Last year, I bought
eight Dorset ewe lambs and a ram lamb from South Dakota. The
results were very disappointing. Of the eight ewe lambs purchased,
only 2 remain. One pushed her intestines out about a week from lambing,
another had a vaginal prolapse, another developed a rectal prolapse
prior to lambing and yet another developed a abdominal rupture over the
summer. This fall, 2 more scanned open. Of the two remaining
ewes, one was open her first year and the other had only a single lamb.
The ram lamb performed quite a bit better. His twin-born lambs
averaged 5 lbs of more finished weight per lamb than a top Polypay. The ram is a very
aggressive breeder and has good feet. I have 13 daughters from his
for the 2018 season, which all scanned pregnant. Time will tell if
these ewe lambs will salvage this investment and my interest in the
Outlook for 2018 and beyond
In 2017, the big news in the lamb industry was
record lamb prices during much of the summer months. Prices
deteriorated very quickly toward late summer, falling well below the
5-year average. How can prices swing so wildly in such a short
I've heard it said that there was a shortage of imported lamb early in
2017, but USDA figures don't bear this out. Perhaps there was a
shortage of good quality imported lamb? Either way, the old adage
still applies - the cure for high prices is high prices. The high
price of American lamb brought about a massive surge of imported lamb in
the second half of 2017. Packers responded by dropping bids on
live lambs in order to make the product more competitive. This was
the right thing to do, but the message was not well communicated to
producers/feeders and quite a few folks got burnt. The industry
needs better communication - I call on the ALB and ASI to work on this
issue. With today's incredible communication technology, there is
no reason we can't have a better informed / coordinated producer,
feeder, packer and customer network.
Cold storage volumes remained stable and manageable throughout 2017,
which will help support prices in 2018. Live weights were stable
through most of the year, but becoming worrisomely high toward the end
of the year. It will be important for packers to discount these
overweight lambs to contain the problem before it runs away on us.
A strong US dollar will keep pressure from imports intense.
Exports and product differentiation are essential to the American sheep
It remains to be seen how the rapidly changing global trade policies
will affect us.
In 2018, I expect lamb prices to
be lower than 2017 levels. Total supplies are low, with production
reaching a record low in 2017. This will support prices during the
off peak months, as long as lamb weights for the first half of 2018 are
kept in check and packers are not left sitting on stockpiles of
unmarketable product. We're not there yet, but there are warning
signs are there. We've been through this more times than I
want to remember. This time, I'm hoping that the industry will be smarter
and more aggressive dealing with this potential problem.
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 by early October, at the latest. 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 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 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 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 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. In the last 13 years 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.