Raising sheep in paradise: Trinidad and Tobago
Trinidad and Tobago are sister islands in the Caribbean, the southern most in the West Indies, situated just 7 miles off the coast of Venezuela and 11 degrees north of the equator. Famous for carnivals, calypso music and steel bands, T&T, as the islands are often called, gained independence from England in 1962.
Remnants of the colonial period still remain, especially in Tobago, which was once dominated by a handful of large sugar plantations. Trinidad is the larger, more populous island, approximately the size of Delaware. Tobago, 20 miles off its northeast coast – a short 15 minute flight from Port of Spain – is barely 20 miles long and 10 miles wide.
There are significant differences between the two islands, in almost every respect. Trinidad is industrialized, appearing more prosperous than other Caribbean islands I have visited, due in large part to petroleum – oil and natural gas. Food processing is another important economic activity. The main agricultural products are sugar, cocoa, citrus, rice and poultry. The country imports 75% of its food stuffs.
The population of Trinidad is quite diverse in terms of ethnicity and religion. Approximately 40 percent of the population is East Indian, immigrants brought in to work the sugar fields. This statistic can be confirmed by the large number of Hindu temples that can be seen throughout the country.
Another 40 percent is Black African, descendants of the 18th and 19th slave trade. They are mostly Christian in faith; Roman Catholic is the major denomination. Seventh Day Adventist seemed popular in Tobago. You will see an occasional mosque, as a growing part of T&T's population is Moslem. There are lesser minorities of Chinese, white and mixed ancestry. English is the major language spoken. Cricket is the national sport. English common law prevails.
While it attracts some eco-tourists, mostly from Germany and England (few from the United States), Tobago remains essentially unspoiled, a tiny island paradise with picturesque mountains, beautiful beaches and unspoiled rainforest. It is home to more species of birds and butterflies than any other Caribbean island. Tobago's population is more homogeneous than its sister island, consisting mostly of peoples of Black African descent. Scarborough is the largest city.
The island boast all major conveniences, but is void of the commercialism found in other Caribbean island nations. Agriculture remains an important part of the economy. Tobago is similar to Jamaica, in that sheep can be found grazing "everywhere"; in Jamaica goats are ubiquitous. Livestock do not roam free in Trinidad.
A variety of hair sheep breeds can be found in Trinidad and Tobago, many of which I had not seen before. As in other island countries, the most popular breed is the Barbados Blackbelly (JPG), the "antelope-like" sheep, brown in color, with black points and a black underbelly. Jokingly, we use to refer to Blackbellies as "reproductive skeletons" because while they are one of the most reproductively efficient sheep in the world, they grow slowly and appear almost devoid of muscle.
However, this could not be said of the Blackbellies in T&T. Many ewes showed good size and significant udder development. On the better sheep farms, lambs reached market weights in excess of 90 pounds.
Another common breed in T&T is the West African, a reddish brown sheep, with more muscle expression than the Blackbelly. Producers commonly cross the West African with the Blackbelly to improve the quality of lambs. The West African was an impressive-looking hair sheep, in my opinion. Too bad we don't have any in the U.S., nor easy access.
The Persian Blackhead (JPG) is another new breed I saw, quite numerous in Tobago. It is a fat-tailed hair sheep from Africa that makes up half of the Dorper, a hair breed that is gaining rapid popularity in the U.S. (Dorset Horn is the other breed that comprises the Dorper.) Persians are white with a black head and neck. They show good frame, but are not as well muscled as the Dorper, Katahdin or West African.
The St. Croix or "Virgin Island White" is another common breed in the islands. They are distinguished by their white color. They are heavier muscled than the Blackbellies and considered to be better milk producers. It was only the second time I had ever seen a Wiltshire Horn, a hair sheep native to the British Isles. Someone had brought a Wiltshire Horn ram to last year's National Hair Sheep Symposium in Timonium, but I was more impressed with the animals I saw in Trinidad.
It is worth noting that the Wiltshire Horn was crossed into the U.S. Katahdin to improve size and scale. It is the only horned sheep in Trinidad and Tobago. We saw Katahdins in T&T, due in large part to the efforts of the Maryland Department of Agriculture to export hair sheep to the Caribbean.
Confinement, early weaning and concentrate feeding of lambs, and accelerated lambing are typical characteristics of sheep production systems in T&T. Most sheep and goats are kept on elevated floors with either metal or wooden slats. Others are kept on dirt. Confinement facilities may be shed size or as large as chicken or hog houses.
Feeders are usually fence line, arranged on the outsides of the pens. Waterers, too, are attached to the outside, so there is little contamination with urine and fecal matter. A salt/mineral block is often dangled by a rope, a simple idea that I had never thought of before. Everyone has cisterns for collecting water. The rainy season runs from June to December. Flooding is not uncommon.
While some grazing occurs, most feed is brought to the sheep in the form of green chop or concentrates. Some silage is fed. Small producers will cut forages by hand, whereas bigger operations will mechanically harvest the tall-growing grasses. While tropical forages grow very rapidly, they are generally not as high in energy and protein as temperate species. Protein sources are not readily available.
Nutrition is further compromised by the fact the forages are generally cut and/or fed when they are too mature and stemmy, and their nutritive value and palatability has declined substantially. Of course, the same can be said about forages in the U.S. where continuous grazing causes pastures to be grazed when the grass is too mature and hays are often cut when plants have already gone to seed.
It is expensive to feed concentrates in T&T. Corn is very expensive to import. Concentrate rations are mostly home-grown, composed of various by-products of food processing. Pregnancy toxemia is a re-occurring problem, caused by inadequate intake of energy and undoubtably exacerbated by lack of exercise in confinement housing.
Reproduction in the ewe is affected by photo period – the length of day and night. Sheep are called "short-day" breeders because in temperate regions, ewes generally come into heat as day length becomes shorter. However, in Trinidad and Tobago, day length does not vary significantly, thus ewes will express estrus throughout the year. Breeding can be continuous. The better sheep farms will remove the rams and breed for three lamp crops in two years. If proper nutrition is provided, ewes are usually quite prolific, especially the Blackbellies.
Lambing every 8 months requires early weaning, typically before 90 days. Lambs seemed to be universally creep fed. Creep panels are used to keep ewes out of the creep area – either vertical or horizontal slats. It was the first creep area I saw where lambs had to crawl under a horizontal board to enter the creep area. After weaning, lambs are fed for rapid gain under feed lot conditions. Ram lambs are generally not castrated.
As here, the most common health problem affecting sheep and goats in T&T is internal parasites, primarily the barber pole worm, Haemonchus Contortus. Keeping animals in confinement, to a large extent, can keep parasites in check.
Coccidiosis, on the other hand, is more of a problem in confinement. Animals are routinely treated for coccidia, but unfortunately products, such as Bovatec, Rumensin and Deccox are not readily available to put in the feed or mineral for prevention. As previously mentioned, pregnancy toxemia is a major concern in sheep flocks. Other disease problems are similar to what's experienced in the U.S.
Marketing can be a real problem in the islands, especially the more remote Tobago. We visited a large sheep farm (400 ewes and growing) that had a contract to supply a super market. In Tobago, lambs are sold to local villagers for festivals or to buyers coming from the bigger island. Farmers in Tobago also get most their feed and supplies from Trinidad. As in other Caribbean countries I have visited, there seemed to be a great deal of optimism in small ruminant production, as these small countries strive to supply a greater portion of the lamb and goat that is consumed on their soil.
Author's note: I visited Trinidad and Tobago in October 1999 on a trade mission conducted by the International Marketing Division of the Maryland Department of Agriculture. It was one of several trips to the Caribbean I have made on MDA's behalf. MDA should be commended for its efforts to export U.S. livestock genetics abroad – they have been very successful. It could be your sheep or goats next!
This article was written in 2000 by Susan Schoenian.