TORONTO, Ohio – Gracie stands guard.
A huge, muscular ball of white hair and full of spit and venom, the Great Pyrenees dog watches over her family in Jefferson County, Ohio.
The youngest members, barely 24 hours old, scamper and hop on their newly found spindly legs.
Gracie carefully watches these Dorper lambs, which aren’t just ordinary sheep. Originally from South Africa, there are only approximately 2,700 fulI-blood Dorpers in the United States.
The canine lifts her head, nose to the sky, and howls into the air above, tossing gauzy clouds of breath that disappear into the frigid morning air. Another howl signals that Gracie has spotted the shepherd walking toward the barn.
The shepherd is Chuck White and it is feeding time for the 37 sheep at Debray Farm in Toronto, Ohio.
Unknown territory. Chuck and his wife, Deb, bought these 74 acres eight years ago without knowing what was going to become of it. Chuck, 54, wanted to hunt on the land and both of them were anxious to build a new home.
But Chuck had other ideas as well. He wanted to get back to his roots; he wanted to improve the land and raise animals.
Growing up, Chuck’s family had cattle and horses, but these animals weren’t in his future plans.
After several years and countless hours of research, he came to a conclusion: He would be a shepherd and his flock would be Dorper sheep.
Shocking news. Although Deb didn’t mind his decision, his family was a bit shocked.
“You hated sheep; you hated sheep. What are you doing?” his family asked.
They remembered Chuck’s stint in the 1960s after he got home from the Army when he worked for a woman who had 500 sheep.
“All I could remember were the nightmares of hoof rot treatment, trimming feet, fly strike, shearing and staying up night after night during lambing,” he said. “Needless to say, sheep were not my first choice.”
But Dorpers aren’t ordinary sheep, he told his family.
“They’re easy-care sheep,” Chuck said. “That’s what sold me on them in the first place.”
He now raises the sheep and sells them as breeding stock.
Easy animals. They shed their wool each spring so he doesn’t have to bother with shearing, they don’t get hoof rot and they are parasite resistant.
What really made them such a good choice for Chuck, who also has a full-time job as a maintenance manager at Franciscan University in Steubenville, is that there aren’t any late nights riddled with lambing difficulties.
Dorpers rarely need assistance when giving birth. In fact, all Chuck has to do is dip their navels, band their tails and put them back with their mothers.
The sheep are also out-of-season breeders. They can breed any time and typically have three sets of lambs in two years.
In Chuck’s experience, his yearlings always have one lamb during their first pregnancy and twins the second time around.
Dorpers, with their white bodies and black heads, are heat tolerant and productive in almost any climate. Mature ewes weigh approximately 175 pounds, and mature rams weigh between 200-250 pounds.
There are also White Dorpers that are maintained as a separate breed but differ only in color. White Dorpers are solid white.
Pass the meat. Dorpers are a meat sheep, but right now they’re too expensive to eat in the United States. In South Africa, Dorpers are the second largest breed of sheep, with more than 10 million head scattering the countryside.
Chuck and Deb, however, are lucky; they are perhaps the only people in the country who have eaten Dorper meat.
One of their full-blood Dorper rams broke his neck by putting it through a fence two years ago.
“I butchered him and it was, without a doubt, the best lamb we had ever eaten,” Chuck said. “At that time, I was sure we had made the right choice.”
A couple weeks later at a Dorper seminar, a South African instructor said, “I am going to tell you that a Dorper is one of the finest sheep you will ever eat, but at $3,000 for a ram, no one in the United States has ever eaten a full-blood.”
Chuck raised his hand and told his story.
“At $50 a pound, it had better be good,” he told the instructor.
He hopes the cost of Dorpers decreases so more people can afford them. If the breed increases in the United States, they can eventually be sold for slaughter.
Losing out. There have been other losses along the way. Coyotes and other predators are a constant threat. In the days before Gracie, a $4,000 full-blood ewe lamb and a 50 percent ram lamb were killed by dogs.
Although Gracie is now the flock’s personal bodyguard, she used to get her roles confused.
“As soon as [the lambs] were born, she would take them, clean them up and off she would go with the lamb following her,” Chuck said.
“We would have to get the lamb, take it back to its mother and try to make her understand why her lamb smelled like a dog. Thank goodness Gracie has now decided to just be a baby sitter.”
Although Gracie soon grew out of the mothering role, she still has to convince the babies that she is part of their family.
She still briefly takes the lamb, licking it to let it know she’s one of them.
Surprising start. The couple bought their first Dorpers four years ago, two pregnant ewes and a ram for $10,500.
The Indiana woman who was selling them said there wouldn’t be any Dorpers available for awhile but took the order any way.
Three weeks later she said another buyer had backed out of his order and she could have the sheep at Chuck’s farm in two weeks.
Not prepared for getting the sheep so quickly, Chuck rushed into action.
“I borrowed the money, sent a check and prayed I didn’t make a big mistake,” he said. “We had no fences, no barn and really no idea what to expect.”
He put up temporary fencing and built a small shed and hoped the sheep, which weren’t covered by insurance during transport, arrived safely.
The livestock hauler showed up at 4:30 a.m., knocked on the back door and delivered Debray Farm’s future.
The barn was finished last year and now the sheep spend much of the cold months inside. They graze all summer.
Katahdins. In the beginning, Chuck and Deb also bought some Katahdin ewes from a breeder in Canada and started crossbreeding Dorpers and Katahdins. The aim was to increase the Dorper herd without the cost of all full-blood Dorpers.
Chuck said this was a good combination because the Katahdins had many of the same characteristics as Dorpers, just not the size or high cost.
In these early days, the couple planned on having two flocks. A commercial cross flock and a full-blood Dorper flock.
Although he still has some Katahdins and crosses, his goal now is to have a full-blood and purebred Dorper flock.
“It isn’t quantity of sheep I want,” he said. “It’s quality. I want to have quality breeding stock.”
Pure vs. full. Purebred Dorpers were developed in the United States.
On the other hand, full bloods are pure South African descendants.
Purebreds are crossed with full bloods to increase the amount of Dorper in the sheep, but they can never be a full-blood.
Chuck has both on his farm and is selling many percentage Dorpers. He isn’t planning on selling any purebreds or full bloods until they are the only breed in his flock.
In addition to selling to breeders in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Michigan, Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois, he sells to FFA and 4-H members. Debray Farm also donates lambs to Edison FFA.
Good girl, Gracie. Feeding time is over. The sheep have quieted down now that their bellies are full. The youngest tried nibbling at some stray strands of hay but are now resorting to their mother’s milk instead.
Although Gracie is still on duty after breakfast, steadfastly guarding her flock, she has been known to somehow sneak out of the fence for a little romp in the rest of the yard.
No one has actually seen Gracie’s stealth move, and she always makes sure the sheep stay safely inside.
Despite her occasional lapse, she is the best addition to the farm’s security, howling to her flock and guiding them to safety when necessary.
No sheep have been lost under Gracie’s faithful watch.
(You can contact Kristy Hebert at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at email@example.com.)
To learn more:
American Dorper Sheep Breeders’ Society
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