Prized for their beauty, hardiness, and lean meat with unrivaled flavor, American Blackbelly are among the most striking breeds of sheep on the planet. The breed was developed in the 70's by Texas game-ranchers looking to produce larger sheep with bigger horns, and is the result of crossing hornless Barbados Blackbelly with horned Mouflon and Rambouillet sheep. As far as domesticated ruminants go, American Blackbelly are about as low maintenance as it gets. They're a breed of hair-sheep, which means they shed their wool each spring without the need for sheering or human assistance. Though they are technically domesticated, American Blackbelly retain many of the favorable traits that their wild ancestors possessed when it comes to immunity, instinct, and behavior. This makes them a little more difficult to 'tame', but also makes them much easier to care for in so many ways. They're extremely parasite and disease resistant, significantly decreasing the need for vaccines, antibiotics, and deworming. They thrive on pasture that would starve out many other breeds of sheep, require very little to no dietary supplementation, and similar to goats can be used to transform brush and thicket into valuable pasture. Their hooves almost never need trimming and their tails do not require docking. American Blackbelly retain strong flocking instincts, making them difficult prey for most North American farm predators and good partners for herding dogs. Despite their wild tendencies, they're relatively easy to contain and are not hard on fencing or housing like other larger livestock. One of the most valuable attributes of American Blackbelly is their reproductive capacity. Ewes are capable of lambing twice per year, typically throwing twins or triplets, and they rarely require assistance giving birth. Lambs are usually up and running before you get the chance to go check on them, and the strong maternal instinct of American Blackbelly ewes almost completely eliminates the need for hands-on lamb care. This makes lambing season significantly less demanding compared to other breeds of sheep.
With so many desirable traits, you may be wondering why more farmers don't raise American Blackbelly. Though here at Grateful Akers we're obviously pretty biased, our best guess is that is has to do with the relatively short period of time since the breed was created, the misconception that they are primarily suited to serve as exotic game animals, and their slightly smaller carcass size when compared to more traditional meat breeds. Though there are strains of American Blackbelly that have been bred to retain their flighty nature in order to make better game animals, those bread by homesteaders are mostly docile and not difficult to work with. And though it is true that they don't yield as much meat as many other breeds, we believe that once you've tasted Blackbelly you'll agree that the flavor more than makes up for their smaller size. Additionally, if you consider the lower input to output ratio that American Blackbelly yield (i.e. resources invested compared to meat produced), it's not hard to see why this often overlooked breed is growing in popularity on sustainability-focused homesteads. When it comes down to choosing between horned American Blackbelly and hornless Barbados Blackbelly, it really depends on personal preference. Aesthetically the horns are an obvious selling point, and surprisingly they make handling the rams much easier. Additionally, being a newer breed there is still much room for cultivation and improvement of American Blackbelly as a whole, which may be appealing to those interested in breed development and improvement. All in all, we believe American Blackbelly are a great choice for any homestead looking for low maintenance livestock with high output potential.
Though we only began raising American Blackbelly in early 2018, we've fallen in love with them for all the reasons listed above and many more. It took almost a year of research before we decided on this breed (it was down to Blackbelly, Katahdin, or St Croix), and we couldn't be happier with our choice. Thus far they've exceeded our expectations in almost every regard. We're still in the process of slowly growing our small flock, which currently consists of 3 rams and 10 ewes. We expect about 20 lambs to be born in April, so if you're in the market for sheep and are interested in American Blackbelly please let us know! Most of our summer 2020 lambs were sold before we even listed them, so let us know ahead of time if you think you're interested. Even if you're not in the market but have questions or just want to talk Blackbelly, please don't hesitate to reach out.
If you want to learn more about American Blackbelly, shoot us an email or check out the BBSAI website. There you can find the international registry, breeder directory, BBSAI newsletter, and many other resources that will help you learn more about this unique and wonderful breed.
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