Developing flocks and herds that are perfect for your place requires patience, persistence and an appreciation of the mysterious workings of nature.
It was a happy accident, really, involving a road trip, a mistaken identity, a negotiation and a bunch of Corsican rams.
Five years ago, I decided my sheep flock wasn’t meeting my goals. I had purebred Katahdin sheep, a hair sheep that sheds its coat each spring so you don’t have to shear them. There’s almost no local market for wool where I live, and very few shearers. I can shear one sheep if you give me half a day. The process also may require an emergency blood transfusion for the sheep or me, or both. So hair sheep are right for me.
The Katahdins were hardy, docile, successful mothers, great meat producers and formed a good flock. But I wasn’t quite satisfied, and thus my sheep-breeding program began.
I knew that managing our goats was physically much easier than wrangling the sheep, because the goats had horns. That may seem counterintuitive, but in our operation it’s much easier to sort the animals, move them, load them and ship them if you can reach out and grab an animal by the horns. Given that none of our goats or sheep had ever been aggressive toward humans, I didn’t feel that the horns were a safety hazard. Moving adult sheep can be a physical experience akin to no-pad tackle football. The animals weigh 150 to 250 pounds, and there’s a lot of blocking and tackling involved. I never liked football, so I wanted to add handles to our sheep.
The other minor drawback I saw in our Katahdins was that their lambs were slow starters. Many of them took several hours to stand up after they were born, and some of them had soft, floppy ankles for the first two or three days until they could run efficiently. We don’t help the ewes at all during lambing, so I thought we’d benefit from a lamb that was sturdier at birth.
Going against several decades of hard work by dozens of ranchers who had bred horns out of the Katahdin strain, I went looking for a ram to put horns back on mine.
I thought I wanted a Painted Desert sheep — a flashy breed, elaborately spotted, with big, dramatic horns. Bred in Texas for trophy hunters, the animals have nothing to do with the Painted Desert in Arizona. It’s just a cool name, I guess. I liked the photos of them I saw online, so I searched for advertisements and — voilà! — someone about two hours away in western Missouri had some Painted Desert rams for sale.
When I got to the farm a few days later, however, I realized my counterpart had been mistaken. He had rams, all right, and they had big horns. But they weren’t Painted Deserts. I didn’t know what they were. They were brown animals with short bodies, heavy horns and luxuriant manes that hung from the front of their necks and chests. I thought they were beautiful. But their small frames wouldn’t carry much meat, and not knowing exactly what they were, I felt a little leery. It was autumn and I was almost ready to breed my ewes. If I were going to have crossbred lambs the following spring, I would need to buy this farmer’s only mature ram that day.
So I negotiated. First I got the ram for about half of what I had expected to pay. Then that amount was cut by two-thirds when I promised to take the seven young rams he had for sale at the same bargain price. He really wanted to get rid of those sheep.
As we loaded them, I began to understand why. They were much more alarmed than domestic sheep would have been. They were, in the vernacular of sheep breeding, “flighty.” Getting them loaded into the trailer involved a lot of running and occasionally dodging large sheep leaping through the air with their 20-pound horns right at eye level. I had second and third thoughts, but a deal’s a deal. I paid for them and took them home.
I began researching. At first I thought the rams were Mouflons. That was exciting. The Mouflon sheep is a feral European breed that is thought to be one of the two ancestors of all modern sheep breeds. And Mouflons, which are natural hair sheep, were bred with wool breeds to create Katahdins and other hair sheep breeds during the 20th century.
But my new rams were darker and more uniformly colored than the Mouflons I found in photos online. Then I found a bunch of photos of Texas ranch sheep called Corsicans or Corsican Mouflons that looked exactly like the newcomers in my pasture. Those sheep were primarily Mouflon, with some other breeds mixed in — mostly Barbados Blackbelly, Merino, Rambouillet and Navajo Churro.
Although there is a breed registry for the Corsican sheep, their lineage is variable and their usefulness as a meat sheep is debatable. They are hair sheep and were originally bred for trophy hunting — which means any individual Corsican may or may not be a good meat producer. Despite that, I decided to give it a shot. I figured crossing them with the Katahdins would probably give me at least a few sheep that had the heavier Katahdin frame with the beauty and hardiness of the Corsicans.
I love the mysterious machinery of genetics, although I don’t understand it particularly well. My friend and farming partner, Hank Will (who’s also a co-worker as the Editor-in-Chief of GRIT magazine and holds a doctorate in biochemistry and genetics), can rattle on for hours about genotypes and phenotypes, alleles and diploids, the homozygous and the heterozygous.
I don’t know what any of those words mean. What I do know is that genetics are on constant display on my farm. My ewes who have black spots on their ears are descended from one of my original sheep, Katherine, who was particularly friendly toward humans. My first ram, Duke, passed down his Roman nose. All of the offspring of my original Hereford bull Henry have his docile disposition. After three generations or so, even the chicken breeds that survive and succeed at my place are visibly descended from their Araucana and Sumatra ancestors — apparent in their plumage, colorful eggs, cheek tufts, combs and overall body structure.
We’re peculiarly uninvolved in our sheep’s daily lives. Because they are 100 percent grass-fed, we don’t need to interact with them often. In winter, we deliver the occasional hay bale. In spring, we count the lambs each morning and evening, when we close the gate to the lambing pen. We never help a ewe deliver. We don’t dock tails, trim hooves, worm or use medication of any kind. So the sheep we raise need to thrive on our particular pasture, without assistance, in the open.
While most breeders focus on their animals’ conformation, color and productivity, we’re most interested in how successfully they live and reproduce on our land and in our system. I knew the horns on our new Corsican sheep would make them easier to handle. I suspected that their feral bloodline would make them hardy and able to produce lively lambs that matured quickly.
What I didn’t expect was the breathtaking beauty of the lambs that appeared that first spring after the Corsican rams arrived. Some lambs were spotted, some were black, and some sported intriguing patterned coats of fawn, black and white. Some had the white saddle peculiar to the Mouflon. Others had the Blackbelly’s over-and-under color scheme. They formed, as a group, a tapestry of the hair sheep’s genetic history.
And, as we had hoped, they hit the ground running. The lambs were ambulatory within an hour of birth. In two hours they could sprint faster than me, which they proved whenever I tried to catch and hold one.
In the four generations since we first got the Corsican ram, our crossbred herd has created heavier, meatier sheep, while our breeding program has managed to retain their statuesque heads and general hardiness. Our lamb mortality rates are lower than the national averages despite our lack of intervention and veterinary medicine.
A “landrace” is a local type that develops, through mostly natural processes, to thrive in a particular place. The multicolored, horned sheep around our house today are examples of what I like to call the “Cappuccino Landrace,” after our farm, Rancho Cappuccino. Our local conditions select individuals, generation by generation, to thrive on our particular 50 acres of tallgrass prairie in the hills of eastern Kansas. And we are choosing the members of each generation to fit best with our own lifestyle and our own agricultural techniques.
If we lived a quarter-mile west up on the limestone hill, I suspect different animals would have thrived and we would have a different landrace. Likewise, if we fed grain, or wormed, or bred earlier in the year, or bred later in the year, then different members of each generation would have been more successful.
In a way, a landrace program like ours uses genetics to mold our partnership. Of course, we’ve adjusted our own sheep-breeding techniques over the years. We breed later and lamb later than we did a few years ago, because the new moms like a profusion of green, growing plants to eat — and they produce plenty of milk from this bounty. We introduced the Corsicans to the herd and now our rams are gradually taking a new shape, broad and muscular like their Katahdin forebears, athletic and handsome like their Corsican fathers.
Sheep breeding is a sort of magic dance, really, watching individuals come and go, melding physiques and personalities in new combinations each year. The process can lead one to think a lot more about the future and less about the present, more about the species and less about the creature, more about the kingdom of all living things and less about the self.
MOTHER EARTH NEWS Publisher and Editorial Director Bryan Welch enjoys the Cappuccino Landrace on his Kansas ranch. He is the author of Beautiful and Abundant: Building the World We Want. Connect with him on Google+.