Ag Professor Helps Revive Nearly Extinct Churro Sheep

Lyle McNeal was a young ag professor at California Polytechnic State University more than 40 years ago when he noticed a small flock of unusual looking sheep on a ranch during a student field trip. Some of the rams had 4 long horns and extremely long coats.  “The rancher told me they were Churro sheep, a breed that I’d heard of but had never seen before,” says McNeal. He was intrigued by the animals and learned from a census taken by the Navajo Nation chief veterinarian that only 435 Churro existed in the U.S. at that time. 
“That seemed like a critically small number to me,” says McNeal, so I decided to see if I could help the breed grow.”  A few years later, he obtained a small flock of 8 ewes and two rams for breeding. In 1977, he established the Navajo Sheep Project (NSP), dedicated to protecting the breed and creating a plan to grow its numbers.  By 1986, he helped set up the Navajo-Churro Sheep Association (N-CSA), a national breed organization.  There were about 3,500 Churro registered at the time. Now there are about 6,000 registered and another 2,000 not registered. Flocks exist across the U.S. and in Canada. Today it’s a growing niche-market breed known for its unique wool and tasty meat that’s very low in fat.
“Churros are an ideal breed for small farms and hobbyists who are interested in sustainable agriculture,” McNeal says.  “This is heritage breed that continues to grow in popularity. The Navajo Churro have some outstanding traits that need to be preserved.” 
Churros have a strong maternal instinct, abundant milk production, hardiness, and produce strong lambs. They have parasite and contagious foot root resistance and the ability to survive on marginal feed. Those lambs that aren’t desirable as breeding stock produce exceptionally low fat meat and their wooly hides can be tanned to provide long lavish pelts.
The wool, which contains an inner coat 2 to 4 in. long and a protective outer coat that’s 4 to 14 in. long, is ideal for hand rug weaving because it grows in an array of natural colors. It has a low amount of grease and yolk, few crimps per inch, and long staple length.   
“For more than 300 years the Churro were spiritually and materially important to the Navajo just as the bison were to the Plains Indians,” McNeil says. Then in the 1860’s, thousands of them were slaughtered.  The breed rebuilt, but more than a million Churro sheep and goats were exterminated by the U.S. government during the “stock reduction” era of the 1930’s. McNeil says, “those were traumatic events for the Navajo people, and by the late 1960’s only a few hundred animals from native flocks remained.”
 “The breed is well dispersed in the U.S. and Canada. If anyone wants information on where to find seed animals, I can help.”