CROWN CITY, Ohio — Crystal Criswell believes in her sheep. She raises St. Croix hair sheep, a heritage breed that is known for being parasite resistant, and for good mothering abilities.
But she also knows that just because a breed is known for those things doesn’t mean every sheep measures up to those standards. So at Melwood Farm, she wants to improve not only her flock, but the breed as a whole, in addition to helping conserve the breed.
“That’s really what I’m after. I want to have a nice, diverse flock so that I can supply starter flocks to folks,” Criswell said. “And I want them to be able to leave with the sheep on their trailer and know that they’re good sheep.”
Criswell grew up on a small farm in Kansas, where her family raised pigs and poultry, and where she raised steer and heifers to show in 4-H. She has lived in the southern Ohio area since 1994, and she and her husband, Chris, always wanted to buy some property for their own small farm. They were able to do that and start the farm near Crown City, Ohio, in 2018.
Now, Criswell raises St. Croix sheep, myotonic goats, also known as fainting goats, and several types of poultry. She is also adding a few Katahdin sheep, which she plans to sell to people who want them for meat. St. Croix are also a meat breed, but Melwood Farm is a seedstock producer, so most of the St. Croix sheep go to other breeders.
Criswell got into heritage breeds through poultry. She was looking for chickens, and a friend suggested picking out a breed that The Livestock Conservancy had on its conservation priority list.
Then, after she and her husband bought their farm, she wanted to get some sheep to raise. She decided on St. Croix because of their parasite resistance, and because they are hair sheep — she didn’t want to deal with wool. They also tend to be calm, which she finds easier to manage.
Criswell noted some larger meat sheep producers breed St. Croix sheep into their flocks because of their parasite resistance.
“If someone doesn’t do it … they won’t have that as a resource,” she said.
The breed is listed as “watch,” on The Livestock Conservancy’s conservation priority list. That designation is for breeds with fewer than 2,500 annual registrations in the U.S., and with an estimated less than 10,000 animals in the global population.
Because she is raising a sheep breed that has a limited number of registered animals in the U.S., Criswell uses conservation breeding on her farm. Conservation breeding is focused on increasing a flock size while minimizing inbreeding, and preserving specific bloodlines.
Criswell’s flock is divided into three bloodlines, with three rams and currently 26 ewes. She color-codes scrapie tags for lambs by which ram is their sire. She also keeps careful records so she knows which sheep are related to each other.
Criswell recently joined the National Sheep Improvement Program, which helps farmers evaluate their animals to improve their flocks. She is one of only three farmers to join with St. Croix sheep. What prompted her to join was a Katahdin sheep farmer who urged St. Croix breeders in a Facebook group to get involved.
“He kept harping on us that, you know, we St. Croix breeders needed to put our money where our mouth is, and prove that our sheep really are parasite resistant, and we need that be working to actually make them better instead of just saying, ‘yeah, here they are, aren’t they lovely?’” Criswell said. “And that hit home with me.”
Criswell has always been choosy about her rams. The top 50% are sold for breeding. Any under the 50th percentile are sold for meat. But it can be difficult to determine who is in which half.
In the past, she has just used a spreadsheet with data about each individual lamb. The program will also take into account information about each lamb’s relatives to help come up with an estimated breeding value for each animal. That will give her a more complete idea of which ram lambs should go to market and which should go to other farms.
She’s a little less choosy about ewe lambs. Almost all of them go to other farmers, unless they aren’t parasite resistant or don’t grow well. But she aims to send the better-performing ones to other breeders, where their genetics will continue on, and sends the lower-performing ones to homesteaders who are more interested in raising sheep for their own meat.
The last few years of the farm have not been easy. In 2020, Criswell was diagnosed with cancer. She is now in remission, but was going through treatment during 2020 and part of 2021. The same year, a global pandemic hit. Her husband lost his job due to the pandemic.
With all of those factors adding up, a lot of their plans for the farm were slowed down or put on pause. But she didn’t want to pull back on farming entirely, especially on sheep.
“I saw the writing on the wall, based off of the popularity of the breed … going up,” Criswell explained.
St. Croix sheep have gotten a lot more popular than they were when she first started raising them. Eight of her lambs were already reserved going into lambing season, and now nearly all of them are sold. She also has a waiting list for next spring.
She credits the increase in interest to a couple of homesteaders and farmers who make videos on YouTube and have talked about the benefits of raising St. Croix sheep, and to the boom in local food interest during the pandemic. Most of the people who buy her sheep find her farm through the breed association, and most of them want three ewe lambs to get a flock started.
Criswell is still slowly growing her flock and determining exactly what the right number of ewes is for herself and her land. She also wants to help the people buying sheep from her learn more about managing their flocks.
She held a workshop in 2021 on topics like record keeping and giving shots. She has three more workshops scheduled for this year and is hoping to reach people who are new to sheep farming.
“I think about when I was new, I just had to figure it out,” Criswell said. She relied on books, Facebook groups and farmers in the St. Croix Hair Sheep Breeders association.
One of her biggest goals is to improve her flock. She believes joining the National Sheep Improvement Program will help her prove how well her sheep perform.
“I want to have the best St. Croix,” she said. “Most folks that have the sheep don’t prove it. … We all know just because as a breed they’re supposed to be parasite-resistant, that doesn’t mean that this sheep is.”
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Thank you so much for taking time on our farm, Sarah. I appreciate your efforts to highlight small farms like mine!
It is nice to see the growing interest in St. Croix Sheep and it’s derivative breed Katahdin. My father who was the Diorector of the United States Department of Agriculture on St. Croix, United States Virgin Islands at the time shipped the first animals in the breed to the mainland. He was collaborating with Maine farmer Michael Piel.