Sustainable Thoughts and Ideas: Sheep on a Cattle Farm in Northeast Texas, You Must Be Kidding.
October 8, 2009
Nope, St. Croix Hair Sheep Work Quite Well.
By: Nathan B. Melson, MS Agricultural Sciences
Sloans Creek Farm, Dodd City, TX
(To Be Published in Living Natural First Magazine.)
For years in Fannin County, TX most people wouldn’t even think about raising sheep on their farms. “We are a cattle, hay, and grain county in Northeast Texas, sheep ruin pastures”, to paraphrase what some people might say or think. Agriculture still forms the base of the main industry in our county. However, the times they are a changing, at least for one long time family farm, the one I own and operate. For several years I thought our farm was going to make it raising Angus cattle, wheat, and sorghum-sudan hay. However, when my grandpa turned the farm over to my mother and dad and then my dad passed away, my mother, sister, and I quickly saw that this type of set up wasn’t going to work and help pay the bills. I had been taught to rely on the traditional agricultural paradigm, even though I had a lot of questions. We had never done everything the modern agricultural paradigm recommended, anyway. As I entered college to study Animal and Plant Science, my mother and I looked into our desire to do things differently. We wanted and actually required lower-input and better return on investment, whether that be on money or labor. We decided that we were going to have to become grass farmers. This meant using livestock as our harvesting tools, instead of us being livestock farmers just managing some grass. With this change in thought we would implement changes over the next 10 years that would change our farm dramatically. It still is changing our farm. What we did, would have been frowned upon by most agricultural producers in the area. Many of you have read about our experiences and philosophies in the past several issues of Living Natural First. We are slowly becoming a success story along with numerous family farms across the country, that have found the benefits of multi-species grass farming.
As many of you that have been keeping up with my writings in this publication know, we currently operate our farm raising Red Poll, Irish Dexter, and Murray Grey cattle; Red Wattle Hogs; St. Croix Hair Sheep, and Myotonic Meat Goats. However in 2002, we had been looking for a sheep breed to incorporate into our Red Poll cattle and meat goat operation. We had been moving our farm, on the Northern portion of the Blacklands of Texas, towards a grass farming system. Our agenda was to move the farm towards a system that somewhat mimics the old tallgrass prairie system of diverse large herbivores. Our farm is probably 50% native forage species, and we have replanted 52 acres of tallgrass, mixed-grass species while working to replant another 50 acres. Cattle are grazers and goats are browsers. This followed well with the old system of Bison (grazers) and Whitetail Deer (browsers), but we were leaving out the antelope and elk (The species that probably preferred a mix of forbs and grass.) Sheep tend to fit this role in domestic livestock species, but we didn’t want to shear sheep nor did we have the time. We also wanted to minimize parasite problems because we were trying to keep our farm non-certified organic. After doing some research, we learned of the hair sheep breeds. These include the Katahdin, the St. Croix, the Black-Belly Barbado, and the Dorper. Each breed has its benefits and drawbacks. We thought that hair sheep would perhaps be a way around the shearing issue. The St. Croix seemed like a natural fit because of their characteristics and our farm goals. Our farm goals are: A) To maintain heritage livestock breeds in a low-input, sustainable, non-certified organic grass farm environment for meat and registered stock production; B) To be able to show how heritage breeds can be a major part in keeping a family farm viable; C) To make a living from our farm.
The St. Croix Hair Sheep has now become an important fixture on our family grass farm. We purchased our small flock of 12 ewes and one ram in the fall of 2002. As of this writing in May 2009 we have forty-five ewes, thirty-five lambs on the ground, one breeding ram and around 10 wethers ready for processing. We have raised all of the ewes from our original flock by rotating in new rams with differing pedigrees, and have sold and/or processed culls and some breeding animals along the way. The history and attributes of the St. Croix are quite interesting, and I’ll do my best to cover the subject with some interesting notes about the other hair sheep breeds.
The St. Croix Hair Sheep is a unique heritage breed of sheep that seems to readily fit into grassfed production. When hair sheep are grassfed, the meat is generally tender and mild flavored compared to most wool sheep breeds with all the benefits of grassfed lamb. Grassfed meats tend to be lower in fat, calories, and cholesterol than grainfed meats. Grassfed meats also tend to be higher in beta-carotene, vitamin E, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), and omega-3 fatty acids than grainfed meats. More and more consumers seem to prefer hair sheep meat to wool sheep because of the milder flavor.
The St. Croix Hair Sheep breed is unique to the U.S., particularly on the island of St. Croix in the Caribbean. St. Croix happens to be one of the U.S. Virgin Islands. The breed is believed to have descended from the hair sheep of West, brought to the islands by Spaniards. Africa. Most hair sheep except for the wild sheep of the world and perhaps the Wiltshire Horned of England are believed to have African origins. There are some people who think that it is a cross with the Wiltshire Horned, brought in by the English to the islands, and the naturalized Criollo sheep, which would have descended from those hair sheep of West Africa. Both sexes are polled (a management benefit), and rams generally have a large distinguishing throat ruff or mane. The St. Croix Hair Sheep International Association generally accepts solid white as the registered color. However, spots of brown, black, or tan do occur, but can’t be registered currently.
In 1975, twenty-five St. Croix Hair Sheep, 22 ewes and 3 rams, were selected in St. Croix and imported into the U.S. by Dr. W. C. Foote of Utah State University. There were no pedigree records available on the animals. The selection criteria were white color, lack of wool, acceptable body size, and good conformation. These sheep are pretty much the basis of the present St. Croix breed on the U.S. mainland, although there may have been a few very limited importations in the past 8 to 10 years. As purebred numbers increased animals were released to private farms. Purebred lines are still being maintained, and this is critical due to relatively low breeding numbers and the amount of crossbreeding that is occurring. Utah State University and the USDA-Agricultural Research Service maintain flocks today for production and research purposes. The St. Croix could be considered a medium-small sized sheep. The size of the ewes average 120 pounds, while the rams average 165 pounds. However ewes can reach 150 lbs and rams can reach 200 lbs. St. Croix ewe’s lambs show high fertility at 6-7 months of age. Lambing rates tend to be on the average of 2 lambs per lambing, while easily achieving 3 lambings every 2 years. Some producers do get two lambings per year, but we don’t like to push our grassfed flock quite that hard. St. Croix sheep are being used in production and cross breeding programs in Utah, California, Florida, North Carolina, Texas, Illinois, Arkansas, Oregon, Oklahoma and Ohio.
The St. Croix breed has been shaped by natural and human selection. As a result, they are climate adapted, fertile, and excellent foragers, which allows for their adaptability to low-input grassfed production. Researchers in studies at several different universities have documented exceptional parasite resistance, compared to most wool sheep breeds. This parasite resistance continues to be documented just as in the Gulf Coast Native, a very parasite resistant wool breed. While St. Croix sheep can withstand high heat and humidity better than most European sheep breeds, they have adapted to variable climatic conditions in many parts of the country. When used in colder areas they produce a very heavy winter coat of mixed wool and hair that is shed in the spring. This is a benefit to the sheep on most of the North American Continent. The Katahdin, due to the influence of St. Croix in it’s breeding, and the Black-Belly Barbado due to its Carribean Island origins, have similar characteristics, although the level or parasite resistance still needs to be documented.
The beneficial characteristics of the St. Croix include docility, calmness, excellent maternal instincts, and good flocking instincts. These sheep are pretty easy keepers as long as they have water and adequate forage to meet their requirements. No docking is required, because the tail hair does not trap fecal matter around the anus like many wool breeds. Foot rot resistance is another important characteristic for producers in the humid Southeast portion of the US. The polled characteristic is also handy in management. Quick lamb growth during the first four-months after birthing has been anecdotally noted by several producers. Two other things should be mentioned here. As of 1999, the USDA-APHIS had never documented a case of Scrapie in the St. Croix breed. To our knowledge there has never been a case documented in any of the hair sheep breeds. In this day of animal disease concern, control, and implications on human health, this is a very important note. The St. Croix breed’s positive traits address many of the production problems experienced in sheep production, and this would seem to make them a candidate for agriculturalists interested in sheep production. Besides, the demand for grassfed, healthy American lamb far outstrips the supply. As is the case, hair sheep still seem to be either unknown or not quite large enough for many producers. They generally take a little longer to reach 100-pound slaughter weights than many other more mainstream sheep breeds, but the upside to this is that they can do it on adequate, well-managed forage.
The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy Lists St. Croix Hair Sheep in the Threatened category of the Conservation Priority List, with fewer than 1000 annual registries. The Black-Belly and the Katahdin are also listed. St. Croix Hair Sheep are truly a unique American and Caribbean breed. Current registrations in the St. Croix Hair Sheep International are probably above 400 registrations in North America per year. Although, less than 5000 sheep exist in the global population. Currently the demand for healthful grassfed lamb is growing. However for the St. Croix breed, the breed numbers are low and grassfed production of St. Croix’s is even lower, despite the breed being particularly adapted to this type of production system.
The St. Croix has been used in several composite hair sheep breeds because of its favorable characteristics and its potential to produce hybrid vigor. The “DorpCroix”, “Royal White”, and “Katahdin” are all crossbred or composite breeds that contain a percentage of St. Croix in them mainly to increase parasite resistance, improve the “hair” characteristic of the sheep, and/or add the genetic tendency for white color. In fact the original importation of St. Croix sheep occurred in the 1950s when Michael Piel of Maine was developing the Katahdin breed. However, that flock was not maintained because of the crossbreeding. The importance of maintaining purebred St. Croix sheep and the other breeds of unique hair sheep for genetic resource and for production cannot be overstated. On our farm we don’t practices a lot of crossbreeding with any of our breeds, although it has its place. We prefer to learn how to use the breeds that we have, but continue to keep our minds open to how crossbreeding might play a role on our farm in the future. Consistency is hard to maintain in crossbreeding, especially beyond the F1 cross, and we prefer to raise our replacement females.
As of late, more and more producers seem to be interested in the St. Croix. Currently, we see a trend by Katahdin breeders, especially the commercial producers, to use St. Croix rams on their stock for increased parasite resistance. Because the herd books for Katahdins’ are still open, and because the genetic base for the Katahdin still has some drift, many producers want to take the opportunity to add more St. Croix blood into their herds. We think the market will continue to grow for a while. We would like to see some of these breeders keep their own registered St. Croix flocks. As mentioned the parasite resistance has been documented by research studies, and our flock hasn’t received chemical anthelmintics (dewormers) in over six years. We use certain mineral supplements, liquid supplements, and other management practices for parasite control. So this characteristic will work for producers, given management is adequate and chemical deworming is limited.
We encourage people who are seeking to move to grass farming to consider some type of rotational, multi-species system if they are willing to do so. There are so many benefits that can be obtained if the system is adapted to the specific farm environment. These include more animal production per acre, better forage management, parasite management, healthier plants, and healthier animals, and maybe even healthier people.
Grass-based production when done correctly allows for healthier animals in many cases. Grassfed hair sheep production is currently rare and unique, especially in the St. Croix breed. Encouraging lamb consumers to purchase grassfed hair sheep lamb because of its quality, taste, and the breed it helps promote could be critical in seeing the St. Croix and other hair sheep breeds proliferate on family farms, where they are adapted, across the country. Can hair sheep play a role in your grazing operation? I don’t know. However, if your willing to experiment, as all graziers probably should be, We’d encourage you to do some research, and maybe contact a hair sheep breeder to try a few in your grazing system. If they work for you then great, if they don’t, then maybe there is something else that would.
Yes, some of our neighbors think we are crazy, but that is alright if what we’re doing is something that will help keep our family on the farm. American agriculture as a whole must move this way, the sustainable, holistic way, if we are to move our country as a whole towards economic, social, and environmental sustainability. I think this is what the Good Lord would have us do, and I know it is what our forefathers would want. Benjamin Franklin once said, “There are three ways a nation can become wealthy. It can make war and take the wealth of another by force. It can trade freely and make a profit by cheating. Or it can profit through agriculture, whereby planting a seed we create new wealth as if by a miracle.”
St. Croix Hair Sheep are helping us keep our farm on the track towards sustainability. We hope to reach it in a few more years while providing a unique product, and a unique service. There is a niche for St. Croix Hair Sheep on a farm in Fannin County, TX, what about yours? Farm On!!
Information Sources Include:
The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, http://www.albc-usa.org
Rare Breeds Survival Trust,
St. Croix Hair Sheep International, http://www.stcroixsheep.org
The Oklahoma State University, Dept. of Animal Science, Livestock Breeds Database, http://www.ansi.okstate.edu/breeds/
Dohner, J.V. 2001. The Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock Breeds. P. 151. Yale University Press.Filed as: Farm News and Views