Keeping the tradition of New Mexico’s wool heritage alive, today’s sheep ranchers combine classic techniques with innovative business practices.
Rediscovering Sheep Herding
Mike Corn’s family has raised sheep near Roswell since the 1880s, when more than 5 million sheep and lambs roamed New Mexico. “Back when sheep numbers were at their highest, sheep were herded,” says Corn, who was elected president of the American Sheep Industry Association in 2017.
Grazing practices changed in the 20th century. Well-fenced ranches kept coyotes at bay, and large bands of sheep were herded between pastures to graze for months. But as ranch numbers declined, fencing fell into disrepair. “That opened up spots for predators to have a safe haven,” Corn says.
Sheep ranchers are bringing back original herding principles – combined with sturdy fences – by moving large groups of sheep between fenced fields for shorter periods. “By putting sheep in a more high-intensity, low-frequency grazing system, we’ve cut predation down to zero,” Corn says.
Sheep ranchers deal with weather issues, too. Recent historic drought conditions have brought sheep numbers to record lows, and Corn is still suffering from it.
“We’re at 1,000 ewes, the lowest we’ve ever had,” Corn says. “Our lambs today look good and are growing well, but we are still waiting for more rain. The ranch turf needed time to re-establish from seed,” he says. “You have to take care of the land before it can take care of you.”
The Open Range
Antonio and Molly Manzanares operate the state’s only certified organic sheep ranch near Los Ojos in Rio Arriba County. Their 900- ewe herd grazes open range.
“The sheep are moved home from winter pastures in early April,” says Antonio. Shearing and lambing follow. “We then trail or truck the whole band of sheep to summer range in the mountains of the Carson National Forest. They stay there under herd all summer, and then we trail home in early October.”
The couple sells lamb and wool products under their farm label, Shepherd’s Lamb. “The greatest challenge right now is being aware of where the sheep graze and overcoming management issues since we can’t use antibiotics or de-wormers,” Molly says. This is part of the organic certification guidelines they follow. Lamb is sold at the Santa Fe Farmers Market, at La Montañita Co-op in Albuquerque, and to restaurants in Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Taos and Winslow, Arizona.
Antonio and Molly emphasize wool production much more than when they started ranching 30 years ago. “Meat used to be around 95 percent of our income. Now it’s more like 65 percent, and wool is 35 percent,” Molly says. Their ewes are Rambouillets, known for fine wool, and Navajo/Churro.
The Manzanares’ discovered remnants of the breed in their community in the 1980s and began to raise them to preserve the genetics. “We also knew that the Navajo/Churro wool is very good for handweaving and spinning, since there is a long tradition of weaving in our community,” Antonio says. The farm now operates a shop in Los Ojos, where three employees weave Navajo/Churro yarn year round. Shepherd’s Lamb blankets and yarns are sold in Los Ojos, Santa Fe, and online.
Wool is also a bigger part of Corn’s business since he started heep ranching. He and two cousins purchased a wool warehouse in the 1990s. “At the time, it started out as sort of a part-time job for me,” Corn recalls.
Today, Roswell Wool is the largest wool-marketing firm in the U.S., sourcing wool from across the West. Grading, grouping and selling high volumes of wool for worldwide sale helps farmers obtain better wool prices.
New Mexico’s sheep industry remains as diverse as its landscape, from ranchers focused on wholesale production to those selling lamb meat and woolen products direct to consumers. Corn is optimistic about the future of the industry. “The potential for the sheep industry here is tremendous. American farmers only produce about 50 percent of the lamb consumed in our country.”