Since my main interest is sheep, I’m going to concentrate most of this blog post to them but I will mention in passing that I have Alpine dairy goats and have started getting some Nubians for their higher milk components. I sort of inherited the goats, they really aren’t my passion, and the biggest reason I keep them around is for raising the bum lambs. The cheese I make from the extra milk they produce is easy to sell. People are really familiar with goat cheese, more so than sheep cheese, so for now, the goats have a place here.
Someone once told me that getting people to switch breeds is like getting them to change religions. It ain’t happening! I think the same is true about species, too. Not many goat people have sheep or vice versa. Remember the stories of the wars between the cow men and the sheep men in the old west? Studies show that they complement each other on the range, but try convincing most cow men of that!
One of the issues we have in the dairy sheep industry is the fact that we can’t import live sheep from anywhere. We can only get semen and embryos from Canada and Australia due to scrapies, a common sheep disease, similar to mad cow, which we in the US are working on eradicating. Those countries also can’t import new genetics for the same reason, so that leaves us with 7 different lines of dairy genetics, a pretty small gene pool to work with. Crossing dairy sheep with domestic meat breeds is commonplace in our industry. The purebred or high percentage East Friesian, the most common breed of dairy sheep, is highly susceptible to melanoma, due to their very pink skin, and pneumonia. Crossing them gives them great hybrid vigor. I prefer crossing them with the Polypay breed. It was developed here in Idaho about 2 hours away from me at the US Sheep Experiment Station in Dubois. The polypay is a 4 way cross bred for high lambing percentage, good carcass and wool and out of season breeding that does well in our high altitude desert environment. The only downside to the breed seems to be low milk production and short lactation. They have lots of lambs but not enough milk to feed more than one or two. (I’ve always wondered why cows have 4 teats and only one calf but sheep have multiple lambs and only 2 teats.)
I have tried several different crosses over the years to try to solve the melanoma issue. So far I’ve used Suffolk, Montadale and Arcott. The Suffolk, a white sheep with a black head and legs and dark skin, was bred for meat. They are good feed converters but somewhere along the way, they forgot to breed for brains. They don’t “flock”, look for any hole in the fence or open gate to get out and they are kind of like mules in that they aim when they kick! If I had a whole flock of Suffolks, I think I’d have to shoot myself. The Montadale and the Arcott both are very “alert”. They’ll see you coming from a mile away, their heads go up in the air and then they’re gone. A very good trait to protect them from predators, not so good if you want to handle them every day. I don’t have any Arcott left in my flock. The Arcott has Suffolk in the mix so you can see why they’re gone! I used Montadale rams for 2 years but I only have about 10% Montadale in my flock now. The Montadales do have excellent udders with teats that hang straight down. (Sheep are notorious for having teats high on the sides of the udder.) I like the black skin around the eyes and darker udders of the Montadale. I’ve never had one get a melanoma.
I always come back to the Polypay, though. They are very docile, easy to milk, and herd nicely. They are great reproductively too. My lambing percentage is always over 220% and they mature early. Most ewe lambs breed by 6 months old, giving me lambs by the time they are yearlings. (I cull any ewe that doesn’t produce at least one lamb by the time she’s a year old and at least twins every year after that.) The Polypay is also the breed most commonly used for the “Star Program”, a breeding program developed to produce 5 lambings in 3 years. I do have to be careful about keeping rams around because some of my ewes will breed any time of the year, whether they are lactating or not. This year I’m using this trait to my advantage to try to get year round milk supply since sheep only lactate for 150 days or less. I’m breeding one group of ewes to lamb in November and another to lamb in May.
The biggest challenge, I think, will be feed. I try to graze year-round but some winters are tougher than others so my feed bill will be higher for the November lambing ewes. I can usually rough the dry ewes though winter without feeding any hay. I’m working on setting up a fodder system for year round “green” feed and I’ll let you know the details of that in a later blog.
Thanks to Stonyfield, Profits for the Planet, for funding the 2013 Bootstrap blog series.