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Gary Vroegh on Hair Sheep

Gary Vroegh is a perplexing character who, on one hand, seems to be an authority on hair sheep but, on the other hand, is banned from sheep email groups because of his profanity and writings of nonsense. In 2000, Garry sent me this article, which is well-written and lucid, and worth sharing with readers. With his permission, here is his letter about selection standards and other observations on hair sheep.

There are many advantageous traits that make *hair-raising* a futuristic sheep industry. These traits can be achieved under many different environmental and consumer-accepted conditions.

Many of the hair sheep have different attributes too. I have had experience with Barbados, Dorpers, St. Croixs, Katahdins, and pelibueys. As a general rule, hair sheep are a very low-maintenance sheep.

  • Most are very good mothers and have very few lambing problems.
  • They produce enough milk to support twins and even triplets.
  • They forage and make use of the lesser types of grasses that we have here in the tropical states. (Unlike the northern regions, we do not grow alfalfa here.)
  • They are resistant/tolerant to internal and external parasites far better than most wool breeds.
  • They reach puberty early in life, and many ewe lambs have multiple birthings.
  • Most ewes are fertile year-round
  • Rams can remain fertile during hot weather and handle the heat far better than other rams.
  • These factors can enhance year-round production.

Hair sheep don't have the weight gain of many modern wool sheep. However, they don't require the additional feed that many wool sheep do. Hair sheep also are a lighter-framed animal and their meat does not have the objectionable "lanolin" taste that the meat of many wool breeds has. Most hair sheep breeds have less subcutaneous fat, and, generally, their meat is quite a bit leaner because there is less feathering in the muscle tissue. They have more kidney fat than the wool breeds of sheep.

I have done a lot of business with a varied ethnic market, primarily folk of European backgrounds. I learned to understand them and gain their confidence and trust. We have had a very big change in immigration over the years. Now, many of my customers prefer legs in the 5–6 pound range and use more of the 'lesser' cuts. Many of my customers also believe that their spices and seasonings adapt better to meat from hair sheep than to meat from other breeds. Even older hair sheep have a milder, less muttony taste.

Barbados blackbellies (US) are not good shippers to the slaughter house and are more flighty than other breeds. St. Croix are much more calmer, as are the Dorper and Katahdins. The Dorper was developed with the purpose to 'make the grade' standards of the modern grading system for the US and European market. Weight gain is a trait that is easily attained. The Dorper, I feel, has many advantages as a terminal sire when using the other breeds in a cost-effective ewe factory.

Here are some of the objectives that I plan to use when selecting breeding stock on an accelerated breeding program.

Fertility Each ewe must breed at 10 months of age and wean a lamb on average every 8 months for the rest of her life. The first time she doesn't lamb she is culled, unless her failure to lamb can be attributed to weather factors or predator problems.
Rams are selected for scrotal circumference and growth rate. Underdeveloped testicles are not retained for further testing.
Seasonality When possible, replacement stock is selected from stock bred in the spring, rather than the usual fall breeding. Spring is normally the lowest producing time, and we believe this will pass on the trait for more fertility.
Multiple births Ewes are ultrasound-tested and only lambs that are conceived as 'twins' are used for replacements.
Mothering ability Ewes must wean a lamb every 8 months. We find that ewes who wean a lamb every time they are bred make better mothers and are more gentle as a general rule. Although mothering is not a highly heritable genetic trait, we feel that it can be improved over time.
Growth Selected ram lambs will be placed on a gain test and fed only on pasture, without extra grain if conditions are normal. Only the top performers will be kept for breeding stock and replacements. They will be judged on birth weight, weaning weight, 60-day post weaning weight, and weight at approximately four months, just prior to breeding.
Milking abilities Lighter weaning lambs will not be kept for breeding. We believe their weight results from the mother not producing enough milk.
Soundness Breeding stock must be structurally and genetically sound. They must demonstrate good legs, feet,teeth, horns (unless polled), etc.
Hair Hair sheep should have only enough hair to protect the animal from the chill. We also believe that excess hair causes problems with external parasites. Wool is bred out as quickly as possible if any is there. We feel that wool growth takes away protein and deters meat quality and growth. Heavy hair and wool growth also makes it more difficult to 'judge' conformation.
Conformation Selection of replacement stock is based on muscling, length, width, and depth of the top of group. Animals are selected mainly on their gain and muscling without changing many of the trait attributes of the breed.
Longevity Ewes are retained as long as ewes are able to raise their offspring unassisted and are able to maintain condition prior to lambing. As long as ewes meet all other criteria, we believe that we get greater profit potential when we minimize turnover in stock. This may not conform to some peoples' thoughts, but hair sheep are not cattle.
Disposition Any sheep that are overly agressive or nervous are culled post haste. We believe that many nervous problems can be controlled and changed with proper handling and appropriate feed.

Although I do not belong to a sheep breeders association, I believe these are good *hair-raising* guidelines for the future. There is still plenty of room for improvement.

Garry Vroegh
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