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Breeds and breed differences is a favorite topic for many sheep producers, including myself.  The search for the perfect breed and/or cross goes on and on.  I have personally spent many year researching and experimenting on the topic and continue to do so.  There are some commonplace, age-old adages that are worth remembering:

1. Select a breed suited to your environment.  Here in the grain belt, that means breeds adapted to farm conditions, such as Polypay, Dorset, and black faced breeds.  Grass based systems operating in the gain belt might do well with range breeds like Targhee, Rambouillet and Columbia.

2.  Select a breed suited to your market.  Commerial lambs need to be able to reach 145 lbs without excess fat.  In the grain belt, that strongly favors black faced breeds and modern Polypays and Dorsets.  So called "production" or "old style" variations of these breeds often retain some of the hardiness and easy keeping traits from the past, but generally have poor feedlot performance.

3. Understand what the breed's mission is.  This is the most frustrating thing about sheep breeds in the US.  Most breeds do not have a coherent, unified mission.  The objectives breeders do have often either don't have much to do with commerical production or result in a breed that is too specialized to be used as a sole breed on a commerical operation.  Examples are dairy sheep (Friesian), ultra prolific breeds (Romanov, Finns) and terminal sires (Suffolks, Hampshires).  The Polypays breed does a good in this regard, but having been created as range breed, it is not a perfect fit for farmers in the grain belt.

Like most lamb producers, I've concluded that cross breeding is required to optimize production.  I've owned a lot of different breeds over the years, especially as feeder lambs, but have the most experience with Polypay, Friesian, Romanov, Suffolk, Dorset and Columbia breeds.

I have collected quite a bit of data on the different breeds that I use to make breeding stock purchase decisions.  In 2014, I developed a more sophisticated method of processing the data.  The data below is for 2007 thru 2016 lambing seasons.

Breed Labor (Hours) 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 8.8 375 142 3.9 192 162 190 $31.73 Very Good
Columbia 8.8 403 148 3.3 123 110 230 $22.27 Good
Friesian 12.5 395 130 5.2 321 265 206 $32.10 Good
Suffolk 9.3 348 149 4.1 195 142 215 $28.47 Fair
Romanov 11.1 380 119 6.3 288 265 145 $32.55 Fair

Labor estimates include everything to do with the sheep: machine maintenance, baling hay, feeding, shearing, lambing, weighing, buying rams, etc., etc., etc.  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 $1.54/lb lamb prices and $247/ton lamb equivalent 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. 

There aren't really any surprises in the data - we see that that prolific maternal breeds (Polypay, Friesian, Romanov) outperform the range (Columbia) and terminal breeds (Suffolk) in a farm flock setting.  The differences between Polypay, Friesian and Romanov breeds are probably not statistically relevant.  From a practical perspective, I can tell you that I much rather deal with Polypays than Romanovs.  While Friesians are nice to handle, they need a lot of lambing assistance, mostly due to the large litter sizes and heavy birthweights.

Using the above data and methods I am able to study heterosis between various crosses.  The total heterosis of crosses of each of the above breeds was computed.  Many pairs showed little or no positive total heterosis.  Positive heterosis is where the cross outpeforms the average of the two breeds.  Negative heterosis is when the cross underperforms the average of the breed pairs.  An example of negative heterosis would be a very prolific crossbred ewe without the milk to rear the extra lambs.  Readers are cautioned against high expectations that many academic publications suggest.  High levels of heterosis were found with most Friesian crosses, but not with Friesian x Polypay crosses.  Significant negative heterosis was observed with Polypay x Columbia  and Polypay x Suffolk crosses.

On a flock basis, the ewes lambing in 2017 are

  • 45% Polypay.  Polypays remain the foundation of the flock.  They are consistent producers and well adapted to farm production.  They are very good mothers, can be very prolific, with generally good milk production and moderate growth rates.  Wool is of very good quality but feet generally require a lot of maintenance.

  • 18% 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.  I plan to continue to use Friesians into the future, but availability may be problematic.  They are good mothers, very prolifc, 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 calmest breed I've worked with.

  • 15% Suffolk.  Suffolks are used to improve the growth and sturdiness of my flock.  They are average mothers, moderately prolific with average milk production and very high growth rates.  Wool is average quality and feet usually require little maintenace.  Suffolks cross very well with Friesians.  They are not particularly afraid of people, which can make them easier to work with.  However, they can sometimes become too aggressive or assertive.

  • 11% Dorset.  My start in the sheep industry was with Dorsets.  I left the breed to pursue more prolific breeds.  Some of my ewes are now too prolific.  In order to retain thier daughters, I bought a ram lamb (Dagel Dorsets) to re-balance these overly prolific ewes.  While I was there, I picked up 8 ewe lambs to re-evaluate the breed.  I'm interested in opportunities for improved muscling, growth, lambing ease and better feet than Polypays.

  • 7% Romanov.  At this point, I think my interest in Romanov sheep has run its course.  They definately perform as advertised - they produce a lot of lambs.  Its too much of a good thing though.  In order to grow my flock, I need a ewe that is less dependent on me.  Too many triplets, quads and even some quints are a labor and facility bottleneck.  The end product, is too small for my commerical lamb market.

  • 1% Columbia.  I will no longer track the remaining Columbia breed in my flock.  Their role in my flock has been replaced by Suffolks.  Columbias mature too slow, have inadequate prolifciacy, eat too much, have a lot of feet problems and are hard to handle due to their size and flightly nature.

The breeding of my flock is not uniform; this can be a strength and a weakness.  My lambs do lack uniformity, which will be improved by eliminating the most different breed - Romanovs.  The remaining four breeds (Polypay, Friesian, Suffolk and Dorset) are similar in size and are well suited for farm flock conditions.  The diversity of these breeds will be used to tune the flock to achieve objectives.