By Elizabeth Winslow
Photography by Jody Horton
At a dinner party five years ago, Lloyd Wendel and Isabelle Lauzière experienced an epiphany. Upon sitting down at the table, the couple was a little disheartened to discover that lamb was on the menu. “Isabelle’s never really liked lamb,” Wendel explains. “But she took one bite of this lamb and knew it was something different.” Indeed, it was. The lamb was from a breed called Dorper—a cross between European Dorset and African Persian—and it got the couple thinking.
Wendel is no stranger to sheep—his family raised wool and mohair sheep for generations on their land in Harper, Texas. But by the time Wendel left for college, the wool industry had stagnated. So after graduating, he left the family ranch to work as a scientist at the USDA. It was that chance encounter with Dorper, though, that pulled him back to his roots with plans for a sustainable lambing operation as a viable business model.
Today, Wendel and Lauzière’s Twin County Dorpers Ranch encompasses 500 acres of rolling hills, big sky and low stands of oak trees. Opening the gate to the long drive that leads to the couple’s refurbished homestead, one can’t help noticing the tufts of wool caught in the fencing around the pastures. “Every bird’s nest on this place is lined with wool,” Wendel says with a laugh.
Nest enhancing aside, Dorpers are actually known as “hair sheep” and produce little wool. Because of this, they require no shearing, and lose most of their winter wool through molting, retaining just enough along their backs to keep from getting sunburned. This light coat is one of the features that sets the breed apart. “All of the animal’s energy goes toward making meat, not wool,” says Wendel. “The meat is lean, exceptionally tender and full of flavor, without that sort of gamey taste that a lot of people associate with lamb.”
In addition to creating a product of superior quality and taste, Wendel strives to run a sustainable operation. Concern for the environment, a deep love for the land he inherited and a desire to avoid bringing in, or selling, anyone else’s product have coalesced to help develop his vision. Wendel and Lauzière make an impressive team: in addition to being a full-time partner on the ranch, Lauzière also works as an entymologist at Texas A & M’s Agricultural Experiment Station in Fredericksburg, researching Pierce’s disease, an insect-driven blight that affects grapevine. Her research is an important part of efforts to make wine-grape production viable in Central Texas, and she brings her deep knowledge of biology, ecology, and agricultural systems to all the ranch operations. The sheep do their part, too: Dorpers are well suited to a variety of conditions and forage widely, eliminating the need for irrigation.
Success has not come easy, though. Predators are the bane of any rancher, and running a ranch where animals roam freely and humans are few presents special challenges. Coyotes are a familiar foe, but in the past several years, Mexican black-headed vultures have taken a toll, preying on ewes as they lamb under the oak trees.
Federal law prohibits shooting or capturing migratory birds like the vultures, so Wendel has been forced to get creative. Their vulture flock is watched over by a team of guard animals, each bringing a particular strength to the operation. Llamas are extremely protective and aggressive, require little training even if they’ve had no previous experience with sheep or goats, are easy to maintain and almost completely eliminate losses from coyotes. Rowdy the border collie, and his fellow guard dogs have recently been joined by two Great Pyrenees—Basque sheepdogs whose wise and gentle faces belie their agility and fierce courage. The new canine ranch hands, acquired from a neighbor who bred them to recognize danger from the skies as well as land, have already demonstrated unparalleled protection against winged predators and wily coyotes.
Challenges aside, Wendel knows that his ranch’s location is a true benefit. He can run the kind of business he wants and sell to the local community instead of shipping his product to parts unknown, and the proximity to Dutchman’s Market, a federally inspected processing facility in nearby Fredericksburg, means fewer hours on the road. In fact, it was at Dutchman’s that Wendel experienced his most recent creative epiphany. “I was in the back cooler where they were hanging and smoking a bunch of hams,” he recalls. “I thought, Hey, wouldn’t that be good with lamb?” At the recent Fredericksburg Food & Wine Fest, Wendel unveiled his newest product: a smoked lamb ham, which had already garnered a cult following among local chefs given an advance sampling.
The market is always changing, and Wendel’s ideas and product innovations are a response to the call for adaptability. One thing remains constant, though: his unwillingness to compromise quality.
Wendel stands looking out over his flock, chilly rain dripping off the brim of his cowboy hat, and smiles stoically when asked what motivates such high standards. “Well, I’m all for making money,” he says. “But if you sell your soul, what are you worth then?”
Click here for Twin County Dorpers Ranch's Lamb Ribs Masala with Cucumber Riata recipe.