BROCKET, N.D. – Luke Lillehaugen’s sheep flock to him when they hear his voice.
Gathered in a semicircle around Lillehaugen, the Katahdin ewes and ram jostle one another as they vie for their shepherd’s attention. Midnight, the black sheep of the family, basks in the glow of Lillehaugen’s attention as he scratches under her chin.
It’s obvious this is a shepherd who knows his sheep and vice versa. Lillehaugen also is known throughout the sheep industry in North Dakota for the calm, kind way he tends to his flock and for working to promote sheep production in the state.
Lillehaugen, who owns Lillehaugen Farms near Brocket with his father, Maynard, this month was named Master Sheep Producer by the North Dakota Lamb and Wool Producers Association. The award annually is given to a North Dakota farmer or rancher who promotes the sheep industry.
Promoting sheep production is important because numbers in the United States have declined dramatically, from 49 million head in 1942 to 5.1 million head in 2019, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department Economic Research Service. A quarter of the sheep in the United States are raised on farms and ranches in Texas and California.
In North Dakota, there are 72,000 sheep, USDA estimates. The number has stabilized the last several years, and North Dakota Lamb and Wool Producers Association members hope to not only keep it from declining, but to increase it to meet demand.
“Our lamb consumption in America is going up, and has been going up the past five years,” said Travis Hoffman, NDSU sheep specialist. “We have the opportunity to build our American market share.”
Now, 60 percent of the lamb sold in the United States is imported from New Zealand and Australia, he noted.
Janell Lagein, a Rock Lake, N.D., sheep producer nominated Lillehaugen for the award because she was impressed with the industry promotion he does. Lillehaugen frequently invites guests of all ages to his farm to see his flock and tell children and adults about the sheep industry, Lagein said.
“They come out because they want to pet the lambs. They get a little bit of education when they’re out with him,” she said.
Hoffman called Lillehaugen a “tremendous mentor” for youth and beginning sheep producers.
Meanwhile, the Brocket farmer also is an innovator, raising and building a market for registered Katahdin sheep, a hairless meat breed.
Lillehaugen became interested in sheep production when he was a youngster in 4-H and having trouble preparing a steer to show at the county fair.
“I was trying to get a steer ready for 4-H and that thing was dragging me all over the farm,” he said. His father suggested he instead show two sheep.
“They’re a lot smaller and easier to handle,” Lillehaugen said. “That steer that I was trying to show was probably 800, 900 pounds. You take a sheep that’s 150, when you’re an 11- or 12-year old kid, that’s a huge difference.”
He won a grand championship that year at the Nelson County Fair with the ewe and a reserved championship with his market lamb. The experience piqued Lillehaugen’s interest in sheep and he began raising them, building his flock to 45 by the time he graduated from high school.
After attending college and working at other jobs, Lillehaugen got back into the sheep business about 10 years ago, starting with a herd of two dozen Katahdin sheep. He chose the Katahdin breed because they don’t require shearing.
“It’s hard to find a shearer when you’re working in low numbers,” he said.
Lillehaugen has built up his herd to 175. He keeps the best breeding lambs to sell as breeding stock to other sheep producers; he markets the other lambs at West Fargo.
He hopes mentoring youth and beginning producers will encourage them to grow their herds. Lillehaugen believes that’s not only good for the sheep industry, but for the young people who raise them. His daughter, Amilia, 13, is following in his footsteps, showing her sheep at the Walsh County Fair Oct. 16-17.
“I just think, especially for kids, it’s better to be out on the farm working with animals than inside playing video games," Lillehaugen said.