Horns of plenty

"The money is in the horns!" says Krista Darnell, as she watches over her flock of multi-colored bighorn sheep in the pasture. Ewes and lambs emerge through a stand of tall weeds left brown by the cold and dry Texas winter, followed by a grand master ram, bringing up the rear. A ram's horns stop growing at about four years of age, and if a four year old hasn't reached trophy class by that point, it never will.

"My rams reach Bronze or Silver trophy class by two years of age, often sooner," she notes. "To be considered for a breeder in my group, the ram must reach at least Bronze by 20 months of age." Trophy class rams can bring $600 to $1,800 from Texas exotic ranches, where hunters try their luck stalking the animals.

Darnell has four breeds of sheep, including Corsican, multi-colored painted desert sheep, black Hawaiian, and Texas Dall.

She favors the look for the black Hawaiian breed, because as she notes, "When they're big, they're glossy black and gorgeous."

A ram's price depends on the shape and length of its horns along with size of the bases, with deductions for damage. The males get turned loose on ranches that have from 200 to 16,000 acres under high fence. They go feral very quickly and with large tracts of land to run on, can live about 10 years.

Almost wild

After time spent in Ft. Worth and Childress, Darnell moved her operation to White Deer. "I had show goats for about 10 years but then did some calculations and learned that the goats were in fact costing me money, while the few sheep I had were actually making me some money, and with half the aggravation!"

The goats she raised were destructive to pastures, fences and everything around. The sheep, once they ran the fences and learned their territory, pretty much took care of themselves.

Darnell notes that if she didn't take care of the sheep every day, bringing them feed, they would revert to wild within a month. "If I didn't bring them a bucket of food every few days, they'd be so wild I'd never get near 'em. My sheep have a bit of Mouflon in them, and Mouflon are nuts."

It's a zoo around here!

The sheep are guarded over by her two Pyrenees Akbash dogs, 100 plus pounds of white fluff. Their names are Jack and Diesel. "Like the actor Vin Diesel," she says, "but with a lot more hair and a better career!"

Since Darnell brought in the big dogs, she hasn't lost a single animal to predators or dogs from neighboring towns. Some of her neighbors have tried protection from Llamas or donkeys, but she says, "I need something with teeth!"

The growth of a ram's horns comes to a halt around four years of age, and she can tell if the ram is worth growing out by five or six months. She can also tell by the end of the year if she'll be considering him for use as a stud. Not a bad timeline, since there's not much money in upkeep the first year, and there's a great market in the area for BBQ sheep. "They're real popular among the Hispanic, Asian and Muslim market around Childress," she notes.

The farm itself could be called multicultural. "It's a zoo around here," she laughs. "I've got guinea fowl, goats, some hogs, dogs, cats, a 30-year old mare, blind in one eye and a back like a hammock who thinks she's a pet, and I had ducks until Diesel ate 'em."

Darnell does freelance Web design from her home for the agricultural farm and ranch market, and works part-time in town as well.

"I like raising sheep," she says, "I won't ever get rich off it, but I don't really care, either."

The goat market didn't appeal to her much, since her buyers mostly cared about pedigree and names. With her market for rams, buyers only care about the size and shape of their horns.

"The market is wide open in this area; there's not much competition."

And her outfitter clients say the sheep hunting market is definitely on the rise. With prices reaching over $20,000 for a breeding whitetail buck, hunters are happy to give up on expensive deer and get in a quality hunt for wild sheep for much less cost.

About 80 head on hand

Darnell is going to try to incorporate a strain of Red Dall sheep, breeding her stock to Armenian red rams to get even bigger and bigger sets of horns on her rams.

"Corsicans range from black and tan to a dun color," she notes. "Black Hawaiians are black, and Painted Deserts can be any color combination, much like paint horses."

Darnell has 60 head now, with lots of babies coming. She usually keeps about 80 head on hand

Nutrition is fairly basic. She's feeding 20% protein blocks, and grass hay. She also has some piles of cotton gin screenings in her pasture, and the sheep paw through that for food, too. "The moms get a corn and roast soybean mix while they're raising lambs."

Darnell points out that these sheep can't have any copper in their diet, which rules out horse, goat, cattle and deer feed. The 30 to 50 ppm copper content in some varieties of feed is lethal to the sheep, even though some small trace amounts are found in natural feeds, depending on the soil where it's grown.

The sheep are resistant to parasites, she says, as long as they're on enough acres. Problems come up with close confinement.

"I love raising these sheep," she says. "There's no shearing, no help with lambing, and two hours after they're born, they're up and running. You can't catch 'em anyway!"

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