Hair sheep update


Three and a half years ago, Maryland hosted the National Hair Sheep Symposium. Much has happen since with regards to hair sheep, or "meat sheep," as I like to call them (who sells hair?!). Hair sheep numbers have increased and interest continues to grow, as shearers grow scarcer and there remains little money to be made selling wool (as a commodity).
Katahdin sheep

With  anthelmintic resistance building and producers growing tired of deworming their flocks, hair sheep continue to gain more attention as an "easy care" sheep.  New shepherds are attracted to hair sheep for the same reasons. Meat goat producers are giving them a look. In fact, many hair sheep producers sell their ewe lambs even before they are born. There is even a large export market for improved hair sheep genetics.

At the time of the symposium, there was little data to document the advantages of hair sheep, especially with regards to the improved breeds (Katahdin and Dorper). Today, numerous universities and experiment stations have incorporated hair sheep into their research programs, and we now have data that supports the claims that hair sheep producers and their respective breed associations had been making all along. Of course, this same data confirms some of the short-comings of hair sheep breeds, once again, reminding us that there is no perfect breed(s) of sheep.

A few years ago, the Dorper was a little known commodity. Today, while fullblood Dorpers still command top price, Dorper genetics are much more affordable, and this meaty South African breed is commanding the attention of even the most skeptical shepherds.

The hair sheep breeds

In any discussion of hair sheep, it is first necessary to differentiate between the types of hair sheep. There are "unimproved" hair sheep breeds, which I like to call "pure" hair sheep, and there are "improved" hair sheep breeds, which may be more aptly described as shedding sheep or even hair x wool hybrids.

The pure hair sheep (Barbados Blackbelly and St. Croix) excel in the traits for which hair sheep are best known – reproductive efficiency, parasite resistance, tolerance to heat, and lack of wool. Their downside is their conformation and rate of gain, though they do produce leaner carcasses with a purportedly milder flavor.  The Barbado  resulted from the crossing of the Barbados Blackbelly with the Rambouillet and mouflon to create a trophy animal for Texas game ranches, and should not be confused with the Barbados Blackbelly.

The improved breeds (Katahdin and Dorper) are intermediate between pure hair sheep and wooled, meat-type breeds with respect to reproduction and fitness traits. They grow faster and produce meatier carcasses than the unimproved hair sheep breeds. This is especially true of the Dorper, which is more heavily muscled than many of our meat-type wooled breeds and has a growth rate comparable to wooled, sire breeds.

Though they are still expected to shed their coats annually "fleeces" and there is considerable variation in coat types, the hair coats of the improved hair sheep breeds contain more wooly fibers. This is particularly true with Dorpers.  Just ask hair sheep producers who have bred "too much" Dorper into their Katahdin flocks.

Another breed of hair sheep is the Wiltshire Horn.  It is an ancient British breed that sheds its coat annually.  It was used in the development of the Katahdin breed.  There are relatively few Wiltshires in the U.S.Worn out mother

Most hair sheep breeds originated in Africa or at least trace their roots to there. There are breeds which originate from the dry, desert lands of South Africa, and there are those which have tropical origins, i.e. the West Africa (via the Caribbean) The origins of the breeds to a large extend determine what attributes the individual breed has to offer. A breed from South Africa (Dorper, Damara) offers the ability to survive under harsh, dry, desert conditions, whereas those breeds of Carribean/West Africa origin (Barbados Blackbelly, St. Croix) thrive under the rigors of heat, humidity, and parasites.

The Katahdin is somewhat unique in that it can thrive under diverse environmental conditions. It is an American-made hair sheep whose Caribbean (or West African) heritage makes it suitable for hot, humid environments with heavy parasite challenges, whereas its more northern roots (i.e. the British influence) make it able to adapt to cold climates, such as Canada.

How to best utilize hair sheep genetics

Producers can utilize hair sheep genetics in various ways. There is various research data which shows hair x wool crossbred ewes to be more productive than their wooled counterparts. In particular, they are more fertile and wean more pounds of lamb per ewe exposed (Virginia Tech, 1997). These research findings were the result of crossing the unimproved hair sheep breeds (Barbados Blackbelly and St. Croix) with various wooled breeds.

It is possible to eliminate the need for shearing by upgrading a wooled flock with hair sheep rams. Unfortunately, it takes anywhere from one to three generations to accomplish this feat, depending upon the breed(s) and animals you begin with.

In the interim, the breeding program will produce lots of hair x wool cross lambs that still require shearing and docking (There may be a market for the fleeces from F1 hair x wool crosses.) On the other hand, for someone trying to put together a large flock of hair sheep ewes, this may be the way to go, as large numbers of quality hair sheep ewes can be difficult to locate, whereas wooled replacements are usually readily available.

Time to be weaned

My favorite role of hair sheep genetics is on the dam side of the flock. By maintaining a flock of hair sheep ewes, you have the benefit of no shearing, crutching, or tail docking. You have a flock of ewes that are naturally resistant to parasites and contribute these genetics to their offspring. Finally, you have a bunch of females that know how to take care of business. Producers and researchers alike will tell you that hair sheep ewes do not need pampered. No more trying to make a lamb suck on the ewe’s teat! I find that my hair sheep ewes require less hoof trimming, although I have no data to back that up.

With a flock of hair sheep ewes, you can go a number of directions in your breeding program. If the goal is to maximize lamb production, you can breed hair sheep ewes to any type or breed of ram to produce the desired lamb for your market. Hair sheep x Suffolk (or Hampshire) lambs will be suitable for mainstream markets in many parts of the U.S., though they may not get heavy enough for the midwestern and western markets, where a heavy lamb (>135 lbs) is favored.

Hair sheep x Dorset lambs would be well suited to the ethnic markets in the East, where meaty, lighter weight lambs are more desirable. It’s important to note that all the lambs from a hair x wool cross should be marketed, as this is the role of a terminal sire – to produce lambs for the market. Another ram should be used to sire replacement females.

If your interests lie in selling breeding stock to other hair sheep producers and potential new shepherds, you should choose to raise a purebred hair sheep breed or a specific cross, such as Katahdin x Dorper, Katahdin x Barbados Blackbelly, or Dorper x St. Croix. Under this scenario, the higher price you receive for breeding stock will have to compensate for the lower income you are likely to get from the smaller, slower growing male hair sheep lambs that you will raise. This scheme would be similar to producing replacement ewe lambs.

As with replacement ewe types, straight bred hair sheep lambs are generally not as desirable as those lambs which result from a terminal crossbreeding program. The notable exception would be Dorper-sired lambs. Dorper sired lambs have compared favorably with Suffolk sired lambs in scientific studies. They have superior early growth and heavier muscled carcasses (University of Wyoming, 1998), whereas Suffolk lambs gain better overall.

What’s important to note about hair sheep breeds (and all breeds for that matter), is that they are best utilized in a crossbreeding program. No breed is perfect! Crossbreeding balances the good and bad traits that each breed has to offer. Each breed of sheep has good points and bad points and thus has a specific role to play in the U.S. sheep industry. Producers of seedstock need to determine what role their breed has to play in commercial lamb production and devise a breeding program that emphasizes those traits of economic importance.

Hair x wool lambs

Crossbreeding also results in a well-known phenomenon called "heterosis" or hybrid vigor, where the offspring’s phenotype (physical expression of genes) is superior to the average of its parents. Unless purebred sheep are the goal of the marketing program, all sheep producers should crossbreed to capture the advantages of heterosis and breed complimentarity.

In my opinion, the hair sheep breeds that originate from West Africa, especially the improved Katahdin, are ideally suited to being mama sheep, whereas the Dorper may be more desirable as a terminal sire breed, though infusing a bit of sire breed on the dam side of things has its advantages (just look at the swine industry). The Dorper could be a suitable dam breed in the Southwest where conditions mimic South Africa (hot and dry). Unless replacement ewe lambs are the goal of the breeding program, hair sheep producers should utilize wooled, meat type or Dorper rams to sire market lambs.

Hair sheep are ideal for small lifestyle farms and for individuals with no previous sheep or livestock experience.  To control  unwanted vegetation, hair sheep are also a good choice due to their parasite resistance and lack of shearing.  In addition, they will browse more than wooled sheep and will graze when wooled sheep seek shelter due to the heat and humidity.  Hair sheep are probably the only sheep genetics that will thrive in the Southeastern U.S., where the potential for small ruminant production is high.

Where hair sheep don’t fit

It’s equally important to talk about where hair sheep genetics don’t fit.  First and foremost, if they are not adaptable to a specific environment, they should not be raised.  While hair sheep breeds will adapt to colder climates by growing more undercoat (wool), not all hair sheep breeds may be suitable for cold weather extremes.

In situations where wool comprises a significant portion of the income, hair sheep genetics would obviously be illogical. Also, in situations where producers receive a substantial pelt credit on market lambs, hair sheep or hair x wool cross lambs would be ill-advised. Under range conditions, hair sheep are also not a good fit. With the possible exception of the Dorper, it will be difficult to produce large enough lambs for the western market using hair sheep genetics. The valuable pelt credit would most likely be lost. Under range conditions, hair sheep cannot express the traits for which they are best known: reproductive efficiency and parasite resistance/tolerance. Finally, hair sheep breeds lack the flocking instinct of fine wool sheep, and would likely drive sheep herders to quit.

Not in the show ring?

Hair sheep breeds are likely not suitable for the club lamb market, though again the Dorper   could be the exception, particularly in crossbreeding programs, because of its superior body conformation. However, even with Dorper genetics, care must be taken to avoid getting the lamb(s) too fat as Dorpers finish at a lighter weight than larger framed wooled breeds. On the other hand, if the emphasis is placed on the children (as should be the case) and not winning, hair sheep lambs, are just as suitable as any breed of lamb for the show ring.

In my opinion, hair sheep are not likely to find a large home in the show ring. While there are hair sheep shows throughout the United States, hair sheep breeds are more likely to stay a commercial sheep, akin to the Polypay. At least, that’s my hope. While the show ring has had its contributions to the sheep industry, especially on the sire side, it does not do a good job identifying superior female genetics. Records is the best way to identify superior genetics.

The Katahdin breed is one of several breeds in which across-flock EPD’s are being developed by the National Sheep Improvement Program. The Katahdin breed association is also looking at developing EPD’s for parasite resistance (a first).  Producers of hair sheep should emphasize record keeping in their breeding programs because where hair sheep are likely to prove themselves is in production efficiency (lbs. lamb weaned/dam weight).

Management of hair sheep

Because hair sheep do not have a thick wool coat, it is generally not necessary to crutch or dock them. The unimproved hair sheep breeds are almost never docked because their tails are shorter and contain little wooly fibers. Dorper lambs are often docked because their tails are fatter and woollier. Katahdin lambs are sometimes docked, depending upon the preference of the producer.

Many producers prefer the appearance of a docked lamb and do not want their lambs to stand out as being different. I prefer to leave the tails on my hair sheep lambs, because this is an attribute of the breed(s) that I wish to showcase. In addition, many ethnic buyers have a preference for an unblemished lamb.

Because most hair sheep breeds fatten differently than wooled sheep (more like a goat – from the inside-out), like goats, they should probably not be self-fed high-concentrate rations. It is probably more appropriate to hand (limit) feed them or feed them rations which contain higher amounts of roughage. This will allow them to put on frame before getting too fat.

While the hair sheep breeds that originate from West Africa (Barbados Blackbelly, St. Croix, and Katahdin) are more resistant (limit infection) and resilient (withstand infection) to parasites, this does not mean they cannot suffer or perish from internal parasites. All sheep have parasites. While the aforementioned hair sheep breeds are likely to shed fewer eggs and be able to withstand the effects of parasites better than wooled sheep, they can still be overcome by a severe challenge, especially young lambs and hair x wool crossbred lambs.

While it is possible that mature sheep (over 1 year of age) will not require deworming, unless a strategic deworming is deemed necessary to prevent pasture contamination, growing lambs need to be closely monitored for parasites and managed appropriately. I am not aware of any research that shows that hair sheep breeds are more resistant (or resilient) to coccidia.

Marketing hair sheep lambs

Hair sheep lambs can be marketing in a number of ways. To maximize the returns from public livestock auctions, producers should produce the type and weight of lambs desired by the buyers at that market.  They should communicate with the market manager to determine when the best time to sell lambs is. Generally, this is around specific Christian, Muslim, and Jewish holidays. 

The highest net market price should be the goal rather than the highest overall price. The net price includes deductions for transportation, commission, yardage, and other expenses. Shrink (weight loss of animals during transport) must also be taken into consideration when making marketing decisions.

Freckled face ram

While some hair sheep producers have indicated to me that their lambs have been discounted in the market place, I would counter by saying "quality sells."  Hair sheep lambs are not likely to be discounted by buyers if the lambs are healthy, show good growth for their age, and have the proper amount of finish. I've been told that some ethnic buyers will seek out hair sheep lambs.

The best market prices can be obtained by selling lambs (or meat) directly to consumers. In this scenario, the customer may be an ethnic buyer, a person who wants to put a whole lamb in their freezer, a person who wants to try lamb for the first time, or a retail outlet such as a butcher shop or restaurant.

When marketing lambs direct to consumers, hair sheep producers can cite a number of advantages to their potential customers. Because hair sheep are more resistance to parasites, less chemicals will be necessary to control parasites. Hair sheep are ideally suited to pasture-based production system, and this may have added appeal to consumers. 

Research has shown that the lamb from fine-wool sheep has a more intense "muttony" flavor than lamb from coarse-wooled sheep, and in turn, lamb from hair sheep has a more desirable flavor than lamb from coarse-wooled sheep (University of Georgia, 2001). Studies in California and Mississippi indicate that hair sheep produce lean meat with no muttony taste.


Copyright © 2002.

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