By Sheryl Smith
Sheep producers from throughout Michigan gathered in Lansing for the Annual Shepherd’s Weekend in January and among the awards given out to members was the coveted distinction of being named Commercial Producers of the Year. This award was given to Oswalt Family Farms of Vicksburg. Gordon and Bonnie, along with sons Steven and Scott, and Steve’s daughter Taylor accepted the award for the family. This is the second award earned by the local fourth generation family farm on XY Avenue, in the last 12 months. What is it about this family that caused both the cattle and sheep industries to recognize what they are doing in Vicksburg?
The farm is the home to 1200 ewes (sheep) and 400 brood cows. Gordon and Bonnie transitioned the operation from row crops to livestock after realizing that much of their land was better suited for grazing and grasses and not row crops some years ago. The availability of husklage (a by-product of the seed corn business) has provided a steady food source for the sheep and cattle that makes it possible for them to purchase feed rather than produce it; eliminating the need for expensive equipment necessary to plant and harvest feed crops.
With the solid foundation built by the third generation, sons Steven and Scott have provided the labor necessary to build the farm to the size it is today. Steve’s daughter Taylor chose to stay on the farm full-time in 2013 and they also employ seasonal help during lambing times. The Oswalts have also participated in a program with MSU for over 35 years that allows their veterinarian students to experience time in the trenches. Allowing their farm to be a teaching place is just one of the reasons that they are admired in their industry. Typically farmers are very tight lipped about their trade secrets but the Oswalts are known for taking time to help others that are interested in getting into the livestock business.
In 2013 they erected a new barn to allow them to raise more market lambs indoors where they are safe from predators such as coyotes and are less prone to parasites that live in pastures. While their willingness to change marketing strategies as the market changes has also contributed to their success; the individual players create this award winning team.
To work with the guys on the farm is the see that they act as a well-oiled machine. They work very well together. They seem to just know what the other is going to do and while Steve is good with lists; much of what they do each day comes so naturally that there is no discussion about it. Secondly they have calm natures. Even as Scott loads cattle with an amateur’s help – there was not even a raised voice or harsh word spoken as the cattle made up their minds to exit the trailer and head back out to the pasture. Scott just looked at the helper and said “that’s ok….we’ll just do it again.” Wow – that was not expected.
Gordon still feeds cattle almost every day and spends time with the cattle on pasture so they are not spooked by humans. After many years of not only raising five children, being hands on in the barn and most famously in the kitchen, Bonnie is finally comfortable sitting back and letting others make the meals and feed lambs. The four partners show great respect for one another and decisions are likely made over a hot cup of coffee and a cookie – or two. They are all excited to see the fifth generation show an interest with Taylor coming on board.
Many people still idealize grandpa’s farm but aren’t actively connected to the farm any more. So many children today have never even visited a farm. The Oswalts generously give tours and invite families to come and visit and even purchase the lamb chops they specialized in.