Hair sheep production and marketing
It is "unnatural" for sheep to have long woolly coats. The wild ancestors of modern sheep breeds (Mouflon, Urial, and Argali) all had (have) long coarse hair, covering their short, downy undercoat, which under domestication became wool. Sheep tails also became longer and thicker as a result of selection.
What are hair sheep?
While there is some disagreement as to what hair sheep are, generally speaking, hair sheep are sheep that have more hair fibers than wooly fibers. They do not require shearing, because they naturally shed their coats. Some hair sheep have pure hair coats, whereas others have coats that contain a mixture of hair and wool fibers that is naturally shed.
Some primitive sheep breeds (e.g. Shetland) also naturally shed their coats. On wool sheep, the hair part of the fleece is called kemp. It is undesirable, because it cannot be spun. While hair sheep do not produce any usable fiber, the leather from hair sheep has a finer and tighter grain than the leather from wooled sheep. It is generally more valuable.
A 2001 survey showed that hair sheep comprise only 3 percent of the U.S. sheep population, but this is rapidly changing. Hair sheep are the fastest growing segment of the American sheep industry. In 2006, the U.S. sheep population increased 2% while the number of sheep and lambs shorn and wool production declined, suggesting that the growth in the industry is the result of hair sheep numbers increasing.
During the past 10 years, the number of registered hair sheep has increased substantially, while registrations in almost all other major breed registries has declined significantly. Hair sheep breeds (Dorper and Katahdin) are the 4th and 6th most popular registered sheep breeds in the United States. Hair sheep are also increasing in popularity in Mexico, Canada, and Europe.
Why raise hair sheep?
Sheep are a good enterprise choice for small and sustainable farms. The popularity of hair sheep stems from many factors, but not having to shear them is the primary factor. It is getting increasingly difficult to find sheep shearers, especially those willing to shear small flocks. For many producers, wool is a cost of production rather than a profit center. It generally costs more to have a sheep sheared and to market its fleece than the income it will produce.
For example, a typical sheep produces about 7 lbs. of grease (raw) wool. If the wool brings 0.50 per lb. at the local wool pool, this will result in an income of $3.50. It often costs more to have the sheep sheared, especially if it is a small flock or in a part of the country where shearers are scarce.
If you factor in transportation costs and wool pool deductions, wool production becomes a cost of production on most sheep farms. The exception to this is when the sheep are being raised especially for wool and the wool is being marketed to hand spinners or as a value-added product, like blankets and crafts.
Hair sheep complement beef and dairy operations. You can add a ewe for each cow in the herd without affecting the forage that is available to the cows. This is because sheep and cattle have different grazing preferences. They are also affected by different worm species. Many meat goat producers are adding hair sheep to their operations because raising hair sheep is similar to raising meat goats.
Some meat goat producers have switched to hair sheep (or increased their numbers relative to meat goats) because hair sheep tend to be hardier and have significantly less problems with internal parasites. They also grow faster than meat goats, while having a similar level of reproduction. In some respects, hair sheep possess the best characteristics of both meat goats and sheep.
Hair sheep are more suitable for vegetation control due to their lack of need for shearing and frequent deworming. They are more suitable as companion animals for the same reasons. There is some interest in developing a dairy hair sheep.
Hair Sheep characteristics
Hair sheep do not need to be sheared, crutched, or docked. Crutching is the removal of wool around the udder and vagina prior to lambing. It is a recommended practice for wooled sheep, if they are not sheared prior to lambing. Docking is cutting the tail off, so that only a short stub if left. Docking is recommended for most wooled sheep to prevent fly strike.
Docked sheep are also much easier to shear. Because hair sheep do not have long, wooly tails, it is usually not necessary to dock them. Some producers dock hair sheep, especiallly Dorpers, which are characteristically woolier.
Hair sheep with tropical origins are more resistant to gastro-intestinal parasites (worms) than wooled sheep. If the lambs are to be raised on pasture, this is a significant advantage to raising hair sheep. Hair sheep breeds are also known for their outstanding reproductive characteristics. Hair sheep ewes reach puberty early, are prolific, and will generally breed out-of-season. Rams reach puberty early and are aggressive breeders.
Hair sheep are a single-purpose animal. They are raised strictly for meat. All of the nutrients fed to hair sheep go into to the production of meat, whereas some of the nutrients fed to wool sheep, even those raised for meat, are partitioned into fiber production. So far, research has failed to identify any major differences between the meat from hair sheep breeds and the meat from wooled breeds. Many people believe that the meat from hair sheep, especially the mutton, is milder in flavor.
Kinds of Hair Sheep
As with wooled sheep, considerable variation exists among the hair sheep breeds. There are several ways to categorize hair sheep. "True"hair sheep, found mostly in tropical climates, have pure hair coats. They excel in the traits for which hair sheep are best known: lack of wool, parasite resistance, and reproductive efficiency. However, they are generally slow growing and poorly muscled.
Composite breeds are crosses between the pure hair breeds and wooled, meat-type sheep. They grow faster and produce heavier muscled carcasses than the pure hair breeds, but are less parasite resistant, woollier, and not as reproductively efficient. They may be more appropriated called "shedding" sheep. Hair sheep can also be differentiated by their place of origin. Those breeds with tropical origins are more parasite resistant. Breeds originating from South Africa have superior meat type, but are less adapted to warm, moist climates.
Hair Sheep Breeds
Barbados Blackbelly and American Blackbelly
The Barbados Blackbelly originated on the island of Barbados, from sheep brought there during the slave era. They are brown with black points and underparts. The only importation of Barbados Blackbelly sheep to the U.S. from Barbados occurred in 1904.
After being brought to the states, the breed was crossed with the Mouflon and Rambouillet to create a horned animal that could be used for trophy hunting. Other "exotic" breeds believed to have Barbados Blackbelly blood are the Painted Desert, Corsican, Black Hawaiian, and Texas "Barbado."
Several years ago, Barbados Blackbelly Sheep Association International split its registry into two, enabling a distinction between polled Barbados Blackbellies (Caribbean type) and horned Blackbellies, dubbed the American Blackbelly. Most Blackbelly-type sheep in the U.S. are either American Blackbellies or simply "Barbado"crossbreds. There are very few "true"Barbados Blackbellies in the U.S., although efforts are underway to import Barbados Blackbelly semen from the Caribbean in an effort to restore the integrity of the breed.
The St. Croix is a mostly white hair sheep that originated in the Virgin Islands, where it is known as the Virgin Island White. The exact origins of the breed are unknown, though there is speculation that it is a cross between the Wiltshire Horn and native Criollo sheep. Utah State University imported St. Croix sheep into the U.S. in 1975.
Prior to this importation, Michael Piel had imported St. Croix sheep to develop the Katahdin breed. In the U.S., the St. Croix is the most parasite-resistant sheep breed. They are very prolific. A registry for colored St. Croix, dubbed St. Thomas, was recently established.
The Wiltshire Horn is a shedding breed of sheep that originated in England. Both ewes and rams carry horns. The breed reached almost extinction in England, but is now increasing in popularity, due to its lack of need for shearing and its contributions to crossbreeding programs. Wiltshire Horns are classified as a rare breed by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. A polled version, Wiltipoll, was recently developed in Australia.
The Katahdin is the first American breed of hair sheep. It was developed in the 1950's by a sheep farmer named Michael Piel. Piel imported hair sheep from the Caribbean (St. Croix) and crossed them with the British breeds he had (Suffolk and others). After he consistently produced a sheep with the traits he desired, he dubbed them Katahdin, after Mt. Katahdin, near where his farm was located in Maine. At one point, the Wiltshire Horn was introduced, but it resulted in horned animals, so its influence was largely bred out.
Katahdins can be any color or color pattern, though white is most common. Their coats vary in texture and length. The Katahdin breed registry remains open to allow upgrading with other breeds. The Katahdin is probably the best "all-around"hair sheep, combining the fitness traits of the Caribbean breeds, with the meat qualities of the British breeds.
The Dorper was developed in South Africa. It is a cross between the Blackheaded Persian (a fat-tailed hair sheep that thrives in the desert) and Dorset Horn. Dorpers can be all white (more popular in the U.S.) or have a traditional black head. The breed was imported into the United States in 1995.
Dorpers are the fastest growing, most heavily muscled hair sheep in the U.S. They are also the woolliest hair breed. They are not parasite resistant like the other hair sheep breeds in the U.S. The Dorper breed registry is open to allow upgrading with other breeds.
Royal White?/Dorpcroix (www.royalwhitesheep.org)
The Royal White is the newest breed of sheep in the U.S. It was developed by Bill Hoag of Hermleigh, Texas. It was originally called Dorpcroix. It is a cross between the Dorper and St. Croix. The breed is an all white hair sheep, with purportedly no wooly fibers.
Raising hair sheep
Hair sheep are being promoted as an "easy care/self-care"alternative to wooled sheep. It is not necessary to shear, crutch, or dock them. Hair sheep require deworming less frequently than wooled sheep, though there are some differences between the breeds. There is no scientific data to suggest that hair sheep breeds need their hooves trimmed less frequently than wooled sheep. While hair sheep are commonly raised in low-intensity, forage-based production systems, they can adapt to any system of production and any climate.
Crossing hair sheep with wool sheep
There are many reasons why a producer might want to cross hair sheep with wooled sheep. With the exception of the Dorper, the hair sheep breeds grow slower and produce lighter muscled carcasses than many of the wooled, meat-type breeds (e.g. Suffolk, Hampshire, Dorset, and Texel). A wooled, meat-type ram could be used as a terminal sire on a group of hair ewes to improve the growth and carcass characteristics of the market lambs. In a terminal crossing program, all of the offspring from the terminal sire are sold for slaughter (i.e. terminated). A portion of the flock would need to be bred to hair sheep rams to produce replacement ewe lambs.
A producer who has wooled ewes can use hair sheep rams to eventually eliminate the need for shearing, crutching, and docking. The producer would to need save replacements from each generation and cross them back onto hair sheep rams. The first generation of wool x hair lambs would probably require shearing, though perhaps not as frequently as pure wool sheep.
The wool from hair x wool crosses should be discarded. It should not be taken to a wool pool because it will downgrade the quality of the wool clip. The second generation of offspring (? hair and ? wool) may not require shearing. By the third generation ( 7/8 hair and 1/8 wool), the need for shearing should have definitely been eliminated.
Marketing hair sheep
Hair sheep are ideally suited to the ethnic markets. This is because hair sheep lambs are typically marketed at lighter weights than wooled lambs, and this suits most ethnic buyers, which tend to prefer the lighter lambs. Most hair sheep producers do not dock or castrate their lambs. This is also preferred by ethnic buyers, who often require an unblemished lamb.
Many hair sheep producers "finish" their lambs on grass, which usually results in leaner, more healthful lamb. This characteristic also tends to suit many ethnic buyers. In some cases, hair sheep more closely resemble the type of sheep that ethnic buyers are accustomed to in the homelands.
In traditional lamb markets, hair sheep lambs should bring similar prices as wooled lambs, if the quality is similar. Lower prices can be expected if the lambs are thinner fleshed. Sometimes, anything that is new in the market place is initially discounted in price, until the buyers become familiar with the characteristics of it. This occurred with Boer goats. Now, they dominate the goat marketplace.
If the desired market lamb is 120 lbs. or more, pure hair sheep lambs may not be the best choice. Hair sheep breeds tend to be smaller than wooled breed ewes, thus their lambs tend to finish at lighter weights. As a general rule of thumb, a lamb is ready for market (0.2 in. back fat) when it achieves about 60 percent of its mature weight (based on the weight of ewes in the flock).
If your ewes weigh 140 lbs., this would be 84 lbs, compared to lambs born to 200 lb. Suffolk ewes, at 120 lbs. Finish weights would be even lighter if you wish to market leaner lambs, as is preferred by the ethnic market and sometimes freezer lamb customers. Most of the hair sheep breeds fatten more like goats (from the inside out) and will deposit more fat around the internal organs. Care must be taken not to over-finish hair sheep lambs. Hair sheep might not be the right fit for producers who want to finish lambs in a feed lot.
Selling breeding stock
Because hair sheep are gaining in popularity, there is often a good demand for hair sheep breeding stock. Many hair sheep producers are able to sell all of their ewe lambs and some of their ram lambs for breeding. There is a demand for registered hair sheep, commercial hair sheep, as well as crossbreds. Katahdin x Dorper lambs seem to be especially popular.
When selling breeding stock, it is important not to sell genetically inferior animals, especially males. Only a small percentage of males born in a flock should be sold or used for breeding. Lambs with genetic defects, such as jaw defects, inverted eyelids, and structural problems, should not be sold or used for breeding, especially males.
Producers who sell breeding stock should keep performance records on their flock. Performance records can be kept in a notebook or on a computer using a spreadsheet or specialized flock record keeping software. A list of flock record keeping software can be found on the web at (scroll down to bottom of page).
Producers who are interested in marketing hair sheep breeding stock are encouraged to enroll their flock in the Voluntary Scrapie Flock Certification Program, a monitoring program that results in scrapie-free certification after five years of scrapie-free monitoring. This program is different from the mandatory scrapie program which requires all sheep over 18 months of age (and some lambs) to be identified with the scrapie program. Recently, an export category was added to the Voluntary Scrapie Flock Certification Program. This category has some additional stipulations and requires seven years of scrapie-free monitoring to achieve "scrapie-free" status.
Genotyping rams to determine their genetic susceptibility to scrapie (if exposed) is another way to increase the value of breeding stock. It is recommended that only RR and QR rams be utilized for breeding, if any of the offspring will be sold or used for breeding. RR individuals may be able to command a premium price. So far, only one hair sheep has ever been diagnosed with scrapie. However, hair sheep, like all sheep breeds and goats, are susceptible to scrapie if they have a susceptible genotype (QQ) and are exposed to the infective agent.
This article was written in 2009 by Susan Schoenian.