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Farmers Are Sunsetting Operations and Retiring - There Is Still Time To Learn From Our Teachers

“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. When the student is truly ready... The teacher will Disappear.”   ~ Tao Te Ching


ANIROONZ

Not only is she a sheep rancher, but Dr. Nancy Irlbeck was my graduate school mentor while completing a Master’s in Agricultural Sciences at Colorado State University (CSU). Nancy is an animal nutritionist and an educator. In addition to teaching students, she was the consulting nutritionist at the Denver Zoo. She is also a wife and partner to her husband, Steve Musick, who has a solid background in animal agriculture, livestock transportation, and ranch management. Fantastic souls who empower people to think about animal agriculture in a new and different way—following one’s heart and building something special. Not only producers but teachers of the craft and stewards of the land. 


To that end, I began my research journey with a solid willingness to understand better the common thread amongst farmers and learners that touches all aspects of our lives—producing healthy food and agricultural products for our community. After ten years since we saw one another, reconnecting with Nancy and discussing our current challenges in farming, I couldn’t help but think about how land grant colleges will be challenged to build their learning centers after our farmers and educators begin to sunset and retire their operations.  These same farms are the learning platforms for students and craftspeople engaging in the trades, and we need them.


Guard Llama


The ANIROONZ Sheep Company 


ANIROONZ Barn

The genesis for the goal of launching a sheep operation began in 1998 when Nancy was on sabbatical in Australia.  In Australia, she learned much about the nutrition of Australian marsupials, a ‘good glass of red’, and began the mental building of raising sheep for wool and working with fiber. The thought of raising sheep started on her first trip to the “Land Down Under” in 1994, where she led an agriculture-based travel course with CSU students visiting many sheep and cattle properties. In 2002, she traveled to New Zealand (NZ), where she served as a Faculty Advisor for Colorado State University’s Study Abroad program. Traveling with 20 CSU students and working with faculty at Lincoln University on the South Island, she taught New Zealand students the approach to working livestock in the United States. At that time, her dream of a school began to solidify, and she was inspired to design a ranching facility and learning center using sheep and working with wool. 


While living in New Zealand, she learned about a ‘good glass of white’ and found an Ashford spinning wheel in a shop. She took the wheel to  Ashford Handicrafts Ltd. in Ashburton, NZ, where she spent many hours learning to spin, weave, and perfecting her dreams of working with sheep and their wool. This practice fueled her passion for building a ranch, raising sheep, and selling wool to other experienced and aspiring fiber artists. When she returned to the States, she brought the spinning wheel, two looms, and a deep passion for all things wool. Upon returning to Colorado, Nancy continued to plan to raise sheep for their wool.  In 2003, she put her home in Loveland on the market, and in 2004, she found a farm in Wellington. Putting up fences, hydrants, and a barn created the foundation for ANIROONZ. She bought sheep from her “Sheep Parents,” Roy and Myrtle Dow, whom she called Mama and Papa Sheep. The couple helped her in her endeavors, and six months from purchasing her, land-there were sheep in her barn!!! So began the ANIROONZ Sheep Company, focusing on rare wool breeds – Romedale CVM, Lincoln, and Wensleydale, along with the fat-tailed Karakul!


ANIROONZ - An Educational Platform For Teaching Hands-On


Steve and Nancy

The name is ANIROONZ, which comes from a place of passion for animals and the art of merging pneumonics.  The name can be broken into three parts: ANI- for animals/ ROO - for kangaroo and Nancy’s study of marsupial nutrition in Australia/ NZ - for New Zealand and the time spent in the country forever etched her passion for wool textiles and sheepherding into her soul.  


With her connection to CSU, its students, and an intense belief in hands-on learning, Nancy built her ranch and brought students and interns in to help and learn livestock husbandry.  The added labor support was greatly appreciated during lambing with Animal Science and veterinary students assisting. In 2006, a brief hiatus brought a wedding with Steve (her long-lost love) and added a valued member to the ANIROONZ team.  Sheep require a high level of management and care, and ANIROONZ offered learners a facility and platform for undergraduate and graduate education, working on production and flock management. The ranch instilled animal practice skills, nutrition, and sheep production standards, teaching students to raise productive and competitive breeding stock. As Nancy retired from her post at CSU in December 2016, a new plan was written into the couple's playbook. 


A Legacy Of Building Sustainable Programs 


ANIROONZ Lambing Season

Nancy and Steve packed the Colorado ranch, put it on the market, and moved the flock to Idaho in July 2017, where Nancy accepted a teaching position as a Clinical Associate Professor at Washington State University’s (WSU) Animal Science Department. She continues working with WSU students and the University of Idaho (UI) to manage the flock. During the lambing season, as many as 150 students come to the farm each year to help with lambing and kidding. For many of these students, it is their first time seeing an animal born!  


As part of their management system, Nancy and Steve use sheep and goats to brush clear for many of the other landowners in the area. Once property owners and “passers-by” see how the weeds and brush can be cleared without chemicals, more opportunities and pastures become available. The couple once had over 500 sheep and almost 100 goats, guarded by a handful of llamas protecting the flock against coyotes, dogs, and eagles. ANIROONZ continues to focus on rare wool breeds, raising Wensleydale, Karakul, and Lincoln Longwools, but they are slowly reducing their animal numbers.


Like most farmers and ranchers, the average age moves well into their 60s and 70s. Farming is a financially risky business, from labor inputs to insurance & fuel, and the overall cost of taking on equipment loans can be overwhelming for a business owner 10 years from retirement. Most farmers are landowners and wouldn’t mind leasing their property to an up-and-coming farmer, but onboarding new crop and livestock farmers is becoming increasingly difficult. More and more young farmers do not have the capital to invest in an operation just out of college. 


ANIROONZ Sheep Company shears their sheep two to three times yearly and sells fleeces, yarns made from wool, and other wool textiles. Participating in the local Moscow Summer Farmer’s Market, they sell these products along with USDA-inspected and certified lamb and goat meat products sold under the name Musick’s Meats. In addition to the USDA-certified meat, they are set up to offer a platform for local ethnic student groups to harvest their meat, including halal. Steve and Nancy have taught many individuals how to process their meat, falling into the role of teachers they began in Colorado. 


The Wensleydale Moorit Project 


ANIROONZ Moortit Project

In 2013, a red-brown colored lamb was born in the ANIROONZ flock in Colorado. Steve called Nancy at her office at CSU and told her she had put the wrong rams with the Wensleydale ewes because of the color. Running home, Nancy, knowing the breeding, was amazed to find what was indeed a moorit (red-brown) Wensleydale. Much research found that the last time a moorit Wensleydale had been seen was in 1924 in New Zealand. Studying the lineage, Nancy and Steve created a line of moorit Wensleydale. The North American Wensleydale Sheep Association has recognized that line of animals. Dry, F.W. “The genetics of the Wensleydale breed of sheep.” Massey Agricultural College (1924).


Having spent many years raising sheep and working with students, there comes a time when we need to make changes and redirect our focus and direction. Thus, Nancy reached out to former students who are now teachers themselves. In their conversation, Nancy indicated that there were problems or issues that she wanted to solve before she retired and left a university setting. One issue was genotyping and studying the genetics of the moorit Wensleydale. The second was to validate why her long-wooled and colored rare wool breed animals needed higher levels of copper than the traditional American meat breeds of sheep.


“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” ~ Socrates.


Step One - With the help of the WSU HONOR’s student – Brook Mac – working in the Animal Genetics Lab of Dr. Holly Neiberg Animal and collaboration with Dr. Chris Posberg at Montana State University, genetic markers for the moorit Wensleydale were validated.     


Step Two – working with her two former students who rallied to her call for assistance, Dr. Terry Engle (CSU Animal Science Professor) and Dr. Jennifer Parsons (Nutritionist with MAZURI Exotic Animal Nutrition) – Nancy asked for help proving that her colored sheep, rare wool breed sheep, needed higher levels of copper. Hand in hand with that validation, they would be able to help certain species within the exotic animal nutrition world. That proof has been found – at the cellular level - that these naturally colored heritage breeds from the UK need higher levels of copper. The actual level is still being determined.  


Sunsetting 


ANIROONZ Retirement

Nancy and Steve’s work in animal sciences, nutrition, genetics, and agricultural education fosters excellence in livestock management. The format of their work has ensured that student outcomes are in synch with professional and industry standards. Aligning real-world learning scenarios on-farm with current technology and research systems. ANIROONZ Sheep Company offers high-quality education to the next generation of animal scientists. They worked hard to create a space to inspire weavers, textile producers, ranchers, veterinarians, and vet technicians. 


Today, they are taking steps to streamline and reduce herd count, sunsetting their farming operation. The couple plans to consolidate the enterprise and downsize as they consider retirement. They have spent many years gathering equipment for wool and animal husbandry.  Even though herd count reduction is on topic, they are working within their neighborhood and with several farmers, exploring wind generators and the benefits of renewable energy for ANIROONZ and local homes to combat rising operational costs.  A teacher(s) with students – two-legged and four-legged – have created all that is ANIROONZ.  








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