Homestead Sheep – Farm to Fork
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Homestead Sheep – Farm to Fork

September 4, 2019


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Thank you. – The Navajo never eat a lamb. They always eat a mutton. – Very, very popular in a lot
of the high-end restaurants. The Navajo-Churro meat. – Just as tender as a
school teacher’s heart. The Conquistadors brought
sheep from Spain and Portugal and native folks
just took advantage of this amazing breed. – From my experience, the
Dorpers and Katahdins, they’ve been very hardy
and good for this climate. – There are many different parts to make our soil more
productive here for us. And so, the sheep are
definitely one of those parts. – This is a cycle, and if
we choose to be meat eaters, then I think everyone
should know what it entails. And don’t get me
wrong, it is not easy. (sheep bleating) – [Narrator] Homestead Sheep
on this Farm to Fork Wyoming. (sheep bleating) – [Announcer] Funding
for Farm to Fork Wyoming is provided by viewers
like you, thank you. (calm music) – [Narrator] The Spear S Ranch
is home to a special breed of sheep prized for
their endurance and
cultural importance in North America,
the Navajo-Churro. – [Nan] The Navajo-Churro
sheep, which is the oldest sheep breed in the Americas,
it was the heritage breed wool that the
Navajo and Hopi used for their rugs that
make them so valuable ’cause they just
do not wear out. (calm music) – [Karen] Because
of the diversity from the blondes to
the white to the black and the different
colored cream and browns, you know, it just makes really
nice, natural combinations. (calm music) – [Nan] These Navajo-Churros
have very fine, fine inner fleece that
sometimes is finer than even the finest
merino, but then they have this very coarse outer
hair that allows them to have this long
wearing attribute to it. They’re a feral sheep. They haven’t been
messed with very much. They’ve had to
survive on their own. (calm music) – [Narrator] They are not
native to North America. So, where did these sheep
originally come from? (soothing guitar music) First brought to the
Americas by the Spanish in the 1500s, they spread
throughout the southwest and Mexico with the
Spanish settlements. (soothing guitar music) – Churra, C-H-U-R-R-A,
is a Spanish breed and it was the kinda
subordinate breed to the Merino. And when Columbus came
over, Ferdinand says, “No, you can’t
take my good sheep, but you can take these culls.” So, he sent the Churra here. And then, the
Conquistadors brought ’em the second time over. – [Narrator] As it
spread throughout the
Rio Grande valley, the breed became commonly
known as the Churro. – [Karen] The Native
Americans saw that it was opportunity on the hoof. – [Narrator] By the
late 1700s, the Churro became a major economic force
for Mexico’s weaving industry and an important food and fiber for the Navajo and Hopi tribes. Over time, in the
hands of the Navajos, the Churro became
a distinct breed known as the Navajo-Churro. – [Karen] The breed does look
a lot different in Europe than it does here. – [Narrator] The Navajo
selected for fleece quality and acclimated their
flocks to foraging on the desert range lands. – They’re actually animals
of, like, range, you know. The Navajo nation is in some
of the most rough, brutal, sandstone country in
the four corners region of Arizona and New Mexico,
Utah, and Colorado. They do much better
on browse than grass. I mean, this heavy
grass here is actually, they couldn’t care less. You know, taking them into
that canyon land country just is ideal for ’em. They love mountain mahogany,
love all the different scrub things and so that’s
how they could save ’em. The army started
huntin’ them down. – [Narrator] In the
1860s, the government began a series of
unfortunate attempts to eradicate the Navajo-Churro. The first was an effort
to subjugate the tribes. Later efforts were for economic and range land
management reasons. – You have one agency
doing one thing and suggesting something
and the Churros were small and they wanted them
bigger for the meat. The government made them
interbreed with larger sheep. They thought, “As long
as you’re doing this, you might as well
have a big sheep.” Well, the bigger sheep
eat more, need more, degrade the land more,
need much better pasture, and that’s what so amazing now. We are learning so much
about how this land supports all the intricate
interplay and complexity. So, it’s a huge loop. And, then, they took the
sheep away from the Indians because they said they’re
degrading the ground too much. So, there were reasons, well
meaning, well intentioned. You know, I’m not whamming
the government agencies. They did what at the time looked
like the right thing to do. – [Narrator] Some
wise tribal members took their flocks into deep
recesses of the reservation where they remained for decades. – [Karen] They went into these
holes you wouldn’t imagine you could get into in
those canyons and hid ’em. – [Nan] They were up in the
hills on the reservation. – And there were a
few that survived. – And at the time I
started, they were really seriously threatened
with extinction and I thought, “Wouldn’t it
be nice to have a good flock of true Churros
up here in Wyoming in a isolated area where
they wouldn’t get interbred and then we could send
stock out to recreate flocks in other areas.” It’s not like California,
Oregon, or Washington. They’ve got a lot of people and
a lot of farms intermingled. We don’t mingle here and
that’s kind of a special attribute to have if you’re
trying to save a breed and also select and get it
back to its prime qualities. (rooster crowing) – [Narrator] But, other
genetics had to be introduced in years past. – Come on, boys! But that’s where we have
the kind of recessiveness because to bring
them back entirely, you have to introduce
other genetic material and that’s where the rough,
the legs have come from, the more felted legs. That’s from trying to
bring the herd back and using things like
Rambouillet or other breeds to get some, you know,
new genetics into it. And I don’t castrate
any of my rams ’cause I pick them at two years
old as to who I’m gonna use. That’s the oldest one
here in the front. Because they don’t
mature ’til then. If I castrated, I would
probably kick myself several times ’cause
the most beautiful structurally put together and
fleece being just to die for would be what I castrated. There you go, up
close and personal. (laughing) He has a beautiful fleece. I mean, look at the length
of his staple already, the long hairs. – And I’m not reading into
all this careful breeding and what did a lot of people do. I kind of eyeball it and
run by the seat of my pants, but we really have
an outstanding flock because of what we’ve
been able to select here. – [Narrator] Today, Karen
has taken on the stewardship that Nan started decades ago.
(clanking) (sheep bleating) – (sniffles) There,
that’s right, hun. (patting) And, basically,
in this position, they give up most of the time,
especially the older ewes. They know that
something’s gonna happen, but it’s not any big deal. This is just like our
fingernails or toenails. And she’s a really good mother. This girl, she’s
a three year old, but she has a really nice bag. But you’re just
looking for, you know, a sound animal on all four legs. I’m looking for an animal
with good disposition, good mammary glands, so
they can have lots of milk for their babies, and
just a good solid animal that looks like she can
structurally have babies. (whimsical piano music)
(sheep bleating) – [Narrator] And
with yearly shearing, fleece quality is as important as the quality of
the meat itself. – ‘Cause these are a
double coated sheep and the outer coat
can be anywhere from three to six inches long and the inner coat
is just very fine. It’s very hard to
separate the fibers, so the processing of
separating the two to get to the really fine wool isn’t gonna happen economically. But they felt beautifully, so
they use a lot for felting. I twist it and I get yarn
from it and make gear also, horse gears, so just another
way to earn a little revenue. Most of these have a
coat that is pretty much a true Churro type coat. They’re not as heavy in lanolin. Like, you can see my hands. I just dealt with
three different sheep. If I’ve been using Suffolk
or messing with Suffolk or Rambouillet or something,
my hands would be glistening. They don’t, they have
lanolin in their coats, but is just not to the
quantity that other breeds do. – [Narrator] This is important
because the production of lanolin is tied to
the strong muttony flavor many negatively associate
with eating lamb. – If you like to
eat lamb or mutton, you always want to eat
either a hair sheep like your Dorpers
or you wanna eat a coarse wooled sheep’s meat. The Churro is a
coarse wooled sheep. Your Lincolns, your Romneys
that you find back in Northern England and
Ireland, usually they’re lamb meat that you can eat
over there is just phenomenal and that’s why they, the lamb
coming out of New Zealand is so well received here. Most of that is
coarse wooled sheep whereas the sheep meat
coming out of Australia is the fine wooled sheep. – [Narrator] Most lamb
eaten today is butchered at 12 months or younger,
but this industry standard doesn’t fit the reality
of most slow maturing heritage breeds or livestock
not finished on grain. – I sell ’em at
about 16, 17 months. They mature slow and they’re
not developed until older. I try not to call
’em lambs then, though it’s truly for their
breed, probably legitimate, but for the world
standards, it isn’t, and never have I had an
issue with anyone saying the meat was gamey or tough or I haven’t had that
with the old sheep. – [Narrator] And like many
heritage breed farm animals, Nan and Karen’s Churros
serve multiple purposes on the homestead. – [Nan] The cattle
graze one thing and the sheep graze
something else. – I do use ’em to control
my weeds. (laughs) They’re great on, they
do, they’ll eat spurge, but they love burdock,
curly dock, lamb’s quarter, all that stuff that
starts getting ahead of us in years like this. – So, that was sort
of my overall idea for bringing them in and
it worked beautifully with the cattle.
(cows mooing) – Sheep eat a different
forage than cattle. Sheep are more browsers,
so weeds, woody stuff, they’re very much
more apt to eat that and keep those things
down, whereas the cows will come in and, after the
fact, clean up the grass, which has grown
much better cause it doesn’t have as much
competition from the weeds. And, you know, it’s always
a, it’s never a perfect world and it doesn’t work
ideally all the time, but also the advantage is
the parasites for sheep and the parasites for
cattle are different. So, when you run sheep
in an area for a while, yes, you can have a buildup
of problems of that nature, but if you take ’em off that
pasture and you have ’em in a different pasture
where cows were and put the cows
where the sheep were, then you get a kind of
a natural type selection of what problems you might have. So, you know, it’s not perfect and it won’t get rid
of things entirely, but it helps reduce the
load, which is something they talk about a lot, the
parasite loads for animals, and then with fertilization. Oh, yeah, you can feel
the heat in there. If you put your hand in there, you can feel the heat.
– Yeah. And sheep manure is– – It’s really good.
– Really high quality garden– – Yeah, it doesn’t, it’s not so strong that you
couldn’t just use it, but in combination
with our cow manure, horse manure, and the chicken,
we get this, you know, and we don’t put any
of this on right away. So, it’s always gonna sit
probably about a year. – Uh huh. – And the compost we
put on the pastures to reinvigorate the
grass we have out here and then also they
are a key component of the produce company. So, the beds where we
grow the vegetables, we create our own
compost for growth and our compost tea for
kind of fertilization, so. Ah! Tomatoes are turnin’. Just an integration and
then involved in that and part of that also
is haying the grounds. So, once we fertilize and
got the grass to a level, we try to be self sustaining. You know, it’s just
a complete cycle of utilizing everything, but
trying not to over utilize and to, in fact, increase
the fertility of the soil by using our compost
and our rotations. We don’t till. We usually use no till
practices most exclusively and that just means
we don’t lose our soil to Nebraska and Kansas
’cause heck knows, we’ve got winds through here
and it will just take it off and that’s something
with the corrals we have issues with sometimes. But, they’re small, so,
but all these areas, we try to keep covered. But, we really, I raise ’em.
(sheep bleating) They need to pay for themselves, so I do sell a lot of lambs. I do sell ground lamb, which
it seems to be incredibly popular meat these
days, and then the hides when they’re processed. We try to use
everything and make them pay for their own
hay ’cause it’s not a big enough operation to
reallY make economic sense by itself, just selling
’em is, they’re not as big. I mean, Dorpers, those
suckers, you can sell ’em out at a year at, what, 125 pounds. If I get one that’s 65,
70 pounds, you know, they’re just a smaller animal. (rustling) This is one of our fall
lambs that was processed for clients. – [Man] That box is
one whole animal? – That’s one whole animal. So, you’ve got your
chops, of course, and some steak type things. You’ve got leg of lamb. We do rolled leg of lamb
and whole leg of lamb. Or, this is actually
a shoulder roast. And then, the shanks
are a very popular cut. These shanks are
actually the legs and people use ’em in
stews, they use ’em on the grill, roasted. Probably the hardest
thing that I have to do is decide who’s gonna be
processed and who’s not and I know it’s done correctly when it’s done by professionals. It’s just wanting to
make sure everybody’s, everything’s done right. Crazy little rascals. They like trees better
than they like grass. You just, you know
you’re killing something. But, you know, there’s a cycle and people do want
to eat this animal and so it, for us,
it’s just a way of perpetuating the breed,
a species that we feel should be allowed to continue
to contribute on the planet. So. – It is a rescue story, but
it’s also a marketing story and you need the
getting on board people who butcher and get
the butchering right. (string instrumental music)
(chattering) The customer’s gotten
pretty sophisticated. They know the cuts they want, they know how thick
they want them, they’re rather specific
about how they cook it and what they like to
eat, and as producers, we have to match what we do
with what they want to buy. (cheerful music) – [Narrator] Up in Lovell,
a more modern sheep breed is being used to
rebuild poor soil while homeschooling the family. – My husband found this
place on eBay (laughs) of all things and started
looking into the area. We came here initially just
to do some construction and have some
property and hoping that we could do
enough on the property to pay some property taxes
and raise some of our own food and teach the kids
some of those skills. But, shortly after
we moved here, we started trying
to grow things, we realized that the
soil had issues out here. We didn’t, actually didn’t
have soil, we had dirt. So, that began our journey. – [Narrator] The
first years were spent trying to aerate the land
while establishing grasses to shift from weeds
to grazeable pastures. – There’s a lot of
different methods people use to contain the weeds and
they still come back. We never did spray. We tried a little
burning and we thought, “Well, why not sheep?” We started with just
four sheep, actually, and we built it. We now have about 800
head running around, but we like the Katahdins
and Dorpers a lot. – [Narrator] Both these
breeds were developed in the past 80 years
and are now becoming quite popular in Wyoming. – [Kerri] Doing a straight
Katahdin or a straight Dorper, we haven’t seen our greatest
result with that, actually. A mix between the
two has produced some of the nicest
looking lambs, so. – [Narrator] Both are hair sheep bred for meat production
rather than wool. – Because they don’t have
wool, all their energy and all that forage
that they’re eating goes to their meat production. So, for us, as owner operators on a smaller acreage,
the fact that they shed and then we don’t
have to shear them every year is a huge benefit. – The Dorper and Katahdin
mamas are, like, really good. We don’t find many that,
like, reject their lambs or that’s what we kinda
need ’cause it gets so cold and we tend to
have so many lambs dropping at the same
time that we need good mothers to take
care of their lambs. – [Narrator] And
sheep are a good fit when children are
part of the farm crew. – [Kerri] From the homesteader
aspect, it’s really nice. Lambs are and sheep
are easy keepers and if they know how to
lamb and raise lambs, that’s a nice source of meat. – Well, it’s an
interesting experience learning to, like, market
and you learn things in a course of everyday
life that, like, can, you can use later on. – We gave them the choice
this year to try school or to keep homeschooling
and three of our four decided to try school. – [Narrator] Jenna decided to
stay on with the farm work. – I would have been
going the last, this year to middle school, so I can’t say that impressed me that much. But, she’s got a
nice set of teeth. If the teeth start falling out, that means that he’s
gettin’ pretty old and she’s probably almost at
the end of fruitful lambing. But, I was hoping, my
brother’s in high school and I would be in high
school, yeah, next year that we could hear about
that and, who knows, maybe I’ll decide to go
to high school next year. – [Narrator] For
now, Jenna continues her education on the farm. And with the addition
of a herd dog, there’s a new skill to learn. (sheep bleating)
(upbeat music) – Louie, he’s a Border Collie. We saw him, he was for sale. We had never had, like,
any sheep dog before. We had done all our
herding by ourselves, so we just decided to get
him and see how he does and it’s been,
like, a lot of fun. (upbeat music) Lot of, like, actually learning
for us as well as for him figuring out how
the sheepdogs work. (sheep bleating)
(upbeat music) ‘Cause they, like, all have
different characteristics, like some like to herd
sheep in different ways, some like to stay
close to people, some, so yeah, it’s
been really fun. (sheep bleating)
(upbeat music) – [Woman] Ah, easily. – I’ve given a little
bit of thought to, like, training sheep dogs a bit, but just kinda keeping
up with Louie now and we’re seeing how it goes. He’s a nice boy.
(sheep bleating) I think we all like him. – [Narrator] And guardian
dogs are an important part of the farm family as well. – Well, the livestock
guard dogs are essential to our operation. We could not do
this without them. – [Narrator] Most sheep
operations in Wyoming are surrounded by large
predator populations. – Most of our predator
pressure here is predominantly coyote and fox. We have some smaller
predators, raccoons, some weasels, skunk,
things like that that are a bigger problem
when we’re lambing. And we do have birds
of prey predators. We have hawks, eagles,
and owls, and they will snatch a lamb if
they have the chance or prey on a mama who– If there’s a mama
down in the pasture and she’s just had lambs
and she’s had trouble and she can’t get up, a bird
will take advantage of that, which is natural and normal. We have had– Some of our livestock guard dogs are really good about
seeing the birds overhead and they run underneath
them barking, which is usually enough to
help keep the birds away. – [Narrator] Through
centuries of breeding, these guardian dogs
are highly attuned to instinctively
protect their livestock. – [Jenna] They’re smart
and they know what, like, they need to do with
predators and stuff. Like, they won’t always
run out after a predator, but they’ll keep it
away from the sheep. Ours tend to be that. – [Kerri] When the coyotes
pack up and start putting more pressure on, the dogs
are good at going after them. – Yeah, especially if, like,
we hear coyotes or something, we’ll hear ’em barking. – [Narrator] It’s an age old way of leveling the playing
field where predators are ever present. – We’re really not
into wiping out wild (laughs) wildlife in
any way, shape, or form, so the presence of
the dogs is a big part of just keeping
other predators away. We have treated
wounds on our LGDs because they do get into
scrapes with things, so we like our LGDs to
be able to be handled, even by our kids if
we need to grab them and treat wounds or injuries. – We mostly have Pyrenees. They are pretty
friendly and nice. What people like
a lot about them they’re very smart and
when they form a bond with the sheep,
they’ll stay out there. Our Pyrenees, they kind
of have a half and half with the sheep, but
kinda like people. – We actually have four dogs
with this herd right now and that’s a little overkill,
but three of the dogs are young puppies
who we’re training. And what we’ve found
is it’s good for them to shadow an older dog,
but also our older dogs, you can have accidents
and we had an instance where we lost one, one of our best dogs
right before lambing, and had the other dog
down with a litter and we had nothing
to protect our sheep during lambing, which is
when these dogs probably work the hardest for us.
(barking) So, we have a couple dogs
now who are more retiring and they’re going out
not doing as much. We have two really strong dogs and we have three pups that we’re training
(barking) that are not quite
a year old yet. So, they say it takes two years to make a good
livestock guard dog and we would have
to agree with that. They need to mature and
get big and strong enough. Ours are out here,
though, you know, with the sheep all the time, even from a young age and
they learn very quickly. But, in order to
be mature enough to handle all the situations
they might encounter, they need a good
two years to mature and so we try to
always have a dog who’s ready to take
over if we need one to. – They tend to be
kinda lazy almost, sleeping a lot, but
then they work at night. They do a lot of stuff at night. There might be a
lot stuff out here that people don’t know
and it’s nice to learn it and it’s actually helpful. – [Kerri] I think it’s
been good for them to learn how animals work, how
animals interact together, what we can do as people
to care for our animals. – [Jenna] Then, of course,
like, if there’s something wrong with the lambs and the
mom can’t push them out, then, sometimes, we
have to catch her and help her birth the lamb. – That kind of care can also
translate into other skills, professions, life
(laughs) in the future, to show care for the
things that have been put, entrusted to, you know, things
that are your responsibility. I think it has also increased
their respect for food and where our food comes from. (calm music) A big part of it, for me, too, is ethical treatment of animals. I love animals, so I know
that we slaughter them for our food, but
I’d like to know that they had a good,
healthy, safe life up until that point. (calm music) (calm music becomes more upbeat) (sheep bleating)

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  1. Be great to see some of their recipes for cooking lamb. Back in the 50s,60s usually served with mint to mask the gamey taste.

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