A society of Dorpers

CEW-MR-3-Dorper2by Steve Wagner

Where have Dorpers been all our lives? And now that they’re here, what can we do with them?

“Dorpers are a breed of sheep that have been in this country for about 20 years,” according to Doug Gillespie, executive secretary for the American Dorper Sheep Breeders’ Society, “and they are growing by leaps and bounds.” Dorpers are meat sheep originally bred in South Africa. Their most familiar trait is a totally black head on an otherwise white body. The Dorper breed is a successful crossing of Dorset and Persian sheep, using the first three letters of each to coin the name. “You’re seeing a huge Dorper influence in the lamb industry in this country today,” Gillespie continued. “They are extremely fast maturing sheep and they are easy keepers. They don’t have to be sheared because they are what we call a shedding breed. They do grow some fuzz, but they shed it off as the weather warms up, which saves the cost of shearing.” Parenthetically, Gillespie notes that wool is so depressed in the American market that it hardly covers the cost of shearing. And shearers are hard to find. Gillespie also says Dorpers are the future of the sheep business.

But what edge do Dorpers have that people are suddenly realizing their advantages? “These are real roughage converters,” he explains. “If you’ve got rough land or brushy land, lots of weeds in the pasture, these sheep, because they were developed basically as survivors in South Africa, are very well suited to living off that.” In other words, they don’t need pampering or special feed, and they stay in nicely maintained condition with plenty of muscling on them. Gillespie suggests Dorpers are ideally suited for the Northeast, though the vast majority of them are located in Texas and the Southwest.

The Dorpers Gillespie was chatting about were penned at the Manheim Farm Show north of Lancaster, PA. A weekend event featured a day-long seminar for those either interested in or contemplating raising the breed, followed the next day by an open house for the public, as well as 4-H and FFA members with their own sets of curiosities. As you enter the show, you are greeted by a large ewe, hale and robust, a definite force. Her ear tag is 5544 and she was owned by Eric Bruns of Riverwood Farms in Powell, Ohio. “She was the 2011 Sale Champion,” Bruns said. “We have a national show and a national sale, two separate events. One we take the animals to, present them and sell them. She is one we sold at Sedalia, MO, at the national sale and was bought by a man from Massachusetts. Now he owns her.”

“In the Northeast we eat a lot of lamb,” says Gillespie. “The largest lamb market in the country is the New York City area. Consumers are looking for local lamb products. Local meats, fruits and vegetables are gaining in popularity, so it’s a great opportunity for Dorper sheep.

Warren Cude of Fort Stockton, Texas, offered the presentation using much of a Power Point presentation from South Africa. One of the issues involves meat, its taste among sheep connoisseurs as opposed to what has been described as a wooly taste apparently not found in Dorpers.

“As they breed continuously, you have lambs born every eight months,” according to the Updale Dorper website. “And they often twin, so even if you only have a few acres, they can provide an enormous amount of fresh meat for your freezer. Our local butcher charges $20 to dress a lamb, so you can put over 30kg of meat into your freezer for around $20! You cannot buy fresh meat for that price — plus you have the advantage of knowing where it has come from, what it has been fed, and you know the animal was well-treated and cared for while it was alive.”

“Pure Dorper meat is excellent…and can be eaten cold. It has no fatty mutton taste,” Dorper writer Darlene Polachic writes.

But, says Updale, “If you cannot face eating your own animals, they make great pets. The Dorper has a lovely quiet temperament and are easily tamed. We have currently got a couple of rams that eat quietly out of our hands and come running when called.”

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