It’s obvious from his passionate discourse that of all Rogers’s titles, “shepherd” and “farmer” are closest to his heart.
When the decision was made to launch this column in April, my train of thought immediately followed this route: Passover. Easter. Lamb. Craig Rogers.
Rogers, 51, owns Border Springs Farm in Patrick County, Va., 60 acres of pastured land at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains near the North Carolina border. There, and on land he leases from a neighbor, Rogers raises grass-fed, Animal Welfare Approved, certified naturally grown Katahdin and Texel sheep. He breeds them to create lamb with a sweet fat profile and a delicate, yet earthy, meat flavor.
Last month I got a firsthand look at the Border Springs operation, something Rogers encourages everybody, especially clients, to do, particularly during primary lambing season in late fall and early spring.
“My breeding is primarily based on the fat,” he says. “The Katahdins don’t have a lot of lanolin, which is where the musky taste comes from in the fat. But the meat tastes too mild. The Texel sires provide the additional flavor.”
Texel sheep come from an island off the Netherlands and are rare in the United States, he says. They are thickly muscled (think speed skater vs. marathon runner) and exceptionally round, with broad heads and shoulders and big rear ends. They are lean sheep that basically look like “bourbon barrels with wool,” Rogers says.
Katahdins are an American breed popular among farmers because they lamb (give birth) easily. They are parasite-resistant and make good mothers, and they produce coarse hair that sheds, meaning no shearing is required.
Rogers’s lambs wean naturally; after that, they are grass-fed. To create fat, every two years Rogers seeds his pastures with grasses that have very high sugar content: perennial rye, white and red clover, and timothy or orchard grass. (Most of his clients want their lamb grain-finished, for flavor, and he complies with their requests.)
The sheep have a lifespan of 10 to 20 years. A Katahdin mother’s breeding life is eight years; some breed three times in a two-year cycle. Rogers’s flock consists primarily of about 600 Katahdin females and 30 Texel sires. Their offspring go to slaughter at between seven and 10 months, once they’ve reached between 90 and 95 pounds. (That translates to a 40-pound carcass.)