By Oliver Samson
Two generations of sheep enthusiasts foresee a rising demand for both sheep meat and upgraded breeding materials in the coming years.
A sheep meat consumer of Islamic faith sources their farm for lamb. A Nigerian national who traveled from Cavite also purchased a lamb. Fellow sheep raisers also come in search of rams and ewes that can be taken home to start with or improve their own breeding.
But this father and son duo can only spare their guests some rams since they need every single ewe, or female sheep, in the farm to reach the population that they are targeting to hit for the next few years.
As of today, they have more than 60 heads in their farm in barangay Labne, San Miguel, a first-class municipality in Bulacan.
Fr. John Michael G. Dela Cruz got his hands on sheep breeding and raising only in October 2021. But his father, Jose, already had some sheep in the past years while he was raising hogs. Jose, 68, used to have 130 sows maximum, until he decided to quit hog raising in 2016, about three years before the African Swine Fever forced hog raisers in Central Luzon and other parts of the country to cull and slaughter thousands of pigs to prevent the spread of the deadly virus.
Jose's sheep, Katahdin in breed, were raised without adequate attention, since he was focused on hogs and simply wanted the presence of some sheep in the farm as pet animals.
After Jose stopped hog raising, they rented the farm out, leaving the sheep to survive on their own, grazing on grass and other greens on the farm.
When Dela Cruz started to acquire sheep breeding materials in 2021, only 17 of the nearly 100 sheep of his father were left.
Dela Cruz is parochial vicar at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Salambao - San Pascual Baylon Parish in Obando, Bulacan.
Initially, he acquired a Dorper ram and two Dorper ewes.
The Dorper is a sheep breed originated in South Africa by crossing the Dorset Horn and the Blackhead Persian.
Since then, Dela Cruz kept acquiring Dorpers to upgrade their sheep, until they got a total of two Dorper rams and eight female Dorpers.
He extensively researched on the Internet on proper sheep farming. His friendship with farmers who have been in the sheep husbandry for a long time helped him get hold of proven practices in the Philippines, to which sheep are not native.
A hundred ewes
As of today, they have 52 female sheep. Once the population of their ewes reaches more than a hundred, they promise to sell any female sheep in excess of that number to interested breeders, Jose said.
One could start breeding with one male sheep and four female sheep, Dela Cruz advised beginners.
"The sheep can give birth three times in a period of two years," Dela Cruz said.
The average gestation in sheep is around five months.
The father and son regard their female sheep as precious animals, especially today, when they are eyeing to have produced more than a hundred female sheep by next year.
Sheep give birth to more males than females, Dela Cruz shared.
They currently sell live male sheep at P270 to P300 a kilo and male pure breeds at P7,500 to P8,000 apiece.
They are confident to hit the population of 100 ewes by next year.
Dela Cruz and his father also breed and raise some goats and carabaos. They farm rice and raise chickens and tilapia.
Sheep are more resistant to diseases than goats, Dela Cruz noted. One more good thing about farming sheep.
Upgrading genes for more meat
"Good sheep farming starts with good genes, " Dela Cruz pointed out. "You should carefully select good pedigrees if you wish to venture in it. You also need adequate space."
An hectare of land with pasture grass could feed about 30 heads, he observed.
But an hectare could accommodate more than 30 heads if the sheep are fed other than the pasture grass, like manufactured feeds. They give their sheep sapal (pulp) from soya beans.
"We acquired Dorpers for its ability to produce large sheep when crossed to other breeds," Dela Cruz said. "It produces more meat. It also easily adapts to the climate in the Philippines. When you cross the Dorper to St. Croix, they give you the Royal White."
St. Croix is a breed of sheep native to the US Virgin Islands and named after St. Croix Island. Like the Dorper, it's basically bred for meat.
The offspring of the Dorper and the St. Croix are huge and tall, Dela Cruz explained. They get their height from the St. Croix, their size from the Dorper. Their offspring are also resistant to parasites.
"Parasites may thrive in the sheep's wool," Dela Cruz said. "But in the Philippines, sheep don't grow much wool due to the local climate."
"We also cross the Dorper to the Katahdin," Jose said. "The Katahdin is known as the local sheep, but actually not. All sheep are from abroad."
The Katahdin was originated by Michael Piel, an American breeder from Maine.
Dela Cruz and his father would concentrate on producing more sheep by mating the Dorper with the St. Croix. The Dorper currently serves as the main blood in the farm.
"We avoid mating the sheep in the months of February and March because the babies will be born in the rainy month of August," Dela Cruz said.
They mate their sheep one ram for every 20 ewes.
Feeding and management
The sheep are fed sapal around six or seven in the morning. The animals are also given mulberry. Mulberry leaves are high in crude protein and are a good food supplement for sheep.
The Dela Cruzes have about 200 mulberry trees in a location other than the one they are farming sheep on.
The sheep are also fed with napier grass in the morning. Napier grass, also known as elephant grass, is also rich in crude protein.
"The sheep are released from their confinement pen about noon or one in the afternoon, when the dew on the grass and leaves have already dried out," Jose said. "Fungi and bacteria thrive in damp grass and leaves."
The parasites contaminate damp grass and leaves with their feces that could make the sheep sick when ingested, Dela Cruz added.
So, when it rains, they make sure the animals are secured inside their confinement pen. The animals are fed in the enclosure with silage during the rainy days, when they are not allowed to go outside. The silage is preserved pasture grass and other greens that sheep forage.
"It is stored for consumption during the rainy days when they have to be confined in the pen," Dela Cruz said. " The silage is also stored for the hot season when the grass doesn't grow much."
The confinement pens must be elevated from the ground and well-ventilated.
They can see a growing market in Muslim communities, restaurants, and other people who consume sheep meat. The growing popularity of sheep meat would expand its market in the coming years.
“Philippine-based restaurants that cook lamb import meat,” Dela Cruz said.
"Sheep farming is a very promising industry," he added. "We breed and raise sheep to promote the industry and help ensure food security."
After his duties in the parish in Obando, Dela Cruz visits their farm once in a week together with his mother, Ma. Nora. His father is the one staying in the farm.
"Farming sheep has some connection to faith," said Dela.Cruz, who is a priest. "Like parishioners, sheep show different behaviors. Some are sociable, others shy."