ADVANTAGES OF HAIR SHEEP
By Donald Chávez Y Gilbert
At this point readers who are considering getting into the rewarding sheep business
are begging the question “what next.” This section provides an overview of the
pluses and minuses of raising hair sheep.
The hair sheep industry is experiencing a wave of popularity since the synthetic fabric
industry has displaced much of the wool industry. Several relatively new hair breeds
have emerged that have spurred more interest. Consequently hair sheep numbers
have shown a dramatic increase in numbers. What’s more, the phase-out of
government wool subsidies has made the harvesting of medium quality wools from
typical farm flock operations less economically feasible, and shearing has became a
major deterrent. Consequently, there is a growing shift in the sheep industry towards
"easy-care" sheep that perform well under forage-based systems with limited
managerial inputs, which are in line with the production traits of hair sheep breeds.
Hair sheep have several unique traits that appeal to livestock producers who want to
diversify their enterprises.
- They are easy keepers, being more hardy and disease/parasite resistant than
woolies; lambs having fewer birthing complications and being more vigorous with
low mortality rates.
- Horned hair sheep tolerate heat better for two reasons. 1., Most conspicuously,
they lose their insulating wool in warm months, but, 2, they cool themselves more
efficiently by radiating body heat into the atmosphere through their horns like other
hot climate animals like native African wild Watusi cattle.
- Their meat is tastier, leaner, and healthier.
New Mexico Dahl sheep frequently have dark colored hooves which require
less maintenance as they wear longer.
- They make money for the producer. By comparison, they are cheaper to feed as
20% of food consumption goes into the production (growth) of wool in wooled
- They are cheaper to feed also because they require lower levels of protein to
achieve the same weight gains and growth, surviving on low quality grasses and
weeds. In fact they thrive on low nutrient browse that other sheep breeds would
suffer and die on, and prefer weeds and short grasses that horses and cattle will not
- They are compatible with most other livestock in terms of shared space and
- They are non-seasonal breeders, more prolific than other breeds, (greater
twining fecundity), with strong mothering instincts.
- They are easier to manage than goats.
- They are more alert and possess a strong herding instinct which reduces
losses due to predation. Rams frequently will turn and fight feral dogs and other
- Pelts of these sheep produce high quality leather that has a high potential for
sales. Hair sheep leather is prized for strength, elasticity and lack of blemishes
caused by wool follicles. Leather from hair sheep has the softness of wool sheep
leather, but the strength and elasticity of leather from haired livestock species. Hair
sheep leather combines the best attributes of both haired and woolen species. This
market is in the early development stage.
- The growing ethnic market demand for sheep has made them a desirable
enterprise with increased cash flow by the October through Easter price premiums
for sheep. The proportion of lamb consumed by the ethnic markets is steadily
increasing. These markets generally prefer the leaner, lighter carcasses typical of
hair sheep and their crosses.
- Taste studies show a preference for the taste of hair sheep meat over the
mutton flavor of wooled breeds.
- They are less labor intensive as intact males may be desired, so docking and
castration practices are minimized. They require little or no worming depending on
- Numbers of available breeding animals for most hair sheep breeds are
limited, so demand and prices are high. Thompson Temple, the marketer who
started the hair sheep trophy ram book, estimates that 15,000-20,000 4 yr old plus
rams wholesale priced at $350-$500 a head average sell each year. Retail hunts
range from $1,200.00 to $30,000.00 per hunt. This agri-tourism business is
grossing $5,000,000 to $10,000,000 per year just in animal sales and not including
hunting fees, outfitting and other incomes for the producer. Trophy ram prices ranged
between $500.00 and $3,000.00 each in the 1990s and now are in the tens of
thousands for a trophy ram with horns in excess of 40 inches in length.
- Vegetation and Pest Insect Control: Increased use of sheep to
manage pest plant and insect species is particularly well suited to
hair sheep as contamination of wool by organic or vegetable matter
decreases value of the clip. Data provided by Dr. Pat Hatfield of
Montana State University indicates that grazing sheep can provide
substantial control of sawfly in wheat and alfalfa weevil. Of
particular interest is the short term grazing of alfalfa by sheep,
which resulted in significant decrease in weevils with no decrease
in alfalfa yield. Sheep are being used around the USA
for control of pest plants such as kudzu, brush, spotted knapweed
and leafy spurge. In areas where herbicides are not an option, easy
care hair sheep function well.
In short, these breeds normally have strong tendencies for no wool, internal parasite
resistance, prolific lamb production, good mother habits, grazing low quality forage
and browse. A recent comprehensive literature review (by D.R. Notter at Virginia
Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg 24061-0306 and published in
the American Society of Animal Science, 1999) discusses these traits and origins in
more detail. All domestic hair sheep in the U.S. originated from hair sheep from
Africa first imported by the Spanish and Portuguese colonists beginning in the 15th
These sheep tend to store fat internally, reach market conditions on forage, and
contain more healthy fatty acids with less fat on commercial cuts with a unique
desirable flavor. Thus, they have their own unique market for meat. That market is the
ethnic market which is as high and seasonally higher, price wise, as the traditional
lamb market. Very light lambs are often in high demand in this niche market. Meat
associated preponderance such as fatty acid contents, HDL/LDL cholesterol levels
and total fat show in early studies of hair sheep, the pure hair sheep breeds have
been shown to have a more healthy meat that is similar to goat meat. Both animal
species tend to store their fat internally.
Minimally, you can expect 150 percent lamb crop (one lambing) with the ewes which
bear a single lamb, and three lamb crops in two years. Ewes which consistently twin
will produce twice those numbers or 300 percent lamb crop.
The potential value of the pelts in the leather market is improving as buyers are more
and more recognizing that hair sheep pelts are of a better quality, comparable to goat
For producers interested in further pursuing hair sheep ranching there exist two
significant hair sheep meat-marketing groups, both centered in the southeastern or
south central USA, as well as the
United Horned Hair Sheep Association, Inc.
dedicated to high standards in the hair sheep industry as well as conservation,
breed promotion and education; UHHSA Email
The Scott County Hair Sheep Association in southwestern Virginia with over 200
members and 7,000 ewes has signed a contract to provide lamb to the Food City
Marketing hair sheep: the Hair Sheep Market Managing Group (HSMMG)
incorporated in Arkansas and is centered in Oklahoma and Texas, but has members
ranging from Texas to Nebraska to New York. As of 2006, the group has over 50
members and 10,000+ ewes. HSMMG is marketing both meat products and
breeding stock and has the potential to collect 60-110 pound lambs and move them
between the markets in their extensive geographic areas. A significant component of
the income of both hair sheep marketing groups in 2005 is the high demand for
commercial hair sheep breeding stock.