December 07, 2011

In Texas, many producers look to hair sheep for tasty meat, hearty profits

By Madeline McCurry-Schmidt

After years of drought and this summer’s heat wave, many Texas ranchers are seeking new ways to raise profits. In Burnet County, Texas, the county’s agriculture committee recently looked into the possibility of raising hair sheep—breeds that grow short hair instead of wool—as an alternative to cattle.

“We wondered what would take the place of all the cattle leaving the country,” said Texas AgriLife Extension Service agent Wade Hibler in an interview for Country World. “Our ag committee believes it will be a smaller-type animal, at least for a while. Hair sheep are a good alternative for some people.”

According to Randy McCrea, a Texas hair sheep producer and president of the North American Hair Sheep Association, hair sheep are a profitable, low-maintenance option for many ranchers.   

McCrea said hair sheep are indiscriminate grazers; they’re happy eating toxic weeds that cattle won’t touch. Two breeds of hair sheep, St. Croix and Barbados, come from tropical climates, which means they’ve be bred to be more parasite resistant and heat tolerant than European wool sheep.

“I like to call them the Brahman of the sheep industry,” said McCrea.

The lack of wool means ranchers raising sheep for meat don’t have to spend money on shearing—in the summer, hair sheep simply shed some hair.

“And they’re excellent mothers,” said McCrea. “You can get two lamb crops in 14 to 16 months really easily.”

Hair sheep aren’t naturally a very meaty animal, so ranchers like McCrea have cross-bred many hair sheep with Dorper hair-wool sheep.

“The Dorper-St. Croix cross has turned out to be a great meat sheep,” McCrea said.

And hair sheep meat has a growing market. As more Muslims immigrate to the U.S., the demand for foods that meet Halal (Muslim) standards has also increased. Lambs prepared to Halal standards should weigh 60 to 90 pounds at live weight and should not have their tails docked. Hair sheep meet these requirements and demand increases near Muslim holidays. McCrea said he’s sent many hair sheep lambs to be slaughtered for the Halal market.

Though many people taste no difference between meat from hair sheep versus meat from wool sheep, McCrea said hair sheep meat can appeal to people who don’t normally eat lamb from wool sheep. Sheep with wool produce a wax called lanolin, which adds a distinct odor and taste to the lamb meat. McCrea said hair sheep meat doesn’t have that “greasy” quality.

“There’s a completely different taste,” said McCrea. “It’s a lot like really good goat, except it has the muscling of lamb.”

McCrea said he sold lamb for about $2.00 a pound this year—a good profit. McCrea said there is also a market for leather from hair sheep, which he says is soft like deer skin but a lot tougher. So far, he’s seen hair sheep leather sold for gloves and vests.

As the market grows for hair sheep products, McCrea said he’s seen many ranchers make the switch from cattle or wool sheep to hair sheep. However, he said, traditional wool producers shouldn’t feel threatened by the “new kid on the block.”

“There’s a place for both sheep,” he said. “We still need our domestic wool.”

McCrea added that even though hair sheep originated in tropical climates, they can adapt to the cold. He’s heard of hair sheep flocks living through frigid winters in Colorado and New York.

“They’ll hair-up and do fine in the cold country,” McCrea said.

Author’s note: After publishing this article, it came to my attention that many statements about hair sheep were based more on perception than science. I have made these corrections in the version above. Please note that there is no scientific evidence that hair sheep and wool sheep have different grazing patterns. Also, many people do not taste a difference between meat from hair sheep and meat from wool sheep. I regret these errors. As always, you are welcome to send article feedback to me at MadelineMS@assochq.org.