Progressive lamb production.








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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 the year.

A lot 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 opportunities.

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 "down" or "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 lambing seasons.

Breed Assisted Births Feed to Finish a Lamb (lbs) Lamb finish weight (lbs) Life Expectancy (years)  Lambing Percentage Weaning Percentage Mature Ewe Weight (lbs) Revenue per Hour Data Integrity
Polypay 25%  389 143 2.7 207 151 197 $37.88 Very Good
Friesian 36% 386 131 3.9 223 203 187 $43.90 Fair
Suffolk 26% 382 151 3.5 178 145 208 $39.15 Good
PP x FR 24% 389 143 3.7 203 171 193 $43.13 Good
Auderer - All Breeds 31% 387 145 3.2 223 184 195 $44.37 Excellent

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) = 200%. 

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 5%.  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 like.

  • 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 - down 18%.  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.