Progressive lamb production.








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Data plays a critical role in the management of my flock.  Decisions are made based on data, not emotion.

I firmly believe that the cornerstone of any herd enterprise is its female base.  Assembling a winning team of ewes is every bit as challenging as putting together a winning sports team.  The key is to identify those individuals who are "pulling the wagon" and those who are weighing it down. There are numerous flock management programs available to manage flocks, including Ewebyte, NSIP and others.  None of these meet my need to maximize the only parameter that I'm truly concerned with - profitability.

Starting in the fall of 2007, I have been developing a selection methodology that combines virtually every profit controlling parameter into single number - what I call the Profitability Index (PI).  Simply, the PI is the amount of profit that the ewe is generating under given market conditions (I currently use a 4 year average).  The index includes all variable costs (including labor), fixed costs, finish weight, feed efficiency, prolificacy, heterosis and longevity.

The method not only helps me find those ewes that are earning the most money, but also attempts to project future performance based on to-date performance and historical data for sheep of that type (breed / cross).  Further, the software decouples each characteristic so that complimentary matings can be identified.  Finally, the software models the price of lamb, corn and other feedstuffs to assist in marketing and culling/retention decisions.

The software is not commercially available, in part, because it is not fully automated.

I use the NRC 2007 "Nutrient Requirements of Small Ruminants" to compute rations for highly productive sheep for
gestation and lactation periods.  The goal is to provide high performance rations at the least cost.  The primary advantage is the elimination of all commercial feeds.  I only buy commodity feedstuffs, vitamins and minerals.

I monitor and project lamb and feed prices to find the marketing date that produces the maximum profit.  That may mean selling the lambs as feeder lambs all the way up to the upper end of Yield Grade 3. 

I measure the following data:

  • Prolificacy is measured by the number of lambs weaned per ewe dry-lotted after breeding. 

  • Ewe longevity is measured by the ewe's age.

  • Growth is measured by taking 3 weights of the lambs.  Generally, these are at weaning, around 100 days and right before slaughter.  The weights are then standardized to 60, 120 and 180 day values by curve fitting the 3 measurements to the Gompertz growth function.  The Gompertz growth function is a mathematical model for growth.  It accounts for the fact that a lamb's growth rate continuously varies with time.  This is particularly important because growth starts to decline as they 'finish' or put on fat.  This method is more accurate and far less optimistic than the linear methods used by virtually everyone else.

  • Ewe feed cost is computed from the ewe's mature weight and production.  Ewes are weighed once a year and adjusted to Body Condition Score  3.

  • Feed efficiency is computed from the 60, 120 and 180 day weights using a relationship between body weight and feed intake. 

  • Labor.  Prior to 2012, labor costs evenly across the ewe flock. Starting in 2012, an estimate of individual annual labor requirements is assigned to each ewe.  The principle differentiator is the number of assisted births.  The goal of the labor tracking is to make sure that production levels are optimized with labor requirements. Labor requirements have been used in determining ewe lamb selections starting with the 2013 crop.

Results - Mature Ewes:
I began using the software in Spring 2008 to select replacement ewe lambs, rams and culls.  For the first two years, I did not have a scale, so the growth data was estimated.  Starting In 2010, precise growth data was added. 

Starting in 2014, I purposely began sacrificing production to reduce costs - particularly labor.  Specifically, ewes were no longer allowed to wean quads, very problematic ewes were culled and lambing ease became a selection criteria.  While progress is not a straight line, progress in reducing the number of assisted births is being made.

Production results for ewes born on my farm are presented below.  The finish weights are standardized to 180-day weights.

Potential = Lambs Born x Finish Weight

The 2018 crop was a bit of a disappointment.  Production decreased 5.5%.  The main reason for the decline was an increased number of single births.  Several factors contributed to this: very high temperatures during breeding season and a record high age of mature ewes (averaging 4.2 years old).  However, there is another factor at play here.  My records indicate that the most profitable lambing percentage for my cost structure is around 240%.  Starting with the 2015 crop, I have not retained the most prolific ewe lambs.  The goal is maximum profit, not maximum production.

Production Results - Ewe Lambs:

Potential = Lambs Born x Finish Weight

In 2015 it became apparent that my ewe lambs were becoming much too prolific.  That year, I began selecting less prolific ewe lambs and slowed their pre-breeding development.  Lambing rates were dramatically reduced.  The reduction in production was significant, but declined less than the lambing rate.  This is reflected in the higher survival and growth rates of the lambs.  I don't think I have quite the right formula in place yet, but do feel things are heading in a sustainable direction.