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Farmer wants to preserve rare sheep

“You can’t take it with you but you can leave it here for history.”

This was the observation made by Donald Chavez as he led officials from Belen Consolidated Schools on a tour of his farm – Terra Patre Farm – south of Belen.

The 20-acre spread is what remains of 200-plus acres of farm and grazing land in the rural part of Valencia County. As his visitors strolled the acreage, fallen cottonwood leaves crunching underfoot, Chavez talks about the value of the New Mexico Dahl sheep that populate the fields, both in terms of heritage and dollars.

 Two rams in Donald Chavez's herd of nearly 100 New Mexico Dahl sheep graze on native foliage in a field at Terra Patre Farm. (Julia M. Dendinger/News-Bulletin)

Two rams in Donald Chavez’s herd of nearly 100 New Mexico Dahl sheep graze on native foliage in a field at Terra Patre Farm. (Julia M. Dendinger/News-Bulletin)

At 66, Chavez says he’s “not a spring chicken.” Nearly 30 years ago, he bought a small flock of sheep – the Dahl – that had virtually disappeared from memory for nearly 400 years.

Chavez stumbled upon the sheep while writing a historical book about the region’s cowboys. During frequent livestock purchases at local auctions, he began to notice there were more and more of the distinctive sheep.

The sheep had horns as ewes and rams, similar to the Rocky Mountain Big Horn Sheep. He searched literature online and in libraries to pinpoint what these rare sheep were, but found there was a scarce amount of information available.

Through Spanish journals and archives, Chavez learned hair sheep were brought to New Mexico by the original Spanish settlers.

“There are family journals where they talk about these borregos de pelo and these sheep actually survived better when they crossed the Rio Bravo,” Chavez said.

Hair sheep could swim across the river and didn’t need to be transported in rafts like wool sheep. Wool sheep would drown while crossing the Rio Grande, since their wool would absorb water and become too heavy for them to carry.

With the high interest in wool to make clothes, farmers turned away from hair sheep, Chavez said. The hair sheep relocated to remote mountainous areas in New Mexico and remained there throughout the past 400 years.

“They went feral and these sheep are very hardy. They thrive on low nutrition,” he said.

After decades of work, breeding out the characteristics of wool sheep from the hair sheep, Chavez feels he has restored the New Mexico Dahl sheep to its original look.

With that accomplishment under his belt, Chavez is now at the point in his life where he is focusing on preserving the breed and his work.

“I’m not sure my kids and grandkids have the same enthusiasm for them as I do,” Chavez said. “I thought to put the farm and sheep into the trust.”

He initially approached the city of Belen about it possibly being the caretaker of the property and animals. The administration suggested that he bring the school district in as a partner, allowing students to take advantage of the live, hands-on learning experience of working with a heritage breed of animal.

“This has gone from about half a dozen sheep to about 100 now,” Chavez said. “We have about a dozen breeders here in Valencia and Bernalillo counties. People are ordering them from all over the country. I’m excited they are making a comeback.”

Chavez said he wants to create a trust for the land and animals, to preserve the operation for future generations.

During a presentation on the sheep and possible formation of a trust by Chavez to the Belen Board of Education, board member Tom Wisneski asked how the sheep would be sustained.

“Does the acreage do that for feed and water,” Wisneski asked. “I’d hate to take on this awesome thing and fail at it.”

Chavez said the sheep are hardy and low maintenance, eating whatever grows in the pastures on the farm. He said the pastures do need to be managed and regularly irrigated.

“Recently at the Gutierrez Hubble House Museum on Isleta Road, they set up an alliance and created a permanent display for the Dahl sheep there,” he said. “The land belongs to Bernalillo County and it is run and operated by people who love and appreciate the museum. My thought is to do something similar here.”

He said a weaned lamb sells for about $350, so a successful breeding program could support the farm.

In 2013, the New Mexico Legislature recognized the New Mexico Dahl sheep as the only official heritage breed in the state.

Chavez said his goal in bringing his idea was to see the sheep continue into the future for the community.

“This is a way to preserve living history,” he said.