Hair sheep production in the Caribbean

For the past several years, the Maryland Department of Agriculture has carried out various promotional and outreach activities in the Carribean, including a hair sheep initiative, funded in part by U.S. Livestock Genetics Export, Inc. I accompanied MDA officials on two trips to the Caribbean this year, serving as their sheep and goat consultant.

The Dominican Republic shares two thirds of an island with Haiti and is slightly larger than the state of New Hampshire. According to government estimates, there are about 60,000 sheep in the Dominican Republic, about twice the size of the Maryland industry. Most of the sheep are raised in the drier portions of the country, alongside the border with Haiti.
 

Jamaica is slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut. Here, goats reign supreme, being an integral part of the economy and culture of this small island country, best known for tourism. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), there are 440,000 goats in Jamaica. The Jamaican Ministry of Agriculture reports only about 5,000 sheep in the country; only about 1,200 if you look at FAO numbers. Most of the sheep are raised in the mountainous St. Elizabeth parish in the southwestern portion of the island. Goats are ubiquitous.


Caribbean Islanders have a strong preference for goat meat in the diets, though they probably consume more sheep meat than they realize due to its similarity to goat. In Jamaica, curried goat and manish water (goat head soup) are common fare in most local eating establishments. Goat meat is on the menu of most Dominican restaurants as well, but it is cooked differently, in fact, much to the liking of this lamb afficionado. Most of the lamb is consumed by the tourist trade. In fact, a considerable amount of both sheep and goat meat is imported into Jamaica and the Dominican Republic.

Sheep production
Obvious differences exist between tropical sheep production and sheep production in more temperate climates like ours. Topography and rainfall vary considerable. Both have mountainous areas, especially Jamaica. Some areas are lush with green vegetation, while others are desperate for rainfall and the only "green" thing for livestock to eat is cactus. Of course, it is the latter areas where sheep and goats predominate. Naturally, the best land is devoted to crop production: rice, sugar cane, bananas, citrus and the like.


In the Carribean, animals face severe challenges of heat, humidity, and internal parasites. Parasites are so severe a problem that oftentimes sheep are kept in confinement and feed is brought to them. Tropical forages are generally not known for their high nutritional value. Pastures and feed rations are typically low in energy and deficient in protein. None of the island countries are large producers of feed grain or oilseeds. Imported feeds are very expensive.
 

The predominant breed of sheep in the Dominican Republic and most Carribean Islands is the Barbados Blackbelly, developed on the island of Barbados with likely roots in West Africa. In the U.S., Blackbellies were crossed with other breeds, so they are larger framed and have horns. Another popular breed is the Pelibüey, a similar hair-type sheep from Cuba. They show patches of wool.

 

The Barbados Blackbelly offers many outstanding qualities. They are one of the world's most prolific sheep breeds. They mature early and breed year-round. In fact, it is not uncommon for them to produce two lamb crops in a single year, though three crops in two years is more the norm. Like other hair sheep, Blackbellies are more resistant to heat, insects and intestinal parasites. They are a hardy sheep that will survive in sparse areas where other breeds would likely parish.
 

The disadvantage to the Barbados Blackbelly and most other hair breeds is their poor growth rate, feed conversion and carcass quality. A producer could have lots of lambs to sell, but little weight to be paid for and no quality around which to build demand for locally produced product. There is a strong desire to improve meat production in sheep flocks, which was the reason behind of our visit there.


The sheep in Jamaica were largely of the St. Elizabeth breed, a mixture of hair and wool sheep, the result of various British and American importations. The size and conformation of the St. Elizabeth is generally good, especially those showing Suffolk influence, but their coats are straggly and patchy and generally not sheared. The Jamaicans want to remove the wool from their sheep without sacrificing other important production traits. They are also interested in increasing lamb production.

 

The tourism industry imports a lot of lamb, that could just as easily be produced using Jamaica's own forage resources. Many producers recognize the various advantages sheep may have over goats. Sheep are hardier and have superior growth rates and feed conversion ratios. Management is similar between the two species , so sheep raising should not be a totally "new" enterprise for most Jamaican farmers. The challenge is to develop a market, that currently does not exist, for domestically grown lamb. It was quite inspiring to visit a place where the interest in small ruminant production is so high.


Meat Goat Production
The native goat of Jamaica is a conglomeration of breeds, similar in look and background to the brush in our area and further south. Alpines and Toggenburgs were imported to the island when there was interest in dairying. Nubians were brought from England to improve meat production. In recent

years, Jamaica has jumped onto the Boer goat bandwagon. They, too, recognize the potential of this growthy South African breed for improving meat production.

 

Goats roam freely in villages and alongside roadways. Many village residents own goats, but have no place to keep them so they put them on a tether or or allow them browse freely. The goats come home at night out of habit and for a little bit of dry feed. There is a joke that goats look both ways before crossing the pedestrian walk, while cows don't budge and present a real hazard to motorists. Thievery is a big problem with goats. One farm had two expensive Boer billies stolen from inside a barn. On farms, goats are kept in fence pastures. Most of the fencing is barbed wire.


Kid goats, as well as lambs, are weaned early (~3 months) and placed into a feedlot for "fattening." Feedstuffs include green chop and agro-industrial by-products. King grass is a tall-growing grass that is cut and chopped for feed. By-product feeds include broiler litter, citrus pulp, green bananas, and wheat middlings. Rations are typically high in moisture, so growth rates are limited. Goats perform better on imported feeds, but the cost is beyond the reach of most farmers. The Agricultural Ministry is conducting several feed trails to determine the feasibility of feeding imported goat feeds.


Promoting the Katahdin
The scope of our work in Jamaica and the Dominican Republic was to visit sheep and goat farms and conduct educational/promotion seminars for farmers, veterinarians, feed salesmen and Ministry of Agriculture officials. We were also promoting the Katahdin hair breed of sheep. Though not raised in large numbers in the U.S, the Katahdin is in great demand for export. Find out why.


The Katahdin is a U.S. breed that takes its name from Mt. Katahdin in Maine, the state where it was developed. It was the brainchild of the late Michael Piel, who sought to develop a meat type sheep that required no shearing. Katahdins are primarily a cross between the Suffolk, St. Croix and Wiltshire Horn breeds of sheep. The Suffolk contributed size and growthiness.


The St. Croix (also called Virgin Island White) is an all-white hair sheep that originates from the Island of St. Croix. Compared to the Barbados Blackbelly, the St. Croix grows faster and ewes produce more milk. The Wiltshire Horn is a hair sheep from the British Isles. It was brought into the cross to improve size. Unfortunately, it also brought horns, which eventually had to be selected against.


The Katahdin can be any color, though white is preferred. They are a hornless, medium sized sheep with a hair coat that does not require shearing or crutching and tails that do not require docking. The Katahdin breed registry recognizes four breed types. Type A have no wooly fibers. Type B have wooly fibers that shed annually. Type C have patches of wool that shed annually. Type D have more than of their bodies covered with wool and therefore cannot be registered.


When a Katahdin is crossed with a wooled breed, the offspring have a coat that is a mixture of wool and hair. This resulting fleece should not be marketed as pure wool. Depending upon the parent stock, it will take between one and three generations to remove the wool from sheep.


The Katahdin is intermediate between hair sheep and wool sheep in many of the traits that are of economic importance to commercial sheep farmers. They are more tolerant of heat, insects and parasites than wooled sheep. Their size, scale and growth performance is superior to other hair breeds and similar to medium sized wool breeds. In fact, they are the only hair breed to meet North American standards for carcass quality. Katahdins breed out of season, though their breeding performance would not be expected to be as good as the more traditional hair breeds or as sheep raised in a tropical or sub-tropical environment.


I became a real fan of the Katahdin while working on this hair sheep project. If you put wool into its proper perspective - it costs almost as much to harvest and market as you you get for it- you have to ask yourself why you're raising sheep with wool at all. Actually, that's been easy question to answer. Hair sheep, while they have many outstanding qualities, look like goats and don't grow worth beans! This is where the Katahdin departs. Simply stated, it's a meat type sheep with no wool. The best of both worlds. Think about it.
 

Another breed of sheep there was some interest in in the Carribean was the Dorper. The Dorper is a South African hair breed, a cross between the Persian Blackhead (an African hair sheep) and the Horned Dorset. The Dorper is smaller framed than the Katahdin, but very heavy muscled. Dorpers are relatively new to the U.S., thus still very expensive to purchase. Little is known about the performance characteristics of Dorpers outside of South Africa, and they need to be evaluated in research programs in the U.S. before widespread recommendations can be made. Dorpers are all white or white with red heads, similar in markings to the Boer goat.

This article was written in 1998 by Susan Schoenian.

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