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