Greg Loper is a young man with a plan: to finish high school and his first two years of college at the same time. But his plans also include raising and showing high quality Tunis sheep.
Loper’s Red Barn Farm in western New York is home to about 45 sheep, 30 of which are brood ewes. “They’re all Tunis except for one Cheviot,” said Loper. “We used to have a flock of Cheviots but we sold them because I’m going to college.”
Tunis sheep originated in North Africa and were imported to the U.S. in 1799. Tunis were popular in the South but almost eliminated during the Civil War. Breed characteristics include red or tan face and legs, ivory-colored wool, heads and legs free of wool and long ears. Tunis are naturally polled and have a characteristic “fat tail.” Market lambs of this breed yield high quality carcasses with high meat-to-bone ratio.
After showing sheep for 10 years, Loper has become adept at the skills involved. He started exhibiting sheep in open shows when he was 6, participated in 4-H starting at age 8 and has been exhibiting sheep in open shows.
Most people who raise livestock choose a breed based on several factors, including simply favoring a specific breed. Loper likes Tunis sheep and enjoys the process of improving sheep through careful breeding selections.
“Breed character is a big thing,” said Loper. “They should have nice color and a good head. I also like sheep that can walk well – if they do well walking in the show ring, they’re going to do well in the pasture. I also like bigger-framed sheep – they look nice in the ring, and they do well as mothers carrying lambs.”
The ultimate goal for sheep producers who raise lambs for market is a marketable carcass, and Loper has found Tunis have a solid carcass that hangs well.
Loper’s brood ewes are raised on pasture, and show sheep receive alfalfa hay and a grain supplement. “We make our own first cutting hay,” he said, “and we buy the alfalfa hay.” After the first cutting is complete, fields are used for grazing.
Rams are placed with ewes in early August. The first lambs arrive in early January and the rest arrive by the end of March. When searching for a new flock ram, Loper considers the traits in his ewe flock and looks for a ram to help improve any deficiencies such as loin thickness. If Loper finds a ram that’s a good match for the ewe flock, he’ll continue to use him.
“If a ram isn’t meshing well with our genetics,” he said, “we’ll bring in new genetics or use one of our own rams and see how he does.”
Over the years, Loper has met and connected with other Tunis breeders to find the best genetic matches. “We have a friend in Wisconsin and have worked with them for a long time,” he said. “We like to mix and match genetics with them, and found our genetics work well with theirs.”
Loper has participated in livestock judging at junior shows, and this year, he placed fifth at the largest junior sheep show in the nation. Although judging contests can be quite challenging for the participants, such contests help participants learn to look at sheep critically.
This year, at the Keystone International Livestock Expo, Loper’s sheep placed well, including first place and champion ewe for his ewe aged one year and under two, first place pair of yearling ewes and first place exhibitor’s flock.
And that sole Cheviot Loper kept won the early spring ewe lamb class and was also named reserve champion Cheviot.
Loper has been attending college classes while in high school and will graduate from high school with two years of college completed. He’s studying biology at Houghton College and hopes to become either a veterinarian or a medical doctor.
While Loper anticipates being away for his final two years of college, his parents will continue to care for his flock. “I’ll be back at home during breaks and in the summer,” he said. “I’m excited my parents agreed to keep everything going for me.”
by Sally Colby