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 2010 thru 2019
||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
($1.53/lb) and equivalent ($258) 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)
With the 2009 data falling out and the 2019 data
coming in, the prolific breeds have taken the lead. I had more
problems with these prolific breeds in the early years. This does
not mean that I'm looking to pursue very prolifc breeds again. The
assist rates on these breeds are too high for larger flocks. Labor
effeiciency is a top goal for my breeding program. I am only
interested in breeds/crosses that improve revenue and lower labor.
On a flock basis, the
ewes lambing in 2020 are:
41% Polypay - up 8%.
Polypays remain the foundation of the flock. They are
consistent producers and well adapted to farm production.
They are very good mothers, prolific, have good milk production and
good growth rates. Wool is of
good quality but feet generally require more maintenance than I'd
24% Suffolk - up 4%. 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.
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 dairy sheep that rarely achieve BCS
= 3. Friesians have high birth weight lambs and large litters, often resulting in
'tangled' lambs that need to be pulled.
9% Dorset - no change. 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.
4% Romanov - down 20%. 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.