Outside Mason in Ingham County is the Happy Goat Lucky Ewe Fiber Farm and Michigan Merinos
. Here, Bridget Kavanagh, a modern shepherdess, is weaving together sustainable farming, a love for fiber, and a deep-rooted commitment to the environment.
Kavanagh's journey into farming began when she was a wrangler in Montana during her college years at Michigan State University.
At her own farm in Michigan, as her children grew, the family began to care for animals in need, affectionately referred to as "sad cases." This included nurturing bottle lambs, chickens with mobility issues, and abandoned rabbits. These experiences gradually paved the way for the creation of her own farm.
Kavanagh also brings a wealth of professional expertise to her endeavors. She was the interagency bovine Tuberculosis eradication coordinator and retired in 2015 from the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development, ending a significant chapter in her professional life and allowing her to dedicate herself to farming fully.
“It all started with a herd of angora goats in 10-inch curls,” Kavanagh recalls, describing the beginning of her deep dive into the world of fiber farming. Today, she tends Merino sheep and Angora goats; her farm is known for its sustainable practices and contribution to the fiber industry.
Bridget Kavanagh's farm is located outside Mason in Ingham County.
She grows the wool (and mohair in her handspun yarn, from her Angora goats) in the products that she sells, and carries other U.S. made products such as Serendipity knitting needles.
This new year marks a milestone, with one of her starter sheep flocks set to feature in a new National Geographic series, an initiative begun with an idea pitched by Dr. Pol’s son, Charles Pol, from “The Incredible Dr. Pol.” That show follows a veterinarian and his staff at his practice in rural Michigan.
Breeding strategies and stories from the farm
She schedules the beginning of the breeding season to start on November 15, ensuring her lambs are born in the spring. The day begins with harnessing, a routine task for herding and breeding.
"The big mistake I made when I was young and learning was not using a marking harness,” Kavanagh says. “And you don't know when your animals are pregnant. You don't know when the studs should leave.”
When she first got the sheep, they were exposed to studs, and she thought they were going to lamb in November, “So I kept the studs with them. They didn't start breeding until August, so I had a bunch of January babies,” Kavanagh recalls. “We had 15 lambs in the house.”
George and Bob are Kavanagh’s two studs. George, a seasoned stud of eight years, knows the breeding game well. In contrast, Bob, Kavanagh’s prize stud, struggled early on with the intricacies of his role. He failed to impregnate the females at first. Revealing a crucial lesson, “That's why now I'm putting mature females with the young ones so that never happens again.”
Despite his rocky start, Bob finally proved his fertility and was eventually paired with the farm's finest. Kavanagh separates her flocks into two groups, optimizing breeding diversity. But sheep management involves more than separating flocks and harnessing rams. The importance of having an effective, mature stud cannot be underestimated, especially when selling starter flocks; they sold four in 2023.
Tales of lambing season
Even if the lambing season is timed perfectly for spring arrival, it comes with challenges. Several years ago, Jeanne Hausler, a friend and Kavanagh’s colleague at the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development, stayed at Kavanagh’s farm during lamb season when Kavanagh needed to be away.
Before Kavanagh left, she mentioned Blossom, her old ewe, was due any day, and she was worried about her. “I don't know what her intuition was about Blossom; maybe it was just because it was her age,” Hausler says. “She's been such a great mom, but she was getting old.”
While walking the pasture to see if anybody was actively in labor, Hausler found Blossom. She was in labor, but she was not having a lot of luck.
“Usually, lambs come out feet first, with their head kind of tucked in, kind of like they're diving off a diving board,” Haulser says. This one was coming head first. “It was stuck, just the head out and nothing else. And this little lamb is blinking and looking around at us." Blossom was pacing the pasture, trying to push this poor baby out, and it wasn't happening. After about 10 minutes, Hausler could see it wasn’t going to work and called Kavanagh.
Kavanagh on the farm. She formerly worked for the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development.
Kavanagh told Hausler, “Now, Jean, this is a farm. Animals die.” Hausler replied, “Don’t say that!”
Kavanagh coached Hausler over the phone, providing her reassurance.
Both of the lamb's front legs were straight back. Hausler was able to get both of the legs out, and the lamb popped out. “It's one of the things that is going down in my life as one of my best experiences ever. It was like the feeling when you first meet your baby,” Hausler says.
Kavanagh's role in community education
Kavanagh's impact resonates far beyond the boundaries of her farm, touching the lives of many in the wider community. Hausler aptly describes her as “an ambassador for fiber farmers.”
This role extends into various educational initiatives, including enlightening farm tours and engaging discussions on innovative farming techniques like silvopasture. These are available by appointment only.
Silvopasture is the practice of integrating tree growth with livestock grazing. It not only provides a natural canopy for the sheep, offering much-needed respite from the heat, but also plays a crucial role in preventing soil erosion, enhancing soil fertility through natural means, and bolstering the overall health of the soil biome.
Kavanagh’s tours include a pollinator sanctuary planted with help from a federal conservation program. Walking along the edge of the pollinator sanctuary, Kavanagh says, “Karry Trickey advised me on what to plant here. These are all native grasses for the wildlife.” Trickey is a district conversationist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Explaining her role in helping Kavanagh, Trickey says, “I provide technical, financial, and educational assistance to farmers, ranchers, and private landowners to resolve resource concerns on the landscape.”
In Kavanagh’s case, Trickey says a “lack of sufficient forage and lack of pollinator friendly plants are examples of what resource concerns were on site.”
“All of the Conservation Practices will help sustain Kavanagh’s farming operation for the future, improve flock health on her farm because the sheep are now being grazed sustainably, and pollinator species will increase overall in the community,” says Trickey, whose agency is an excellent source for anyone interested in a pollinator sanctuary.
A pond on the farm has been restored to vibrancy and now is stocked with fish.
Kavanagh’s efforts at improving the health of the property are evident at a pond.
“When we bought this property, this was just a toxic dump, and it was just a tiny little area about 10 feet by 10 feet. It was yellow, like the tailings out in Montana,” she says.
With the absence of fertilizer run-off and the natural runoff and slope, the pond has filled in over the years. Stocked with fish and wild rice growing on the edge, it is a refuge for birds, frogs, snakes, coyotes, and fish.
“At dusk, you can't even imagine how noisy it is. Ducks and geese and herons and everything are on the pond,” Kavanagh says.
Embracing the future
This shepherdess's life is busy.
Earlier this month, Kavanagh presented the farm story at the annual Michigan Organic Food and Farming Association (MOFFA) Intensives conference at MSU.
In August, Kavanagh plans to host at least two fellows through the African Women in Agriculture Professional Fellows exchange sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and coordinated by Dr. Wynne Wright at MSU’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Department of Community Sustainability.
Sheep farming, as an industry, has evolved with the changing ecosystem. A significant shift has been made towards embracing the environmental responsibilities of being a farmer. With the aid of initiatives like the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, farmers are now more equipped to engage in sustainable farming practices.
Kavanagh’s life and work embodies modern farming -- a harmonious blend of environmental consciousness, traditional practices, and innovative approaches. Her story is a testament to the evolving landscape of agriculture, where sustainability and resilience go hand in hand, painting a hopeful picture for the future of farming.
Brenda and Chuck Marshall have been chronicling the beauty and culture of Michigan for over ten years. Their stories, filled with local insights and experiences, are published on LifeInMichigan.com. In addition to his writing, Chuck is passionate about photography and has become a prominent documenter of Michigan's vibrant music and craft beer scenes. Together, they promote Michigan one story at a time