A Brief History of the Wisconsin Sheep Breeders Cooperative

Art Pope, Professor Emeritus, University of Wisconsin-Madison

The following article, written by Dr. Pope in 1998, appeared in the history of the Wisconsin Sheep Breeders Cooperative, prepared for the 20th anniversary of the Wisconsin Sheep Industry Conference. Portions have been edited for updating purposes.

Reprinted from the Winter 2001 edition of the Wisconsin Shepherd

Following the Civil War, Wisconsin's sheep numbers rose to over a million head, placing it second in the nation in sheep numbers. This was because of a strong demand for wool as a clothing and carpet fiber and the use of sheep to clear newly settled land. At that time, the predominant breed was the Merino.

The origin of the Wisconsin Sheep Breeders Cooperative was the Wisconsin Merino Sheep Breeders' Association, which was formed in 1877. Its main function was to initiate the Wisconsin Merino Sheep Register, similar to the sheep breed registry associations of today.

"Lambs bred from dams and sires already registered in the Wisconsin Merino Sheep Register may be returned to the Secretary on or before the first day of November of each year, by numbers and description of labels, together with numbers of the dam and numbers or name of the sire, and may be entered at once upon the register. The fee for doing so shall be $.10 per head."

On January 21, 1879, this association was "consolidated" with the State Wool Growers' Association, to form the Wisconsin State Wool-Growers' and Sheep Breeders' Association, its first president being James Webster of Danville in Dodge County. Its objectives were the "encouragement and protection of the sheep breeding and wool growing interests of the state and the improvements of the breeds of sheep by such means as adopted by similar organizations in other states."

Rule 6 of this association was explicit about the expected ethics of the membership: "Any member of the association who shall willfully misrepresent the blood or breeding of his sheep for the purpose of registration or sale or shall present any certificate or evidence to the Committee on Pedigrees knowing them to be false shall be expelled from the association."

While this original association of breeders emphasized registration, improvement of breeds and legislature support, a new organization at the turn of the century made up of purebred breeders was more interested in exhibiting sheep at the Wisconsin State Fair. They formed the Wisconsin Sheep Breeders Association (WSBA) in 1904. Familiar names of breeders that were still prominent in the 1950's appear on the first membership roster: McKerrow, Renk, Broughton, Kleinheinz, Dixon, Harding, Robinson - all were among the thirty-plus members whose names show up in the early meetings.

The membership fee was $.50. For a number of years two meetings were held each year, one in February at the State Capitol (later at the Farm and Home Week at the University of Wisconsin) and the other at the Wisconsin State Fair. The minutes of the meetings from 1904 through 1939 are in the Wisconsin State Historical Society, where the agenda does not vary greatly from year to year. Three judges were selected and ranked for each of the fine wool, medium wool and long wool classes at the State Fair. Discussion involved premiums, entry charges and things like remodeling the sheep barn. Membership did not often reach more than fifteen to twenty paid members in any given year, even though the minutes indicate that a lamb dinner was often served and there was a time for socializing.

It is important to note however, that one of our current Wisconsin Sheep Breeder Co-op members, Dan Brew of Wisconsin Dells, became a member in 1922, and that he once wrote about those early meetings held during the Farm and Home Week on the UW campus.

"There were about 12 or 14 members who attended. The most important subject was selecting judges for the Wisconsin State Fair. The first was to select a judge for the Shropshires as they were the most common breed. There was great rivalry among Shropshire exhibitors and not everyone cared for the same judge. After this voting they then selected other judges for the other breeds. There were no breeds such as Suffolk, Columbia, Targhee or Montadale. The members were all men and there was really any program." Dan Brew was honored for 75 years of membership in the Wisconsin Sheep Breeders Cooperative at the 1997 industry conference.

By the late 30's and early 40's the "Ram Truck" was an important activity of this association in cooperation with Jim Lacey, University of Wisconsin Livestock Extension Specialist. Purebred breeders brought their rams on schedule to certain locations and from there they were offered for sale at county stops throughout the state.

Activities after the 1940's

The first Wisconsin Sheep Breeders Association Bred Ewe Sale was held at the Madison Sales Pavilion on Highway 151 east of Madison on December 20, 1951. Despite a heavy sleet storm, the fifty ewes averaged just over $100 per head. The main objective of this sale was (and remains) to get Wisconsin youth started in the sheep business. In addition to the annual Bred Ewe Sale, the 50's and 60's also found the WSBA holding an Annual Summer Picnic, usually at a member's farm.

In 1967 the first Ram Test sponsored by the WSBA was held at the University of Wisconsin Arlington Farms. The summer sale, now known as the Production Tested Sheep Sale, was started in the same year. Since its beginning, other locations for the Ram Test Station included Art Suehs, Manawa; Jack and Warren Deweese, Pardeville; Bob and Carol Black, Columbus, and in 1991 Nelson Crest Farm, owned by Nils and Nancy Nelson in Janesville, where the test station is currently located.

The Wisconsin Sheep Breeders Cooperative paid annual dues to the American Sheep Industry Association from 1985 through 1998. In return, the WSBC membership received the national organization's publication and newsletter, received shared funding for product promotion, activity insurance and helped to sustain through its dues a national legislative and promotion presence. Larry Becker of Montello, served as a member of the ASI Executive Board, representing District II, which, besides Wisconsin, included Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota. He now serves on the Executive Board of the National Sheep Improvement Center.

Today, the cooperative is involved in a host of activities that benefit and serve the industry. The Wisconsin Sheep Breeders Cooperative:

  • Sponsors the Wisconsin Sheep & Wool Festival, a three-day event promoting sheep & fiber. The event is held annually the weekend after Labor Day at the Jefferson County Fair Park
  • Publishes the Wisconsin Shepherd, a non-subscription newsletter that is emailed to all WSBC members several times throughout the year
  • Publishes an annual membership directory, which is sent to all WSBC members, as well as the mailing list for the Wisconsin Sheep & Wool Festival catalog
  • Hosts an Annual Meeting in conjunction with Arlington Sheep Days
  • Supports and provides awards for youth involved in sheep projects
  • Provides scholarships for FFA, 4-H, high school seniors and college students
  • Provides funding for Youth Educational Activities throughout the state
  • Supports the Wisconsin Make it Yourself With Wool program
  • Sponsors a Used Equipment Sale held at the Wisconsin Sheep & Wool Festival
  • Supports the Wisconsin Livestock Breeders Association Junior Livestock Shows & the Wisconsin Livestock Show Camp
  • Hosts a website for the Wisconsin Sheep Breeders Cooperative as well as the Wisconsin Sheep & Wool Festival
  • Supports and operates the Wisconsin Wool Works! retail sales and promotion booth at the Wisconsin State Fair and the Wisconsin Sheep & Wool Festival.


Bylaw 3 - Purposes

3.1 The purpose of this cooperative shall be to engage in any lawful act or activity for which cooperatives may be organized under Chapter 185, exclusively for educational, scientific and promotional purposes, including but not limited to:
a) Promote the production, marketing, distribution and utilization of sheep, lamb and wool products.
b) Collect and disseminate information relating to the practical and scientific phases of sheep production.
c) Encourage youth participation in sheep projects.
d) Identify and support research needs for sheep production and marketing.
e) Disseminate information to the general public.
f) Promote and encourage efficient marketing of sheep and a sound, healthy sheep industry in Wisconsin.
g) Work with other state, regional and national organizations with similar objectives.

Bylaw 4 - Membership

4.1 Any owner-producer of purebred or commercial sheep, or any individual or organization interested in the improvement, promotion, or development of the sheep and wool industry may become a member of the cooperative upon payment of annual dues.

4.2 Any member may be discharged or expelled due to actions deemed significantly detrimental to the purposes outlined in 3.1 by a majority vote of the Board of Directors. The member will receive a written notice stating the expulsion reason 90 days prior to the Board of Directors consideration for expulsion action.