What is a Navajo Churro Sheep?
The "original" Navajo-Churro Sheep are considered a landrace and have some outstanding traits that need to be preserved. These include a strong maternal instinct, abundant milk production, hardiness, lamb survival, parasite and contagious foot rot resistance and the ability to survive marginal feed resources.
Because of the Navajo-Churro's unique history, it is important to recognize the features that make this sheep special. The Navajo-Churro is considered a landrace - which is a domesticated locally adapted, traditional variety of a species of animal or plant that has developed over time, through adaptation to its natural and cultural environment of agriculture and pastoralism, and due to isolation from other populations of the species. The isolated desert environment in which it lived allowed the Navajo-Churro to be the dominant livestock for centuries in the southwest and the only domesticated animal that could survive the harsh climate of the Camino De Real trail. This trail linked the Americas and brought the first Spanish settlers to the United States up the Rio Grande valley.
But what makes this landrace different than other landraces in the United States is that it still has it's original role with both the Navajo and traditional shepherds along the Rio Grande and the Sierra Madres mountains in Mexico. The cultural significance of these sheep in these pastoral weaving societies is still viable because of it's unique environmental adaptions, superior wool for weaving and religious significance.
Ancestrally, the "Churro" or "churra" type sheep was merely referred to as a "scrub" or unimproved type of sheep. Churro, a Spanish origin name, came with the sheep that Coronado and Juan Onate brought with them in their early explorations in the mid-1500s to supply meat and wool needs for the early expeditionary teams from Spain. The Navajo-Churro, although considered an unimproved sheep in Spain, was an improvement when introduced into what is now the Southwestern United States. Over this period, with the Hispanics, Navajos, Tarahumara and other native Indians of the US and Mexico, Navajo-Churro adapted to the extreme climate conditions of the southwest deserts and thrived.
But as early as 1859, Merino sheep were introduced to the Navajo Shepherds. Then in 1883, Merino rams were introduced by Indian agents in the hope that fewer animals could be bred but of a larger type. Unfortunately, it turned out that the lambs born were too large for the small Navajo-Churro ewe, and even when lambing was successful, the wool had too much crimp and was too greasy to be used in Navajo weaving. In 1903, the Rambouillet was tried with basically the same result. Other breeds over the years have been introduced (Shropshire, Hampshire, Cotswold, Suffolk, Lincoln and others) with the intent of "improving" on the "unimproved" Navajo sheep. The breeds were changed again and again until in the 1970s, there were few examples of the "old type" Navajo-Churro to be found. Similar breed pollution for the new wool and meat market was happening throughout the original Navajo-Churro range. Throughout the desert areas in the Americas, the Navajo-Churro was being replaced.
Since the 1970s, the Navajo Sheep Project has been devoted to preserving and breeding back the endangered "original" Navajo-Churro sheep, through a systematic and scientific conservation program with the nucleus flock as well as assisting and encouraging traditional flocks with other shepherds around the Southwest.
In actuality, the Navajo-Churro represents the oldest breed type of sheep to be found in America and thus deserves a place in the annals of American agricultural history and human development. It is significant as one of the key elements or figures in the domestication and civilization of the Southwest United States.
How to recognize a Navajo Churro Sheep
All of the unique qualities of the Navajo-Churro relate to it's adaption over the centuries to climate and management practices in which it lived. These adaptions enable it to withstand the extremes in temperature changes, minimal food availability as well as parasite and disease resistance. The Navajo-Churro is a breed of sheep that lacks the meaty conformation of most of the "improved" breeds such as the Suffolk.
The distinct body type of a traditional Navajo-Churro sheep is more reminiscent of a deer or antelope than a modern sheep. They are long legged, upstanding, narrow bodied and fine boned. They should not have the boxy conformation of other domestic sheep breeds. From this unique body type, they can move more readily across the rough terrain of the desert landscape as well as escape predators. The sheep exhibit a variety of color patterns and although most are solid white, some have brown and black spots on the ears and face and around the eyes. This dark mottling around the face and legs protects them from the intense ultraviolet rays of the high desert. Colored feet and legs are also common. There are solid color variations of black, brown or gray. Both polled and horned rams are common and an occasional ram has 4 horns. It is also not uncommon to have a ewe with horns. Navajo-Churro are relatively small, late developing sheep, with the average weight of a mature ram at about 160 pounds and a mature ewe at 80 to 120 pounds. Navajo-Churro develop slowly compared to other breeds of sheep. A mature Navajo-Churro will not get it's full grown size until late into it's second year.
Considering the adverse environmental conditions to which these sheep were subjected, prolificacy is about 125 percent, and a low lamb death loss as compared to regular domestic sheep range operations. The birth coat of the Navajo-Churro type lamb is so designed that undesirable changes in the weather least affects a Navajo-Churro-type lamb than those that are from "improved" breeds. The ewes have small compact udders so that they will not get lacerated by brush and sharp thorns. Maternal instinct and milk production of the ewes, as well as hardiness and rustling ability of the lambs is very evident with these sheep. By observation, the Navajo-Churro sheep are considered more athletic and have greater stamina than the traditional breeds utilized in the west. This allows them to travel great distances for food and water in the harsh desert landscape.
Photo M Benanav
Frequently Asked Questions
We have been asked many interesting questions over the years about the sheep and project that we will like to share. Check back often because this subject will change as new topics are discussed.