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. 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
||Feed to Finish a Lamb
||Lamb finish weight
||Life Expectancy (years)
|| Lambing Percentage
||Mature Ewe Weight (lbs)
||Revenue per Hour
|PP x FR
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)
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
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
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.
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.