North to Alaska!
St. Croix Established on Kenai Peninsula
By Yates Colby & Bill Marion
St. Croix sheep tend to conjure images of warm Caribbean islands and sandy beaches. Recently, a group of St. Croix sheep made the long journey north to the 49th state to establish the very first breeding flock of St. Croix sheep in Alaska.
Blood Sweat & Food Farms (BSF) is based in Homer, Alaska and is dedicated to growing naturally raised, healthful livestock and produce to share with the local community. The farm raises heritage breed Tamworth hogs, chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys and rabbits, as well as growing vegetable crops year-round.
It’s a locale with limited sources for fresh food, so the farm’s goal is providing produce and ready-to-cook, pasture-raised meat and poultry. Moreover, the farm will be offering St. Croix breeding stock along with a good selection of heritage breeds of other farm animals and poultry, all of which are benefiting from greater exposure and from adding committed breeders.
Choosing St. Croix
Earlier in 2018, the BSF team decided to add sheep to their portfolio of livestock. Hardiness, adaptability, multiple births, parasite resistance and low maintenance costs were important, combined with a desire to help preserve threatened heritage livestock breeds. Of particular concern to BSF Farms was hoof health, especially in the presence of Homer’s cool, wet conditions, with clay soils and plenty of mud. After extensive research, the St. Croix breed was selected as ideal meat production sheep.
Once the decision was made to invest in the St. Croix breed, the search was on for suitable breeding stock. Maintaining genetic diversity was considered key to raising healthy, high-performance sheep.
Most of the registered St. Croix in the U.S. are descended from a group of 22 bred ewes and 3 rams imported from the Island of St. Croix by Dr. Warren Foote of Utah State University, in 1975. Several other universities and the USDA established St. Croix flocks. A small number of St. Croix sheep have been imported since then, and the University of the (U.S.) Virgin Islands actively conducts research on their 100-ewe flock of St. Croix sheep. Even with these efforts, the Livestock Conservancy lists the St. Croix as a threatened heritage breed.
To ensure diversity in their flock, Jenni Medley of Blood, Sweat and Food Farms worked with the St. Croix Hair Sheep Breeders registry to find breeders who could provide unrelated ewes and a ram.
Getting Sheep to Homer
In addition to genetic diversity, transportation and Alaska’s specific agricultural livestock entry requirements complicated the search process.
Shipping by air offered the most practical means of minimizing travel time and animal stress. But air travel introduced restrictions in the number and size of the animals on any one flight. The final solution was to use airline-approved pet carriers provided with food and water, each holding two lambs. The date of travel was carefully selected to ensure the lambs were within weight limits. This met the airline’s requirements for animal welfare and comfort.
The next challenge was entry requirements for sheep into Alaska. In addition to a veterinary health inspection, all sheep imported to the state must be tested for Scrapie resistance. According to Alaska’s requirements, sheep must test RR (scrapie resistant) on codon 171 or test QR on codon 171 and AA on codon 136. Genetic testing involved drawing and submitting blood or tissue samples on multiple lambs to identify potential candidates for the trip north. An RR ram was especially important to the future of the BSF flock — ensuring scrapie resistance for all offspring. Summit Farms had the perfect RR candidate for the first St. Croix herd sire in the state of Alaska.
Once the genetic testing identified qualified animals, pedigrees were compared among all the prospective lambs. Four ewe lambs were selected from Shasta Ranch in Klamath Falls, Oregon, and a ram lamb and three additional ewe lambs from Summit Farms in Creston, Washington. The Shasta Ranch and Summit Farms lambs provided good genetic diversity in quality St. Croix sheep.
To minimize flight time and eliminate a layover, the Shasta Ranch ewe lambs were driven to Portland Airport and placed on a direct flight to Anchorage. The Summit Farms St. Croix lambs were shipped via air from Spokane, Wash.
Both shipments of St. Croix lambs arrived safely in Anchorage. After a four-hour drive to Homer Alaska, they were introduced to their new home.
The team at Blood Sweat and Food Farms reports the lambs are holding up very well in the climate of Homer, Alaska, and have proved to be intelligent, hardy and just plain fun to be around.
Breeding for this northernmost St. Croix flock is scheduled to begin in January of 2019. All concerned are looking forward to increasing the availability and popularity of St. Croix sheep in Alaska.
For more information contact: Yates Colby Summit Farms firstname.lastname@example.org; Bill Marion Shasta Ranch: email@example.com; Blood Sweat Food Farms: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published in the January/February 2019 issue of sheep!.