Depending on Dorper
By Terry Ropp, OFN Contributor
The challenge of operating a successful Dorper sheep breeding herd on only 7 acres of Bentonville, Ark., ground is daunting but highly achievable for Nick and Loraine Venter. They came to the U.S. from South Africa in 1989, and Nick ministered in Bastrop, La., for a non denominational church. Then the Venters relocated to Bentonville 18 years ago. Pastor Nick is now semi-retired from that role, guest speaking as needed. When Nick and Loraine came to this country, they brought with them their family and good sheep experience. In fact, the combined total of sheep on both sides of Loraine’s family is an amazing 6,000 head.
South Africa needed a hardy, fertile meat sheep that could survive the local semi-arid climate and developed the Dorper breed in the 1930s and 40s. Loraine said, “We chose the White Dorpers because they are more docile than the black head Dorper. The rams, however, are still aggressive, especially when not with the ladies.” Consequently Nick always has a shepherd crook with him when he is with a ram. Nick uses the shepherd crook with a spray bottle of water to train the ram into submission.
The small farm appears to be a poetic pastoral haven with sheep, ducks, chickens and dogs. The truth is, it is a scientifically managed system that produces the highest quality breeding stock for others to use in their own herds. Last year every Venter ewe had twins, which indicates a combination of good genetics and meticulous care. This year they predict their herd to be 100 animals including two rams to prevent inbreeding.
The pasture land is divided into a dry lot and 14 numbered pasture camps. The sheep are on a 28 day pasturing cycle of two days per camp to allow the land to recover and to minimize the impact of worms which have a 26 day cycle. That way the sheep are mostly on worm-free pasture. In addition the camps contain a variety of grasses: Fescue, Bermuda and clover as well as Rye which has to be reseeded annually.
The land rests from mid-January until April when the sheep are kept in the dry lot and fed mostly Bermuda hay, which is 18 percent protein. Loraine also custom mixes the grain rations, another critical element to the sheep diet. Loraine said, “I use cracked corn, oats, soybean meal, limestone, white salt and micromix with liquid molasses and ammonium chloride.” Purposefully, the resting time frame also incorporates lambing season so that the Venters have an easier time of keeping closer watch on the births.
All of the Venter sheep are purebred meaning they are 100 percent Dorper. The stud ram is a fullblood ram. Nick added, “I run a closed flock and breed my own sheep to help stay scrapie free.” Scrapie is a sheep version of mad cow disease and would require the destruction of the entire flock.
The Venter breeding system is deceptively simple and highly efficient. During breeding season, the rams are harnessed with a colored crayon block on their chests that mark the ewes each time they are bred. Once an ewe has been successfully bred, the ram will not mount her again. The harness colors are changed during breeding season three times and Nick can clearly see the most recent color on the back of the ewes. Nick said, “If an ewe has been bred all three times, she is culled from the herd.”
The Venters also show some of their sheep at places such as the Arkansas State Fair. When potential show sheep have been identified, they are trained by halter walking them. This teaches them to walk properly.
The Venter farm is an integrated eco-system. They have chickens and ducks who keep the tick population under control. The chickens supply the family with eggs while the ducks reproduce all spring and summer to be given away in the fall as pond ducks though a small breeding flock is reserved to start the process again the next spring. Another part of the system is the inclusion of two dogs, a Great Pyrenees named CJ who is used to guard against predators and a border collie named Jill who moves the sheep as needed upon commands from Nick. Nick loves to demonstrate her prowess.
Nick and Loraine are excited about the future of their operation. Their son owns 100 acres in Missouri, and the plan is to use their farm as a breeding facility while their son’s place will be for lambing, raising and selling. Nick expects the expansion to 600 to 700 animals to take about three years.
Nick said, “The Dorper sheep is a good commodity for families to run a small business without large acreage, and it is a good stress reliever. Meanwhile Loraine watched fondly while grandsons who live next door, Logan, 11, and Caden, 9, worked with the herd and moved happily around the chickens and ducks and four show turkeys that have become pets, the result of a hay trade during the drought. The picturesque land is exactly what the couple want for their entire family. With the expansion in Missouri, it looks as if that hope will come true.