We purchased Sampson, our Katahdin ram, as a lamb from Bill Tatham in April 2001. We liked Bill and his farm and we recently purchased four ewe lambs form him as well, so I decided to write an article on his farm.
The drive through West Virginia to the Tatham farm in Broadway, Virginia on route 259 has a distinctly bucolic feel. Poultry houses, green fields, and cows abound between the tiny towns of Baker and Matthias. There are a few unkempt, muddy pens, but they are in the minority. The road then crosses the state line into Rockingham county, where there is a slightly more suburban feel – that is until you reach a small cabin on North Mountain Road.
The log-cabin farmhouse has seen a long and colorful life. It has served as a haven during Indian raids, as a sorority party house, and now as the home of William Tatham. Built with a true spirit of cooperation by two couples in 1797, these intrepid people shared the house until they were able to build another one close by. The two farms also shared the spring run by zigzagging the fence across it. The tombstone of a young wife outside the front door is a poignant reminder of the rigors of frontier life. Although it did not belong to his family, Mr. Tatham appreciates the historic nature of the cabin. The Tathams have been around since the earliest days of this country. The William Tatham that wrote “An Essay on Tobacco” in 1782 was certainly an ancestor of the William Tatham now in possession of this rustic abode.
Mr. Tatham has farmed here for 7 years, starting with steers, then adding sheep in 1999. I first met Bill in 2001 when I went to buy a ram for my new flock of Katahdin sheep. His record keeping impressed me, so I was back again to buy some unrelated ewe-lambs from him. He has Boer meat-goats, guard donkeys, and Katahdin sheep on 56 of his acres, and Angus cattle on the rest of his total of 116 acres. He says he’s thinking of getting out of goats, as he likes the sheep so much. He currently has both registered and unregistered stock.
Immediately noticeable at the farm are the numerous excellent gates. In addition to being part of the permanent fencing, Bill keeps several loose gates that have short chains and S-hooks for making quick paddocks, pens, and alleys. This helps his operation stay flexible as he can respond quickly to a lot of situations by using them. Some interior gates are hung “upside-down” so they can be quickly removed and pressed into service elsewhere.
The newest addition to the farm is a metal barn next to the house where gates are again used to full advantage. The barn is divided into thirds, each with a large door. There is a workshop/ garage portion, an area with a concrete pad for hay storage, and a pea-graveled area for animals. The animal area has a sturdy wooden fence that runs perpendicular to the wide door. It has three gates, which can either be placed flush against the fence to make one large area or “closed” against the wall to make three separate stalls. If necessary, the storage area can be used for animals as well. The rain gutters outside end about four feet off the ground so that water can be saved in barrels. The multipurpose aspects of this structure are impressive, and I doubt I’m doing it justice here.
The paddock my ewe-lambs were in is about 2 acres next to a spring head. “The sheep want to go right to the head to drink; they rarely drink further down the run,” he said. He can see this paddock from his porch – an advantage during lambing season. An adjoining paddock held my ram’s mother with 2 healthy new lambs by her side. This area has an old shed adapted as a lamb mineral feeder, as well as a loading chute. The sheep are very calm, as Bill doesn’t go for cowboy tactics. He just calls the sheep to him with a coffee can with a bit of cracked corn. Gets ’em every time.
The sheep are wormed with a combination of diatomaceous earth and ivomectrin. Bill says that the diatomaceous earth in with the loose mineral mix has also helped to control the fly population. The sheep receive no vaccinations and are grass-fed on rotated pasture. The only grain they get is the small quantity it takes to get them to move to another paddock. They essentially move in a circle around the house with the donkeys. The 3 donkeys are excluded from the flock during lambing season, as they sometimes get rough with the lambs.
As we toured the farm, I noticed an abundance of water sources in the form of ponds and streams, as well as plenty of trees and wooded paddocks. Bill has placed the ponds so that they are in natural drainage paths, taking advantage of the land’s slope. In one of these wooded areas, there is a mineral lick available to the donkeys, which is placed too high for the sheep to access. Bill used to keep goats in the area near here next to the new barn, but they kept escaping into his neighbor’s garden. He eventually moved them down the road across from his beef operation. An unlooked-for positive effect was that the neighbor, who had intended for years to build a new fence, finally did.
In the early years, Bill lost some 7 goats and 1 calf to coyotes. This prompted him to purchase the guard donkeys. Since the introduction of the donkeys he has had no problems with coyotes, despite a neighbor’s recent loss of 22 sheep to the predators. “Donkeys naturally hate dogs” he says, which brings up Bill’s number one farm hand – “Screamer”. Screamer is an energetic part Chihuahua, part Australian Sheltie pup who accompanies Bill on farm errands. She is the only dog the donkeys will tolerate, but she’s taken some licks from them. Screamer makes friends with all new lambs, catches mice, and checks out every visitor. I wasn’t real sure she was going to let me leave with those lambs.
Bill’s beef operation is 3 miles down the road. He has 52 cattle, including the bull, cows and calves. There are 3 donkeys here as well. A lush combination of grass and clover covers the rolling hills. There is a large pond with a gravel alley and two metal barns to accommodate animals and machinery. The animal handling areas have color-coded gates so that instructions to helpers may be easily understood. These areas also have a 4-foot gate so handlers can quickly be in an area non-accessible to animals. A fence/gate combo similar to the one in the new barn can separate animals if necessary. There is also a dry lot here so an animal ‘s intake can be controlled in case of illness. A similar handling and loading area is atop a hill in an old peach-packing shed. The animals are kept out of the barns during warm weather to control fly populations. In addition to this, face-fly feeders and oiler rubs between the gate posts are used. Again, Bill says that diatomaceous earth and pasture rotation keep fly problems to a minimum. Bill has long-term plans to lease this area when he decides to scale down.
When I asked Bill how he gets his animals butchered, I was surprised to learn that the facility he uses is just a mile away. His animals get an extra apple or two while they wait in the yard. Talk about low stress! That must be some tender beef! Bill swears by the Angus breed. He’s tried Charolais, but didn’t like it. He only raises what he likes to eat, and he sells only live animals. He markets directly using a free local radio spot and word-of -mouth.
The community pulls together in other ways as well. They share land and equipment for hay and haying, and Bill doesn’t advertise his sheep if a neighbor is advertising. There are lots of new, suburban-type houses around, but the area seems to be retaining its agricultural character.
There’s more than meets the eye at this farm, and the combination of history, innovation, diversity and good stewardship made for a very informative visit.