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
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
||Feed to Finish a Lamb
||Lamb finish weight
||Life Expectancy (years)
|| Lambing Percentage
||Mature Ewe Weight (lbs)
||Revenue per Hour
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.
heterosis was observed with Polypay x Columbia and Polypay x
On a flock basis, the
ewes lambing in 2017 are
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.
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
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.