Sharing their
love of sheep

Canstory original
Oelke family shows Suffolk breed for three generations


BARRETT – When Bret Oelke was 4 years old, his parents gave him and his sister each a Suffolk lamb to raise and show. Today, Bret is still raising Suffolk sheep and has been working with them for over 60 years. His wife, Lorie Oelke, has been doing the same for over 50 years, since she was 10 years old.

In fact, the couple came to know each other through showing sheep in their youth and fell in love over their mutual interest.

Today, on their farm near Barrett, they share that interest with their 16 grandchildren. The oldest, Jacob, has aged out of youth showing. Three grandchildren are yet too young but are already starting to learn. They can begin showing when they are 3 years old. The other 12 grandchildren travel with their grandparents to show sheep, and the show schedule is long and expansive.

They start the show season in June at the Midwest Junior Suffolk Show in Sedalia, Missouri. Then, they travel to the All-American Junior Sheep Show in Madison, Wisconsin, and compete at the State Suffolk Show at the Rice County Fair in Faribault. Several more shows follow, and the season ends with the North American International Livestock Expo in November in Louisville, Kentucky.

While on the road with their grandchildren, Bret and Lorie make sure to take them to vacation sites.

“The grandkids have traveled lots of places with us – Idaho, Kentucky, Massachusetts,” Lorie said.

They stopped at Yellowstone National Park when showing in Idaho and Niagara Falls when showing in Massachusetts.

“I could have charged people to look at our sheep at Niagara Falls,” Bret said. “We pulled in there with a trailer full of sheep and two cars full of kids. People were crawling all over each other, looking at our sheep.”

Showing gives Bret and Lorie stretches of time with their grandchildren.

 “It’s quality time,” Lorie said. “We often get to spend several days with them.”

Bret and Lorie’s five children showed sheep as well. They now have their own families and live as far away as Rochester, Minnesota, but they make sure their kids are able to take part in the family hobby. Two of Bret and Lorie’s daughters have flocks of their own.

While the Oelke’s are dedicated to their flock and showing, they have careers off the farm. Lorie works as a registered nurse. Bret has a consulting business as a farm management coach, is a professional speaker and manages the largest purebred sheep sale in North America – the Midwest Stud Ram Sale in Sedalia, Missouri. Needless to say, they are plenty busy.

“We don’t have snowmobiles; we don’t have boats,” Lorie said. “This is our hobby. We don’t go to the bar. We go to the barn.”

Their barn is one they built when they bought their property in 1994. The 9.5-acre site only had an old school house on it, which they remodeled into a home.

Today, their herd includes about 130 Suffolk sheep, mostly ewes.
Suffolks have white bodies and black faces. They are also larger in scale than most sheep, and the Oelkes work hard at breeding and raising some of the biggest.

“Our sheep are in the top 5%-10% in scale nationally,” Bret said.
For showing, the bodies of Suffolk sheep are expected to be pristine in cleanliness.

“When we show them, they are supposed to be snow white,” Lorie said. “We actually use clear Dawn soap and clear Tide. For the first washing of the year, we spend a lot of time on it. After that, they just get a little dusty and dirty because we keep the pens really clean. Then, washing doesn’t take as long.”

To prepare the wool coats for showing, before they wash the sheep, the Oelkes and their grandkids cut it to give it the right shape. After washing, they go over the coat at least twice again with electric clippers and finally with hand clippers for last adjustments.

Pre-show preparation requires work.

The Oelkes’ granddaughter, Scarlet Bergstrom-McKee, now 14, has been doing that work since she was 3 years old.

“Being in the ring, actually showing them, is my favorite part,” Scarlet said. “I don’t particularly like washing them.”

Scarlet said she used to get nervous before entering the show ring but does not anymore. She also said she usually knows how the judges most likely have ranked her before the results are announced.

“Most of the time (my grandparents) tell me what they think is going to happen, and it usually ends up being right,” she said. “So, (the results are) not surprising most of the time.”
Scarlet’s sister, Daphne Bergstrom-Oelke, said she sees herself as competitive.

“I like winning,” she said. “I like being in the arena.”

Five-year-old Maverick Hawthorne, the girls’ cousin, is more into the technicalities of showing.

“I like showing the legs and holding the head by myself,” he said.

Once during a show when Maverick was 3 years old, he was holding his sheep’s head steady when he noticed one of his sheep’s legs was not in the right position, but Maverick was too small to reach.

“He told the judge, ‘Hey, go fix that back leg,’” Bret said. “The judge was caught off guard and did it. That’s a story that judge is going to be telling for a long time.”

In showmanship, the person showing is not supposed to tell the judge what to do, but little Maverick had displayed one of the other traits that showing and raising sheep develops.

 “It’s leadership,” Bret said.
Maverick also has an affinity for naming sheep that go on to do great things. Two of the names he has come up with are Cow and Rapunzel. Cow went on as a yearling to be named national champion ram in 2021. Rapunzel, a preemie born at 6 pounds, went on to have a 22-pound ram lamb this fall.

The Oelkes’ grandkids help with sheep chores during the summer, and those living on the farm or nearby help throughout the school year as well. Scarlet even took full reins for a few days during one lambing season when her grandparents needed to be away for almost a week. That involved feeding the herd, cleaning barns and helping ewes deliver lambs if they were having trouble. Daphne, Maverick and the other grandkids even help with giving shots and shearing.

The Oelkes usually have two lambing seasons. The first is in fall; the second runs from January to spring, spreading lambing out a bit. However, this year was different. Usually releasing rams with the ewes brings a little more than half to lambing in fall. The ones not with lamb are rebred later and lamb during the second run. However, 30 ewes lambed in the fall this year, so the Oelkes had over 50 lambs. Only eight lambs were born so far in 2023.

This is not good for the show season.

“We are not having the spring lamb crop that I would like to have,” Lorie said. “We didn’t get any January lambs, so that’s a whole class we can’t show in. For showing spring lambs, there’s a January, February and March class, but for fall lambs, there is only the fall class. Right now, I’m short lambs.”

However, Bret said he prefers fall lambing.

“It’s way easier because it’s not 25 below zero,” he said. “We don’t have to worry about the cold or snow.”

Lorie agreed that the weather matters.

“There’s less chance of pneumonia in fall because the lambs aren’t cooped up in the barn where air quality can be not as good,” she said.

Whenever their lambs are born, the Oelkes apply careful care to raise the biggest, healthiest sheep they can – not only for show but also for sale.

“Our market is selling rams to people who raise other purebred sheep and also raise range rams and commercial rams, so we need to be a little bit bigger than what they’re making so that they can have big lambs,” Bret said. “Most people take 5-6 months to get to a 120-pound market weight, sometimes longer than that.

These lambs average 140 pounds right now, and they’re between 4 and 5.5 months of age. They’re doing pretty close to a pound-a-day gain now that it’s not so darn cold.”

Lambs that do not make the grade are sold for meat.

The Oelkes use a custom mix for feeding with two base rations. Ewe lambs get a ration of steam-flaked corn, whole oats, a balancer pellet, a little fat to cut the dust and liquid molasses, which is a 16%-17% crude protein and not high in carbohydrates.

“We want to raise these ewes like dairy heifers to grow frame without a lot of internal fat,” Bret said.

Bret said body type helps with udder health and milking performance when they lamb. The ram lambs eat it as well.

The other ration for most of the other sheep is a base feed of 60% oats plus corn and a balancer pellet with a little bit of fat to cut the dust. Ewes who lambed last fall are on a maintenance diet of hay.

The Oelkes shear their sheep once a year.

“We shear before they lamb because, if they have long wool, the lamb has a harder time finding the udder, and the ewes have more of a chance of lying on their lamb because they can’t feel it,” Lorie said. “Plus, it keeps our barn dryer because wool holds moisture, so our barn stays warmer and dryer for our lambs because they give off more body heat.”

 Efforts by the Oelkes have resulted in quality sheep. Year after year their sheep win big at shows. They have won senior champion, junior champion and reserve champion status at too many county, state and national levels to count, sometimes taking several championship levels at once in the same show.

However, the experiences mean most.

“I think it’s a great way to raise a family,” Bret said. “Even if they don’t keep showing, the experiences they have had they will remember and hopefully look back on fondly.”

Lorie agreed.

“I’m proud of what our kids have accomplished and the people they have met,” she said.

The Oekles have a motto for their farm, which Lorie said sums up their goal in raising sheep.

“It’s breeding and showing big, bold and beautiful Suffolk sheep our way, teaching our next generations hard work and responsibility and integrity,” Lorie said.