Barbados Blackbellies: a national treasure

I had the opportunity to visit Barbados on a trade mission with the Maryland Department of Agriculture. This small island, only 2½ times the size of our nation's capitol, with its idyllic weather and fantastic seaside scenery, quickly became one of my favorite places.

Bathsheba, BarbadosGeographically speaking, Barbados is the eastern most island in the Caribbean chain, the only, I was told, not to have developed from a volcano. As a former British colony, it is rich in the Queen's traditions. Barbadians speak "British" English, play cricket and drive on the "wrong" side of the road, just to note a few of their customs.

It goes without saying that Barbados is a popular tourist destination for Europeans, Americans, and Canadians, who go for rest and relaxation, to imbibe in the world's oldest rum and to eat flying fish, the national dish. But, while traveling around the island, tourists can't help but notice the abundance of "brown sheep" grazing in small pastures or tethered alongside the winding roads. In fact, most foreigners mistake these sleek, badger-faced animals for goats, when in reality, what they are seeing are Barbados Blackbellies, a hair sheep that is one of the most reproductive efficient breeds in the world and truly one of Barbados's "national treasures."

The Barbados Blackbelly

The Barbados Blackbelly is an indigenous breed to Barbados. It descends from sheep brought to the islands from West Africa during the slave era. Blackbellies are "antelope like" in appearance, brown tan or yellow in color, with black points and under-parts. Both ewes and rams are should be polled or have only small scurs or diminutive horns. They may have some visible fuzzy wool undercoat within their hair coat, but it should shed along with the hair each year. White splotches or speckles on the shoulder, back or rump are permitted.

According to documented history of the breed, Barbados Blackbelly sheep should possess the following traits: 1) tolerance of hot and humid climates; 2) resistance to parasites; 3) resistance to foot problems; 4) a-seasonality of breeding; 5) high rate of twinning (but low rate of high multiples; 6) ease of lambing; and 7) lean carcass on a moderate-sized frame.

Barbados Blackbelly in the U.S.

The initial importation of Barbados Blackbellies to the U.S. was in 1904 to the USDA research station in Beltsville, Maryland. The breed was later crossed with the Mouflon, Rambouillet and other European breeds, resulting in breed characteristics which are significantly different from those found in the Caribbean. In the U.S., the Blackbelly has had two primary roles which its development in the U.S.

Barbados Blackbelly sheepAs a trophy or game animal in Texas, it was desirable for rams to carry large horns, which goes against the original breed standard. For use in sheep dog trials and demonstrations, it was advantageous to have small, but agile animals that could run all day. In the U.S., Blackbellies are not noted for their gentle temperament nor ease of handling.

For many years, North Carolina State University maintained a closed flock of Barbados Blackbelly sheep. The original stock had been imported directly from Barbados in the early 1970's, thus their genetics closely match those in the Caribbean. The flock was dispersed in 1996, but fortunately mains intact on a private farm.

Previous research efforts with the Blackbelly focused on crossbreeding to improve the reproductive performance of wooled breeds. Research conducted at Virginia Tech and the University of Illinois showed that hair breed crossbred ewes have a number of advantages over crossbred wooled ewes, including shorter breeding to lambing intervals, higher fertility, higher lamb survival and more pounds of lamb weaned.

When I was a student at Virginia Tech, the Dorset x Blackbelly ewes were among the most productive in the university's 500-ewe flock. Today, research efforts are directed more towards maintaining the purity of hair sheep and using the Blackbelly to improve the reproductive characteristics of other hair breeds and/or create a new breed of hair sheep.


Lean red meat

Barbados Blackbelly lambs are purported to have less body fat than other breeds. As is the case with goats, they tend to deposit less subcutaneous fat than wooled breeds, while generally accumulating more fat around the heart and kidneys. Their meat is considered to have a milder, less muttony flavor than the lamb from wooled breeds. Some of the restaurants in Barbados feature local Barbados Blackbelly lamb on the menu – this palate found it to be very tender and tasty, as good as any lamb I have ever tasted.

I think that with proper promotion, "Barbados Blackbelly" lamb could become a local favorite with the tourists. Other restaurants on the island feature imported lamb (New Zealand), and this represents a formidable challenge to the industry, much like in the U.S. It is difficult for local producers to compete on the basis of price and uniformity of supply with New Zealand.


Barbados sheep production

Barbados Blackbelly ramMost sheep farms are small. Profitability is hampered by high feed and veterinary costs. Barbados does not grow much of its own livestock feed. At one time, by-products from sugar cane, the country's number one cash crop, provided feed for livestock, but with mechanical harvesting replacing hand labor, the once potential feed is now returned to the field. Broiler litter is considered a viable option, as the copper status of Barbados soils leans more towards deficiency than toxicity, but there is concern that broiler litter as a feed is not compatible with HAACP standards and consumer tastes.

Imported feeds are twice the price as in the U.S., due to high transportation costs. Moreover, the feed companies/importers are reluctant to sell bulk ingredients, so most producers are forced to buy complete feeds at even greater prices. The price of hay is also high. I visited a horse stable (you can't go to the Caribbean and not go horseback riding on the beach) which had paid $7 BBS ($3.50 US) for a ~30 lb. bale of hay. Hay can be especially pricey when you consider the quality of hay that is being sold – we're not talking alfalfa here.

Tropical forages tend to be lower in protein and energy than temperate species. In fact, the Caribbean offers a potential market for U.S.-grown hay According to one farmer, molasses is the cheapest source of energy for livestock. Interest was expressed in feeding fat to increase the level of energy in sheep diets. Pregnancy toxemia is a common problem, along with low birth weights, both of which contribute greatly to lamb mortality. Both problems can be attributed to insufficient energy intake by ewes prior to parturition, along with the preponderance of multiple births. Some health problems have been linked to inadequate fiber intake. One farmer was investigating feeding cardboard to his ewes to increase fiber intake.


Feedlots

Due to limited land space (land is sold by the square foot) and the high cost of feed, feedlot rearing of lambs is quite common in Barbados. In fact, there is a central feedlot, a joint project between the Barbados Sheep Association and a feed company. There are plans for additional feedlots.

Lambs must weigh a minimum of 35 pounds (13.6 kg) to enter the feed lot. Producers are paid $90 BDS (approximately $45 US) per lamb. Any producer may sell his or her lambs to the feed lot. Lambs are vaccinated and dewormed upon arrival and are held in a quarantine facility before entering the feed yard. Ram and ewe lambs are segregated for feeding to prevent unwanted pregnancies. It is not customary to castrate ram lambs in Barbados and other Caribbean countries. Ram lambs gain faster and more efficiently than ewe and wether lambs. Carcass quality is not affected by sex of lamb.

Lambs receive a similar ration throughout the feeding period. Hay is fed to prevent acidosis (grain overload). In fact, insufficient fiber intake is often cited as a contributing factor to many disease problems. The feed lot has experienced problems with internal parasites, coccidiosis and urinary calculi. Data is being collected data to determine the cause(es) of these problems. Amprolium (Corid) is the drug of choice for treating coccidiosis. There seemed to be a reluctance to feed coccidiostats. They don't think they work. Worming medicines are the same as those used in the U.S., though much costlier to purchase in Barbados.

As an indigenous sheep adapted to tropical conditions and low input farming systems, the Blackbelly is not expected to perform as well as sheep in temperate climates and/or of European origin. Data collected at the feed lot in 1998 and 1999, showed that lambs gained an average of 153.3 grams (.34 lbs) per day. Ram lambs averaged 168.9 grams (.37 lbs), while ewe lambs gained 133.1 grams (.29 lbs) per day. The final weight was 71.4 pounds for ewe lambs and 85.5 pounds for rams. The average stay in the feed lot was 100 days for ewe lambs and 103 days for ram lambs.

The feedlot is also being used to identify superior rams and ewes. As in the U.S., producers tend to place too much emphasis on the physical appearance of the animal. By collecting data at the feed lot, it is hoped that the quality of breeding stock being used by farmers will improve. It has been suggested that lambs not meeting rate of gain standards or having other identifiable faults should be slaughtered. The feedlot's lambs are custom slaughtered for a supermarket.


The Export market

Because of their many positive attributes, Barbados Blackbelly sheep have tremendous export potential. Breeding stock attract valuable prices on the export market ($500 for rams and $450 for ewes), particularly as compared to the lamb meat market in Barbados. As a result, there is considerable interest among the Barbados Sheep Farmers, the Ministry of Agriculture and individual producers in exporting Barbados Blackbelly sheep.

Look at me . . . I'm pretty.Data from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (Agriview 1997) shows that 182 breeding sheep were exported in 1997. However, there is disagreement in the industry as to who should have responsibility for exporting the sheep and setting standards for the animals. Previously, the Ministry of Agriculture was responsible. Some think the sheep association should be the exporting body, while individual entrepreneurs are frequently the most successful exporters.

The destination for most Barbados Blackbelly sheep has been Malaysia and other Caribbean island nations. There is interest in the U.S. in importing Barbados Blackbelly sheep to restore the integrity of the breed, as well as to introduce some new bloodlines, but the protocol for importing livestock into the U.S. is very stringent. Scrapie and foot and mouth disease are the diseases of primary concern. Barbados has no confirmed cases of either, but it will be necessary for USDA-APHIS to conduct a thorough investigation before any sheep, semen or embryos can be allowed on U.S. soil.


Copyright © 2000.

Created or last updated by Susan Schoenian on 21-Dec-2009 .