Perhaps, you should consider hair sheep

On April 16, 1999, the state of Maryland hosted a National Hair Sheep Symposium at the state fairgrounds in Timonium. The symposium was organized by the U.S. Sheep Seedstock Alliance and brought together hair sheep experts from across the United States and producers from many states.

Even when wool prices are good, wool is little more than a break-even proposition for most producers. In many areas, it is difficult to even locate a shearer. If I were starting or expanding a sheep flock today, I would give serious consideration to raising hair sheep, not only because they don't need shearing, but because of the many other positive attributes they have.

The primary difference between hair sheep and wool sheep is in the ratio of secondary (hair, kemp) to primary (wool) skin follicles. Hair sheep have a mixture of hair and wool that sheds naturally in the spring. They do not require shearing, crutching or tail docking.

Hair sheep originated in the tropics, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa. They exist throughout the Caribbean, Central America, and northern South America as a result of being brought across the Atlantic in conjunction with the 18th and 19th century slave trade.

# 92's first lamb

Because of their tropical origins, hair sheep are generally more tolerant of heat and humidity. Research shows that hair sheep breeds have lower rectal temperatures and respiration rates than their wooled counterparts. However, hair sheep adapt to a wide variety of climates and will grow a thicker, longer hair coat in cold weather.

There is some research to suggest that hair sheep are more resistant to internal parasites, though more data is necessary before widespread claims can be made. It is not necessary to dock the tails of hair sheep lambs, although many producers remove the tails to give lambs a neater appearance and better market acceptance.

Reproductive efficiency is where hair sheep truly excel. Hair sheep breeds are prolific, reach puberty at an early age and breed year round. They are a low-maintenance sheep, hardy and long-lived, able to produce under stressful environmental conditions. They are ideally suited to low-input, forage-based production systems and/or to markets desiring lean, lighter weight carcasses.

There are several breeds of hair sheep. The most common are the Barbados Blackbelly (JPG), St. Croix (JPG), Katahdin (JPG), and Dorper. The Barbados Blackbelly is probably the most widely known hair breed in the U.S. They are often used to train Border Collies or in crosses with the Mouflon for game purposes. Blackbellies are brown tan or yellow in color, with black points and under-parts. They resemble a deer or antelope in appearance. They grow slower than wooled breeds, but produce a carcass with a mild flavor and less body fat. Moreover, the Blackbelly is one of the most prolific breeds of sheep in the world.

The St. Croix, named for the island of the same name is also called the "Virgin Island White." It is a small breed, generally white in color, though other colors are acceptable. St. Croix sheep grow faster and produce more milk than the Blackbelly. They are also more docile and easier to handle than the often flighty Blackbelly. Their most outstanding characteristic is their parasite resistance, which has been documented in studies at several universities. St. Croix sheep are relatively rare in the United States, but can be found in crossbreeding programs at several universities.

The Katahdin is the first hair breed to meet North American standards for carcass quality. The breed was developed in the U.S. (Maine) primarily from crosses with the Wiltshire Horn, St. Croix and Suffolk. The hair coat of the Katahdin varies in length and texture among individuals and can be any color or color pattern, although white is often preferred. Katahdin ewes are intermediate between hair and wooled sheep in many traits. They are more tolerant of heat, humidity, and parasites than wooled sheep. Their size, growth and carcass quality is superior to other hair breeds, but similar to other medium sized wool breeds. Katahdins can be expected to breed out of season, but not as consistently as hair sheep in tropical environments.

Katahdin x Dorper

The Dorper is relatively new to the U.S. It was developed in the early 1940's in South Africa from a cross between the Dorset Horn and indigenous Black-headed Persian, a fat-tailed sheep. Dorper lambs are noted for their outstanding growth, early maturity and heavy muscled, high yielding carcasses. The Dorper has similar markings as the Boer goat – a white body with a black head. There are also (solid) White Dorpers, which would seem more suitable for U.S. markets due to their all-white pelts. It is worth noting that Dorpers are still quite expensive to purchase as demand currently exceeds supply.

There are several ways to use hair sheep in a breeding program: 1) in an upgrading scheme to remove the wool; 2) as the ewe-base in a terminal-sire crossbreeding program to produce market lambs; 3) in a hair x wool cross to improve the reproductive efficiency of the ewe flock.

Depending on what breed you use to cross, it takes anywhere from one to three generations to remove wool to the point where the sheep no longer require shearing. The first generation will likely have wool fleeces with hair intermixed. They may shed part of their fleece, but will probably still require shearing. The fleeces from hair x wool crosses are generally undesirable and should probably not be marketing through organized wool pools.

One potential problem with hair sheep is that market lambs could be discounted in the marketplace because they look "different." However, when hair ewes are crossed with wooled rams, the resulting crossbred offspring have fleeces which make them look like "ordinary" wooled lambs, so they won't likely be discounted. In fact, this would be my preference for utilizing hair sheep in a breeding program: mate crossbred hair ewes to Dorset, Suffolk or Hampshire bucks and sell all of the offspring. You would need to maintain a hair breed ram to produce replacements. The only sheep that would require shearing would be the rams. The market lambs would be as good as any traditional wool x wool terminal cross, yet the ewe flock would excel in many of the traits previously discussed.

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.

The University of Wyoming is currently conducting research with the Dorper to determine its usefulness in various crossbreeding programs. Preliminary data shows that Dorper sires have the potential to increase leg muscling in lambs. While Dorper-sired lambs did not outperform Suffolk-sired lambs under feed lot conditions, perhaps this is not the best use for the breed. A forage based production system may be a better "fit" for the Dorper, though the lambs did perform well in the feed lot. The early maturity of the breed also suggest that they be marketed at lighter weights than the traditional western white-faced or Suffolk sired lambs.

The U.S. Sheep Experiment Station in Dubois, Idaho, is also engaged in research with Dorpers. Virginia State University has established flocks of Katahdin and Barbados Blackbelly for the purpose of designing profitable management systems for small-scale and low-input production. Virginia Tech is embarking on a breeding program with various hair sheep breeds, including the Barbados Blackbelly and St. Croix. Several other universities include hair sheep in their research programs.

It will be interesting to see if the popularity of hair sheep increases as world wool markets remain depressed and the domestic sheep industry struggles with traditional breeds and high-input production systems.

This article was reprinted in the November 1999 issue of ASI Sheep Industry News.


Copyright © 1999.

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