New Salem sheep rancher is dyed in the wool

Jack Dura
The Bismarck Tribune
In this Jan. 28, 2020 photo, Joana Friesz walks by a ewe and lamb inside one of the barns used by Friesz to protect the newborn from the harsh winter elements north of New Salem, N.D.

NEW SALEM, N.D. (AP) - Joana Friesz is busy this time of year.

From late January to early February, lambing is underway for the New Salem area rancher and her family.

Friesz knows her stuff. She grew up with sheep and has raised the animals since 1976, starting with 4-H and FFA projects and building into county and state fairs and national shows throughout the U.S. From winning champion titles to marketing meat and making woolen products, Friesz counts sheep as a lifelong interest.

Her know-how even landed her a small film role: helping with a shearing scene in "Wooly Boys." The 2004 film about a Badlands sheep rancher is a fun memory for Friesz, though the movie was considered a financial flop. She was to have been paid $100 for her services, but never saw the money, which didn't upset her.

"They had good food and the experience was priceless," she told The Bismarck Tribune, recounting the story as ewes and lambs bahed and bleated in her barn.

The Friesz ranch raises three registered breeds of sheep: Corriedales, Lincolns and Border Leicesters. The family also raises Polled Hereford cattle.

Friesz enjoys simply caring for sheep, which she calls "kinda needy" but also personable animals.

"I tell people that's why God made shepherds. Sheep are followers; they're not leaders by any means," said Friesz, who also owns an insurance agency in New Salem.

She and her husband, Duane, have two adult sons, Taylor and Thomas. Thomas and his fiancee, Jaime Lundquist, also are raising club lambs, a breed popular with 4-H kids.


Friesz said her sheep usually birth lambs on their own, though her family sorts and monitors the ewes throughout the lambing process, aided by barn cameras to keep an eye on them.

In this Jan. 28, 2020 photo, Joana Friesz holds one of her newborn lambs she raises at her family ranch operation north of New Salem, N.D. At the ranch the family raises three registered breeds of sheep: Corriedales, Lincolns and Border Leicesters. Friesz's son Thomas and his fiancee, Jaime Lundquist, also keep Club lambs, which are not registered.

There are dangers to look for, such as signs of a backward birth and the risk of drowning, Friesz said. Twin and triplet births can frequently occur.

Newborn lambs can be susceptible to pneumonia, and large swings in temperature can be dangerous for them, said Margo Kunz, a New Salem area rancher who also is a veterinarian with Missouri Valley Vet in Bismarck. It's also important for lambs' bedding to be clean, she said.

Friesz's ewes move through areas of a barn during phases of lambing, including an area called "the jugs" where ewes give birth and bond in pens with their lambs, who begin to nurse.

"As soon as the ewe starts cleaning them off, they just have that natural instinct that they need to nurse, so it's kind of a crazy process to see how fast they get going," Friesz said.

Lambs will wean off the ewes after 2½ to 3 months, and at 4 to 6 months of age go to market or are sorted for breeding stock and national sales. Club lambs will be sold to Morton County 4-H kids.

Kunz's family also raises sheep, which she said are smaller and easier to handle than cows, and don't eat as much.

But sheep can fall victim to coyotes in pastures. Guard dogs can help ranchers manage sheep. Friesz's lambs won't go out to the pasture.

"In some ways, they're easier and in other ways they're not as easy as cattle," said Curt Stanley, president of the North Dakota Lamb and Wool Producers Association. "During the lambing season, they take a little more care and a little more housing and that kind of stuff."

North Dakota industry

North Dakota has about 600 producers in the sheep industry, but that includes 4-H kids, Stanley said. That's a small percentage of the state's agriculture economy, he said.

But sheep can be a low-cost entry into a livestock enterprise, he added.

"I know a number of young guys with their dad or with another family member, and that's kind of been their little part of the operation that gets them going," Stanley said.

Sheep are "typically profitable," he said, but at a lesser scale.

"The cash flow is positive. It just isn't a lot of cash flow. That's what happens with sheep," Stanley said.

In this Jan. 28, 2020 photo, Tellmann's Market owner Allan Tellmann has two shelves of local sheep producer Joana Friesz's meat products in a freezer at the market in New Salem, N.D.

"The resources required in a sheep and lambing operation are going to be definitely less," North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said. "You're talking about something consuming less overall feed, but definitely per pound, you have a bigger payback." 

Goehring said there are about 75,000 sheep and lambs in the state. He has sensed a resurgent interest and appetite for the animal which he attributes to better promotion of lamb, more engagement with chefs and a growing ethnic demand for the meat in coordination with faiths such as Islam.

Sheep also benefit grassland health, Goehring said. They'll eat vegetation other livestock won't, such as leafy spurge, a noxious weed.

A niche market

Last June, Friesz acquired her retail license and has worked with butchers in Hazen and Bismarck for processing lamb into meat products.

Tellmann's Market owner Allan Tellmann has two shelves of Friesz's meat products in a freezer at the store in New Salem. He said the lamb meat adds "a little bit of a niche market" or "a little bit of a specialty" to the rural grocery store.

"We like to carry a little bit of that type of thing in the store to bring some people in that otherwise maybe wouldn't come to the store," he said.

His store's display comprises country-style sausage, snack sticks, lamb steaks, lamb chops, lamb roast, lamb liver, ground lamb — a wide assortment. A lamb is a sheep under a year old. Older sheep are classified as mutton. 

"We have a lot of customers surprised to see we have lamb," Tellmann said. His store has carried Friesz's meat products since December. 

Friesz said lamb is a lean, healthy meat that has a sweet taste. 

'It's amazing what can be made'

Wool adds another layer to the sheep industry. Friesz shears sheep in November and creates a variety of products after the wool is converted to roving, or a rope of washed and brushed wool prepared for spinning or felting. 

From her wool she's produced felted soap, dryer balls, bird nesting balls and crafts such as rugs, wall hangings and needle felt sheep, snowmen and angels. She will have decorative pillows for sale this spring. Her products are available locally at Down Home General Store in Bismarck, Susie Q's in Mandan and Northland Insurance Agency in New Salem. 

Kunz has purchased wool from Friesz and makes needle felt animals as a hobby. She's made Christmas ornaments and has had requests to replicate people's pets. She recently did a hamster.

Friesz attends wool festivals and events for ideas for wool products, which she said are gaining popularity due to wool's eco-friendly qualities.

"It's just amazing what can be made out of it," Friesz said.