From the time Churro sheep were introduced to the indigenous people of the Southwest by Spanish explorer Francisco Vazquez de Coronado in 1540, sheep have been an important part of Navajo cultural tradition.
More than 47 percent of the 89,745 sheep raised in New Mexico are in Navajo herds in McKinley and San Juan counties, while 83 percent of Arizona’s state herd is raised on Navajo land in the northeast region of the state, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture 2012 Census of Agriculture.
New Mexico State University and Diné College Cooperative Extension Service agents are combining efforts to help the next generation of sheep producers to not just carry on the tradition of raising a herd, but to improve their monetary profit.
“Traditionally, all of the sheep is used. Our ancestors ate the meat and used the wool to protect themselves from the cold with garments and blankets,” said Jesse Jim, NMSU Tribal Extension agent for the Navajo Nation’s eastern region. “Sheep are still part of our cultural activities.”
Felix Nez, the Extension agent at Diné College in Tsaile, Ariz., and Jim are helping sheep herdsmen to produce fine wools and carcass characteristics through educational workshops and a breeding program that can increase economic returns.
“What they are doing is not wrong, but there are better ways to approach raising a herd to make it better,” said Jim, who is working with producers, teaching them about the need for vaccinations and how to efficiently shear the sheep. “We partnered with Navajo Technical University’s Spring Sheep conference, held in Crownpoint, to introduce the various resources available to the producers.”
Some sheep producers have a mixture of breeds. As Nez began working with the producers, he realized that many producers did not know about different breed types, or the difference between commercial and value-added wool market.
“To be profitable in the commercial market, sheep will need to produce fine wool and have a good meat carcass when butchered,” Nez said.
To accomplish that, Nez is trying to improve the genetics of Navajo sheep for producers who are willing to look into the commercial markets. He turned to NMSU’s Corona Range and Livestock Research Center for help.
Optimal lamb growth without compromising marketability of the wool is an important objective for range sheep producers in the Southwest. NMSU is conducting a crossbreeding program to combine the South African Meat Merino breed genetics with the Rambouillet breed.
“New Mexico is known worldwide for our wool,” said Shad Cox, superintendent at the Corona facility. “It’s a clean, long fiber that is ideal for fine weaving. We don’t want to lose those traits as we worked to improve the meat quality.”
SAMM has been used successfully in Australia and South Africa as a terminal sire on merino based ewes as a means to increasing lamb growth and improving carcass characteristics. These traits are being seen in the Corona crossbreeding program.
In 2013, Nez purchased six Corona rams that are one-fourth SAMM. They are being leased to Navajo sheep producers who want to provide for the preferences of commercial wool and meat buyers by introducing the SAMM genetics into their herd.
Another area in which Jim and Nez have helped the Navajo wool producers is by capitalizing on the quality of wool they are producing.
“Our producers were only getting 5 to 10 cents a pound from local buyers,” Jim said. “Felix is working with Stanley Strode, Mid-State Wool Growers Association out of Ohio, to provide a better market for the wool.
Since 2005, Alex McClure, of the same wool growers association, has worked through NMSU Cooperative Extension Service specialists to purchase wool from Native Americans in New Mexico and eastern Arizona.
“The wool produced here is outstanding,” McClure said. “We are able to get at least a dollar a pound for the wool.”