A Hardy, Hairy Sheep
St. Croix sheep have shown resistance to parasites and tolerance to hot
Sheep with historic links to long-ago French and Spanish settlements could
provide welcome extra income to 21st century rural southern landowners with
These wool-type sheep, known as Gulf Coast Natives, are part of a multiyear
crossbreeding program at ARS' South Central Family Farm Research Center near
Booneville, Arkansas. The program's designed to yield a new composite sheep
that is specially suited for the midsouth environment.
"In the South, you have the perfect climate for parasites that can
infest sheep," explains animal scientist Michael A. Brown, who heads the
Booneville facility. "There's also the problem of our heat and humidity.
"Often, the wool markets are so far away that it's really not worth the
grower's efforts to try to ship and sell the wool. And they still have the
expense of having the animals sheared, so a hair animal would be better for
The Gulf Coast Native fulfills two of Brown's three requirements: an ability
to take the heat and unusually high resistance to parasite infestation. As for
the hair-versus-wool dilemma, Brown and ARS animal scientist Art L. Goetsch
plan to cross the Gulf Coast Natives with haired St. Croix sheep, another breed
with superior tolerance to steamy temperatures and parasites.
Despite their name, the Gulf Coast Natives' roots are believed to lie
overseas, perhaps in Merino sheep from Spain and Rambouillets from France that
were brought to the New World by Spanish and French explorers and settlers.
Other possible contributors to the Natives' genetic blend are the Southdown,
Hampshire, Dorset Horn, and Cheviot breeds.
Animal scientists Michael Brown (left) and Art Goetsch compare wool from Gulf
Coast Native sheep with hair (in Art's hand) from St. Croix sheep.
As the years passed, Native sheep populations were concentrated in Gulf
Coast states such as Florida and Louisiana. Hot summers and plentiful parasites
weeded out weaker sheep, leaving the survivors to sire new generations of
especially hardy animals.
Sheep are a good choice for the small rural landowner, as well as for the
beginning livestock grower, says Goetsch. "In this region, we can grow
forage and trees," he notes. "To use the forage, you have to turn to
"Beef cattle are popular, but they're more capital-intensive. You can
get into sheep production for a relatively low cost, and they're a little
easier for the new producer to manage. As for land requirements, in our part of
the country, you need about 2 acres for a cow-calf pair. On that amount of
land, you can put six to eight ewes, plus their offspring, until weaning
The Booneville researchers have been studying St. Croix sheep since 1988
and started gathering their Gulf Coast Native flock in 1994.
In 1992, they began crossing St. Croix and Polypay ewesthe latter
another composite U.S. breedwith Texel and Romanov rams. The resultant
crossbred ewes were mated to Dorset rams.
"You can maximize the hybrid vigor that comes from crossbreeding by
incorporating a third breed," explains Brown. "What we have now is
sheep that are half Dorset, one quarter St. Croix, and one-quarter Romanov.
We're in the process of evaluating those animals, but we'll probably take some
of the better ewes and cross them with Gulf Coast Natives to try for a
parasite-resistant, heat-resistant, hair-type animal."
"So far, our half-Dorset lambs have done well," Goetsch adds.
"They're good-sized animals, and their performance up to weaning age has
been comparable to some of the bigger crossbred wool sheep."
"We don't know how well the heat tolerance of the Natives and St.
Croix will carry through into offspring," Brown concludes.
"But there are promising precedents in cattle. When you cross the more
heat-tolerant Brahman with Angus cattle, the offspring tend to have increased
heat tolerance." By Sandy Miller Hays, ARS.
Bumpers Small Farms Research Center, 6883 South State Hwy 23, Booneville,
AR 72927-9214; phone (479) 675-3834, fax (479) 675-2940
" A Hardy, Hairy Sheep" was published in the
issue of Agricultural Research magazine.