Spit in the Wind Sheep Farm
Polypays in Michigan
By Alan Harman
On a perfect Michigan spring day under clear blue skies you can’t miss them — Polypay lambs running around tree-lined lush green fields, or bleating for their mothers.
They’re located about seven miles outside Alpena, a pretty little city in the northeast corner of the state, 250 miles north of Detroit and perched on the banks of Lake Huron.
Here Jim and Claudia Chapman have for the last 36 years run the 80-acre Spit In The Wind Farm, first with sheep, then cattle and back to sheep.
The farm’s distinctive name? Claudia Chapman explains: “When we first had our farm, Jim called it Shipshape Sheep Farm. But we sold all our sheep and did cattle.” When we got back into sheep, Jim said, ‘Oh, this place is like spitting in the wind.’
“It seemed like so often that would happen to us; we would do something, and it blew up in our face. So, we named it Spit in the Wind.”
Earlier this year, the gregarious couple was named the Michigan Sheep Producer Association’s Commercial Producers of the Year.
Jim Chapman, 72, has been around sheep all his life.
He and Claudia Chapman were born in Howell, Mich., a regional city 260 miles to the south, where his father raised sheep — he remembers Tunis and Suffolk. His wife’s family operated a cattle farm.
About the Farm & Sheep
“When we moved to this farm we wanted to continue that,” Jim Chapman says. “We got sheep right after we moved here, Suffolk, because our two daughters wanted to show sheep for 4H at the Alpena County Fair. We raised the sheep for quite a few years. In the 1980s we sold them and had mainly beef cattle with a few sheep for about 20 years.”
The Polypays arrived at Spit In The Wind in 2006.
That year Claudia Chapman retired after a teaching career and wanted a few sheep.
“I talked to a number of people and came up with Polypays,” she says. “We bought six ewes from Eric and Penny Wallis in Rudyard in the UP — Michigan’s storied Upper Peninsula—and we now have between 90 and 100.”
The farm is 85 acres, with 60 acres under grass and the rest left as natural woodland.
They rent 150 acres from neighboring farms to produce hay, most of it for their own use.
The lambs are marketed for their meat, the way Polypay creators intended.
The breed was developed at the U.S. Sheep Experimentation Station in Dubois, Idaho.
It has its origins in the Finnsheep, with their high prolificacy, early puberty and short gestation; also Rambouillet, with their adaptability, hardiness, productivity and quality fleeces; in addition, Targhee, with their large body size, long breeding season and quality fleeces and too, the Dorset with their superior mothering ability, carcass quality, early puberty and long breeding season.
The name Polypay came about in 1975 from poly, meaning multiple, and pay, meaning return on labor and investment. The breed’s motto is said to be “Tomorrow’s Sheep Today.”
The Chapmans sell most of their lamb crop to United Producers Inc., which has its main sheep business in Manchester, MI, 255 miles south of Alpena.
“We work with a fellow by the name of Doug Brooks who has a lamb pool where people from the northern part of Michigan bring their sheep to West Branch, 100 miles southwest of here, in November and sell there,” Jim Chapman says.
“We’ve had a good crop of lambs this year,” he says. “We have some nice lambs,” noting his lambing percentage fluctuates.
“I would like to have a good lambing percentage,” he says. “A lambing percentage from birth to sale of 150 to 170 percent would be great as far as I am concerned. That is what I shoot for.
“We do have some ewes producing singles. If they’re not giving us twins we will eventually cull them. We give them a couple of chances — maybe more chances than we should.”
This year the Chapmans lambed out 70 ewes and produced 101 live lambs for a 144 percent result.
“We’re lambing in late April and first part of May,” Jim Chapman says. “It’s a little bit warmer weather. “We have a pole barn that we’re lambing in. If they lamb outside, we bring them in.”
The lambs will average in the 70-pound range, with some up to 90 pounds, when they are sold in November.
“We keep them out on grass as long as we can, and we grain them a bit and hay at the end, but there will be 80-pounders, some 90-pounders.
“We’re not getting any younger, but there are times we’d like to have more lambs to sell,” says Jim Chapman, who has an off-farm job at the Alpena Community College. He laughs, “It would be nice to actually make some money off this project, (but) maybe I would just lose more.”
“We really like the Polypay,” Jim Chapman says. “They seem to be good mothers and they do well on grass, which is what we want to do. Wool prices have been bad the last couple of years. We have tried to sell some wool but haven’t been very successful.”
Claudia Chapman says the shearer usually buys the wool, but other times it’s gone to Mid-States Wool Growers Cooperative Association.
Parasites & Predators
The Chapmans’ biggest challenge is internal parasites. “We used to drench on more of a schedule,” Jim Chapman says. “Now we do it as needed. We used to drench with one product, but the last year or two we have been using two different products. We may be going to three here real soon.”
They acted when they saw resistance developing.
“We do both mob and target drenching,” Jim Chapman says. “When we lamb, we drench all the ewes before they get out on grass. Then the rest of the time we look at them and see if somebody’s not doing well and not drench everybody every time.”
They also are careful to use intensive grazing, moving the sheep onto new grass every few days.
“We go to a new paddock, so we have taller grass,” Jim says. “Hopefully there won’t be parasites getting on them if we don’t let them chew down too low.”
Predators too, have them rethinking their operation.
“We’d run sheep for a long time and we never had a coyote problem,” Jim Chapman says. “We would hear them barking on a nightly basis. For years we heard them. Then, a couple of years ago, we had a coyote problem. One summer, we had a couple of attacks and we lost at least six ewes and a number of lambs.”
The coyotes stopped attacking just as suddenly, but there’s a new threat from the air.
“Our latest thing, and I can show you one today, is ravens,” he says.
“I don’t really know if the lamb dies first. We’ve had ravens inside the barn. They fly in the open door. They just come in and we find lamb and ewes with their eyes picked out.”
Jim Chapman has heard a couple of other farmers talk about the raven threat.
“I don’t know if anybody else has had the problem, we just happen to live where we do. There are ravens in the woods surrounding us.”
Hunting ravens is illegal. They are a protected and sacred species.
“Some people have said they have guard dogs that will run at the ravens,” Jim Chapman says. “We haven’t used guard dogs up to now, but it is as consideration.”
Claudia Chapman says ravens are pretty smart birds.
“I think if one is dead and they see it, they may not hang around,” she says.
Other Challenges & Solutions
They keep the Polypay fleeces viably clean during the hay-feeding season by using hay feeders. They get some burrs every once in a while, if they don’t cut the weeds down.
“We have a bale unroller that we use,” Jim Chapman says. “The hay is lying on the ground and they can graze it without any chaff falling down on them.”
The farm, with its own grass and hay, is near self-sufficient with feed.
“But you have to have a tractor and a bailer and it all costs,” Jim Chapman says. “We do use a little bit of grain. We buy a few tons at a time. It lasts us quite a while because we don’t have a big flock.”
The sheep have a barn for shelter during winter, but usually don’t use it.
“Often we keep them on a pasture with a little Quonset hut,” Jim Chapman says. “Some may go inside but they stay right outside most of the time.”
The farm is about 12 miles from Lake Huron and does get some lake effect snow.
Michigan weather is always chancy and with climate change is getting chancier.
“Our springs are getting longer, and winter gets longer going into spring,” Jim Chapman says, “This year we had storms in April with snow. We had just sheared our sheep. We lost a couple of ewes because they piled into the barn trying to stay warm and suffocated.”
Spit In The Wind has a self-replacing ewe flock with rams brought in to keep the genetics fresh.
“We buy rams,” Jim Chapman says. “We like to keep four rams and we’re constantly changing a ram. Every two years, sometimes every year, somebody new is coming in.
“We want to keep that Polypay baseline, but we have other rams.
“We just bought a Texel ram, the first time we had one of that breed. We had a South African Meat Merino (SAMM) for a while. We have an Isle-de-France (that has some other breeds in there that I don’t know what they are), but it is a nice big ram.”
Then they have a Dorset ram, whose days are numbered. Claudia can’t wait to see him rotated off the farm.
“He’s going this year because he is a mean son of a gun,” she says.
“He throws the best lambs. My gosh they are nice lambs. We tolerated him for two years — we’ve had him for three or four. But this year is it.”
There are also two, friendlier, Polypay rams.
“We get our Polypay rams from Brett and Debbie Pharo in Rapid City.”
The Chapmans are active members of the state sheep association, including hosting 4H groups that meet at Spit In The Wind to observe the farm at work.
“We go to meetings and try to stay as up on things as we possibly can,” Jim Chapman says.
“We’ve learned how to be good grass producers,” Claudia Chapman adds. Husband Jim says this spring the farm is being overrun with grass.
“We can’t keep up with it — we need more sheep,” he says.
Originally published in the November/December 2018 issue of sheep!.