Life Lessons From Sheep
St. Croix sheep farmer Mathew Cummings of Springfield, Mo., once raised goats. “I could write book on the spiritual insights between the two,” he said. “Praise God there’s some sheep in me. There’s nothing dumb about them at all. … They are selfless souls.”
Goats, for example, are religious whereas sheep are spiritual, he said. Goats are full of themselves, curious and often careless about safety. Sheep, in contrast, are cautious and look to their shepherd to lead them to safety. They are all about the flock.
Mathew recalled when a lamb got separated from the flock and cried out. The entire flock, he said “ran to its assistance.” The flock had just moved from a shed to the freedom of a pasture, but when they heard the cry, “They ran from freedom to captivity to save one of their own. I fell in love with sheep that day.”
Mathew discovered St. Croix purely by accident. Seven years ago he and his family were in Springfield, Mo., for a short visit from Brazil and looking for a single milk sheep to buy. After a guy tried to sell him a ram instead of a ewe that left him shaking his head in disbelief, Mathew learned of a seller who was desperate to unload his St. Croix hair sheep. Half the flock had been killed by dogs.
Because the family planned to soon return to Brazil, “I wasn’t interested in the least in a whole flock,” Mathew recalled. But after researching the breed, he figured he had nothing to lose at the price the seller was asking. So he bought the 17 remaining rams, ewes and lambs.
“I have loved them ever since.” He’s also still in Springfield.
The breed, he discovered, is native to the Virgin Islands, descended from African sheep brought over on slave ships. St. Croix are heat tolerant with strong immune systems that resist parasites. Ewes can bear two sets of lambs a season if forage is good. They are good mothers, gentle around people and “will not run to the next county” if frightened, said Mathew. They are a medium-sized sheep and don’t gain weight as fast as other breeds. The sheep need only a cedar break for shelter, and their hair easily sheds off cold rain. Mathew has seen lambs born in icy puddles that were fine once their mommas cleaned them off.
After buying the flock, he chose to do nothing with it but feed and observe them for about three years.
“I needed to know what I had,” Mathew explained. “I needed to let them grow out and see what the genetics were.”
The genetics, it turned out, were good. With mentoring from Gearld Fry of Arkansas on genetics and nutrition, Mathew began line breeding. In particular, he has improved the flock’s ability to add weight more quickly while maintaining the breed’s other beneficial traits.
“Our weight gain has increased dramatically,” he said. “We’re working very hard to properly line breed them to rubberstamp their best traits into offspring so our growth is consistent in quality. People can depend on us for what they’re getting.”
Now he primarily sells registered breeding stock but also has many customers who buy the sheep for meat.
“People want to know where their food is coming from. … My focus is to produce something that nurtures people with a meat that tastes good, is nutritious and has fine texture,” he said. “And it’s affordable. … I don’t agree that grass-fed or organic meat should be priced so only the wealthy can afford it.”
He’s also strict about not selling rams too young, typically waiting until they’re 18 months old, have lived through a summer and winter and have gained adequate weight. He breeds ewes at 12 to 18 months.
To ensure his sheep provide nutrition-dense food to consumers, Mathew works hard at taking care of the soil and grass they feed on. His sheep eat only grass or hay. He uses no pharmaceuticals or chemical wormers, yet his sheep are largely parasite free, thanks to the mineral supplement he mixes of sea salt, copper sulfate, selenium and organic iodine. “Copper is one of the top deficiencies in most sheep,” he explained, pointing out that commercial mineral blocks don’t contain it.
He insists on pastures that are no-till, no-spray, no-fertilizer and have good organic content. His sheep will eat buck brush, sericea lespedeza and other plants cattle won’t touch; the lespedeza has the same protein content as alfalfa and contains high-condensed tannon that sheep digest well.
To protect the sheep from predators, the Cummings invested early on in the Akbash dog breed and now raises them. “My daughter has been raised with sheep, and she’s my head shepherd,” Mathew said. “She’s good at it. It also says something about the St. Croix and the Akbash that I trust her to be out with the sheep and dogs.”
The size of his flock depends on what pasture is available to supplement his 20 acres. Mathew is partnering in a demonstration grazing project with Watershed Committee of the Ozarks and City Utilities of Springfield. The project will provide 30 acres for a larger flock while demonstrating stewardship of water, soil and grass.
For folks interested in raising St. Croix, Mathew said, “First, you have to know why you want to get into it.” After that, learn their nutritional needs, especially minerals. Take care of the soil and grass and protect them from predators. Do that, and you’ll be rewarded with quality sheep that also can teach some valuable life lessons.