One man's crusade to save a breed

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By Sherry Robinson

One small bill before the Legislature opens the gate to sheep with history.
In the 1980s Donald Chavez y Gilbert bought the family farm in Belen, which was once part of the 1742 Belen Land Grant. “I jumped into farming and livestock,” he says.
At sale barns he began to notice that some of the sheep were different – they had hair instead of wool or an occasional ewe had horns. He talked to sellers to learn more.
“The old guys would say, ‘We would go out hunting and find these sheep.’” Or, ‘When we were rounding up cattle, we’d pick up some sheep. We could never catch ‘em all.’”
Intrigued, Chavez began buying these oddball sheep and learning more about them, which started him on a 25-year quest to save a heritage breed.
“I’ve been a student of history all my adult life,” he said. A descendent of land grant founders and pioneers, Chavez listened to his grandfather’s stories haunted the library. Before long, he was immersed in Belen Founders Day events, local genealogy, family journals, and archives.
Spanish settlers brought a number of animals to New Mexico whose offspring are now heritage livestock – Spanish barb horses, corriente cattle, and Churro sheep, prized for their wool in northern New Mexico and Navajo Country.
Chavez learned that his forbears also brought hair sheep to New Mexico. These breeds were fleet-footed and hardy. Belen family journals recorded a hair sheep that shed its wooly undercoat in spring. They also describe Spanish settlers fleeing the Pueblo Revolt (or massacre, depending on your point of view) in 1680. They took with them borregos de pelo, hair sheep, and left behind the slower borregos de lana. And when farmers moved from Bernalillo to the new village of Alburquerque (original spelling) in the early 1700s, they brought borregos especiales de pelo.  
Chavez figures that over time, the hair sheep mixed with “woolies” or became feral, living at high altitudes where they were protected from predators and possibly mixed with bighorns. For 25 years, he has bred out uncharacteristic features like wool while improving the stock. The product is the New Mexico Dahl sheep.
Here’s how Chavez describes them on his Terra Patre Farms website terrapatrefarms.com: “New Mexico Dahl sheep appeal to both the meat and hunting industries, sporting trophy size horns on large muscular bodies.” They’re white, horned (both ewes and rams), good breeders, hardy, and don’t need shearing. Rams can reach 250 pounds. And they’re better tasting than wool sheep, he says.
New Mexico Dahls are similar to Texas Dall sheep, which are used in commercial hunts that will set you back $30,000, but they’re bigger. They also share traits with the Rocky Mountain Big Horn sheep, including large horns and muscular body frames. Chavez figures the New Mexico Dahl could also be popular for hunting, but he doesn’t have enough of them yet.
HB 236, a marvel of simplicity, states, “The New Mexico Dahl Hair breed of sheep shall be an official state heritage breed of livestock.” Getting the bill passed would mean a lot, and so would the attendant publicity.
“I’m hanging my hat and coat on this bill,” Chavez says. “If you publish this article, it will have the effect of educating the public.”
The Roundhouse is full of thorny bills. HB 236 is warm and fuzzy, literally. The New Mexico Dahl deserves to take its place among other state heritage breeds.