Forget what you think you know about sheep. St Croix aren't sheep: they are sheep.
Space is limited and we are all trying to get the most we can out of our homestead so we can be as self sufficient as possible. Because of stereotypes, it is tragically easy to overlook one of the best animals to have on a small farm. One of the rarest breeds of sheep in the US is also one of the best suited for you and your family.
No Wool, No Mess
No shearing is needed (and also no tail docking or crutching). St Croix are a tropical breed from the Caribbeans that shed their coat like a bison. They grow a nice thick wool to keep them warm over the winter, and slough it off to handle our sweltering summers. They have been shown to handle the heat better than Katahdins.
They also shed much better than many other hair breeds. Many Dorpers have a problem with still needing to be sheared, and we have noticed many Katahdin flocks that still retain half of their coats when shedding. That isn't an issue we have found in the tiny Barbados sheep we had in the past and our current St Croix flock.
Parasite Resistant Means Less Fuss, More Organic
Not only are they hardy with lambs that hit the ground running, they are also naturally parasite resistant. These are the sort of sheep you have to load with toxins every month just to keep them from collapsing. As long as they are kept in a clean environment, worms aren't something you have to worry about. It is one less problem.
Healthy, Mild Flavored Meat
They regularly produce twins and triplets when they lamb, and since they can be bred year round, you can get three lambings every two years. The picture to the left shows these fantastic qualities at work: we woke up to two sets of lambs having been born happy and healthy right before dawn. No intervention was necessary and the ewes let us handle the babies shortly after the pictures were taken.
At two lambs per lambing and over 100lbs at weaning, a single ewe can produce over 600lbs of lamb every two years on a half acre of pasture. A single cow needs at least an acre of pasture for herself, and another for her growing calf, and will need nine months before calving, then another year of growth. Sheep have a five month gestation period and can be processed six months.
Since you don't have to put a whole cow in the freezer at once, you don't need to worry about having room for your pork, chicken, turkey, leftover soup, and everything else in the freezer. You can process a couple of lambs at a time. And given the size, if you can butcher your own deer, you are able to butcher your own sheep, giving you access to more soup bones, fat to render into soap or for cooking, a hide for rugs or warm blankets.
Hair sheep don't have that strong, muttony flavor that has turned many of us off of eating it. They have a very mild, beef-like flavor that is more healthy than beef and is extremely tender.
While somewhat smaller than Katahdins, that size seems to work in their favor. When Katahdins were developed, it was with a large, heavy meat breed in mind. But the larger the sheep, the more that is needed to gain that weight. A study was conducted by the Virginia State University and published as a downloadable pdf here in the 2005 Sheep & Goat Research Journal comparing the growth peformance of Barbados, Katahdin, and St Croix hair sheep. Their conclusion:
Growth rates generally reflected the mature size of the three breeds, however, there was no difference in growth between Katahdin and St. Croix lambs when a lower level of concentrate supplement was supplied. This suggests that Katahdin were not able to express their improved growth potential on a high forage diet.This means that pound for pound, the St Croix was able to gain as much as Katahdins without the added expensive of graining or supplemental feeding.
Rich, Mild Flavored Milk
St Croix produce a lot of milk, and can be used as a dairy sheep if you want to milk. If you don't, then they don't have to be milked - just let the babies have it all. Sheep milk for around five months out of the year, allowing you to have a break - or you can stagger breedings in ewes and keep milking year round. They produce a rich, creamy milk with a 12%~ butterfat that, pound for pround, produces twice as much cheese per gallon as cow's milk. And, unlike cow or goat's milk, it can be frozen without separating. So you can freeze milk until you actually have the time to make cheese, rather than be forced into the kitchen with ten gallons of milk and a need to find something to do about that right this moment.
A small homestead can keep three sheep on half an acre, which would produce an average total of a gallon of milk per day, plus around nine lambs per year. All while helping improve your pasture by nibbling on plants that cows and horses tend to eat around.
As an added benefit, by keeping three or more sheep you will be allowing them to live more naturally in a social group. Cows, horses, goats, and sheep are, by nature, social animals. While they can settle for a subsstitute to keep them company, they will be able to form social bonds with other sheep. This is hard to do with a dairy cow, whereas a single acre can allow more comfort in a flock. I feel that this adds a lot to their emotional and psychological wellbeing.
Polled, Small and Docile
Being naturally polled, you don't have to worry about getting poked by a stray horn when around them. The rams are very mild mannered: I've never had to worry about being charged or bowled over while out in the field, and bachelor groups of rams get along fine. This is a common trait found throughout the breed. While there are going to be exceptions to the rule, the overwhelming majority of these rams seem to have no interest in picking a fight with people. With that being said, it is always a good idea to treat a ram like a ram until you are familiar with him. As a general rule, animals can be unpredictable. It is up to you to know your your livestock.
That docility extends out to your property: they don't tear up or push through fences like goats, nor do they climb around on everything (which is a blessing to anyone who has walked outside to find a goat on the roof of their car).
Their small size is also a huge asset. Being stepped on by a sheep is far less of a problem than being stepped on by a horse or cow. Vet checks are as simple as loading your sheep up in a large dog crate and bringing them directly there should you not want the added cost of a home visit.
Smart and Strong (AKA: Draft Sheep)
They are also clever and can be taught a lot of things: including how to pull a load around the farm to help out, or fitted with packs to carry while out hiking. If you are just looking for a couple of weed eaters and living lawn mowers that can do other things to earn their keep, the boys can be taught to haul water, hay, feed, or your apple harvest (the girls can, too - but since the girls are usually raising a baby they aren't in the same physical condition the jobless boys are in).
This follows an old tradition with goats and sheep. They have been used as cart animals for generations - especially in areas where it isn't feasible to have a team of oxen or draft horses. Goats and sheep are still used as cart animals around the world. Being able to keep your draft team comfortably penned up in a backyard has many advantages. They may not be as strong, but they can still do a lot of small jobs that would be difficult to do by hand. Plus who wouldn't want their own fancy sheep carriage?
In the past, these were a fantastic way to teach children how to take care of, train, and drive a cart. It was easier to hitch up a ram or pet wether than it was to hitch up an ox or horse. Mistakes were made on a much smaller scale and safer learning could be done. This gives you or your kids the opportunity to work their own team while learning valuable lessons. Hauling water and hay becomes less of a chore (and less hazardous on ice) if you're guiding your team to carry it.
There are hundreds of old pictures online of children and adults parading around in simple carts and fashionable carriages. This is a lost art that can not only help bring back diversity in a small homestead, but provide an additional use for a ram outside of the breeding season, which reduces the risk of bringing in disease, while also providing a bonding experience between you and your pet lawn mowers if you choose to keep a couple of wethers for personal enjoyment.