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.
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.
Like most lamb producers, I've concluded that cross breeding is required
to optimize production.
I have collected quite a
bit of data on the different breeds that I use to make breeding stock
purchase decisions. The data below is for 2009 thru 2018
||Feed to Finish a Lamb
||Lamb finish weight
||Life Expectancy (years)
|| Lambing Percentage
||Mature Ewe Weight (lbs)
||Revenue per Hour
|PP x FR
|Auderer - All Breeds
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
($1.58/lb) and equivalent ($230) 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)
Once again, the Polypay x Friesian cross
outperforms all purebreds. The cross performs well without having
a excessively 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.
While its true that similar progress can
be made within a breed (pure breeding), 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 2019 are:
38% Polypay - down
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.
23% Suffolk - up 77%. Suffolks are used to
improve the growth and vigor of my flock. They are
adequate mothers, moderately prolific with average milk production
and very high growth rates. Wool is fair 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 aggressive or assertive. Suffolks continue to grow with age,
with older ewes usually exceeding 230 lbs at BCS = 3. This
year I'm adding a lot of Suffolk to my flock in an attempt to get
lambs to market sooner and reduce the need for hoof trimming.
I don't expect Suffolks to displace Polypays, due to the lower
occurence of lambing problems with Polpays.
17% 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 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' lambs that need to be pulled.
9% Dorset - down 33%. My start in the
sheep industry was with Dorsets. I bought some purebred
Dorsets in 2016 and have largely been disapointed with them.
The Dorset crosses have done much better, but have not offered many
advanatges over Polypays. I don't have any plans to continue
adding Dorsets at this time.
5% Romanov - down 17%. 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.