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Thirteen sheep in the kitchen

After a stellar, 35-year career, beloved 4-H livestock program leader, Dr. Dwight Loveday, is still making valuable memories
Story and photos by Mark E. Johnson 7/29/2021

 

On Dwight and Rita Loveday's 17-acre sheep farm in Louisville, the family's 7-month-old Karakachan protection dog, Rada, practices her herding skills. The Loveday's currently keep 54 registered Southdown sheep on eight acres of pasture.
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Abrutal cold snap during the last week of February 2015 couldn’t have arrived at a worse time for Dr. Dwight Loveday and his wife, Rita.


It was lambing time.


According to USClimateData.com, the average February low temperature in the Loveday’s hometown of Louisville, Tennessee, is 33 degrees Fahrenheit. But for three consecutive days that particular February, the mercury was stuck at nearly zero.


“It was rough,” says Dwight, one of Tennessee’s most influential leaders in 4-H livestock programs — specifically, sheep production. “The ewes started lambing during the worst of it.” 


With no other alternative, Dwight began moving the newborn lambs into the only nearby source of reliable heat: the Loveday’s house. 


“There were a couple of times where I’d bring one down, and by the time I got back up to the barn, the ewe had delivered a twin,” Dwight says. “It was already frozen.”


But he was determined to save as many animals as possible. Trip after trip, Dwight transported newborn lambs from the barn to the house as quickly as they were born over three days that week. Meanwhile, Rita was making regular excursions into town to purchase plastic totes to contain each new member of the flock. Before long, four huge totes each containing sibling lambs were crammed into the Loveday kitchen, each containing a bleating lamb.


“By the end of the week, the lambs were beginning to jump out of their totes,” Rita recalls with a laugh. “I threatened Dwight with divorce if he didn’t get them out of the kitchen! Well, he and [son] Andy finally got all the lambs back to the barn as the weather warmed up, and I spent hours mopping and cleaning the floor. The very next morning, one of the grandkids spilled a full glass of milk in the kitchen. I just stood there and cried!”


Since 1985, the Lovedays have been part of countless similar stories in support of both the sheep industry and 4-H youth across the state. As he reflects on his career in agriculture — having retired as Interim Director of 4-H Youth Development in August 2020 — Dwight says his involvement with sheep was “unexpected.”


“I was raised in Blount County in the old milk house of a former dairy,” he recalls. “My bedroom was where they used to milk. But as I grew up, we had a beef operation that expanded into swine production just to fill a niche in the local market.”


By the time he was 9, Dwight was engaged in all aspects of the livestock operation, including showing swine and calves at the nearby Tennessee Valley Fair.


“Back then, our success wasn’t measured in ribbon color, but by how many boar pigs we didn’t come home with,” he says. “That was the way we marketed our livestock.”


At around the same time, the fourth grader was introduced to 4-H.


“I recall the local 4-H man and woman giving a presentation in our classroom,” Dwight says. “It was a no-brainer for me to join, although I started with things like the ‘Snacking and Packing’ project and public speaking. Then, we’d do summer demonstrations on things like feed ingredients or breeds of cattle. It was pretty neat.”


As he progressed to junior high school, Dwight joined the school band as a trumpet player but, upon not learning his parts, was given an ultimatum by his band teacher: Either commit to his instrument or commit to showing cattle.


“Well, that was the end of my trumpet-playing career,” says Dwight with a shrug. “From that point on, I pretty much jumped into 4-H and showing livestock with both feet.”


By the time he was ready to graduate high school, Dwight was firmly entrenched in the youth livestock community of the Southeast U.S. Despite a tempting offer to attend the University of Kentucky on a full scholarship, the young man opted to stay near home and enter the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (UT).


“I was just very comfortable at UT,” he says. “I did meat and livestock judging, Block and Bridle Club, and all that kind of stuff.” 


It was at a 1968 Block and Bridle Club dance where Dwight was set up with a blind date who turned out to be a cute, Knox County 4-H’er he’d seen at other events. Rita and Dwight — born only seven days apart — soon became inseparable and graduated from UT on the same day. 


“When I finished my undergrad, one of my professors, Doc Hobbs, advised me that I really needed to progress toward a Ph.D. if I wanted to work at a university in the future,” says Dwight. “Although I would’ve been happy to continue at UT, he told me I needed new experiences and scenery.”


Dwight moved to Manhattan, Kansas, in 1972 and enrolled at Kansas State University (KSU) to work toward his advanced degrees. After they were married in 1974, Rita joined him at KSU and became a Kansas 4-H agent. From 1974 through ’78, Dwight earned his master’s and PhD degrees — both in animal science — from KSU, completing the latter after accepting a position at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln as an assistant professor and meat Extension specialist. In 1983, after nine eventful years in Kansas and Nebraska, the Lovedays returned home to Blount County, now with two small children — Sara Beth and Andy — in tow.


“Our children were the catalyst that brought us to sheep,” says Dwight. “Truth be told, having been raised on a beef and swine farm, I used to make fun of sheep. But when we moved back, I really wanted our kids to have that livestock experience, because there’s just something special about a kid and an animal. Problem was, we only had about eight acres of pasture to work with, so the best fit for our circumstances was sheep.”


Dwight says that raising sheep became popular among several of his friends during this time, but many dropped out after their children graduated from school.


“When Andy graduated, people began asking us when we were going to sell our flock,” he recalls. “I just never wanted to; I still enjoyed them. I’ve always said that you can have a terrible day at work, come home, and those little ewes up there are always happy to see you.”


From ’83 to 2018, Dwight served at UT as associate professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology and in 4-H Youth Development. Over those decades, he would become established as one of the state’s premier educators in sheep production. To this day, his animals are sought after by 4-Hers entering the sheep project, as well as by producers to use for breeding stock.


Dwight says one of his most important long-term relationships in the ag industry has been with nearby AgCentral Co-op’s Maryville branch store.


“Back when we started, there weren’t

a lot of options for sheep feed, so we

started formulating our own with the

help of the Co-op in Maryville,” Dwight says. “Over the years, we continued

making slight variations to our mix.

These days, it’s a custom blend that

Co-op puts together for us at the

LaVergne Feed Mill. We’ve found that

our sheep tend to do well on it and stay with it for the long run.”


The Loveday’s have no plans to slow down their sheep production or involvement in 4-H. They currently have a flock of 54 registered Southdown sheep — 30 ewes, 22 lambs, and two rams — to keep them busy. But it is his interaction with multiple generations of children that Dwight says he cherishes most.


“I think that watching a fragile, new animal come into the world gives children a greater respect for life,” he says. “How kids handle life and, probably more importantly, death on the farm can have a great impact on them as adults. Our own daughter, Sara Beth, has become a cardiac nurse, and I really believe that her experiences in the lambing barn pointed her in that direction. And now, both Andy and Sara Beth are bringing their kids into the barn, and we’re watching them argue over who gets to feed the rams.”


Rita adds that the experience of the 2015 cold snap, while difficult in the moment, is just another valuable memory for the entire family and an example of an exciting and rewarding life in livestock.


“Having sheep over all these years was simply a vehicle for raising our children and now our grandchildren,” she says. “They will carry those lessons with them forever.”


 
 
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