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In 2018, I started
construction on a new lambing barn. It will be operational for the
2019 crop, but I will be using temporary jugs for at least the first
Of the eight ewe lambs purchased in 2016,
1 remains. The retained half-bred daughters from the ram lamb bought at
the same time have fared much better. They weaned a 153% crop
thier first year with few issues. However, the Polypays of the
same age weaned 200%. So, while the Dorset sired ewe lambs have
performed well, their prodution hasn't yet matched the Polypay sired
As anticipated, the high prices of 2017 led to
the market crash of 2018. Big Western feelots, eager to capture
the high off-season prices of 2017, held old crop lambs over and
saturated the off-season market with old crop lambs. As usual, it
didn't work and everyone paid a steep price. Its remarkable that
people can make the same mistakes over and over again.
The situation was made worse by the drought in Australia. Few ewe
lambs were retained and instead went to the meat market at fire-sale
prices. American lamb packers, many of who are also major lamb
importers, stocked up on the cheap lamb. As a result, there is a
lot of lamb in cold storage.
What does 2019 look like? Cold storage volumes are going to limit
prices. However, feedlots are allegedly becoming current on lambs,
so there should not be a wave of old crop lambs in 2019. Also, the
Australian drought is subsiding, so a good number of ewe lambs will be
retained to make up for 2018. I suspect we will see better prices
in 2019 than 2018, but less than 2017.
Lab grown meat is animal tissue grown
in a lab, from cell cultures. In 2018, many of the world's largest
food producers have invested in the technology. At this stage,
they have proof of concept, but cannot economically produce the product.
Their motivations are economic (looking for cheap fillers) and
political. I suspect the politcal aspect is the primary
motivation. Unfortunatly, most of food consumers have little or no
exposure to the realities of animal production. They are told
livestock live miserable, desperate lives at the hand of cruel farmers.
Those situations occur, but they are not prerequisite conditions of
Like many farms, the sheep on my farm live good lives. They always
have access to good nutrition, health care and shelter from the elements
and predators. No wildlife have it so good. Worldwide, most
people don't either. The ewes are so happy in my barns that I have
to fence them out of the barns during the summer pasture
The flock is a large extended family. It is commonplace to see
mother-daugher-sister ewes banded together, even though they were
seperated for a time during weaning and growing. Most nights, the
feedlot lambs can be seen racing back and forth playing.
Livestock production is a symbiotic relationship that has benefitted
humans and livestock alike for thousands of years and continues to do
so. Few foods are as nutritionally complete as meat and milk.
Livestock provide a means to produce food from lands that are unable or
unsuitable to support grain and vegetable production. When grains
are fed to livestock, they greatly reduce the impact on the land by
returning most of the nutrients back to the soil. Inceasingly,
livestock are fed waste products from food production (soy hulls,
soybean meal, distiller grains, sweeter by-products, oat hulls, beet
pulp, etc.) that may otherwise end up in landfills.
The purity of properly handled meat far exceed that of lab grown meat.
Living animals have active immune systems that destroy countless
pathogens. The interior of a animal muscle is essentially sterile.
Conversely, lab vats and the slurry that comes from them are petri
dishes for pathogens.
Animal husbandry is a great story. Animal producers need to raise
livestock ethically and spread that story with pride and conviction.
Understanding the US
The US lamb market consists of at least
four distinct marketing regions: Plains/Mountain states (CO, WY, MT,
etc.) , Southern States (CA, TX), Midwest states and Eastern states.
The Eastern states do not really participate in what is referred to as
the Traditional market, which is commodity based, restaurant and
supermarket grade lamb. The Traditional market is dominated by the
Plains/Mountain states region and is augmented by the Southern and
Midwest regions. Of the 3 regions, the Midwest is the weakest.
Here the lambs come from many small producers with many breeds.
Lambs are marketed at a wide variety of weights. They are often
sold through sales barns, lambs dealers or other third party handlers.
Due to the lack of uniformity and widely dispersed small groups, the
Midwest is often considered second-class source of lambs by packers.
Once lambs from the other regions become available, typically October
through April, Midwest lambs are heavily discounted.
How can Midwest producers improve their position
in the market? Speed to market is critical. Lambs need to be
born early enough and have the genetic potential to be marketed before
late September, at the latest. That means lambs need to be born no
later than March. Equally important is
that Midwest producers need to work together to market larger groups of
uniform quality lambs.
The "perfect breed"
For many years I have pondered and
pursued breeding programs to develop a breed of sheep that could support
profitable sheep farming. I've made a lot of progress over the
years, particularly toward increasing ewe productivity . It is
clear to me that maximum production is achieved with some cross of
Polypay, Romanov and East Friesian breeds. The exact mix is not
particularly important. This cross can wean a lot of good-growing lambs and is
well suited for skilled sheep farmers who have good facilities
and available labor during lambing. Therein lies the problem for
me. I don't have enough time to handle
more than 60-70 such ewes. My records show a correlation between
lambing rate and assisted births:
There is a lot of
scatter in the data, but the trend is clear. The
age-old wisdom that twins are best still has a lot of
merit. As such, I'm working to eliminate all quad births.
Eliminating quad births will reduce the overall lambing rate along with the required labor at lambing.
Productivity will be maintained through reduced mortality and improved growth rates. Larger, less prolific ewes can also benefit more from
terminal sires. Some Suffolk breeding is also being added to the
ewe flock for the same reasons.
Thoughts on sustainable
American Lamb production
I'm not talking about so-called
environmental sustainability. Rather, I'm talking about economic
sustainability of American lamb production. With its low cost
structure, Western state lamb producers can be competitive with
Australian producers, although increasing predator pressure poses a
significant challenge. What about farm state producers, those found
in the Midwest and Eastern states?
Farm state producers have to contend with high
land prices, unavailable labor (particularly skilled labor), inclement
weather, heavy parasite loads and a large number of predators.
Shed lambing with confined lamb feeding minimizes land requirements and
issues with parasites, weather and predators, but increases capital and labor
requirements. Mechanized and self-feeding can reduce labor
requirements but require larger flocks. Large farm flocks are hard to
manage at lambing because prolific farm ewes require considerable skilled
labor at lambing. "High" levels of prolificacy are required to
recoup investment costs. I think the bottleneck can be alleviated with
breeding. We need ewes that can lamb by themselves and
reliably raise their lambs with no additional labor or management.
I suspect that means a very high percentage of twin-born lambs with small
birth size and high growth potential. I am working on these
objectives, particularly with regard to ewes that are consistent
On a TDN basis and/or CP basis, alternative feedstuffs, the cost of
alternative feedstuffs offers little advantage over conventional corn
and soybean sources. However, the feedstuffs still fit in
sheep rations. First, alternative feedstuffs can compliment corn
and soybeans. For example, soybean hulls can be used to supply
energy in rations that are high in energy without increasing the
risk of acidosis. In addition, like all commodities,
alternative feedstuffs fluctuate in price - allowing for savings when
dips occur out of synch with corn/beans.
In years of high hay prices, corn stover remains a valuable alternative
feedstuff. I bale up to 1800 small squares of stover per year and
use it as a filler, for feedlot roughage and bedding.
I remain skeptical about accelerated lambing. The increases in
unit labor and overhead are hard to justify, at least in the Midwest.
This would be great, if it worked. Even with hormone
manipulation and "out of season breeds", the settling rate for
out-of-season breeding is too low to be viable. Open ewes can be
rolled into a second group, but the out of season lamb crops are much
smaller than the in-season crops, and little economic progress is made.
In 2009, researchers have identified some genes that control
out-of-season breeding. Perhaps some day, out of season
lambing will become a viable option.
The economics of bottle lambs has
improved some in the last few years. It really only works if you
have extra labor or an automated feeding system. I have not bottle fed or artificially reared a lamb since 2007 and can't
imagine doing it again. All of my lambs are weaned by their dam.
However, my kids have had some decent returns with them over the last
couple of years.
Buying Breeding Stock
When browsing the sites of many breeders, I'm often more interested in what
they are not saying, than the contents of their site. Very few
people are publishing their flock performance data - why not?
Any site that only lists 'generic' information about a breed doesn't get
too much interest from me. Also, there is more to selecting good
breeding stock than EPD's. Udder scores, assisted births, years of service,
disposition, production system adaptation, conformation, health history
and many other factors are important.
I don't know what show sheep are trying to accomplish. They
aren't showing anything that really has to do with commercial lamb
production. I suppose there is some leeway for terminal breeds,
but you really can't justify buying breeding stock by how it looks.
It really is a hobby that operates outside of the commercial segment of
I always buy rams as lambs a year before I need them. I
usually give a ram lamb a few practice ewes to make sure he is fertile
and aggressive. I buy
ram lambs because they have the longest useful life, present fewer
health risks and allow me to choose the 'cream of the crop'.
It is well known that a great deal of flock health problems are
introduced to a clean flock via the introduction of mature ewes from
another flock. It is also true that mature ewes have a more
difficult time adjusting to a new flock's social hierarchy. I
haven't bought a mature ewe since 2001.
I dock my lamb tails fairly long for the simple reason that it saves
me time and money. While prolapses have more than one cause, short or missing tails predispose lambs to
rectal prolapses. I have fed over 4000 purchased lambs.
In my earlier years, I bought many lambs with very short docks.
Some of these groups had prolapse rates as high as 14%. Not only
do these lambs cost me a lot of time and money, but they are suffering needlessly.
I hope to see laws governing tail lengths in the not so distant future.
To properly dock a tail, make sure that the stump covers the rectum and vagina. If you are
unsure, only dock the tail where it is fully wooled, do not dock on the
un-wooled skin! If you sell feeder lambs, I guarantee you that your
lambs will bring a higher price for this simple consideration that costs
you nothing. If you feed lambs and have problems with prolapses,
start with the tails, you won't be disappointed.