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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.

 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 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 16%  385 141 3.9 169 149 192 $32.62 Very Good
Friesian 67% 383 120 4.9 285 233 193 $35.45 Fair
Suffolk 28% 375 150 3.3 201 148 212 $33.66 Fair
Romanov 76% 382 122 6.9 307 256 145 $38.55 Fair
PP x FR 26% 383 138 2.0 234 200 182 $41.38 Good
Auderer - All Breeds 34% 387 140 3.6 225 186 195 $37.91 Excellent

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) = 200%. 

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 17%.  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 - down 11%.  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.