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On the Lamb : Back to the Lamb : Farming: As lamb ranchers find it harder and harder to make a profit on the traditional market, niche farmers--small operators who raise baby lamb without antibiotics--are discovering a whole new flock of lamb lovers.


UKIAH — It's just about bedtime.

Fleck knows it. She's a sheepdog and she's been watching the shadows grow long on the damp green hills that surround Mendocino County's Eagle Rock.

The lambs know it. Bathed in the late-afternoon sunlight, they've spent a lazy day in the clover-filled pastures.

The coyotes know it too.

Fleck paces about, stopping only to pull herself into a tight shotgun position, aiming herself like a missile with her laser sights locked onto a cluster of sheep on the southwest ridge.

Greg Hoyt, head of the 2,000-acre Eagle Rock Ranch, looks at his dog and laughs.

"She's starting without you, dear," Cathy Hoyt says. Fleck inches toward the field. A few lambs start wandering down the hill toward the ranchers on their own.

"Come here, Fleck, come here!" Greg Hoyt looks out from under his gray corduroy baseball cap. It's time.

His quiet voice rises to a shout: "Get out! Get out! Get out! Out!"

Fleck tears out to the left, making a huge circle around the sheep on the southwest pasture. The lambs and ewes start to attention, and then it begins. The sound of hoofs and bleating accelerate and the hills suddenly become alive with rushing streams of sheep.

"Hey! Hey! Get back! Get around!" Greg shouts to Fleck. She's cut off a lamb and two ewes who stand impassively, watching the commotion. Fleck backtracks and gets the stragglers moving. But she's missed another pair on the hillcrest. "Get around!" he says again, speeding up his cadence to the pace of an auctioneer:

" Getaround-getaround-getaround-getaround-getaround! "

In an era of high-tech farming, the Hoyts' nightly routine is a decidedly low-tech way to protect a flock from predators.

Now on the northwest hill, Greg rubs his hands together briskly. He cups them around his mouth. He cries out. "Heeeeeeeeeeeylup! Heeeeeeeeeeeeeyoh! Heeeeeeeeeeeylup!"

Translation: "Hey, sheep."

"All the ranchers have yodels," Cathy explains. "But we didn't have any cultural yodels in either of our families. I'm from the Bay Area; Greg's from the San Fernando Valley. We thought of 'hey sheep' because we knew we could remember it. It's highly scientific."

The Hoyt call echoes through the valley. The sheep bleat back in response, but they barely budge.

During the late summer, when the grass is dried and gone, the call signals dinner. But the grass is good these days and today most of the sheep could care less about food.

Greg smiles: "They've been eating all day at the best restaurant in town."

It used to be that sheep ranchers in Mendocino County saw their flock up-close only one or two times a year--maybe at lambing and during shearing and weaning. The Hoyts, however, believe in a more personal approach to farming. Where ranchers traditionally lose contact with their lambs after they are sold at auction and fattened in feedlots, the Hoyts, who see their lambs through the whole life cycle, avoid auctions altogether.

"We used to raise commercial lamb," Greg says, "But we were disappointed because when it came time to sell, we'd have these good-sized lambs, but they weren't considered finished. We'd spend the whole year raising them, protecting them from predators, keeping them free from disease, and then our fate was decided in the auction ring in a matter of a couple minutes. The price we'd get depended on the market, if everybody was happy that day. It had nothing to with the quality of our lamb."

Now the Hoyts raise baby lamb--smaller lambs than the commercial market will usually deal with--and sell it direct by mail order to home cooks throughout the state. Last year they sold 65 out of 75 lambs (a large commericial ranch might run 10,000-head flocks); this year they have 100 lambs to sell. The most they want to raise on the ranch is 200 to 300 lambs.

"Just about everything I learned in college was thrown out the window when we decided to raise lambs the natural way," says Greg, who majored in animal science at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

The Hoyts don't use antibiotics. They don't use hormones. Their Eagle Rock Gourmet Lambs feed on grass and milk only. "The lamb is just lamb," Cathy says.

They breed their lambs, born in January, to fatten up by spring, earlier than commercial breeds, so grain-feeding isn't necessary. "Everything we do depends on the grass," Greg says. "When the grass dries up, the lambs are sold."

For all their work, their lambs are considered oddballs in the industry.

"If we were to take our lambs to auction . . . " Greg says.

"They wouldn't know what to do with them," Cathy responds.

"We would get less per pound," Greg says, "even though our lambs need no fattening and the quality of our lamb is, I think, better. The industry wants a million carcasses that all weigh 50 to 60 pounds. Anything below or above that and you're docked. The difference between a 40-pound carcass and a 60-pound carcass is mostly fat. And that fat comes on during the feedlot cycle."

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