Leeanna Burkhalter isn’t sheepish about loving lambs. And thanks to ewes (female sheep) acquired through the Alabama Farmers Federation Starter Flock Program, the 16-year-old is increasing her flock size and improving lamb quality.
“I wouldn’t have expanded without the Starter Flock Program,” Leeanna said. “I was going to leave it small. Because of the program, I had more ewes to breed. It helped speed up breeding show lambs and helped expand the farm.”
Founded by the Federation’s Sheep & Goat Division, the pay-it-forward program supports those looking to start a sheep farm — or grow their existing, small operation — by providing healthy, young ewes free of charge.
The participants also receive education and mentorship needed to grow the flock. After their ewes reproduce, participants donate ewe lambs to other farmers for the next two years.
Leeanna’s FFA involvement, particularly strengthening her SAE (Supervised Agricultural Experience), led her and Fayette County High School (FCHS) agriscience teacher Brad Cox to the Starter Flock Program.
Federation Sheep & Goat Division Director Brady Ragland said the initiative relieves financial pressure from fledgling sheep farmers.
“There are a lot of unknowns for first-time or novice producers when getting started raising livestock,” Ragland said. “By giving them a couple of ewes, we’re helping address one of the key obstacles that might prevent them from getting started.”
After detailing her interest, livestock experience and goals through an application, Leeanna was accepted into the program. Her medium-wool sheep came from Rex Harrison’s Cullman County farm. Flossie, Minnie, Delilah and Dolly, lovingly called “the ladies,” scored new digs at the Burkhalter farm near Fayette in Fayette County. Leeanna’s original, smaller flock was housed in a chain-link pen near her house.
“The ladies,” and show lambs now have two spacious barns built from logs felled and sawn on site, thanks to work from Leeanna, parents Natalyn and Jonathan Burkhalter, and grandfather James Burkhalter. Bulking up the flock helped grow Leeanna’s farm and SAE, said Cox. The hands-on, out-of-class experience helps students prepare for a career in agriculture. (Leeanna hopes to teach ag.)
“Leeanna came to me in eighth grade saying she wanted to be a district officer. I told her that was great, but she needed to have a quality SAE,” Cox said. “She’s done an excellent job building her program. “The quality of the lambs has increased drastically from middle-of-the-pack show lambs to lambs that will be competitive this year anywhere in the Southeast.”
Her hard work is paying off. The FCHS junior is starting her second year as a district officer, serving 21 counties as FFA North District president. Leeanna daily wakes up at 7 a.m. and starts her livestock-care routine — bottle feed the calves, then feed and water the show lambs. Each afternoon, she bottle-feeds again before feeding “the ladies.”
Then it’s back to the lambs, where she walks them and practices bracing, or setting up, the animals in preparation for the livestock show circuit. Another of her lambs is at home on a different northwest Alabama farm.
Earlier this year, Leeanna paid her sheep forward by giving a lamb to Colt Thomas of Phil Campbell in Franklin County, who’ll repay the favor over the next two years. “This program gives you the opportunity to help others, and I like that a lot,” Leeanna said. Starter Flock Program applications are due March 15, 2021.
Contact the Federation’s Brady Ragland at email@example.com to apply or learn more.