By Tim King — On a recent Sunday in early March, 19-year-old Lucy Baker and her family came home from church and were delighted by the sight that greeted them at their farm near Westmoreland, Tennessee.
“Our truck slowly rolled into the driveway and we all scanned the pastures—green and speckled with black and white Jacob Sheep. All eyes landed on one ewe, separated from the rest. She was licking two tiny lambs at her side. Tumbling out of the truck, we went running to welcome the first lambs of the year into the world,” says Lucy.
The season’s first lambs are a special occasion for all shepherds. The seven members of the Baker family take particular pleasure in their Jacob lambs. In fact, the children often sleep in the barn with the ewes and their lambs.
“All of us have slept with lambs in our sleeping bags,” Lucy said.
Lucy is also charmed by one of the stories about the Jacob sheep origins.
“They may be traced all the way back to the Bible, in Genesis, when Jacob had been working for Laban,” Lucy said. “After many years, the flock got so huge, Jacob decided to leave and take some of the sheep. Laban gave him all the spotted or colored sheep so the spotted sheep were called Jacob’s Sheep.”
Heritage & Selection
The Jacob Sheep Association says this pie-bald or spotted sheep usually carries four horns, but at least two and as many as six likely originated in Syria and has been in the British Isles for centuries.
Although the breed’s origin is obscure, even in England, the Bakers know exactly where their registered Jacob sheep came from. Lucy’s parents, Molly and Paul, started their flock in 2003 with seven yearling ewes from a flock reduction sale in Indiana. They’ve been improving their flock ever since then, based on the rigorous standards set by the Jacob Sheep Breeders Association. They now have a closed ewe flock.
“We have always culled heavily, with priorities lying in disposition, fleece quality, horn quality, breed standards for color and ease of lambing and mothering in ewes,” Lucy said. “When we are looking for a ram, we look for one that has excellent horns—according to the JSBA standards—and usually is four-horned. We also look for good confirmation, good coloring, a good strong black, nice open fleece with crimp and good staple length, and nice even coloration.”
Since the Baker children are home schooled, the sheep are often their teachers as well as part of their lessons and homework. But Lucy says Jacob sheep aren’t particularly demanding.
Jacob Management & Wool Harvesting Details
“Jacobs don’t require a lot of attention in the area of worming or parasite problems; nor do they require as much food as a larger meat breed would,” she said. “So they’re pretty easy to take care of. They’re also really useful because you can use their fleece, meat, and horns.”
The Baker family’s Springrock Farm sells raw fleeces, as well as roving. The raw fleeces are usually sold as fast as they are sheared, but there’s still some dark chocolate and brindled colored roving available.
“For roving we usually choose some of our less crimpy fleeces,” Lucy said. “We pull them apart and then divide them into dark, white, and ‘on-the-line,’ which ends up being gray. We box that up and send it off to Ohio Valley Natural Fibers to make into roving.”
Lucy says Jacob roving is particularly popular with beginning spinners.
“Jacob wool is really cool when it’s spun into yarn, because you can do so much with the colors,” she said. “Also, dying the dark wool gives you a richer, different color than dying the white.”
Knitters also enjoy working with the various natural colors of yarn, according to Lucy.
The Baker children have learned that to get high-quality fleeces and roving (for spinners to turn into yarn) requires careful and skillful handling of the sheared fleeces.
“As soon as the fleece is off the sheep it’s taken to a table and laid out, cut side down, the way it would appear on the sheep,” Lucy said. “Several people then “pick it,” pulling out any straw, twigs, or other dirtiness. The breech wool is also taken off. That breech wool, popularly called “britch” is the fleece that grows on their back hips and is coarser than the rest of the fleece.”
Lucy says it takes a skilled team of Baker children only two to four minutes to pick a Jacob fleece clean.
“Once the fleece is well picked, one-third is flipped over,” she said. “All the second cuts are then picked off. Then other third is flipped and the second cuts are picked again and the fleece is finally rolled up like a sleeping bag—all the while making sure all second cuts and debris are off. These fleeces are put in boxes, where they wait to be taken out for festivals and sold.”
The Baker children enjoy going to fiber and sheep festivals. The family usually attends the Middle Tennessee Fiber Festival, which was held May 26th and 27th in Dickson Tennessee. And also the Fiber in the Boro festival, which will be held in Murfreesboro, Tenn., on October 21, 2017.
“The thing I enjoy the most is all the other vendors. We’ve kind of become a big family that has a big gathering every spring,” Lucy said. “They’ve seen us all grow up over the years and all my siblings and I spend hours at each booth talking to the vendors in between customers. It’s like we have a bunch of extra aunts and grandmas. The one in Dickson is especially fun because it’s two days. On Friday, after the fairgrounds close and all the customers are gone, we have a barbecue party.”
A Special Product Mix
When the Bakers go to the fiber festivals they don’t only bring along the colorful Jacob fleeces and roving. They also bring Jacob sheep pelts and ornaments made from horns. The pelts aren’t big sellers but the family sells a few every year, according to Lucy.
The horn products are more popular. The Bakers make buttons, ear rings, shawl pins, and necklaces from the Jacob horns. Lucy and her parents are the main horn crafters.
“Anytime an animal is slaughtered we saw off the horns. Horns are hollow approximately halfway down. In that section, bone fills the inside,” Lucy says. “Mommy is the one that looks at a horn and sees the different ways she could cut it. She cuts buttons, ear rings, and occasionally hair accessories, or a pendent. And let me tell you, she has gotten quite creative over the years! Daddy or I then put these horn pieces through two different grains of sanding on a belt sander and then fine sanding with water. Holes are drilled and the shapes are then buffed. The result is shiny black earrings and buttons! Sometimes, you’ll get streaks of white or translucent material running through and that makes it look even neater.”
The Bakers don’t sell Jacob lamb meat at the fiber fairs and they don’t sell much of it off the farm either, according to Lucy. They do butcher their lambs for use by the family, however, and occasionally a neighbor or friend shares in that process.
“We usually butcher anywhere from two to five animals for ourselves every year,” Lucy said. “My dad and brothers slaughter on a cold weekend and we hang them in the barn for two days.
“Then we get out all our cutting boards, bring the halves into our kitchen island and everyone begins cutting.
“Most animals get ground. But others are sectioned into legs, shoulders, loin, and ribs. Jacobs aren’t a meat breed so they usually weigh in at fifteen to 25 pounds per side.
“Still, the meat is good and we know exactly where it came from and what it ate. In recent years, when we had an excess of culls, we took several to the stock yard where they were auctioned off.”
Lamb Butchering Instruction
The Baker family’s on-farm butchering has opened the door for a niche business opportunity.
“Over the fourteen years we’ve had them we’ve sold many animals to friends for meat,” Lucy said. “We can’t legally sell lamb meat, so we have invited families over for ‘butchering days,’ where my dad would instruct how to slaughter sheep. He would butcher one and the invited family would butcher the other: They would get their own meat after purchasing the live animal. This is perfectly legal.”
The Jacob Sheep Breeders Assn. says Jacob sheep “provide a flavorful, lean carcass with little external fat.” The association says the Jacob’s carcass yield—what’s left when going from hanging weight to packed and wrapped freezer weight—”is high, when compared to the more improved breeds.”
The Baker family tries to utilize everything their Jacob sheep provide for them: From wool to horns, to meat, to pelts, they’ve figured out a use for it.
Even though they haven’t yet figured out a use for the sheep’s “baa” they have found a use for sheep skulls.
“They make really cool decorations,” Lucy said.
You can learn more about the Baker family’s products and their registered Jacob sheep by visiting their website at www.springrockfarm.com or by calling them at (615) 666-4207.