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Food for Thought: A lawn or a pasture?

Written by Scott Middlekauf on 27 January 2011.

Hair sheep grazing in Ka'u citrus/avocado orchard.
Hair sheep grazing in Ka'u citrus/avocado orchard.
Imagine owning a lawnmower that makes its own blades, moves itself around the lawn, requires no gasoline (it runs on grass), makes very little noise, replaces itself every year or so, and you can eat it as a delicious high protein food. All you need to provide is a fence around the pasture, a small shed, some water, and mineral supplements. Sound like a crazy fantasy? If you have some land with grass on it, and you can afford to put a fence around it, tropical hair sheep are a viable option.

Sheep are very hardy, and they handle most of their needs without help. The main issues are: adequate pasture, dog attacks, wet skin, minerals, too much inbreeding.

A rule of thumb in Hawai’i is that land can accommodate (very roughly) 4 sheep on 3 acres. More than 2 sheep per acre is probably too much. Reduce these numbers during droughts, or on poor land. There are only two breeds that I know of on this island that are appropriate for the lowland humid tropics: Barbados Blackbelly and St. Croix White. These breeds are known as “hair sheep,” as they have hair but no wool. People often mistake them for goats. They have been specially bred for hardiness in humid tropics. They have good parasite resistance, and their lack of wool keeps them cooler and drier.

 

Hair sheep grazing in a Kona coffee orchard for ground cover maintenance.
Hair sheep grazing in a Kona coffee orchard for ground cover maintenance.
Hair sheep are common in Hawai’i, and it is easy to find people willing to sell some of their flock. Just look on rural bulletin boards, at feed stores, on Craig’s list, etc. The current price of hair sheep is between $50 and $100, depending on the age and sex of the animal and the whim of the owner. All you need to start your flock is one male, and some number of females. Start with a smaller flock, and let it grow into your pasture. When you are selecting your sheep, watch the animals for a while. Look at their energy level, signs of diarrhea, signs of limping, signs of hunger, meatiness. Spend some time searching for the animals that you want on your land. If you are a person who prays for guidance, now is a good time. Otherwise, use your intuition.

 

Feed them every now and then to make friends with them, and especially make friends (food and petting) with the head ram. This way they will come when you need them to.

They definitely like a shelter. When it starts to rain, they will all run under any roof. If their hair stays wet, they could get the blow fly, which is disgusting, swarming all over them and eating their skin. Avoid this. A little mineral supplement is good. I have used the red animal salt from the animal feed store, and kelp granules for trace minerals. You could also experiment with giving them dolomite, Azomite, baking soda. The lore is that mineral deficiency will lead to bark eating. They go for the taste of minerals in the bark.

Under normal conditions, sheep will drink little or no water. But it’s good to have some available, especially during a dry time, and maybe also during lactation.

On most land, their hoofs should be self trimming. If the hoofs are smelly and have little holes, you can trim them, but this is probably a sign of zinc deficiency. If they get skin problems, like the flies, or soft hoofs, lack of zinc is a likely cause. Use zinc methionine only! Zinc oxide is not effective for hoof and skin problems.

Every person I know in Puna who has kept small livestock has suffered from dog attacks. It is a big deal. It happens randomly, and usually late at night. The fence must be touching the ground securely, and I put a strand of barbed wire 8″ above the hog wire, and sometimes a strand of barbed wire at bottom as well. I have read that a donkey will protect the herd, and I have witnessed a donkey protecting a sheep from multiple dogs. This would be similar to having a sheep dog that eats grass. I know donkeys have a taste for many different foods, and this might be a problem, depending what’s in your pasture. I know little about donkeys, except that the males can be VERY mean, and they can kick with all four legs, front and rear. You could possibly make some cash hiring out a good donkey stud (to make mules)? In any case, I wouldn’t keep sheep without secure hog wire, and still not in a remote place without some sort of additional protection (dog, donkey, or man with gun)

Gestation is four and a half months. Don’t worry about pregnancy, birthing, and lactation. They take care of themselves. A St. Croix ewe will usually have twins, and almost twice a year. The Barbados are similar, but a bit less prolific. With either breed the size of the herd is going to rapidly increase. Have a plan for this.

Keep culling the young rams, for food and to prevent inbreeding. Every couple years trade in an outside ram from another herd for fresh genes. Cull out the ewes who have more wool (dreadlocks I call them), and breed for short hair. In terms of slaughtering, I harvest them with a .22 to the head. It doesn’t seem to make the others less trusting, oddly enough. If you don’t feel comfortable with the process of slaughtering and butchering, sell them, trade them, or someone could process them and give you some meat in exchange. My attitude toward culling the herd is like that of a watchful wolf; I am on the alert for animals that are unwell. I selectively prey upon the weak and sickly. This harvesting method also serves to maintain the health of the herd. For example, if an animal has a wound that will not heal, or is especially susceptible to parasites, I cull it. If a lamb is rejected by its mother, I don’t go out and buy milk replacer and nurse it to health, I cull it. This may sound heartless, but this heartlessness is necessary for their long term viability as a species. Arguably, one of the responsibilities of a land steward is to “play god” and select which plants and animals will predominate and which will not.

Well, there’s a start. You’ll figure the details.

Scott Middlekauf lives with his wife Karin Payne on their 22 acre sustainable farmstead in Kapoho. You can read their fascinating blog at EveningRainFarm.com.