Breeds and breed differences is a
favorite topic for many sheep producers, including myself. A lot
has changed in the Midwest sheep industry since I first got started in
1988. Back then, everyone had wool sheep and we were
cautioned not to let lambs get over 110 lbs. Most flocks in our
area were Suffolk, Rambouillet or Dorset. Medium wool paid for the
shearing while Rambouillet wool could pay for the ewe's hay needs for
of change came in the 90's. The wool market and subsidy collapsed
and took a lot of sheep with it. The value of Suffolk and other
blackfaced sheep changed from commercial production to hobby flocks
(club lambs). The effects on the Suffolk breed was particularly devastating.
The breed became impractical for commercial flocks and breed registries
plummeted. Dorset and Rambouillet breeds did not fare much better,
both breeds developing large frames and becoming hard-keeping.
This ushered in the age of the prolific breeds (Polypay, Finn, Romanov)
for commercial producers.
During the 2000's, continued price pressure/volatility and a
growing demand for the so-called ethnic market brought about a
proliferation of hair breeds (Dorper and Katahidin) which promised lower
labor and feed inputs. Due to their genetic base (African and the
Middle East) these breeds are limited to light weight lamb
production - they generally cannot be fed to serve the traditional
fed lamb market, which is 130-150 lbs.
In the 2020's, I find the breed landscape fragmented and not
well supporting the Midwest sheep industry. Wool and lamb pelts
are not economically viable products and haven't been for a long time.
The small size and relative poor growth characteristics of hair sheep
make them unsuitable for the traditional market, limiting marketing
What is needed is a breed that requires less labor (easy
lambing, little or no shearing or feet trimming) that can produce lambs
capable of satisfying both the ethnic and traditional fed lamb markets.
To my surprise, my Suffolk ewes are best
meeting these needs. This contradicts 30 years of traditional
wisdom that ewe breeds should be white faced. How can this be?
What I've found in recent years is that when Suffolk sheep are selected
with an emphasis on maternal traits, they can make excellent ewes.
Suffolks most commonly have twins. When reasonable size sires are
used, they can lamb without much assistance. Suffolks have black
feet that require little trimming and have less wool than whiteface
breeds. Quality Suffolks flesh-out at young weights and don't put
on excessive fat until they are quite heavy, making Suffolk lambs
suitable for any market. Suffolks mature early and are not
especially flighty. The main challenge in developing a Suffolk
flock is finding seedstock producers with a production oriented mindset.
They are not uncommon, but not the typical breeder either.
What would make Suffolk sheep better? A smaller size and
less wool. I'd love to have a shedding Suffolk.
Crossbreeding with Katahdin and Dorpers has been tried in the US, but
neither cross has taken off because in order to maintain the shedding
characteristics of the hair sheep, only a small amount Suffolk breeding
can remain. In addition, the wool from hair crossbreds is
considered to be without any value whatsoever.
Fortunately, there exists
a breed of shedding wool sheep. It is called the Wiltshire Horn
and is native to the England. Wiltshire Horns are not a new breed.
In fact, the breed pre-dates the breeding of sheep for wool production
that started more than 500 years ago. During all that time, Wiltshire breeders
refused to cross-in wool breeds, particularly Merino. The Wiltshire is a
"lowland" breed similar to Suffolks and Dorsets. It has no African
or Mid-East heritage, so it does not become fat prematurely. Why
has the breed been ignored for so long? I believe this is
because of its horns, which both the rams and ewes carry. However,
the breed has been polled in Australia and
a breed registry formed in 1996. Polled Wiltshires are called
Wiltipolls in Australia. They are common in New Zealand and
Australia. A small amount of polled Wiltshire semen was imported
into the US. The genetics are distributed to just a handful of
very small breeders. I was able to purchase 2 polled Wiltshire rams
in summer 2020. One of these rams is show below:
The rams come from very low input systems and will be used to start a
breeding-up program starting with my fastest growing ewes, which will
generally be Suffolks. These rams are relatively small at about 220 lbs
and don't have great conformation. Much of this is due to the
small genetic base and low-input practices.
Additional semen from New Zealand has been purchased from the ram below.
He weighs in at 286 lbs and is a trait leader for growth.
Below is another ram I'm interested in. He's from Australia.
He's "in the rough", so to speak. He comes from a champion show
line with a focus on conformation.
Australian Polled Wiltshire, courtesy of Pam Goodwin
My current breeding program will continue along with the
Wiltshire project, with Wiltshire breeding finding its way into the flock
based on the same criteria as other breeds. Below is the latest
breed performance data for 2011 thru 2020
||Feed to Finish a Lamb
||Lamb finish weight
||Life Expectancy (years)
|| Lambing Percentage
||Mature Ewe Weight (lbs)
||Revenue per Hour
|PP x FR
|Auderer - All Breeds
Assisted births are classified as any birth that
required intervention to be successful. That may include pulling,
tubing and/or warming lambs. It does not include stripping teats.
Lamb finish weight is evaluated at 140 days - if the lamb weighs more
than 145 lbs, it is marketed, if not, it is fed to 180 days.
Mature ewe weights are standardized to Body Condition Score 3.
The data has been aggregated in the "Revenue per
Hour" based on trailing 4-year average values for lamb prices
($1.53/lb) and equivalent ($258) per ton feed prices
(includes hay, vet, etc.). It
does not include ewe costs (feed, overhead, etc.).
When viewing the data, it is important to note
the "Data Integrity" column. The amount and quality of available
data determines the integrity rating. Values with lower ratings
should be used with some caution. Also, it should be noted that
values are weighted on a ewe basis, not an annual basis. For
example, consider a breed measured by two ewes. One produces 11
lambs in 5 years (220%) and the other produces 3 lambs in 2 years (150%)
before she is culled. On a per ewe basis, the breed average would
be 185%. On an annual basis, the value would be (11 + 3) / (5 + 2)
This year saw the Suffolk breed overtake the
Polypays by a small margin. I didn't think I would ever see the
day, but the results have been plain to see in the barn. Without a
focus on prolificacy, Polypays have little to offer over high
quality Suffolks. In fact, they are at a disadvantage due to
additional wool and poor feet. Neither purebred performs as well
as crossbreds do, reflecting heterosis. All of the
assist rates are too high for larger flocks. Labor
efficiency is a top goal for my breeding program. I am only
interested in breeds/crosses that improve revenue and lower labor.
On a flock basis, the
ewes lambing in 2021 are:
39% Polypay - down
Polypays remain the foundation of the flock. They are
consistent producers and well adapted to farm production.
They are good mothers, prolific, have good milk production and
good growth rates. Wool is of
good quality but feet generally require more maintenance than I'd
32% Suffolk - up 33%. In the last 5-10
years, I've seen steady improvement in the quality of Suffolk ewes.
They are on pace to become the dominant breed in my flock.
Quality Suffolk ewes are fine mothers, moderately prolific with good milk production and very
high growth rates. Wool is fair quality and feet usually
require little maintenance. They are not particularly afraid of people, which
can make them easier to work with. However, they can sometimes
become 'too clever", aggressive or assertive. Suffolks continue to grow with
age, with older ewes usually exceeding 230 lbs at BCS = 3.
14% Friesian -
Friesians are my very prolific breed of choice. Increases in
lambing rates are met with increased in milk production without
excessive loss of growth/size. They are good mothers, prolific, with very good milk production
and moderate growth rates. Their growth rate is
often masked by the large litter sizes. Wool is fair quality and
feet require some maintenance. They are the most docile breed I've
worked with. Friesians are dairy sheep that rarely achieve BCS
= 3. Friesians have high birth weight lambs and large litters, often resulting in
'tangled' lambs that need to be pulled.
8% Dorset - down
11%. My start in the sheep industry was with Dorsets.
American Dorsets were heavily 'contaminated' with Rambouillet and
Columbia genetics in the 1990's, in a quest to make the tall and
stylish. They inherited heavier fleeces and the bad feet of
those breeds. Some breeders maintained true Dorsets and the
breed appears to be at least partially returning to those genetics.
Dorsets are quite similar to Suffolks in terms of maternal
characteristics, with less growth and more consistent performance.
They seem to be easier lambing than Polypays or Suffolks, but I
don't have conclusive data for that yet.