Stewardship is a top priority for beginning sheep rancher Craig Smith.
If Craig Smith’s grandfathers were alive today, they might be surprised to see their grandson raising sheep.
“They’re probably spinning in their graves right now,” he says, chuckling at the thought of the two cattle ranchers and the friendly competition that once existed between cattlemen and sheepmen.
But for Craig and his wife, Stacey, raising sheep on the ranch they purchased in 2014 near Coleman, in west-central Texas, just makes good economic sense.
The couple, who own GameGuard Outdoors, bought the ranch with two goals in mind: to raise good-quality animals that would help offset their expenses, and to take the best-possible care of the land. But personnel was also a factor in their decision. Craig says his ranch manager is “not a cattle guy” and he didn’t want to ask him to do a job he wasn’t comfortable with, so Craig started investigating the sheep business. He quickly determined it would be a good fit.
Craig [Smith] is not satisfied with the status quo. At GameGuard, he’s always trying to find ways to improve upon what he has, and that carries over to his ranching operation, too.
“When I started researching the [U.S.] market, I learned we import twice the lamb we produce,” Craig says. “And so, I thought, ‘Well, this is not going to be as volatile as the cow business.’ I liked that.”
Easier Than Cattle
The Smiths chose to raise the Dorper breed and quickly grew their flock to about 500 ewes, although they’ve reduced their numbers from time to time due to dry conditions. In fact, lack of rainfall is one of the greatest challenges that comes with ranching west of Interstate 35, which slices north to south through Texas. It is also one of the reasons that sheep, which perform better during drought than cattle, are a good fit for the western edge of the Texas Hill Country, where the Smiths’ ranch is located.
Sheep make for an easier entrance and exit to ranching than cattle, according to Craig. Ewes are bred in the springtime and lamb in the fall. By late October, the Smiths’ flock totals roughly 1,000 head of sheep. Within four to five months, the lambs are weaned and then marketed at about 60 pounds, completing the production cycle until the next go-round.
While some ewes are sold as replacements, most of the lamb crop is sold through the auction market. However, the Smiths also have fed out some lambs to sell through an all-natural program.
“We’re new to this, but we’re finding our way and learning the business,” Craig says. “And we just love it.”
Stacey especially likes the lambs and was heartbroken the first year when they lost several sheep to predators — which can be a big problem for sheep producers.
“In the beginning, we started having all of the cute little lambs running around. And we’d come back the following weekend and they were all gone,” Craig says. “It just killed my wife. She said, ‘We have got to get some dogs.’”
Dogs to the Rescue
After thorough research, the Smiths purchased several Kangal shepherd dogs to guard the flock. Large, aggressive and protective, the dogs are also human-friendly, which eases the Smiths’ worries about their grandchildren going into the pastures with the dogs present.
The couple now owns nine Kangals, and when they separate the rams, ewes and lambs, they assign at least two dogs per pasture. The move has paid off — since purchasing the dogs, they haven’t lost a single lamb.
A lifelong outdoorsman, Craig makes good stewardship a top priority. He’s worked hard to establish more native grass, dig out tanks, perform soil tests, do controlled burns, tear down old fences, plant bluebonnets, introduce bees to the ranch, and adopt other practices meant to improve the environment and wildlife habitat.
Craig is quick to credit his relationship with Lone Star Ag Credit and Craig Hartman, credit office president in Denton, for his credit expertise in financing the ranch, as well as advice on how to continue improving the land.
At the same time, the lender says the Smiths embody the entrepreneurial spirit so common among Lone Star Ag Credit customers and are a pleasure to work with.
“Craig [Smith] is not satisfied with the status quo. At GameGuard, he’s always trying to find ways to improve upon what he has, and that carries over to his ranching operation, too,” Hartman says. “He’s a phenomenal steward of the land and just wants to leave it better than he found it.”
– Katrina Huffstutler
Camo for Texans
Clothing line features mesquite, prickly pear and yucca.
One day Stacey Smith threw down the gauntlet to her husband, Craig.
“You have got to find a way to pay for your hunting habit,” she teased him.
That good-natured challenge led to the couple establishing GameGuard Outdoors, a camouflage clothing manufacturing company in Denton, Texas. Sixteen years later, what started as a side gig is now their primary source of income, and the GameGuard brand is a major player in the hunting apparel industry — something they never dreamed of in the beginning.
Of course, success breeds other problems.
“These days I hunt very little and work a whole lot,” Craig says.
GameGuard Outdoors all started with a camouflage pattern as unique as Texas.
“If you go back 16 years,” Craig says, “all of the camo patterns were really dark. Well, where I grew up hunting — in South Texas and West Texas — it just doesn’t look like that. It’s a light background with mesquite, prickly pear and yucca. So, I drew up a pattern that reflected that and laid it out in the field and kept making revisions till it was right.”
Ten years ago, he expanded the business to include casual outdoor wear and fishing shirts. The company now sells clothing all over the United States, and the camo pattern is the most popular in the Lone Star State. GameGuard apparel can be purchased at big retailers, online or through other distributors.
But it all started with one-on-one marketing.
“When I first started, I just went out and called on ranches personally,” Craig says. “I figured if I could get the ranches, the outfitters and the guides to wear my stuff, then the hunters would want to, too. That’s how it started. And then the retailers started coming.”
– Katrina Huffstutler
House of Grace
Putting Their Money Where Their Heart Is
In 2013, Stacey Smith was on a mission trip to India when she saw something that shook her to her core: 100 girls, ranging in age from 3 to 17, living in a government-run home. Their basic needs weren’t being met, so she and her group did what they could to improve the home. Among other tasks, they installed a well, a filtration system and indoor plumbing.
On a follow-up visit, she realized they had not done enough. Expecting to see more than 90 girls, Stacey was shocked to see about 40. She asked what had happened and was horrified to learn that the girls were being trafficked from there.
She and Craig knew they had to do something. The couple returned to India and opened Grace House, a home for girls who are orphaned, at-risk or just need a place to go. The profits and private sponsors of the couple’s camo clothing company, GameGuard Outdoors, cover the home’s expenses, so that 100 percent of donations and other revenue can go to the ministry. Still, the Smiths say they are constantly aware that any money they spend on themselves is money that doesn’t go to the girls.
“That’s where our heart is,” Stacey says. “We want to make sure that we’re good stewards of everything, whether it’s our ranchland or money we make. We have the mentality that none of this is ours. All of this is a gift from God. And He can take it just as easily as He gives it.
“You know, if we were living some grand lifestyle and doing all these crazy things … I could never feel right about that,” she says.
– Katrina Huffstutler