A part-time rancher finds her market

GALT, Calif. — Even though college and work took Catherine Diaz-Khansefid away from ranch life and onto a business career path, her ranching spirit always remained.

“I was born and raised in California,” she said. “My father was a horse trainer, and horses and ranching ran in our family for generations. I grew up in 4-H and FFA, raising all kinds of fair projects.”

For 31 years she has been the chief administrative officer in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of California-Davis Health. She is also a certified research administrator and president of the Northern California Society of Research Administrators.

But when she’s away from her “day-job,” Diaz-Khansefid returns to her ranch roots. She is president of the Western States Dorper Association, founded in 2013; a member of the American Dorper Sheep Breeders’ Society, founded in 1995; and a member of the Dorper Sheep Breeders Society of South Africa, founded in 1950.

“I maintain 10 acres in Galt, Calif., with my husband and son,” she said. “My flock name is DK Dorpers. We sell fullblood Dorpers throughout the year to other breeders.”

Unique breed

Over the years, Diaz-Khansefid kept up on different breeds of livestock and farming trends. Then, about 15 years ago, the Dorper caught her eye. About eight years ago, she moved to a small ranch in Galt and started with four Katahdin ewes and one Dorper ram.

“I’m not fond of lamb cuisine, but my husband loves it,” she said. “I found it intriguing that many people claimed Dorper meat to be less ‘lamby’ in comparison to other breeds, so I wanted to learn more. I discovered that meat from this cross was very tasty, productive and affordable.”

She continued to expand her line of Dorpers.

“Because I worked in a full-time and demanding job, I could not keep up with my customer base, which grew faster than I could keep up,” she said. “Harvesting and selling in California is more regulated than in other states, so I scaled back on my meat line and focused on the breed-show quality full-blood Dorper. I found this to be significantly more rewarding. It came with a huge bonus of repeat customers and friendships with many wonderful breeders.”

Two years ago, with a few other breeders, she imported semen from a highly reputable Dorper breeder in Australia. Currently there are no protocols allowing the import of semen from South Africa, where Dorpers originated. The current focus is to expand the Australian Dorper bloodline program, and she only harvests Dorper lamb for personal and family consumption.

Popular for meat

Dorper meat is popular at farmers’ markets and with upscale “farm to fork” restaurants. Most Dorper lambs reach market weight of 80-100 pounds at about four months of age, which is faster than other breeds. Mature rams range in weight from 240 to 300 pounds, and mature ewes range from 150 to 200 pounds.

“Catherine has worked very hard to bring in South African genetics to improve the breed,” said Harry Owens, treasurer of Western States Dorper Association. “The process is very difficult and expensive.”

Within the U.S., there are a few dozen hair sheep breeds, and several hundred wool breeds. Of the hair sheep, Dorpers are among the most muscular breeds. Originally bred in the 1940s in South Africa, Dorper sheep are a cross from Dorset horned rams and Blackhead Persian ewes, which produced two varieties of Dorpers, the black-headed “Dorper” and the all-white “white Dorper.”

The word “Dorper” originates from coupling the first syllables of the parent breeds Dorset and Persian. The Dorper has superior carcass quality, meat flavor, shedding characteristics (no shearing required), adaptability to weather conditions, great feed conversion, high fertility, maternal instinct, high growth rate and hardiness, according to Diaz-Khansefid.

The Dorper also has a highly prized thick skin that protects the sheep from harsh climatic conditions. The Dorper skin is among the most sought-after sheepskin in the world and is marketed under the name of “Cape Glovers.” The Dorper and white Dorper are among the fastest-growing breeds in many countries, including the U.S. and Canada, she said.

“Dorpers were first brought to the USA in 1995,” Diaz-Khansfeid said. “Embryos were imported to Canada and implanted in ewes. The ewes were then sold to ranchers in the USA. This was a very expensive process, and still is today.”