Progressive lamb production.








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Lamb Buying




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 breed.

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 time?

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 industry's future.  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 Lamb Market
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 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 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 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.

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.  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.