CROWN CITY, Ohio — Crystal Criswell believes in her sheep. She raises St. Croix hairy sheep, a heritage breed known for its resistance to parasites and good mothering abilities.
But she also knows that just because a breed is known for these things doesn’t mean all sheep live up to those standards. So to Melwood Farmshe wants to improve not only her herd, but the breed as a whole, in addition to helping to conserve the breed.
“That’s really what I’m looking for. I want to have a nice, diverse herd so I can provide starter herds for people,” Criswell said. “And I want them to be able to drive off with the sheep on their trailer and know they’re good sheep.”
Criswell grew up on a small farm in Kansas, where her family raised pigs and poultry, and where she raised steers and heifers to show off in 4-H. She has lived in southern Ohio since 1994, and she and her husband, Chris, have always wanted to buy property for their own small farm. They were able to do that and start the farm near Crown City, Ohio in 2018.
Today, Criswell raises St. Croix sheep, myotonic goats, also known as fainting goats, and several types of poultry. She also adds some Katahdin sheep, which she plans to sell to people who want them for the meat. St. Croix is also a meat breed, but Melwood Farm is a seed producer, so most St. Croix sheep go to other breeders.
Criswell got into heritage breeds through poultry. She was looking for chickens, and a friend suggested she choose a breed that Livestock conservation had on its conservation priority list.
Then, after she and her husband bought their farm, she wanted to raise sheep. She chose St. Croix because of their resistance to pests and because they are hairy sheep – she didn’t want to deal with the wool. They also tend to be calm, which she finds easier to deal with.
Criswell noted that some large meat sheep producers raised St. Croix sheep in their flocks due to their resistance to parasites.
“If someone doesn’t… they won’t have that as a resource,” she said.
The breed is listed as “one to watch” on The Livestock Conservancy’s conservation priority list. This designation is for breeds with fewer than 2,500 annual registrations in the United States and with fewer than 10,000 animals in the global population.
Because she raises a breed of sheep that has a limited number of animals registered in the United States, Criswell uses conservation breeding on her farm. Conservation breeding focuses on increasing the size of a herd while minimizing inbreeding and preserving specific bloodlines.
The Criswell flock is divided into three lines, with three rams and currently 26 ewes. She color codes the scrapie tags for lambs by which the ram is their sire. She also keeps careful records so she knows which sheep are related to each other.
Criswell recently joined the National Sheep Improvement Program, which helps breeders evaluate their animals to improve their herds. She is one of only three farmers to join the Sainte-Croix sheep. What prompted her to join was a Katahdin sheep farmer who urged St. Croix herders in a Facebook group to get involved.
“He kept telling us that, you know, we St. Croix breeders have to put our money where our mouths are and prove that our sheep are really resistant to parasites, and we have to work for them. improve instead of just saying, ‘yeah, here they are, aren’t they adorable?’ said Criswell. “And it hit me.”
Criswell has always been demanding of her rams. The top 50% are sold for breeding. Everything below the 50th percentile is sold for meat. But it can be difficult to determine who is in which half.
In the past, she simply used a spreadsheet with data on each lamb. The program will also consider parent information for each lamb to help establish an estimated breeding value for each animal. This will give him a more complete idea of which ram lambs should go to market and which should go to other farms.
She is a little less demanding on the lambs. Almost all go to other farmers, unless they are not pest resistant or not growing well. But it aims to send the top performers to other breeders, where their genetics will continue, and sends the bottom performers to farmers who are more interested in raising sheep for their own meat.
The last years of the farm were not easy. In 2020, Criswell was diagnosed with cancer. She is now in remission, but was undergoing treatment in 2020 and part of 2021. In the same year, a global pandemic hit. Her husband lost his job due to the pandemic.
With all of these factors adding up, many of their plans for the farm have been slowed down or put on hold. But she didn’t want to give up farming entirely, especially sheep.
“I saw the writing on the wall, based on the popularity of the breed…rising,” Criswell explained.
The St. Croix sheep have become much more popular than they were when she started raising them. Eight of his lambs were already reserved before the lambing season, and now almost all are sold. She also has a waiting list for next spring.
She attributes the increase in interest to a few farmers and farmers making videos on YouTube and talking about the benefits of raising St. Croix sheep, and to the surge in interest in local foods during the pandemic. Most people who buy his sheep find his farm through the breed association, and most of them want three lambs to start a flock.
Criswell continues to slowly grow her flock and figure out exactly what the right number of sheep is for her and her land. She also wants to help people who buy sheep from her learn more about managing their flocks.
She hosted a workshop in 2021 on topics such as record keeping and injections. She has three more workshops planned for this year and hopes to reach people who are new to sheep farming.
“I think about when I was new, I just had to figure it out,” Criswell said. She relied on books, Facebook groups and farmers in St. Croix Hair Sheep Breeders association.
One of his biggest goals is to improve his herd. She thinks joining the National Sheep Improvement Program will help her prove her sheep’s performance.
“I want to have the best Holy Cross,” she said. “Most people who have sheep don’t prove it. …We all know that just because as a breed they’re supposed to be pest resistant doesn’t mean this sheep is.
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