Frequently Asked Questions
It is so hard to get information specific to Barbados Blackbellies to help guide in their health, feeding, and lambing needs. The SHEEP-L listserv is an excellent resource for all sheep breeders, but much of the information that works well for wooly sheep is of little merit to the Barbados Blackbelly. Below are some of the questions I've extracted from the phone calls I receive each week and the questions posted to the Blackbelly email group. More than anything else, I've learned that unlike the wooly sheep that have been domesticated for thousands of years and have come to depend on humans for every moment of their life, the Barbados Blackbelly are still "very close to the earth" and don't need, or want, much from us.
Disclaimer: This information pertains to Barbados Blackbelly sheep living in Pueblo, Colorado, where it is excruciatingly hot in the summer, pretty darned cold in the winter, and dry as a bone year-round. I do not profess to be an expert on sheep, so don't yell at me if this stuff doesn't work for you.
Q: What breed of sheep do I have?
A: Critterhaven believes it is important that you refer to your sheep by their correct breed. If you are interested in learning more about blackbelly sheep, regardless of which breed your raise, then there is a lot of information available for you on this site. All we ask is that you take the time to learn which breed you raise and disclose your sheep's breed and genetics when you sell breeding stock or lambs.
Q: What is a hair sheep? What are these sheep good for?
A: Hair sheep have hair, not wool. If they live in a very cold winter climate, they will have varying degrees of a woolie undercoat. This undercoat sheds out each spring, coming off in clumps or long strands (like dreadlocks). To the best of my knowledge, no one can use this hair for spinning/weaving, thus eliminating a fiber market.
Q: My rams have horns but the ones I see on your Web page do not. What is the difference?
A: Barbados Blackbelly breeders fall into three groups, and many may belong to more than one group.
Q: Two of my ram lambs have developed scurs even though their sire is a non-scurred ram. Is a ram with scurs less valuable or desirable than a ram with no scurs?
A: (from Linda Sakiewicz) Scurs occur! Many adult polled rams had scurs as lambs that were broken off during a fight with other rams. Some people knock the scurs off so that they won't get caught on fencing. These rams, then, appear to have been polled all along. There is nothing wrong with scurs. Rams and ewes on the island of Barbados are polled or have short scurs. Even though your ram and ewe do not have scurs or horns they may still carry the trait for scurs or even for larger horns. So if a ewe with the genes to produce scurs mates with a ram with genes to produce scurs then they may produce offspring with scurs. About 1 in 10 of our purebred rams from polled parents will get horns large enough that we will cull them rather than breed them.
Q: Will my sheep get as big as wooly sheep?
A: Nope. A mature ewe will top out at around 70 lb as compared to the 100+ lb that a wooly gets to.
Q: These sheep sure seem wild. Do they ever get tame?
A: Barbados Blackbellies are not kissy in-your-face kind of sheep. At worst they are wilder than a wild deer and quite capable of jumping 4-ft-high fences. However, over time they can learn to trust you and will calm down considerably.
Q: Why do my sheep look like they have leprosy in the spring?
A: These are hair sheep and every spring their hair sheds just as it does on your cat or dog. Most of the time they will scratch it off, but they can look shaggy for months. I usually get tired of their looking like they belong in a rag bag and pluck the hair off while the sheep eat. While I'm plucking, I remind myself how lucky I am to not have to shear these lovely animals.
Q: I want to tag my sheep's ears, but the ears are so small and even the small plastic tags for sheep are so large that the ears just flop over. And that's a HUGH hole to put in a little ear. What should I do?
Q: How do I register my sheep? Is there a breed registry?
A: The Barbados Blackbelly Sheep Assn Int'l (BBSAI) (http://www.blackbellysheep.org) is the registry for both Barbados Blackbelly and American Blackbelly sheep. Only members can register sheep and it costs $5 per sheep.
Q: What kind of records do I need to keep for my sheep?
A: You can download a good flock record form at http://www.critterhaven.biz/info/forms/flockrec.pdf
~~Feeding and Pasture~~
Q: What should I feed my sheep? How often? How much?
A: This is one of those "it depends" questions. It depends on the nutritional content of the forage (hay, grass, etc.) you have on hand; it depends on where you live; it depends on what season it is. But here is some information to get you started: In the winter when there is NO pasture, I feed about 1/2 lb of corn and a half-flake of alfalfa hay per ewe per day. For my late-gestation and lactating ewes, I double the grain ratio—1/2 lb corn and 1/2 lb sweet oats. Regardless of what bagged grain you feed, make sure it doesn't contain copper because copper is toxic to sheep.
Q: How many sheep can I put on my pasture?
A: Check with your local extension office to learn how many pounds of animal you can grow on your pasture. Be careful not to overstock because sheep will overgraze your pasture and kill it. Here in eastern Colorado it is very arid. I rotate small paddocks of pasture throughout the summer and am able to graze 16 to 20 sheep on 2 acres.
Q: Do my sheep need a mineral block?
A: It's a good idea to provide either a mineral block or loose minerals. Make sure you purchase a mineral specifically designed for sheep; horse and cow mineral blocks contain copper, which is toxic to sheep.
Q: What kind of pasture grass should I plant for my sheep?
A: Check with your local extension office to learn what grasses grow best in your area. Just about any high-protein grass is fine. My sheep graze a 50/50 mix of alfalfa and perennial rye. Blackbellies will do fine on poorer forage, but if you are planting new pasture why not plant the grass that will grow best in your area.
Q: What kind of vaccination schedule should I use for my Barbados Blackbellies?
A: Almost everyone does this differently, but many Blackbelly breeders use NO vaccines on their sheep. No CD&T, no nothing. These sheep are naturally resistant to disease and in some areas of the country, such as North Carolina and Colorado, they seem to do well without the help of vaccines.
Q: What kind of worming schedule should I use for my Barbados Blackbellies?
A: You have to find where on the worm/don't worm line you want to take your stand. Blackbelly sheep are naturally tolerant of a worm load and to maintain that natural genetic resistance, animals that are less resistant should be culled, whether naturally or by selective breeding. If you routinely deworm your sheep just because everyone tells you to, and if your sheep cannot thrive without being dewormed, then you are contributing to the demise of this natural trait in the breed.
Q: So, how do I monitor my flocks worm count?
A: You can either take a sample to your vet or you can learn to do it yourself. You will need a microscope, however.
Q: I know I don't need to dock my Blackbelly's tail. But why not?
A: Blackbelly tails don't have wool under them so they don't collect feces and get nasty. Therefore, there is no reason to dock. The sheep use their tails to swat flies much as horses do. Most importantly, this breed of sheep HAVE TAILS and to register your sheep they must not be docked. Longer tails seem to be favored by breeders, too.
Q: Should I castrate my ram lambs?
~~Breeding and Lambing~~
Q: I read about all the lambing woes that wooly sheep breeders go through. Will my Barbados Blackbelly require special attention at lambing time?
Q: How often can my ewes have lambs?
A: Barbados Blackbelly ewes are not seasonal breeders. That means that they can breed any time of the year. They are receptive to a ram about every 17 days. It is common to have a ewe go through lambing twice in one year.
Q: When should I wean my lambs? How long should I keep them separate from their moms?
A: You should wean lambs between 8 and 12 weeks of age. I like to wait until they are 12 weeks unless they are butting the ewe extremely hard. I usually keep the babies off the ewes for two weeks. That usually dries up the udder and allows the ewes and lambs to emotionally separate from each other, too. One important thing about weaning is to leave the lambs in the environment they've been in and to take away the ewes. In a perfect setting, the ewes should be too far away to hear their babies, but who has that much land? In my situation, the best I can do is put them in adjoining pastures. They stand on either side of the fence and stare mournfully at each other for several days, bellowing their heads off, and then get on with their business of eating.
Q: What equipment do I need to have on hand before lambing starts?
Q: How do I know if my ewe is pregnant?
A: Blackbellies are notorious for keeping their pregnancy secret. Sometimes the only way you know your ewe is pregnant is when you see four to eight new little legs underneath her. Most ewes will begin "showing" during month 4. The best way (although not sure-fire) is to expose the ewe to a ram for 37 days and hope that you can witness a mating during that time.
Q: Should I let the ram run with the ewes all the time?
A: If you only have one ram, and you don't mind not knowing for sure when your ewe is ready to lamb, then usually it is alright to allow the ram to remain with the ewes. Monitor his behavior toward new lambs carefully, however, to ensure he doesn't harm them. In general, however, it is better to expose the ewe to the ram for a specific period after which you remove the ram. This enables you to better plan the lambing to ensure it fits YOUR schedule.
Q: How will I know when my ewe is ready to give birth?
A: Sometimes a ewe will bag up a week or so before lambing, but more often she won't. Sometimes the ewe will remove herself from the flock or not eat at her usual feeding. Sometimes, neither of these events occur. If you see the ewe is extremely restless, standing up and down, and pawing the ground, lambing is VERY imminent.
Q: When should I butcher my lambs? How heavy should they be?
A: At 9 months, a ram lamb will dress out at 42-44 lb. At 14 months, a ram should dress out at 55 lb. Because the blackbelly doesn't have that muttony taste, rams up to 2 years old can be butchered (the meat will be very tasty, but may be quite tough.). In contrast, you may have customers request weanling lambs for whole-lamb barbeque.
Q: How does the cholesterol value in hair sheep compare to other kinds of meat?
Q: How does the meat compare to woolie lamb meat?
A: Blackbelly lamb is very mild tasting compared to woolie lamb, which is often muttony tasting. Blackbelly lamb is also very lean and tender. Even rams butchered at 2 years of age will taste good (they will be tougher, however).
Q: Where can I send the hides to be tanned?
Q: How should I market my sheep and the meat?
A: Rather than repeating everything here, please see the slideshow I gave at the North American Hair Sheep Symposium in San Angelo, TX. It lists a lot of marketing strategies you will find useful.
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