By Dr. Elizabeth Ferraro – There is a growing trend today away from the very large sheep ranches specializing in meat sheep breeds toward an increasing number of small independent sheep farms that are raising sheep for profit. These farms are increasing in number in the central and eastern sections of the U.S. The small farmer with 100 acres or less is interested in meeting the niche market demands of a diverse sheep market. These demands extend from ethnic lamb and mutton all the way to the production of high-quality hand spinner fleece.
Dual-Purpose Sheep Breeds
There is also a gaining interest in dual-purpose sheep breeds by the farmer who has limited space and wants to make the most money from the small number of sheep owned. As in many small businesses today we also find a number of these small farms run by women. The increase in women sheep owners awakens an awareness of the relationship between sheep farming and the fiber arts, including hand spinning, weaving, and felting.
It follows that dual-purpose sheep are growing in popularity among the new female sheep breeders who are interested in raising meat sheep breeds as well as raising sheep for wool. Two very easy to manage breeds are the California Red Sheep and the original Cormo Sheep. Both of these breeds have no horns, are medium in size and are hearty. They lamb unassisted and do quite well on pasture. These easy care characteristics make them the perfect sheep for small farmers to raise.
On our small farm in Wrightstown, New Jersey, we maintain two separate flocks of these dual-purpose meat sheep breeds.
California Red Sheep Characteristics
The California Red Sheep was developed in the early 70s by Dr. Spurlock of the University of California at Davis. His objective was to create one of these meat sheep breeds with excellent taste and texture that also produces a desirable hand- spinning fleece. He used a number of careful genetic breeding techniques to cross the Barbados with Tunis Sheep. The result was a very beautiful California Red Sheep that produces gourmet lamb and wonderful cream-colored fleece with raspberry colored hairs lightly scattered throughout it.
The mature California Red Sheep is a striking creature to behold. The ram sports a magnificent red mane like a lion, that bounces and flows when he runs. Both rams and ewes have heads that are deer like with large pendulous ears and big expressive eyes. The face and head are not covered with fleece but rather a short reddish hair the color of an Irish Setter. The legs and belly are also free of fleece and covered with the red hair. The back and sides of the sheep are covered with a 4 to 6-inch fleece that varies from a rich cream color to a dusty rose. Lambs are born a lovely Irish Setter red. As they mature they take on the characteristic colors of the breed. This is quite a lovely animal with very practical advantages.
Among the advantages, one finds in the California Red breed is the adaptability they have to a diverse range of temperatures. They do quite well in the lush green pastures of New Jersey and the dry conditions of our western states under dry and cold winters. California Reds are now being raised from coast to coast. We have a small rapidly growing flock on our Apple Rose Farm here in New Jersey.
California Red Sheep are very gentle and affectionate in nature. Every time we take our sheep to a show people always comment on how friendly they are. The reds are great for 4-H children to show. Women and children are easily able to care for California Reds.
We enjoy the fact that shearing the California Red is extremely easy and that lambs can nurse without any crouching of the ewe. These clean-bellied ewes raise twins and triplets without assistance. Each sheep shears between 4-7 pounds of clean well skirted fleece. The California Red Fleece is a medium fleece in the 30-35 micron range. The fleece is rapidly purchased by hand spinners.
The meat produced by the California Red is considered of finest quality. A large shipment of 65 Reds recently completed quarantine and was shipped to the United Arab Emirate. They will be used as a foundation flock to establish the Reds in Arab countries primarily as one of the popular meat sheep breeds. They were selected as prime quality meat producers.
Cormo Sheep Characteristics
The second of these dual-purpose sheep breeds is the Cormo Sheep, which was imported from Tasmania. It is very important to note that we are referring to the Cormo Sheep whose breed standard was established by the Downie family. The breed standard is strictly enforced in the U.S. by The Cormo Sheep Conservation Registry, www.cormosheep.org (a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of the breed in North America). Serving on the Advisory Board is the original developer of the breed, Peter Downie & Family. Also on the Advisory Board is Dr. Lyle McNeal, Professor and Sheep Specialist at Utah State University.
The Cormo breed does not have horns and is a snow-white sheep. It has very fine, crimpy, soft fiber. The micron range is 17-24 with some very excellent sheep producing a micron of 16. The fleece is uniform in quality over most of the sheep. When skirted a fleece yields 6-9 pounds of fleece that sells for $12 to $15 a pound. It is in great demand by hand spinners.
One of the problems the breed has encountered over the years in the U.S. is the fact that many of the once purebred Cormos have been in small hand spinner flocks. The sheep have been subjected to frequent inbreeding and crossbreeding. The Conservation Registry is bringing back the original Cormo by careful breeding practices. Purchasers of Cormos should consult the Cormo Sheep Conservation Registry for a free copy of the breed Registry and insist on a five-generation pedigree when buying sheep.
The Cormo is a medium-sized sheep with good flocking tendencies. It is easily raised just on pasture with limited amounts of alfalfa during winter months. This breed does not do well on heavy graining. Cormos are equally at home in northern Montana on the range or in Central New Jersey. We have a number of breeders operating flocks successfully in widely diverse conditions.
Our Apple Rose farm in Wrightstown, New Jersey is located on a large former horse breeding facility. We carefully maintain separate breeding flocks of both California Red Sheep and Cormo Sheep. We have a number of champion show quality sheep and provide foundation stock to people new to sheep farming and to people who want to improve the quality of an existing flock. Consultation and management are always included along with free stud service. For more information please contact Dr. Elizabeth Ferraro at www.applerose.com.
Publish in sheep! July/August 2005 and regularly vetted for accuracy.