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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.  Commercial 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 commercial production or result in a breed that is too specialized to be used as a sole breed on a commercial 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 originally 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 2008 thru 2017 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 19%  386 142 3.9 179 155 190 $33.32 Very Good
Friesian 96% 396 124 5.2 329 276 249 $38.48 Fair
Suffolk 45% 387 151 4.1 198 138 188 $29.31 Fair
Romanov 80% 382 122 6.3 309 258 145 $37.68 Fair
PP x FR 20% 388 142 2.5 203 173 184 $37.01 Good

This year I reprocessed my data to move from a hour/ewe labor estimate to a percentage of assisted births.  Hours of labor can still be determined, but is now computed on a trailing average basis instead of a historical basis.  This approach is more concise and helps separates animal performance from management practices.

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 150 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 ($1.61/lb) and equivalent ($240) 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 is the first year I have "good" confidence data on a cross bred - Polypay x Friesian.  The cross performs well without having a high lambing percentage, which is exactly what is needed for commercial farm flocks.  Specifically, what advantage does a PP x FR have over a purebred Polypay?  I believe the main difference is early maturity.  Some of my early Polypays were very prolific, with more lambs than milk.  Their ewe lambs often did not do well their first year, due to their small size and lack of maturity.   As a result, the breed was very uneven, with most ewes only achieving good results at age 3 and older.  Since many ewes don't reach their 4th year, the breed average production was lackluster. 

The PP x FR crossbreds did not have this problem.  Even though the PP x FR had low heterosis in most traits, it performed well because the cross broke the cycle of low performance of first and second year ewes.  Lifetime production was much more stable and consistent.  This illustrates the complex nature of breeding. 

It should be mentioned that similar progress can be made within a breed (pure breeding), but is usually slower due to limited genetic variability.  It does seem that the 'newer' Polypays are a better balanced breed than the earlier versions.  Since I use 10 year averages, my data will lag some.

On a flock basis, the ewes lambing in 2018 are

  • 46% Polypay - up 2%.  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.

  • 19% Friesian - up 6%.  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 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 calmest breed I've worked with.  Friesians are large sheep that rarely achieve BCS = 3.  So their actual size is rarely over 220 lbs.  Friesians have high birth weight lambs and large litters, often resulting in 'tangled' fetuses that need to be pulled.

  • 13% Suffolk - down 13%.  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 maintenance.  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.  Suffolks continue to grow with age, with older ewes usually exceeding 230 lbs at BCS = 3.

  • 12% Dorset - up 9%.  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 their daughters, I bought a Dorset ram lamb to re-balance these overly prolific ewes.  I'm interested in opportunities for improved muscling, growth, lambing ease and better feet than Polypays.

  • 6% Romanov - down 14%.  At this point, I think my interest in Romanov sheep has run its course.  They definitely 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 the Traditional commercial lamb market.  Romanovs are flighty and do not like to be handled or be around people.

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.