Ft. Wingate Sheep Laboratory
Southwestern Range And Sheep Breeding Laboratory 1935-1966
Ft. Wingate, New Mexico
The Ft. Wingate sheep lab was formally called "The Southwestern Range and Sheep Breeding Laboratory" and ran from 1935-1966. It was created during the “new deal” project set up during the depression by John Collier to counteract the consequences of the second sheep reduction on the Navajo weaving industry. In the sheep lab program, Collier and Dept. of Agriculture Secretary Henry A. Wallace specifically sought to improve Navajo rug and blanket weaving created by increased crossing of the Navajo-Churro sheep with other breeds begun in the late 1800s. Researchers at the sheep lab wanted to develop a strain of Navajo-Churro sheep that retained the wool's desirable characteristics, plus hardiness and good mothering. At the same time they wanted to overcome the breed's problem of late maturity and small size. Although possessed of an undesirable hairy outer coat, its long-stapled, low-grease wool was excellent for working on the hand loom.
The Navajo market economy that had developed since the early 1900s in Arizona and New Mexico was dependent on wool, lambs, and rugs. Moreover, a 1934 study conducted by Robert Youngblood, the principal agricultural economist in the USDA’s Office of Experimental Stations, found that the wool of the Navajo sheep had lost favorable qualities for weaving and, consequently, the existence of the Navajo rug weaving industry was threatened. Increased crossing of the Navajo-Churro sheep with other breeds – begun in the late 1800s -- had produced a short staple wool that was too kinky and oily to wash, card, and spin by the hand methods used by Navajo weavers. The short staple wool also produced a bulky, uneven rug compared to those made from the long staple wool of the Navajo-Churro sheep (Parman 1976:22-24,127).
The first director of the fledgling Sheep Lab was James M. Cooper. He served in that capacity from 1935 to 1942. It was under his guidance that the foundation flock of Navajo-Churro breeding sheep was established and that the initial outcrossing experiments with other sheep breeds were conducted. Cooper's first challenge was to locate and acquire enough unmixed Navajo-Churro breeding stock for the Lab’s breeding experiments. This proved to be difficult. By the 1930’s, most of the tribe’s sheep had been extensively and indiscriminately interbred with the commercial, merino-type breeds that produced wool unsuited to hand-weaving. Nevertheless, Cooper's staff succeeded in locating pockets of pure Navajo-Churro sheep in isolated areas of the Navajo reservation, such as Navajo Mountain and Black Mesa.In a letter to Cooper dated October 9, 1935, Carl Beck, "Stockman in Charge," reported: "To date, we have 714 head of native Navajo ewes and 35 rams for the laboratory" (Dodge papers: Folder FY 1936). By 1936, a foundation herd of some 800 ewes and 20 rams had been purchased (McNeal, 1992).
Winter of 1936 saw the initiation of two breeding programs at the Lab. The first was designed to maintain an improved but pure Navajo-Churro breed of sheep. The offspring of each new generation after 1936 were carefully examined for [desirable] traits . . . and animals bearing [those traits] . . . were then retained for subsequent breeding. (McNeal 1992.)
The second breeding program entailed the breeding of Navajo-Churro ewes to rams of the Corriedale and Romney breeds. These breeds were chosen for outcrossing because they produced coarse, long-stapled wool that was “fairly suitable” for hand-weaving. They also possessed desirable traits, i.e., larger body weight and early maturation, that the Navajo-Churro lacked. The next season’s breeding crossed desirable Navajo-Churro/Corriedale offspring with Navajo-Churro/Romney offspring, resulting in a sheep that was one-half Navajo-Churro, one-quarter Corriedale, and one-quarter Romney. This new strain was reciprocally bred until 1942, in order to “strengthen and ‘fix’ desirable traits” (McNeal 1992). After this, more breeds were added to finally create a sheep that was 1/8 Cotswold, 1/8 Columbia, 1/8 Lincoln, 1/16 Corriedale, 3/16 Romney and 3/8 Navajo-Churro. This sheep was bred at the lab until 1962 and according to statistics, this sheep weighed an average of 10-12 pounds more than the lab's improved Navajo-Churro, while producing a fleece that was only slightly inferior to the Navajo-Churro's with regard to suitability for hand weaving. (Sidwell et al. 1970) These sheep were then distributed throughout the reservation as improved or modernized.
In 1942 Cooper relinquished the reins of command to James O. Grandstaff. Grandstaff would head the facility until 1952. Under this new leadership, and to mitigate the weaknesses still present in the Corriedale-Romney outcrosses, the Sheep Lab began breeding ewes of that strain with Lincoln and Cotswold rams. The resulting offspring contained only one-quarter Navajo-Churro blood. To remedy this,
“additional crosses of Navajo [i.e., Navajo-Churro] and Columbia and Navajo and Romney were made, and these crossbred sheep were reciprocally mated to the Lincoln and Cotswold cross sheep” (Sidwell etal. 1970:6).
The resulting creature was one-eighth Cotswold, one-eighth Columbia, one-eighth Lincoln, one-sixteenth Corriedale, three-sixteenths Romney, and three-eighths Navajo-Churro. Once this eclectic strain was established, assumedly in the 1940’s, it was reciprocally bred at the Lab until at least 1962. According to statistics for that year, this sheep weighed an average of 10 to 12 pounds more than the Lab’s improved purebred Navajo-Churro, while producing a fleece that was only slightly inferior to the Navajo-Churro with regard to suitability for hand weaving (Sidwell et al. 1970:6).
Crossbreeding of Navajo sheep has resulted in marked improvement in body type and conformation of the offspring at market age and maturity, without appreciable loss in fertility of breeding animals or livability of lambs (Dodge papers, Folder FY 1949.)
The last ten years or so of the lab saw these crosses bred to Targhee rams as well as the reservation rams of that time mixed with Merino crosses. The new strain of crossbred Navajo-Churro sheep produced fleeces with a uniform texture and color valuable for the commercial market. Breeding was also successful in removing the hair-like outer coat from the Navajo stock.
These sheep were then distributed throughout the reservation as improved or modernized.
Although the sheep lab never produced a “perfect Navajo range sheep” like it intended from the start, it’s meticulous record keeping as well as it’s many research practices developed there and still used today have been invaluable to the sheep industry as well as assisted in preserving the Navajo-Churro breed. By 1970, with the deliberate crossbreeding to modernize the Navajo-Churro prior, there remained just a shadow of what the Navajo-Churro originally resembled.
The original Fort Wingate, NM - USDA Range and Sheep Breeding Laboratory is where it all started with Dr. McNeal back in 1972, as he got to know some of the former scientists there, and used their objective data to help bring back the ‘Navajo-Churro’ and usage of objective information. Dr. McNeal has in his care the last remaining documentation from the sheep lab files as well as original photo documentation of some of the Navajo-Churro sheep at that time. This, along with years of developing trust and listening to the stories of the sheep from hundreds of Navajo families that remembered the "old type" sheep, has given him the information needed to develop the landrace phenotype, the precursor for the breed standard. Without this unique collaboration, the Navajo-Churro sheep would presumably now be extinct along with the pastoral cultures that have relied on it.