Friday, April 3, 2009

Mission in Florida

2008 Pineywoods Cattle and Florida Cracker Sheep Field Investigation
Part II – Of Florida Crackers….
By Jeannette Beranger

I headed out of Mississippi early in the morning and made my way through Alabama after being stuck for nearly two hours on the bridge smack dab in the middle of Chacaloochee Bay, not far from the famous Bayou La Batre of Forrest Gump fame. Despite the delay, it wasn’t too bad a way to spend a pleasantly warm morning watching shrimp boats go by. I finally got to the panhandle by mid-afternoon and met with Jack Summers of Bristol, Florida, about Cracker cattle.

Mr. Summers has a herd of predominantly Ezell line Cracker cattle and some recently acquired Payne’s Prairie cattle to help increase the genetic diversity of the herd. According to Jake, the Ezell cattle are mainly red or black in color with very few being spotted. He continued saying that they were used for both beef and dairy production and were selected equally for both.

Jake manages his herd on approximately 1000+ acres of state land that he leases. The land is wire grass flat woods that are burned yearly. The cattle are offered hot mix containing cottonseed meal, salt, and minerals much like what the Pineywoods cattle often receive in Mississippi. The cattle are allowed to freely breed and typically follow a cycle of having a calf every other year with a few exceptional cows in the herd that have a calf every year with minimal input from the producer. (Every calf from these amazing cows is kept within the herd and never sold.) Jake told me he has no problem whatsoever selling stock and he continues to have good prices on his cattle. He only sells bull calves at this point in time and has a long waiting list for people wanting heifers and cows.

After seeing Jake’s Cracker mare he uses to hunt and move cattle, I made my way towards central Florida to spend the night and see Cracker sheep the following morning.

Bright and early I headed out to Ocala to meet with Cracker sheep breeders Carol Postley and Ralph Wright. Both have been leading the way with documenting the breed and rescuing lines in danger of dispersal. Through their work they estimate there are 500-750 Cracker sheep left in the state. They have identified approximately 9 lines within the breed thus far. Carol herself currently has animals from a good number of the lines including Cox, Wing, Wilson, Aldridge, and Kern.

Carol and Ralph have observed that 90% of the Florida Cracker sheep have faces and legs that are multicolored with only 10% being solid white or solid black. Their population is largely polled and a good number of animals within several lines have bare necks, bellies, and tail heads making them very easy to shear. Typical adult weights are 150-170 lbs for rams and 100-125 lbs for ewes. Both sexes take a good two years to reach full adult weight.

Cracker lambs are very vigorous and are almost immediately up and about with their mothers and never leave their side. Carol observed that the lambs are extremely quiet and she never hears them calling for their mothers because they are always within close sight of them.

While at the farm I got to see these really great mobile catch pens that Carol uses to gather up sheep for testing, etc. She can bait them without going inside the actual cage and while the animals are busy eating, it’s easy for her to close the door behind them. They are very effective, especially for the sheep that were fairly feral and skittish. The floor of the pens is constructed of a sturdy metal mesh so that in wet conditions the animals are kept dry and don’t get muddy while in the pens. The mesh is fine enough so feet don’t get caught in it.

The trip ended on a good note with loads of data not to mention over a thousand photos. It was well worth the time in gaining closer insight into what is happening with little known strains of critically rare breeds of the deep south. It is a critical time for many of these breeds and the future is not certain but with care, the outlook may be bright in the days to come.

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