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Gary Leese teaches the details of raising and marketing sheep and goats

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Gary Leese teaches the details of raising and marketing sheep and goats

After 40 years of raising sheep, Gary Leese of Lone Rock is ready to share what's he's learned at an adult education course at the Lone Rock School starting Jan. 22. 

The era of sheep transportation by Gary Leese is ending and he’s teaching classes for those interested in learning what it takes.

Lone Rock Adult Education Coordinator Julie Bachman said the course is important.

“The course that Gary is offering is a unique opportunity for people in the Bitterroot Valley to better understand how to raise sheep and everything else that goes along with it,” Bachman said. “Gary is a wealth of information because of his expertise in doing this for so many years.”

Gary Leese has raised sheep for 40 years on his farm south of Lone Rock School and started sheering when he was 14-years-old. For the last 17 years, Leese has been providing a transportation service to public auction yards in Billings for local sheep and goat producers. But he is retiring from offering this service.

He said the marketing and transportation process is complicated and his class will give the details including requirements like trip permits, brand inspections and scrapes tags. He’ll also share his knowledge about raising sheep from selection to health and nutrition to everyone interested in learning.

“Between my age and their need, I’d like to help them understand what’s got to be done if they want to raise sheep,” Leese said. “Transporting animals across county lines requires a trip permit or brand inspection, without that it is illegal. Any animals leaving their ranch are supposed to have a scrapie tag.”

According to the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, “Scrapie is a fatal, degenerative disease affecting the central nervous system of sheep and goats. It is among a number of diseases classified as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSE). Infected flocks can experience significant production losses.”

Leese said for 30 years ranchers have tried to eradicate it.

“Originally the government provided the scrapie tags and gave 18 months’ notice that ranchers needed to provide their own,” he said. “Now you have to go to a private provider, and you need tags and an applicator.”

He’s been having difficulty in getting the materials, which now come from out of state and often out of country.

Leese’s Adult Ed class will cover the challenges in raising goats and sheep and taking them to market.

“We don’t have a market anymore,” he said. “We’re 350 miles to Billings and that’s probably the most substantial market we have. I have a 26-foot double-decker trailer that I’ve provided that service with. I usually gathered them up on Saturday, transported them Sunday for a Monday sale, on the weeks they have sales.”

January 17 is the next sale at public auction yards. It is the only one in January and the first one since the last week in November. Leese is not going to be taking sheep or goats to Billings for the Jan. 17 auction.

He said that to meet the demand for the high number of lambs to market in the last couple of years he was taking two trips to each market.

“Pick up and coordination have been challenging,” Leese said. “I couldn’t do it with 200 head. We made six trips on a semi with 300 head or more. The coordination and communication is overwhelming.”

Each animal has to have its owner identified, a scrapie tag and a trip permit.

“It’s quite involved,” Leese said. “It’s a concern I’ve had.”

His concern is that now ranchers will need to take their own animals to Billings and they’ll need to know the legal details and the economic concerns for raising and marketing sheep.

He said the first step is deciding which kind of sheep they want to raise.

“[They need to know] what does the market do, what do you want, how do you do it, and what do you need for facilities?” Leese said. “There are upwards to 250 breeds of sheep. America has pretty much limited to 50 but which 50?”

He said some breeds are better than others for their hair and producers will need to know what to do with their wool, some sheep are bred for quality lamb and some are milking sheep, used for making cheese.

“[In the class,] we’ll try to explore some of those options,” Leese said.

He’ll also cover equipment needed, vet practices, nutrition (hay quality and quantity), and availability of food products,

“I taught the class 25 years ago and just did basic of what I did to raise sheep,” Leese said. “I’ve heard people say they were in my class and learned a lot. I see a strong need with residents having two to five-acre tracts, sheep are the best lawn mowers.”

Leese said the history of sheep in the valley shows a vast drop in numbers.

“It’s not what it was,” he said. “I don’t think too many people would realize there was 25,000 head of sheep between Hamilton and Lolo in the early 1950s and before. Western Montana was first to have sheep and we had quite a lot of them. A lot of people aren’t aware of the change.”

Leese’s class is open to everyone who works with sheep and goats or is considering the option. The class will be held from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Saturdays, Jan. 22, Feb. 19, and Mar. 19.

“To save people highway miles and meet their schedule, class is on Saturday so you can do your chores then come to class,” Leese said. “If we’re in the class and find out we need to go into further detail we’ll try to get another class in before the end of our Adult Ed time limit.”

Bachman said that due to the economic hardships class fees are $10 for the entire course, and seniors, over age 60, receive a 50% discount.

“We stand by our philosophy that our Adult Education Program is to enrich community involvement, which it does,” Bachman said.

The Lone Rock School Adult Education programs are taught at the Lone Rock School, 1112 Three Mile Creek Road, out of Stevensville. For more information about the Adult Education classes, or to register for the Sheep Class, register online at https://www.lonerockschool.org/adult-education. For further information contact Bachman at 406-210-5129.

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