Hair sheep breeds are growing in popularity as consumers look for economical ways to raise homestead meat animals. Hair breeds have many positive traits that make them an ideal animal for small farms, homesteads, and of course, larger commercial farms. If you have space to corral a few sheep, you can fill the freezer with a healthy alternative to beef and chicken.
History tells us our present-day sheep are derived from the wild Mouflon sheep, among others, that grew coarse hair with a downy undercoat. (Icelandic sheep grow a double coat.) As wild sheep were domesticated, breeding for increased wool came into practice.
Ten percent of sheep breeds are hair breeds but ninety percent of these are found in tropical areas. Hair sheep breeds such as the Barbados Blackbelly and St.Croix are largely found in these tropical areas of the world. Since these breeds are so adaptable, when found in colder climates, the hair sheep adapt by growing a thicker undercoat.
Why Own Hair Sheep
There are three main reasons to raise hair sheep.
- Lack of wool.
- Resistance to disease and parasites.
- A high rate of reproduction.
No wool to deal with makes perfect economic sense. When you’re raising sheep for meat, the wool is a by-product. You have to pay to have it sheared once a year. When the price of raw wool fleece is below the cost of shearing the animal, this is not cost effective. Hair sheep breeds simply shed their hair covering and fleecy undercoat when the weather warms.
Since today’s hair sheep breeds are developed from hardy ancestors, they are considered easy keepers because they have a natural resistance to disease and parasites. They also do well eating the vegetation that other species reject. Feed conversion is good since these sheep fatten easily on less than ideal pasture and forage. Feeding these breeds too much grain can result in an overabundance of internal fat.
In many cases, farmers are adding hair sheep to pastures with cattle to maximize efficiency and for parasite control. Sheep and cattle have different grazing needs and preferences, and the sheep will clean up the growth that doesn’t appeal to the cows.
Unlike meat goats, hair sheep are resistant to many of the parasites shed by cattle. They require less worming medications as a general rule. Quite a few meat producers are finding better success with the hair breeds of meat sheep than with meat goats.
An interesting study was done that showed the parasite resistance was higher in the purebred hair sheep over the crossbred shedding sheep. No difference was noted between the purebred breeds of hair sheep. The Katahdins in the study had a consistently less barber pole worm infestation rate compared to the Dorper and Dorset crosses. In addition, there is almost no incidence of flystrike with hair sheep breeds.
The reproductive rate of true hair sheep is excellent. Twinning is common and triplets and quadruplets are not rare. The hair sheep breeds lamb easily in the pasture and the lambs gain weight rapidly and develop to maturity quickly. A caution when breeding is to choose the right size ram for the ewe. Some hair breed rams are long-bodied which can create a lengthy birthing scenario for the ewe. Choosing breeding stock with this in mind can avoid this problem.
Some breeders have been working on crosses between traditional wool meat breeds and hair sheep breeds. The Dorper is a good example of this interbreeding. The Dorper grows more wool but self-sheds annually. Some are calling these shedding sheep.
A Growing Commodity
Sales of sheep meat and sheep breeding stock are on the rise in the United States and Canada. There is a growing market demand for high-quality, naturally-fed lamb. While hair breeds comprise a small percentage of the number of sheep in North America, this is changing as sustainability becomes a bigger issue for landowners. They are best raised on pasture and finishing these breeds on feedlots can lead to less desirable meat products as the ethnic market prefers a leaner lamb.
Fine Quality Leather from Hair Sheep Breeds
Another good product from hair sheep is leather. The leather from hair sheep grain is finer than the leather from wool breeds and brings in a larger amount of money.
Breeds of True Hair Sheep
Arguments exist concerning the exact origin of the Barbados Blackbelly — evidence is shown for both Africa or Barbados. Four Barbados Blackbelly sheep arrived in the United States in 1904. Future importations to university breeding flocks led to the development of the American Blackbelly sheep breed. This ancient breed has thrived in warm climates, continued to produce twins and good carcass weights.
The St. Croix breed is descended from the original West African hair sheep although some believe they are a cross breed of Criollo and Wiltshire White sheep. With a high rate of multiple births and a gentle temperament, this is a good choice for people looking to start a hair sheep business, particularly in warm climates.
Very tolerant of the humid hot conditions in the Carribean and Somolia, Blackhead Persians have a white body and black head. They also have a fat rump, short legs, and a compact body. The lambing rate is not as high as other hair breeds.
More Recent Cross Bred Hair Sheep
The Katahdin breed was developed in the United States by Michael Piel. Beginning in the mid-1950s, Piel imported three St.Croix sheep. They were called Africans at the time. He experimented with breeding them to meat breeds, finally reaching a point, in the 1970s, where he named the breed, Katahdins after a nearby mountain in his home state of Maine. Unfortunately, Mr. Piel did not live long enough to see his breed reach having a registry and breed standards. Katahdins are medium size, hardy, low-maintenance, and have a high-quality carcass weight.
The Dorper is a mutton breed of hair sheep developed in the 1930s. The breed was created by crossing Dorset and Blackheaded Persian sheep. The Dorper has a high rate of lambing and is tolerant of the arid conditions it was developed for in South Africa.
Royal White (Dorper x St.Croix)
St. Croix Sheep have been used to develop other breeds such as the Royal White. Crossing with the Dorper led to this larger hair breed. Royal Whites are more recent in the hair sheep scene and development is still ongoing.
Hair Sheep Future Outlook
As hair sheep breeds become more popular, it will be important for breeders to ensure the future integrity of the breeds. Carefully breeding only the best stock will ensure that the extreme hardiness and good mothering ability remain. Often, when a new breed or type is rising in popularity, careful breeding can fall to the wayside in the haste to have stock to sell. Culling the genetic faults and only keeping the best rams for breeding will ensure a good future for any new hair sheep breeds.