Progressive lamb production.








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News and Comments:

Breeding Updates
This year, I added a lot of discussion on the Breeds page that I won't repeat here.  The big news for us is the Wiltshire program.  Currently, we are shearing ewes, crutching them and shearing their lambs.  That works out to 4 shearing events per year per ewe.  Its a losing proposition and has been for a long time.  Total elimination of shearing would be ideal, but reducing this to 1 event per year would still be a great improvement.

The obvious question would be why Wiltshires instead of Dorpers or Katadhin?  A lot of thought went into this decision.  Ultimately, the choice was driven by market flexibility and our setup.  Breeders and lamb buyers I talked to consistently felt that lambs from these hair breeds need to be marketed at weights of 100 lbs or less.  I was generally advised that lambs from these breeds should not be placed on self feeders for very long, if at all.   In summary, I don't think that Dorpers or Katahdins are a good fit for our operation, which is set up to finish lambs to 130-150 lbs. 

Another consideration is preserving the genetic base that we have.  Wiltshires are a British breed, just as Suffolk, Dorset and other popular farm breeds.  They are well suited to feeding grains and have been raised in similar environments for more than 1000 years.  Breeders in the UK, New Zealand and Australia are using modern selection practices to further the breed.

What does this mean for my wool sheep?  Assuming the Wiltshires live up to their promise, the flock will be aggressively infused with Wiltshire genetics.  Depending on their base, they will need to be 75-87.5% Wiltshire to be fully shedding.  While full shedding is the ultimate goal, reduced shearing will be the initial objective.  I expect to continue to use short-wooled rams, such as Suffolks, as terminal sires.

Market Commentary - 2021 outlook
My outlook for 2021 is for average to above average lamb prices, but price risks will remain high.  Covid has radically changed the landscape of the lamb industry.  The loss of Mountain States was balanced to some degree by the opening of 2 new vertically integrated plants.  The good news is that we went from 4 large packers to 5.  The bad news is that we have 2 new packers and starting any new business is a risky proposition.  The industry is now more reliant on the largest packer than ever, which adds significant risk to the entire industry. 

Lab-grown Meat
Lab grown meat is animal tissue grown in a lab, from cell cultures.  Since 2018, many of the world's largest food producers have invested in the technology.  Their motivations are economic (looking for cheap fillers) and political.  I suspect the political aspect is the primary motivation.  Unfortunately, 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 livestock production.

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 months!

The flock is a large extended family.  It is commonplace to see mother-daughter-sister ewes banded together, even though they were separated 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.  Increasingly, 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 exceeds that of lab grown meat.  Living animals have active immune systems that destroy countless pathogens.  The interior of a animal muscle is virtually sterile.  Conversely, lab vats and the slurry that comes from them are petri dishes for pathogens. 

Animal husbandry is a great story.  Meat critics need to recognize that all living things die.  That reality is true in the wild and on the farm.  Ethically run farms provide high quality food for people and give animals a place in a world that is increasingly less natural and dominated by humans.  Does replacing barns and pastures full of livestock with labs, factories and barren fields really benefit people or animals?

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 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 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.

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 was consistent.  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.

Bottle Lambs
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.

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 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'.

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.  I have fed nearly 5000 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.