just the machinery he had at the beginning of the war.

The war brought about a great number of changes in the rural farm economy.  First and foremost were the high prices that farm commodities fetched during the war.  The United States government bought a great deal of food stuffs as the government attempted to feed its armed forces stationed around the world.  Large government buying in the agricultural products market raised prices of agricultural products across the spectrum.  These higher prices created new opportunities for farmers.  One such opportunity arose because of the disruption of trade between Australia and Great Britain.

Britain has traditionally been known as a nation of meat eaters.  In the pre-war era (before 1939), the average British citizen ate 109.6 pounds of meat.  (From a 1949 document, found on the Internet, called “Australia’s Contribution to the British Diet” by R. H. Heywood.)  By comparison, the average citizen of the United States ate 82.9 pounds of red meat in 1938.  Like the diet of the average United States citizen, most of the meat eaten by the British was beef.  However, unlike the United States, the second meat of choice in the British diet was mutton or lamb, while pork was in third place among meats in the British diet.  In the United States, pork was second behind beef in popularity while lamb fell far behind chicken and even fish in popularity.  (From a United States Department of Agriculture spread sheet called “Red Meat and Poultry per capita availability in the United States” found on the Internet.)  Indeed, citizens of the United States ate twice as much chicken and nearly four times as much fish and shellfish as lamb.  (Ibid.)

Time was, when Britain raised nearly all the sheep consumed by its own people.  However, following 1900, the increase the number of sheep in Great Britain did not keep up with the growing of the population.  (“Australia’s Contribution to the British Diet” by R. H. Heywood found on the Internet.)  Consequently, lamb and mutton began to be imported—largely from Australia.  By 1940, one third of all mutton consumed in Great Britain was imported.  (Ibid.)  However, the Japanese conquests of large parts of Southeast Asia and the threats to Australia, had a debilitating effect on Australia’s trade with Great Britain.  Additionally, what trade left the shores of Australia safely faced another difficulty.  The virtual closure of the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea for the duration of the war meant that Australian shipping no longer had access to the Mediterranean “shortcut” to Britain.  Trade destined for Britain had to make its way around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa on its way to Great Britain.  This added a great deal to the expense to the price of Australian sheep.  The price of sheep in the United States began climbing as early as February of 1938.  However, in April of 1941, with the German invasion of the Greek mainland and the island of Crete and the resultant threat on British shipping in the Mediteranean, the price of sheep in the United States rose to $6.40 per hundred weight—a price not seen since 1930.  Consequently, a niche opened in the sheep market for the American farmer.  The Midwest family farm was now able to compete profitably with Australian sheep producers for a share of the large British market.

In 1941, sheep and lamb production in the United States set a new all-time record of 2.3 billion pounds of meat.  (From an April 30, 1942 document called “Meat Animals—Farm Production and Income 1935-1941 found on the Internet.)  Despite this drastic increase in production of sheep in the United States of America, no glut appeared in the sheep market which might threaten the price.  Indeed the price of mature sheep (mutton) continued on a sharp increase—rising from $3.90 per hundred weight in 1940 to $5.10 per hundred weight in 1941 (a 31% increase in just one year).  (Ibid.)  Spring lamb prices rose from $8.10 per hundred weight in 1940 to $9.58 per hundred weight in 1941 (a 19% increase in one year).  (Ibid.)  The United States Department of Agriculture estimated that the sheep raisers saw a 27% increase in their income between 1940 and 1941.  (Ibid.)  After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor which drew the United States into the War, mutton prices remained at high levels as the United States put mutton into several C-ration military field kits.  (Many people now allege that putting mutton in military C-rations ruined the market for lamb and mutton for an entire generation of Americans.  After the war, returning World War II veterans absolutely refused to buy or eat lamb because of bad memories they retained of the mutton in the military field C-rations they had been forced to eat during the war.)

Favorable market conditions in the sheep market were reported over the radio—like WCCO radio out of the Twin Cities.  Our Nevada Township farmer began think hard about acquiring a small flock of ewes.  He was not alone.  Many farmers in his neighborhood were doing the same thing.  Indeed, for one farm family over in a neighboring township—Austin Township—sheep raising was already a major part of their farm income.  Earl Eugene and Margaret (Stormer) Subra owned a farm containing only 60-acres in Austin Township.  While, the Subra family milked some cows and raise some pigs, they virtually made all their cash income from sheep—pure bred Suffolk sheep.  Born in 1913, Earl Subra grew up on the farm of his parents William J. and Bertha (Dennis) Subra located in Austin Township.  Raised on his father’s farm, Earl had moved to his own farm.  In 1931, he and Margaret Stormer were married.  Earl began raising Suffolk sheep prior to 1940.  He chose Suffolk sheep because of the characteristics of breed.

The Suffolk breed was born as a result of the cross breeding of Southdown sheep with old Norfolk sheep in England.  Suffolks are not “wool” sheep.  They grow only a moderate amount of wool.  They were a breed of sheep known for their black faces and legs, which were free of wool.  Suffolk sheep were raised primarily as “meat” sheep.  Suffolk ewes (female sheep) were prolific in the production of offspring and were “good milkers.”  Suffolk lambs grew rapidly; they had more edible meat and less fat than other breeds.  Suffolks have excellent feed conversion characteristics which means that Suffolks have the capacity to actively graze and rustle for feed even on dry range lands.  However, this characteristic also means that when Suffolk lambs are raised on high quality feeds, the breed has one of the fastest growth rates of any breed of sheep.  Consequently, Suffolk sheep were rapidly becoming the most common breed in the Midwestern United States.  (Paula Simmons & Carol Ekarius, Storey’s Guide to Raising Sheep [Storey Publishing: North Adams, Massachusetts, 2001] p. 74.)

Earl Subra noted that Suffolks answered the demands of the market at the current time in 1940.  Meat, not wool, was the main product that was in demand in the current market.  Suffolks had the quality of lean meat that the market demanded.  Furthermore, the short five-month (147-153 day) gestation period plus the rapid growth rate of the individual lambs meant that the farmer could make money faster with Suffolks than with other breed of sheep.  Earl Subra knew that, drawn by the chance for making a good profit, many farmers would be attempting enter the sheep market by acquiring flocks of their own for the first time.  He also knew that many of these farmers would be choosing Suffolks.  Accordingly, in addition to raising and selling lambs to the Hormel meat packing plant in Austin, he felt he could also make a profit selling bucks (male sheep) and ewes (female sheep) to those farmers wanting to start their own flocks.  In this way he would be working with the rising tide of farmers entering the sheep market.  This, Earl Subra thought, was the way he could make a living out of the new situation that was arising.

However, to sell Suffolks to the farmers wishing to start their new flocks, Earl Subra felt that he needed to have a product that would these farmers would buy.  If Suffolk sheep had characteristics that would stand out among other breeds of sheep, then the goal should be to raise Suffolk sheep that would adhere closely to those characteristics and avoid any negative characteristics.  Indeed, there already was an organization in devoted to promoting the best characteristics of the Suffolk breed by educating Suffolk breeders.  This organization was the National Suffolk Sheep Association (N.S.S.A.) which was headquartered in Michigan and later was headquartered in Columbia, Missouri.  N.S.S.A. started a registration process by which purebred Suffolks could be registered with N.S.S.A.  N.S.S.A. would mail out a certificate of registration to the owner of the individual registered sheep.  In order to qualify for registration, both the sire (father) and dam (mother) must also have their own certificates of registration.  Theoretically, then every registered purebred Suffolk could be traced back through a paper trail of registration certificates to the original Suffolk sheep which initially defined the breed.  Each certificate of registration would document that the individual sheep was direct descendant of these original Suffolk sheep.

A registration fee was assessed by N.S.S.A. for each and every registration.  Farmers therefore tended only to register the best examples of Suffolk sheep in their flocks. Farmers would register only those sheep that were intended to keep as “breeding stock.”  Any sheep intended for market would not registered.  Usually all those sheep with lesser breed characteristics were sent to market.  These sheep might be purebred sheep, but they were non-registered purebreds.  Suffolks of unknown origin might look very good as far as breed characteristics, but because no paper trail of registration certificates could be assembled to show how they were connected to the original Suffolks, these sheep could never be registered, no matter how good they looked as far as breed characteristics.  These sheep are known as “grade” sheep.  The intended result of this registration process was that registered purebreds with their papers in good order would bring more money at any sale of breeding stock than either grade sheep or unregistered purebreds.

The N.S.S.A. sponsored judging shows of registered purebred Suffolk sheep to educate sheep growers on the best characteristics of the Suffolk breed.  The N.S.S.A. also promoted the “open class” sheep judging contests at the various state and county fairs around the nation.  Usually 4-H and FFA classes were also judged at these county and state fairs.  These judging contests were open only to members of the 4-H or FFA.  However, the “open class” show, which was open to sheep growers of all ages.  Within the open class competition, there were many different sub-divisions according to the breed of sheep.  Within each of these breed sub-division, only registered purebred sheep of that particular breed could be entered.  These judging competitions and shows were attempts to educate and sharpen the eye of individual breeders as to fine points of the breed.  The N.S.S.A. defined and evaluated exact standards as to the ideal Suffolk sheep.  Judges at county and state fairs around the nation were provided a “score card” which evaluated the various features of the Suffolk sheep and how many points were to be allowed for each feature.  The total number of points was 100 points of which 35 points were set aside for the rear legs alone.

Even prior to 1939, Earl Subra had been working on developing a flock of Suffolk sheep that reflected superiority in any number of individual features.  Soon his ewes and rams were winning a number of blue ribbons at the Mower County Fair which was held in the first week of August each year.  Earl also began to make a name for himself at the Minnesota State Fair.  Soon breeders from outside the Midwest, and even from Canada, were searching him out to purchase rams and ewes from the Subra flock.  These other breeders saw traits in the Subra sheep that they wished to include in the blood lines of their own flocks.  Consequently, Subra sheep were sold far and wide and Earl Subra became quite famous among Suffolk breeders across the nation.

Accordingly, when our Nevada Township farmer began to think seriously about obtaining a flock of sheep for his own farm, he though of the Subra farm located in the next township to the west.  Accordingly, in the fall of 1941, after watching the dramatic increase in the price of sheep over the summer (reaching $7.10 per hundred weight in August of 1941), our Nevada Township farmer purchased eight (8) purebred Suffolk ewes from Earl Subra in September of 1941 and brought them to his farm.  He hoped that adding sheep to his farming operation would be another diversification of the farming operation and the farm income.  He hoped this diversification would further strengthen his family’s financial position.

When our Nevada Township farmer bought the eight registered ewes, Earl Subra supplied him the corresponding N.S.S.A. registration certificates for each individual sheep.  Each registration certificate contained a registration number and was signed by the Suffolk breed secretary—Clare Williams of Michigan.  The registration number was matched to a number on a metal tag in the ear of the respective sheep.  On the registration certificate, were the registration numbers of both the sire (father) and dam (mother) of the particular sheep.  If needed, our Nevada Township farmer could use these sire and dam registration numbers to call the breed secretary and trace the registrations of the sire and dam back in time.

Introducing the ewes to his farm for the first time required that some changes be made to the farm.  The farm on which our Nevada Township farmer and his family lived was established in a series of concentric circles, each area fenced off from the next larger circle.  The immediate area around the house contained the lawns, the outhouse, dog house and family garden.  This was the inner yard.  A legal term for this area is “the curtilage.”   The next largest encircled area included most of the rest of the building site of the farm, the grove, the orchard and the windbreak running along the north and west sides of the building site.  This area was also called the “yard,” but the term was meant to be used in a larger sense than the mere curtilage around the house.  The area behind the barn was fenced off from the yard to keep the cows out of the yard.  Likewise the areas on either side of the hog house were fenced off to keep the pigs out of the yard and the chicken yard next to the hen house was fenced off to keep the chickens out of the yard.  All animals were kept out of the yard except the family dog and any cats from the barn.  These animals were actually encouraged to patrol the yard and keep rodents under control.  However, the yard was intended to be the main home for the small flock of sheep that he was now acquiring.

One of the benefits of a flock of sheep would be the fact that they would keep the grass and weeds in all area of the yard under control.  This would save labor and time that the family had, in the past, spent trying to keep these areas mowed and trimmed.  This was one of the advantages that our Nevada Township farmer looked forward to about having sheep on the farm.  However, there were also disadvantages.  One of the most important disadvantages was that all the fences around the yard had to be improved and reinforced.  Sheep were curious and would explore every portion of the area they occupy in order to find vegetation to eat.  First, the fence between the yard and the cartilage needed to be made more secure to keep the sheep from invading the cartilage and most importantly out of the family garden.  In the garden, the sheep could make quick work of the young succulent plants the family was trying to grow there.  The lawns inside the cartilage would continue to be mowed by the family, just as in the past.  Likewise the fences around the outside of the yard needed to be strengthened to prevent the sheep from getting into the fields where the farm crops were being raised.

Additionally, our Nevada Township farmer needed to take special precautions to protect the sheep.  He installed a gate across the driveway of his farm.  This was to keep the sheep from getting out onto the road and being struck by cars and/or trucks.  Also he obtained an old baby chick brooder house at an auction in his neighborhood.  The old brooder house was in fairly good shape with a shingled roof to repel rain and wooden siding for warmth in the winter and three windows along the back of brooder house to let in light.  These windows could be closed in the winter to keep the sheep warm and opened in the summer to let in the cool breezes on summer nights.  Our Nevada Township farmer wanted to convert this brooder house into a sheep shed for his farm.  The brooder house was mounted on four “six inch by six inch” wooden beams which ran the full length of the small building.  These beams acted as skids and allowed the building to be towed along on the ground by a tractor or team of horses.  Because the auction had been held not far from his farm, our Nevada Township farmer used his Oliver/Hart-Parr Model 28-44 tractor to drag the little building back to his own farm.

A secure sheep shed was needed to protect the sheep at night.  The worst predator for sheep on the typical Midwestern farm is the domesticated dog.  With the master and family gone to bed, their pet dog might slip away from his homestead in search of excitement.  Dogs will band together at night and chase and attack anything that runs.  Sheep habitually seek flight from danger by running every time they are chased.  Although thoroughly domesticated as pets, dogs will, nonetheless, refert to their wild nature and join together in packs at night to chase and kill the fleeing sheep.  Most times these are pet dogs from neighboring farms.  Our Nevada Township farmer knew that owners of these dogs, his own neighbors, will passionately deny that their dog ever leaves their own farm, much less has ever killed any sheep.  They just could not believe it about their family pet.  The neighbors would continue in their denials even when shown wool caught in their teeth the next morning, following any such attack.

Our Nevada Township farmer surely could not afford to lose one of these expensive purebred ewes due to a dog attack that could have been prevented.  Accordingly, the only way to avoid problems with neighborhood dogs was to lock the flock up in a secure sheep shed every night.  Thus, locking the sheep in the sheep shed became the last chore that our Nevada Township farmer completed every evening after the milking was done.  Although this chore was usually done after dark when the mid-day heat was past, the fall of 1941 was warmer than usual.  Consequently, on these warm nights, the sheep resisted going voluntarily into the sheep shed.  They preferred sleeping outside on the ground rather than being locked up in the sheep shed.  Accordingly, it took a little effort to round them up and get them into the sheep shed.

Our Nevada Township farmer made some improvements to the sheep shed/brooder house by nailing a couple of one inch by four inch boards to the inside frame of the windows.  These boards were nailed over the lower portion of each window in the brooder house no higher than the height of an average mature sheep.  These boards would prevent the windows from being accidentally broken by sheep moving boisterously about inside their new sheep shed during the night.  By protecting these windows from breakage, the windows could be closed in the winter for warmth and opened in the summer to catch the cool summer night breezes.

In one corner of the sheep shed, our Nevada Township farmer fixed a little hay rack to hold a single bale of hay.  With the “killing frost” expected any day, our Nevada Township farmer knew that soon he would have to feed the ewes hay to replace the vegetation that would no longer be available to the sheep after the frost.  He also built a little frame on the floor of another corner of the sheep shed.  This little frame was just the right size for a salt block.  On the next trip to Lyle, our Nevada Township farmer reminded himself that he would have to pick up a block of iodized salt at the Hunting elevator.

Since dogs only chased sheep in the night time hours, the arrival of early morning brought safety for the sheep.  Accordingly, the sheep could be let out of the sheep shed even before sunrise each morning.  Knowing how the sheep disliked being locked up in warm weather, our Nevada township farmer wanted to let the ewes out of the sheep shed as soon as possible in the morning.  Accordingly, he made sure that his first chore in the each morning was to walk out to the sheep shed and open the door of the shed to let the sheep out for the day.  On his way to the sheep shed, he made his way up the small hill in the back of the house to the windmill.  At the based of the windmill, our Nevada Township farmer unlatched and turned the crank connected to one of the four legs of windmill.  This crank was connected to a cable which ran up the leg of the tower to the head of the windmill located at the top of the tower. Unlatching the crank and loosening the crank allowed the vane of the windmill to swing loose and bring the wind wheel of the windmill around to face the direction of the wind.  Then the wind wheel began to turn and draw water up out of the ground.  Ordinarily, the water would be drawn up to a pipe that lead to an underground cistern.  Because this cistern was buried underground on the small hill, this cistern was actually at a higher level than the house and the barn on the farm.  Accordingly water could flow by means of gravity through an underground pipe down to the house and through another underground pipe to the barn.  Being underground the cistern was protected from freezing in the winter.  Therefore, the cistern and gravity provided “running water to both the house and the barn on the farm.  However, by turning a valve at the base of the pump jack, water could be diverted from flowing to the underground cistern and would be pulled by the windmill to the top of the pump jack where the water would flow out the pump jack and fill a tub that was sitting on top of the ground outside wooden fence that surrounded the base of the windmill.  This tub was the watering tank for the sheep.

Sheep needed fresh water available to them at all times.  Fresh water was important to sheep for a number of reasons.  Unlike cattle who can drink water of a wide variety of temperatures, sheep need water of 50°F in order to stay cool during hot weather.  Water also aided the transportation of nutrients around the body of the sheep and aided in the removal of waste matter from the body.  Additionally, water was required for some of the chemical reactions that were occurring inside the bodies of the sheep and water helped keep the cells of the bodies of the sheep hydrated and healthy.  The water now pouring out of the pump jack was of the correct temperature and came from a well that was around 300 feet deep and, thus, was fresh and free of any unhealthy bacteria that might be found in surface water.  After being locked up all night, the sheep came out of the shed in the morning and headed straight for their water tank.  Throughout the day they would find their way back to their water tank for another long drink.

After drinking water, the sheep would begin grazing.  Because they were exclusively planter eaters, the sheep would have to graze most of the day just to gather enough grass and plant life to sustain them.  The stomach or rumen of the individual sheep was divided into chambers or individual stomachs.  The rumen is designed to allow the sheep their graze for a couple of hours until their first stomach was full.  Then, they would lie down for about an hour to “chew their cud.”  During this process the “cud” or partially digested material in the first stomach would be regurgitated a mouthful at a time back up into the mouth for re-chewing.  After the cud had been sufficiently re-chewed, the cud would be re-swallowed into the second (regular stomach) and make its way through the regular digestive tract of the sheep.   Mouthful by mouthful the cuds would be chewed, until the first stomach was empty.

Cattle have the same type of digestive, however, sheep are much more efficient than cattle.  Any weed seeds that are ingested by cattle will pass through the entire digestive tract and will be discarded on the ground with the manure.  After the manure, has dried out and been incorporated into the soil, the individual weed seed may start growing again.  However, individual weed seeds will not survive the digestive system of the average sheep.  Accordingly, weeds that depend on seeds for propagation will not survive in any sheep yard like weeds in a cow pasture.  Only those plants that propagate from growth of the roots will survive in a sheep yard.

The Suffolk ewes grazed the outer yard and the grove and kept the grass and weeds under control much more efficiently than our Nevada Township farmer could ever have done the lawn mower or the scythe, even if he had had the time to do that chore.  They even ate the grass and weeds down around the old abandoned machinery that was parked in the grove. Evidence of the sheep’s recent grazing location could be seen in the little round marble-sized balls of fresh sheep manure, that could be seen around the yard.  Our Nevada Township farmer always felt that these little “marbles” of dung were neater and less messy than the “cowpies” of cattle.  Additionally, sheep manure was more valuable than cow manure.  Indeed, sheep manure, was richer in soil nutrients than any other manure on the farm.  Sheep manure has almost twice the nitrogen content of horse manure and more than twice the nitrogen found in cow manure.  Accordingly, when he cleaned out the sheep shed once a year, our Nevada Township farmer spread the sheep manure on the garden rather than taking it to the fields with the barn manure.

Nonetheless, having sheep in the outer yard took some adjustment of the family’s daily habits.  In the past, they might leave the granary door open as they moved back and forth from granary to the chicken house carrying pails of oats to feed the chickens every morning.  Now they had to be aware that the sheep were constantly watching for an opportunity for a chance to steal into the granary to get a few mouthfuls of shelled corn.  The family had to remember to close the granary door every time they made the short trip to the chicken house with pails of oats and corn for the chickens.  In the past the various gates to the inner yard might be left open for the better part of the day.  Not any longer.  The sheep seemed intent on taking any opportunity to invade the inner yard.  Having done so, they would not content themselves with eating the grass on the lawn, which might have been acceptable.  Instead, the sheep would head straight to the “salad bar”—the family garden— where they could eat all the tender young tops of the carrots or the rows of young, green lettuce plants or the English pea plants or the bean plants.  In a very short time the sheep could destroy the family garden.  Indeed, they were hesitant to leave even under threat of a family member running to the garden with a stick in hand or the rapid approach of the family dog, sent to “sic ‘em.”  They would watch the approach of the threat with one eye cocked toward the approaching threat.  Their bodies would be leaning toward the gate like a sprinter ready to start a race but still they would continue to eat as fast as they could to get every last mouthful before they were forced to run for the gate as fast as they could go.  Everywhere the family went in the yard, un-noticed eyes of the sheep were watching for any opportunity to pass through an open door or open gate into some forbidden area.  Once these patterns of behavior were adopted by the family members, the sheep began to find their niche on the farm.

Keeping the outer yard clear of weeds and overgrown plant life was just one of the benefits of the sheep, but our Nevada Township farmer also wanted to earn cash income from the sheep.  Although sheep have wool which can be sold as a product on the market, this did not amount to much in Suffolk sheep.  Suffolk sheep had only a moderate amount of wool.  They were primarily “meat sheep” not “wool sheep.”  The most money could be made from the sheep by the sale of their lambs.  Lambs which are fed a supplement of rolled oats and corn could reach market weight in as little as five months.  To be ready for the market in August or September, 1942, the lambs would have to be born in early spring—March or April of 1942—rather than in the late spring—May or June of 1942.  Lambs born in March and April would have the advantage of not having to contend with flies and other insect pests during their early life, as would lambs born in May and June.  From breeding until lambing, ewes have a five month gestation (pregnancy) period.  Thus, in order to have lambs in March, the ewes would our Nevada Township farmer needed to allow a ram to graze with the ewes as early as early as October in 1941.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *