Have we seen the future of Midwestern Small Ruminants Production? - Sheep & Goats [Skip to Content]

Sheep & Goats
Illinois Livestock Trail
Have we seen the future of Midwestern Small Ruminants Production?
by A. Richard Cobb, University of Illinois

Are Hair Sheep and Meat Goats the future of Midwest Small Ruminant production? They could be, more surprising things have happened.

Hair Sheep: There are more than 100 million Hair Sheep in the world. They were developed mainly in Africa but also in areas close to the equator all around the world. Some breeds, like the Black Bellied Barbados, were introduced to this country many years ago. The true Black Belly is polled, however, when crossed with the Merino type sheep of Texas, they produced horned male offspring that developed large horns with maturity. These rams could be used on hunting ranches. The breed is small and very athletic.

More recently, the importation of the St. Croix breed from the Carribean area and the Dorper from South Africa as well as the development of the Katahdin breed in Maine have created sheep that are larger (although still small by US standards) than the Barbados and not as flighty. Each of these breeds is classified as a Hair Breed, but it is probably more correct to call them Shedding Breeds.

The Dorper, developed in the hot dry climate of South Africa, does grow wool, sometimes a bunch of it, and sheds it in hotter weather. They are the most heavily muscled breed of this type of sheep available in the U.S. and probably in the world. There are two types; the Dorper, which has a black head and neck and the White Dorper. The genetic make up of the two colors is different.

The St Croix was developed in the hot wet climate of the Carribean. Research has shown it has the most internal parasite resistant of the hair or shedding breeds and is quiet in temperament. I always thought of the St Croix as a beautiful white breed, but they do come in light tan and maybe more colors.

The Katahdin was actually developed in the state of Maine. A man named Michael Piel, who also made beer, had a farm in Maine with a large flock of sheep. In 1957 he gained access to one ram and two ewes of the "African Hair Sheep" breed from St. Croix and bred the ram to wool ewes of many different breeds. Piel liked the resulting lambs and selected for hair type, meat-type conformation, high fertility and flocking instinct. In the 70's he added Wiltshire, a shedding breed, to his gene pool as well. Because he selected just for hair type and not color, the Katahdin comes is many colors and multi colors as well. A small percentage of the Katahdins continue to have wool all year long and some of the rest do not shed all their wool. The breed got it name from Mt. Katahdin, the highest mountain in Maine.

These breeds are becoming more popular in the Midwest for a number of reasons. First, in theory, they do not have to be shorn. Second, they are easy keepers and the St. Croix and Katahdin are relatively prolific. Third, they seem to meet the needs of expanding ethnic populations, who want lighter weight lambs other than the 135 lb+ that are needed for the mainstream slaughter lamb market. In addition, some ethnic groups want whole lambs to roast for their holidays.

Hair sheep have drawbacks as well. Their skin has no value in the after market at this time, unlike a sheepskin. They are very light muscled in comparision to our wooled lambs and most cannot approach a weight to be an asset in the mainstream slaughter lamb market. They do have some internal parasite resistance but have to be on a solid worming program. Still, as sheep shearers continue to disappear and the lamb eating ethnic populations continue to expand in the future savvy producers may recognize a strong market and specialize in producing for that market.

Meat Goats

The increase in the interest in meat goats across the country has been unbelievable in the past five years! The two largest associations in Illinois, the Illinois Meat Goat Association and the Midwest Goat Producers have fast growth memberships of excited people who see a strong future with the animals.

Texas has always been the leading state for meat goat production. It is said that the price of meat goats is determined by the auction at Producers Livestock in San Angelo each Monday. The main production goat for over a century and a half in Texas was the Spanish or Brush Goat while Angora goats were raised to produce Mohair. Then, in the mid 90's, Boer Goats began to be imported from South Africa, maybe by way of New Zealand. Seldom, has a species in any country been as affected by one breed as the meat goat industry has been changed by the Boer Goat. Interest in Boer Goats and meat goats shot through the roof!

The Boer Goat is a stylish looking, red headed, wide chested, heavy muscled (for a goat) animal. People are attracted to them for showing, both breeding animals and show wethers, and for commercial production. Interest has been stimulated by wide promotion of the breed in most areas of the country.

Boer goats are not the only new goats in town. Others breeds, like the Kiko, have their followers as well. But the Boer is the one leading the way as far as numbers are concerned.

One area of concern for some producers is that we are taking the goat, which is a Browser, or animal that prefers shrubs, weeds and trees over grass. They also love to climb and making them into grazers in a wetter climate than the Boer goat was developed in is greatly increasing the possibility the animal could become suceptable to internal parasites. This should be a concern for all producers who need to develop a strong parasite prevention or management program if they are to be successful raising meat goats. Nevertheless, there is a large ethnic market out there and people seem drawn to raising them.

Livestock Weekly, a weekly newspaper from San Angelo, Texas summarized the meat goat industry in the united State in the following way in their February 22, 2007 paper. "Still growing in popularity, meat goats have yet to reach a point of market saturation. Their largest outlets remain among ethnic consumers, and processing is still largely a cottage industry tied to religious practices that do not lend themselves well to mass production."

Here in the Midwest, we are just in the beginning stage of meat goat and hair sheep production and marketing. Many things are going to change before the industry is either viable or not. While the market potential seems to be strong, we still have to raise the animals and produce them at a profit and market them with intelligence. We also need to work with the consumer to develop a program to meet their needs and not just expect them to adjust to our marketing practices.

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