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Choose best sheep breeds for pasture production

March 6, 2014 | 0 comments


            With the snow still covering the ground and spring taking its time getting here, it’s a little hard to think about grass-covered hillsides and the animals that will graze them.

However, a recent presentation highlighted the qualities of sheep that will best fit into an intensive grazing model.

            Many breeds of sheep are suitable for pasture production and in nearly all breeds there is a sub-group that will do better on pasture.

            Todd Taylor has been the shepherd at the University of Wisconsin’s flock at the Arlington Agriculture Research Station just north of Madison for over 10 years. He talked about raising sheep on pasture at a recent Columbia/Dodge County winter grazing conference in Randolph.

Most of the lambs in his care are fed in feedlots but the ewe flock is managed on pasture most of the year, he told the grazing group.

            “Essentially all breeds of sheep will work on pasture but there are genetics in any breed that will work better. There are segments of all these breeds that will work.”

            There are more than 50 breeds of sheep in the United States and anyone contemplating getting involved in raising sheep should consider what kind of production they want to be in – wool, meat or milk – or some combination of those products.

            One of the questions would-be producers should ask themselves is what sells best in their market, he said. Is it lamb, wool, milk or seedstock?

            In many parts of the state, lamb production for the ethnic market – where customers want a 40-pound carcass – is thriving.

            Once that question is answered a ewe base has to be developed to efficiently produce toward that goal. Taylor advised crossbreeding to take advantage of hybrid vigor and to look for maternal efficiency.

            If wool is to be the main product then the ewes should be selected that can produce the whitest possible wool for the market.

            After selecting the breed of choice, it’s important to decide when lambs will be produced – spring or fall – and what facilities are going to be available for the sheep. Taylor said it’s important to have some protection for ewes after they are sheared, which generally happens prior to lambing.


Breed choices

            Several of the finest of the wool sheep breeds are Merino, Booroola Merino and Rambouillet. Long-wool breeds include Romney, Lincoln, Border Leicester and Bluefaced Leicester.

            Taylor grew up in the sheep business. His dad was the University of Wyoming sheep herdsman. Before the younger Taylor came to the Arlington farm as sheep manager, he managed Texas A&M’s flock.

            Along the way he has worked with many breeds of sheep. Polypays are a dual-purpose breed – known for production of wool and meat, and were a breed that Taylor had not worked with before coming to Wisconsin.

            He said he’s become a fan of the Targhees and Polypays that make up the UW’s flock.

Corriedales and Columbias are a couple of the industry’s crossbred wool breeds. The meat breeds, including Hampshire and Suffolk, Texel, Southdown and Shropshire have “changed tremendously over the years,” Taylor said.

The industry also includes dual-purpose sheep Horned Dorset and Polled Dorset and the super-prolific breeds that generate offspring in “litters” rather than singles and twins. They include Finn sheep and Romanovs.

“These may be too prolific for a pasture setting.”

Dairy breeds include East Friesian and Lacaune. These breeds have been developed to produce heavier milk than other breeds and at the UW’s Spooner sheep station they are run on pasture, he said.

Specialty breeds include Scottish Blackface and Shetland sheep, which is one of the fastest growing breeds in the United States, according to Taylor.

Some growers prefer what are called the “hair” breeds because they produce hair rather and wool and do not require shearing like those with heavy wool coasts. These hair breeds include Barbados, St. Croix, Dorper and Katahdin.

In addition to their eliminating the need to shear, these breeds can bring with them parasite resistance and foot-rot resistance -- but there is a tradeoff. The slaughter industry likes the lamb pelts, so farmers who market these hair breed animals are docked because there is essentially no pelt, he explained.

Numbers of sheep in breeds known for their wool have dropped off steadily and continuously since the 1960s, he said because the wool market has been so bad for decades. There is some growth in specialty wool breeds, especially naturally colored wool, for those who market to people who spin yarn by hand, Taylor said.

The best breeds for specialty wool production include Romney, Border Leicester and Lincoln. The best natural-colored fleeces come from Coopworth, Icelandic and Shetland sheep, he added.

In general the top breeds for wool are Coopworth, Booroola Merino, Columbia, Corriedale and Rambouillet.


Pasture challenges

            One of the challenges in pasture production with sheep is parasites. The practice of rotational grazing can help cut down on parasite loads; fecal sampling can help producers know when it’s time to de-worm their flock.

At the Arlington farm, Taylor said they have four to five large paddocks of about 12 acres each in size. “That helps tremendously with parasite control.”

            Predators are another challenge for sheep that are out on pasture, he said.

            To combat death losses from predators like coyotes and wolves, Taylor advised potential sheep grazers to have good perimeter fences and guard animals. A bigger animal living within the flock like llamas, donkeys or guard dogs are known to help keep predators at bay.

            In Wyoming eagles prey on lambs, he said, and in Texas feral hogs can kill sheep or lambs and not leave any remains. In Wisconsin coyote, fox and wolves are far more common as predators.

            At the Arlington farm, he uses donkeys as guard animals. “They were put into the flock the summer before I got here and we have not had a predator kill.”

            Another challenge for the flock owner with sheep on pasture is drought, as it is for any grazer.

            Having the right-sized sheep for pasture production is an important consideration. “You want a moderate size ewe with a good fleshing ability. You want ‘easy keepers;’ you don’t want a 230-pound ewe.

            “Two hundred fifty, 270 pounds are probably too big.”

            Taylor said shepherds should be looking for highly maternal ewes. These are the good mothers who take care of their lambs without a lot of help.


Moderately prolific

            The flock owner who wants to raise grass-fed sheep should also look for moderately prolific ewes – something with two lambs per ewe. Out West or in parts of the country that are short on rain, grazing ewes with multiple lambs might not work out well, but in Wisconsin the grasses are much better, he said.

            The perfect pasture ewe should also have some tolerance to disease and parasite; if that’s lacking the flock owner should devise a management plan.

            The Polypay breed is one that was created from the Rambouillet, Targhee, Dorset and Finn breeds. The idea was to combine fine wool production from the Rambouillet genetics with size from the Targhee. Dorsets provided out-of-season lambing and the Finns brought in prolificacy.

            A Polypay ewe, or one with the same general characteristics, might be just the kind of ewe for pasture production.

            The black-faced breeds are considered to have the best carcass traits and a good strategy might be to use this kind of ram as a terminal sire on the ewe flock to produce market lambs.

            Besides getting a good-sized lamb for sale, this strategy will also produce hybrid vigor in the lambs, as a result of the crossbreeding.

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