Progressive lamb production.








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Lamb Buying




In 2016 I spent quite a bit of time comparing Dorsets accross the nation.  There is tremendous variation within the breed that can roughly be split into two camps: club lambs and self-proclaimed "production dorsets".  Initially, I was primarily interested in these Production Dorsets.  These are your Grandpa's dorsets - small framed, heavily muscled and stout sheep that can do well on grass.  Like most animals that can do well on grass, they generally have poor feedlot performance.  Bringing this type of sheep into my flock would have set my breeding program backward in terms of growth.  On the other side of the spectrum, there are the club lamb Dorsets.  These Dorsets wish they were Suffolks or Hampshires.  They look suspiciously like Columbias and presumably have similar flaws. Mixing the two branches of the breed makes the most sense to me.  This is also the approach used by Dagel Dorsets - using their own 40 year old genetic base, they use both types of rams to produce a modern sheep that retains the traditional Dorset traits.  I bought a ram and 8 unrelated ewe lambs from Dagel, these will be evaluated over the coming years.

Spooner Research Station Closure
The closure of the sheep dairy program at the University of Wisconsin is likely to lower the availabilty of dairy sheep in the Midwest and throughout the nation.

Outlook for 2017 and beyond
In 2016, the big news in the lamb industry was the purchase of the JBS plant by Mountain States Rosen.  When this occurred, the Madatory Price Reporting requirements no longer applied and the industry lost insight into the inner workings of the lamb trade.  When this happened in the past, it led to devastating price crashes, but that did not happen this time.

In late 2016, the enormous backlog of lamb in cold storage started to be consumed.  November 2016 cold storage inventories were at their lowest level since summer of 2014.  They are now at the 5-year average, which is still much higher than the long term average, but an important step in the right direction.

Another positive development for the industry is the reduction in slaughter weights.  These peaked in 2012, which started the massive build up of cold storage inventories.  They fell off sharply in 2013 and began creeping up again in 2014 and 2015.  In 2016, it appears we will be close to the 2013 low, which will help support demand for American lamb.

2016 brought about another year of record imports.  I speculate that the reason JBS sold its plant in Colorado was so that it could focus on importing lamb from their Australian operations.  I believe American lamb can be every bit the premium meat that American beef is.  I'm encouraged by the shifting mindset toward quality amoung packers and lamb buyers, but even more is needed.

Even with the most premium product (we're not there yet), there is a limit to the price that the market will bear.  As interest rates and the US dollar rise, the cost of imported product will decrease.  The American lamb industry must become more efficient.  Our industry is wasteful - from the producer all the way to the retailer.  We waste feed, fuel, labor and a great deal of product. 

In 2017, I expect lamb prices to mimic 2016 levels, but at somewhat lower levels.  Our biggest headwinds will be cheap meats from other species and cheaper imports.

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 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 or good enough facilities to handle more than 60-70 such ewes.  My records indicate that singles and twins have about the same risk for lambing difficulties.  The risk increases exponentially from there.  Quadruplets require a lot of assistance.  Triplets often require a good bit as well.  The age old conventional wisdom that twins are best still has a lot of merit.  As such, I'm looking to eliminate the Romanov breeding from my flock.  The expectation is that lambing rates will decrease, 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 viability 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 signifacnt 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 (particulalry 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 paraistes, 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 invetment costs.  I think the bottleneck can be alleviated with breeding.  We need ewes that can lamb by themselves and reliably raise thier 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 consitent twinners.

Alternative Feeds
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 can 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 starch 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.

Accelerated Lambing
I remain skeptical about accelerated lambing.  The increases in unit labor and overhead are hard to justify, at least in the Midwest.

Fall Lambing
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 indentified some genes that control out-of-season breeding.  Perhaps some day, out of season lambing will become a viable option.

Bottle Lambs
Bottle lambs are a waste of time and money.  The only person making any money on bottle lambs is the guy selling milk replacer.   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.  Any bottle lambs that my kids don't want to raise are euthanized.

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, years of service, disposition, production system adaptation, conformation, health history and many other factors are important.

Show Sheep
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 the industry.

Ram Lambs
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 agrressive.  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'.

Ewe Lambs
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.  In the last 13 years I have fed nearly 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 7%.  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.