Matthew Benda has been around sheep since he was just a kid, growing up on a farm in rural Minnesota with his family. He and his wife, Gretchen, who now live in rural Alpha, have three kids, all of whom have grown up taking care of and showing sheep.
Parker, Payten and Paige Benda have all been working with sheep since before they could walk.
“It’s one of the first activities we were involved in as kids,” Payten Benda said.
Parker Benda is now attending South Dakota State University in Brookings, S.D., where he is pursuing an agriculture degree. Payten Benda is a junior at Jackson County Central High School, while Paige Benda is currently attending middle school at Immanuel Lutheran School in Lakefield.
All three kids have shown at the Jackson County Fair, the Minnesota State Fair and other shows throughout the country, some as far away as Nebraska.
But in the day to day, the Bendas say, lambing is the trickiest — and most important — part of raising a herd of sheep.
“We have a rough estimate of when the ewes are going to lamb,” Payten Benda said. “Most of the time, they do it on their own, but sometimes Dad does have to pull a lamb out from one.”
That’s a rare occurrence in part because the Bendas have bred their sheep for good parenting traits. It’s a necessity given the family’s busy schedule and it helps keep the herd healthier over the long run.
Still, sometimes a human touch is needed to keep the process smooth.
“The most important thing is for them to get the colostrum with the antibodies, because that helps them get a good start and keeps them from getting sick,” Matt Benda said. “After they lamb, they’re put in a pen with a hot lamp for the lamb.”
As long as the lambs are able to nurse and get cleaned quickly after birth — things the mother usually takes care of on her own — they’re usually able to handle themselves pretty well.
If lambing is more about the sheep than the humans, showing is, in some ways, all about the humans. Not only do the kids have to train their sheep, but they also have to clean them and groom them in specific ways.
There are a lot of different show categories, as well, some of which feature sheep up to 300 pounds in weight.
“For the yearling sheep, it takes two people to get them set,” Payten Benda said. “Parker usually helps with those.”
The Bendas travel to different shows around the Midwest, showing in Faribault, the Iowa State Fair and local shows. Paige Benda enjoys showing in Faribault because of the social aspect of the event.
“I prefer the Faribault show because you get to know more people there, and I grew up around some of those people, so you see how they grow,” she said.
Payten Benda, meanwhile, loves the Iowa State Fair.
“I love showing at the Iowa State Fair because it’s really competitive and there are a lot of people showing there,” she said.
Looking to the future, both Payten and Paige Benda want to continue working with sheep as long as they can. Paige Benda isn’t sure what she wants to do yet — and she’s got plenty of time to think about it. Payten Benda, meanwhile, is looking at pursuing a career in ag, but she has yet to decide what she wants to specialize in.
“I definitely want to work in agriculture,” she said, “and as long as sheep are in the family, I’ll work with them too.”