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Oklahoma’s Clear Creek Monastery

By Tim King

Deadly barber pole worms, too many trees, and no neighbors knowledgeable about sheep are disincentives to raising sheep in Oklahoma’s Ozark Mountains. But the Benedictines at Our Lady of the Annunciation Clear Creek Monastery, near Hulbert, aren’t letting that stop their shepherding.

Due to good planning, Brother Joseph can manage chutes, scales and hundreds of sheep.
Due to good planning, Brother Joseph can manage chutes, scales and hundreds of sheep.

The monastery that sent the brothers to Oklahoma is in France. French brothers started that monastery in the 11th century, about the time William the Conqueror landed in the British Islands. History tends to affect how the Oklahoma brothers think about their work.

“The shepherd should remember that there were other people before,” Brother Joseph, Clear Creek’s shepherd, says.

When Joseph said that he was not only talking about a long line of Benedictine shepherds. He was also thinking of shepherds in general.

“Look at Chapter 10 of the Gospel of St. John,” he said. “You’ll find a wealth of information on practical shepherding. It’s a gold mine.”

But Joseph is an experienced enough shepherd to know that neither tips from St. John nor a millennia of shepherding experience totally provide for the wisdom needed to raise sheep in eastern Oklahoma’s humid hills. To succeed in that he’s turned to hair sheep.

“They are not woolies,” he keeps reminding a listener.

Beating Sheep Worms With Genetics

But, even with his years of shepherding experience in Oregon and France, he’s got a lot of questions about how to raise “not-woolies” in this climate.

Adding St. Croix bloodlines helps Katahdins and Dorpers fight worms.
Adding St. Croix bloodlines helps Katahdins and Dorpers fight worms.

“We found that the limiting factor here is the worms,” he said. “We get fifty inches of rain per year and although it soaks in like a sieve, it’s still quite humid. We’ve got the barber pole worm. They can kill a sheep in 10 days.”

But Brother Joseph believes the barber pole worm can be licked. Breeding is part of the solution. The monastery’s flock is a mix of Dorper, Katahdin, and St. Croix.

“We don’t have any capital so we bought some culls and we got some rams and have tried to get something that’s adapted to this place,” Joseph said.

Dorpers aren’t well adapted to the wet climate. They are susceptible to worms. St. Croix, on the other hand, are very resistant to parasites.

“We’re backing away from pure Dorpers because they were selected for dry climate in South Africa,” Joseph said.

Other Breeding Objectives

Hair sheep, such as the St. Croix, are the sheep of choice at Clear Creek Monastery for two primary reasons. The first is similar to why many other shepherds turn to them; wool can be perceived as a liability because of the condition of the commodity market. The second reason is more specific to the hills of the Ozarks; plentiful eastern red cedar trees. Red cedar needles have a tendency to imbed themselves hopelessly into the wool of unjacketed sheep. That, in turn, drives woolen mill operators crazy and causes them to give shepherds lower than low prices for fleeces.

But Brother Joseph hasn’t embraced hair sheep entirely.

“We’re trying to breed the hair sheep with something called the Gulf Coast Native,” he said. “It’s a wool sheep that is also called the Florida Native. It was abandoned along the coast by the Spanish or the French and is utterly resistant to worms.”

Joseph’s idea, which he acknowledges is shared with a large nearby ranch with 900 ewes, is to get quarter blood Florida Natives crossed with St. Croix and Katahdin. That, he believes, will give him a hair sheep that is well suited to the western Ozarks’ unique problems.

That would be so except for the trees. When Joseph says there are 100,000 trees on the monastery’s 1,020 acres he is likely not far off. In some places the trees and brush are so thick it is necessary to get down on your hands and knees to move through an area.

Pasture Clearing Methods

“I told Father (Abbott) I estimate it would take one monk 137 years, working 300 hours a year, to clear the trees,” Joseph said.

The sheep on grass can get worms, but those grazing acorns and lespedeza are unharmed.
The sheep on grass can get worms, but those grazing acorns and lespedeza are unharmed.

The land used to be ideal for sheep. Indians burned it regularly, according to archaeologists, and by doing so created a marvelous pasture of tall grass prairie sprinkled with oak trees. They were able to live well off the hoofed animals that thrived on the grasses. White men, not being such skilled land managers, suppressed the fires. Only after the oaks actually took over, farmers and ranchers would occasionally try burning. The fires burned too hot. That damaged the oaks for saw log purposes but left them standing. Sometimes ranchers resorted to bulldozers.

“The previous owner did that to a piece of land 20 years ago. Now there are too many young trees too close together,” Joseph said. “We can put up a fence and put the sheep in there and they will graze some of that down. Research says that foliage is most palatable when it first comes out in April and May but that it’s also very poisonous. We’ve not found that to be true but you do have to put some hay out there too.”

But Joseph’s main tool for recovering pasture from the forest is, like the Indian, fire. He uses a word they did not: Ecoboulage, or low temperature burning.

“The Institute National Research Agronomique in France started doing research on models of extensive sheep farming in 1997-98 to meet the challenge of the New Zealand imported lambs,” Brother Joseph said. “Ecoboulage is one of the concepts they’ve worked with.”

Visitors at Clear Creek Monastery's Field Day with sheep, ready to sort.
Visitors at Clear Creek Monastery’s Field Day with sheep, ready to sort.

What Joseph has been doing is burning off the accumulated oak leaf mulch that has, for decades, smothered the prairie grass. He estimates that there is 20 tons of mulch per acre.

“You want to choose a day when the wind is stable and the temperature is about 50 degrees,” he said. “We make a fire break with a leaf blower. Then we back the fire into the wind. The government agencies say you have to spend a lot of money to burn but it’s not true. For instance, you don’t have to buy an expensive drip torch for starting fires. We use a plastic wrapping from a hay bale. We ball it up and put it on a potato fork-one of those with a lot of tines. Then we put a bunch of leaves on the potato fork and light them. The bag drips burning plastic and that lets you walk along and start a line of fire.”

Keeping the burn plots small is important. The monastery’s first burn was 150 acres. That was too large of an area to manage adequately.

Now the size of the burn plots is kept to around 50 acres. During the winter of 2005-2006 there was no controlled burning, however. Smoke from wildfires hung heavy in the air, drought dried up ponds, and President Bush declared portions of Oklahoma a disaster area.

Getting Grass To Grow

Clear Creek Monastery obtained a small two year producer grant from the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education project to experiment with creating productive silviopastures. Part of the project was to determine what to seed under the oaks after burning. Since there is still 90 percent shade under the trees, shade tolerant species had to be planted. Brother Joseph had success with annual rye grass and Korean lespedeza. He broadcast the seed and then stocked the area heavily for a brief period. The sheep’s hooves worked the seed in.

But Joseph’s burning uncovered a surprise. Under the leaves were the old prairie grass seeds. The fire released them.

“I wouldn’t have thought there were seeds there but sure enough there were,” he said. “My idea as a farmer was if you didn’t put it in, it wasn’t going to be there.” Even though the grass is coming back it is still suppressed by the trees. Joseph’s goal is to get the shade reduced to 70 percent. To that end the monastery has purchased a used saw mill and rebuilt it. The mill processes oak lumber into pallet wood, wood for furniture making, and for slats for a low cost, semi-portable, fencing system the monks have invented.

“We don’t have capital and we are very short on labor,” Joseph said. “The young brothers have a heavy course of study.”

Using Dogs

Clear Creek Monastery’s situation is similar to many shepherds who have limited time and capital. For those shepherds Joseph recommends wise use of man’s best friend. Neutered male and female Great Pyrenees guard the fence lines of the Monastery’s rotational paddocks. The dogs keep away other roaming dogs and train the neighborhood coyotes to respect their territories.

“If you have a coyote that respects your dogs and your fences you want to keep him,” Joseph said.

The brothers have invented a low cost portable dog feeder that they leave in the paddocks.

“It holds 25 pounds of food and we only have to fill it a couple times a week,” Joseph said.

Another canine labor saver is the border collies.

“If you’ve got a job in town and don’t have time to train a dog, buy one trained to a whistle,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. These dogs have so much incredible instinct. You can usually buy a dog that’s been started, but is not going to be a ‘trial dog’ for not-a-lot-of-money, and ‘finish it’ yourself. I was in a situation in another monastery where it took four monks to move a flock of sheep. You can do the same thing with two border collies.”

Miscellaneous Tips

For the shepherd strapped for help, Joseph also suggests a well-designed sorting corral and sheep yard. A well thought up system of gates and chutes can allow one person to handle hundreds of sheep.

Guests learn how good corral planning helps sort sheep fast, easy and without help.
Guests learn how good corral planning helps sort sheep fast, easy and without help.

Additionally, Joseph suggests that lanes for moving sheep from paddock to paddock be designed and placed in such a way as to minimize labor.

As the brothers at Clear Creek Monastery work to restore their little piece of the western Ozarks to be more suitable for hooves and grazing Joseph notes that the 100,000 trees aren’t all bad. This year saw the best acorn fall in memory, thanks to plentiful rain in 2004. The sheep under the oaks are fattening very nicely on the acorns, says Joseph.

Grazing acorns has a secondary benefit.

“We’re taking fecal samples,” Joseph said. “The sheep that are along the creek on normal pasture have some parasites. The ones up in the woods foraging on acorns and a weedy lespedeza have no worms. They are gaining weight. Both acorns and the lespedeza have tannins that inhibit worms.”

For more information about the Benedictine Brothers at Our Lady of the Annunciation Clear Creek Monastery visit their website at www.clearcreekmonks.org or write them at 5804 West Monastery Rd., Hulbert, OK 74441.

Joseph says that they hope to continue their building program for a traditional Benedictine monastery in the near future. Meanwhile, the brothers have converted the former horse barn into a residence. Individuals wishing to help the brothers with their work, or to conduct a spiritual retreat, are welcome to stay in the monastery’s guest house.^

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