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Here’s Looking at Ewe

Hair sheep are finding their niche in Green Country as farmers look for sustainable, cost-effective ways to raise livestock for meat, profit, and brush control.

Jennifer Zehnder
October 28, 2019

Like many of his commercial livestock ventures, Sean Clark of Westville, Oklahoma, saw sheep as an opportunity to expand his farm portfolio. He began his sheep journey in the ‘90s with wool sheep.

“I didn’t care for them. The maintenance was just too much,” Clark shares. “We found hair sheep to be a much better fit for our operation. Now, we hardly ever see wool sheep in my region unless it’s someone raising club [show] lambs.”

The most apparent difference between hair sheep breeds and their wool counterparts is their coat — which contains more hair fibers than the wool fibers, thus eliminating the added expense of shearing. Like wild sheep, hair sheep shed their coats seasonally with some breeds even growing thicker coats in the winter.

Clark, who deals in Dorper and Katahdin breeds, appreciates their easy-care coat and ability to thrive in hot, humid climates. Hair sheep also tend to be more disease and parasite resistant than wool sheep. Those attributes, combined with high-reproduction rates and their ability to finish/fatten on pasture only, make them the go-to choice for those wanting to raise hardy, pasture-efficient sheep for meat and sales.

Other hair sheep breeds include the American Blackbelly, Barbados Blackbelly, California Red, Romanov, Royal White, Blackhead Persian, St. Augustine, St. Croix, and Wiltshire Horn.

According to Clark, hair sheep have given his farm diversity that no other species has offered.

“Acre per acre, they offer way better returns than beef, and have a lower startup cost than many other types of livestock,” he says. “Additionally, they utilize the forage more efficiently that we have on our farms.”
The advantage is in return on your investment.

“Many ewes [female sheep generally over a year of age] can potentially pay for themselves in their first year, and that’s just something that’s nearly impossible with cattle,” Clark says. “Also, we tend to see returns of approximately twice per acre or more, compared to what cattle can achieve.”
As the demand for high-quality, naturally raised lamb increases, Clark sees a bright future for hair sheep in the Green Country area.

“I believe that hair sheep have more potential here in Green Country than just about any other type of livestock,” he says. “From utilizing our marginal timber areas to retrofitting some of the infrastructure left behind by the poultry industry — this gives our region a real advantage over the rest of the country and makes the hair sheep industry prime for expansion in Green Country.”  

Starter Flock Mistakes to Avoid

Sean Clark of Clark Farms LLC, is licensed and bonded by USDA Packers and Stockyards as a livestock broker. He has spent a lifetime learning and matching the right stock to the right buyer. That said, he admits he’s made a lot of mistakes and witnessed even more made by others.

1. Buying animals out of dry/arid regions and bringing them into higher rainfall areas. These animals typically haven’t had the parasite exposure that our locally raised animals have, so when confronted with high parasite loads, there tends to be significant death loss. Also, fescue toxicity tends to play a significant role in those animals, and it’s hard to get them to acclimate to one of our major types of forage. I see these issues mostly when folks bring sheep out of central and western Texas, Kansas, and Oklahoma and move them into eastern Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Missouri. The rule of thumb is that you can move sheep from east to west, but not from west to east.

2. “Reading it on the internet.” No two operations are identical. Try finding an established, local operation to visit before you jump in. Just because a particular breed or management protocol works in the Pacific Northwest or western Texas areas, doesn’t mean it will be viable in the Ozark region. You have to be able to learn and adapt as you go.

3. Trying to keep non-livestock guardian dog breeds with sheep. Just like a Chihuahua is a poor bird dog, an Australian Cattle Dog or German Shepherd is a lousy LGD. There are always exceptions but stick with the proven breeds — Great Pyrenees, Akbash, Anatolian, etc.

4. Trusting ewes are the age that they are presented — without checking. Whether ignorance or purposeful misrepresentation on the part of the seller, this is something that can doom a new flock from the very beginning.

5. Assuming there’s no learning curve. Be willing to learn as you go so that you can figure out precisely what will and won’t work in your particular operation.