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Mich. Sheep Breeders Earn Service Award

by Bev Berens

Published: Friday, January 11, 2019

Doug Sprik of Hamilton, Mich. received the Michigan Sheep Producers Service to Industry award during the organization's annual meeting and banquet last weekend in Lansing.

Sprik sheared sheep throughout the Midwest, winning competitions and teaching others the trade for 20 years. He and his wife Judy also raised a flock of Suffolks, providing lambs for many 4-H members. They also finished as many as 800 feeder lambs annually, usually sourcing them from South Dakota. Two ewes, while no longer productive, get to live out their lives on the Sprik property.

Twenty years ago, Doug and Judy left the annual Michigan shepherd's weekend event early because Doug wasn't feeling well. The next day he found himself in the hospital undergoing tests. The results showed a rare neurological disorder called Guillian Barre. His immune system was attacking his nervous system, rendering many of his motor skills useless, confining an otherwise active, healthy and strong man to a wheelchair ever since.

The disease may have altered Doug's course in life, but not his commitment to the sheep industry and harvesting wool. Sprik created a small business sharpening clipper blades for anyone in the livestock industry who utilizes clipping tools, sharpening several hundred blades and combs annually. He also refurbishes and sells used clippers.

"I have received several other awards," Sprik said. "But this is the one that everybody else gets, and now it happened to me. It is the ultimate award in the Michigan sheep industry."

Teaching shearing schools was one of Sprik's passions. Prior to his diagnosis, he had committed to teaching a school. His condition kept him from demonstrating the skill. However, he assisted with the school by giving verbal instruction from his wheelchair.

Both Doug and Judy served as 4-H leaders in Allegan County, where Doug is still listed as a resource leader. He also served as sheep superintendent for the fair and facilitated wool and sheep related events during the fair such as shearing contests and potluck dinners.

"Many good things have happened even though I haven't sheared in nineteen years," Doug said.

He thoroughly enjoys the contact he continues to have with shearers by sharpening blades for them. Anyone dropping off or picking up blades can expect long and interesting conversations with Doug and Judy about sheep, shearing adventures, life, children, grandchildren and more.

Some of Sprik's fondest memories, however, are not about the shearing schools and hard-driving rugged times with fellow shearers and shepherds of pushing through the wool harvest of hundreds of sheep in multiple states during a short amount of time. Rather, it is in the quiet discovery of children learning about wool.

"I've sheared many, many sheep," Sprik said. "But the shearing stories I love best are about the demonstrations we did at schools for children."

The Purebred Producer of the Year award went to the Alberda Farm of Zeeland, Mich. Pete and his sons Jason and Ryan run a flock of 100 production-style Dorsets. Lambs are sold for both market and breeding purposes. The Alberdas have sold small groups of ewes and ewe lambs to many who have entered the sheep industry and are respected for providing a good foundation of healthy, genetically proven ewes to help people ease into raising sheep or provide flock replacements.

"It feels good to be recognized for the work we've put into the farm and the sheep we are producing," Jason said.

The Alberda brothers help each of their children with an interest in the sheep industry with a gift of one ewe lamb from which to build their own flock when they reach 4-H age. "At 16, Elliot already has a flock of about 20 ewes," Jason added. Jason's daughters, Dana, aged 13, and Eliza, aged 11, also own the beginnings of small flocks.

"I would advise people who are looking to enter the sheep business to start with healthy, sound sheep," Jason said. "Looking for a bargain is ok, but don't buy someone else's problems either."

He sees the industry as wide open with opportunity, even for people who own sheep but not land.

"As cover crop use grows, I see opportunity for connecting livestock people to crop people with mutual benefit," Jason added. "Infrastructure issues like fencing can be overcome with portable fencing and solar electric fencing units. There are big possibilities that are exciting when we look at using cover crops and crop residues to mutual advantage, bringing livestock manure to soils needing organic matter and providing space and feed for someone without a land base."

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