Purebred sheep: Katahdin
Wool breed: Romney
Meat breed: Texel
Upgrading to Dorper
Sire breed: Oxford
Maternal breed: Polypay
Whiteface breed: Merino
Fine wool: Rambouillet
Long wool: Romney
Hair sheep: Katahdin
Rat-tailed: East Friesian
Aseasonal: - Horned Dorset
Prolific: Barbados Blackbelly
Crossbred dairy ewes
3-way cross lambs
Mixed breed ewes
Long wool: Lincoln
Suffolk ewe lamb
Hair x Wool lamb
Selecting a breed of sheep
According to some estimates, there are more than 1,000 breeds of sheep worldwide
and more than 50 in the United States. While only a
handful of sheep breeds are usually of economic importance to a country's commercial industry, all breeds
should be considered important, as they contribute to the genetic diversity of the
species and worldwide industry. Pictures and descriptions of more than two hundred sheep breeds
can be found at www.sheep101.info/breeds.html.
Deciding which breed (or breeds) to raise is an important decision
that each shepherd must make. The reason(s) for raising sheep should
be the primary consideration when deciding upon a breed (or breed
type). This is because if you're interested in producing wool
for the hand spinner's market, your breed choice would be much
different than if meat will be your primary product to sell.
Conversely you wouldn't choose "wool" breeds, if the
majority of your income is going to come from meat. If your children
want to compete in junior market lamb shows, choice of breed(s)
will affect success in this segment of the sheep industry. Price
and availability will also have a bearing on which breeds or crosses
At the same time, it is important to remember that there are no "best" breeds of sheep. All breeds have traits which may be desirable or undesirable, depending upon the production system and marketing objectives. In addition, there is usually as much difference within a breed as between breeds.
Crossbred, Purebred, or Registered?
A crossbred is an animal whose sire (father) and dam (mother)
are of different breeds or breed types, while a purebred animal's
parents are of the same breed or type. A registered or pedigreed
animal has a known ancestry. However, it could be crossbred (percentage purebred) or purebred (fullblood), depending upon the requirements of the respective breed association.
Most sheep breeds have closed flock books, meaning only 100% purebred
animals with registered parents can be registered in the flock
book. Some breed associations have open flock books (e.g. Katahdin
and Dorper) which allow percentage animals to be
recorded by the breed association. Percentage sheep are usually
recorded as part of an upgrading program.
While purebred sheep usually sell for higher prices than crossbred
sheep and registered animals tend to cost more than non-registered
animals, breed type (or purity) or registration status is in no
way indicative of quality or productivity. In fact, crossbred
animals tend to be hardier and more productive than purebreds.
The "superiority" of crossbred animals is due to "heterosis" or "hybrid vigor,"
a natural phenomenon whereby the performance of the crossbred offspring
is superior to the average performance of the parent breeds. Heterosis
is maximized when a crossbred ewe is mated to a crossbred ram. Heterosis is expressed in both the crossbred lamb and the crossbred dam. The effects are additive.
Heterosis occurs to a lesser extent in the newer "composite" breeds,
such as the Katahdin and Polypay. Another advantage to crossbreeding
is breed complementarity. This is when the weakness(es) of one breed
are offset by the strength(s) of the other breed(s) and vice versa.
Unless the objective is to raise and market purebred and/or registered
sheep, it is better to raise crossbred sheep. This is especially
true for beginners. It's better to practice shepherding with
hardier, less expensive animals.
Oftentimes, it is more useful to look at breed "types"
rather than individual sheep breeds. Breed types tend to share
common characteristics and can usually be substituted for one
another in a breeding program. There are several ways in which sheep breeds can be categorized: purpose, use, face color, fiber type,
and various physical or performance attributes.
The most useful way to categorize sheep breeds is by their primary
purpose: meat, wool, or dairy. While most sheep breeds are dual-purpose
(i.e. they produce both meat and wool) and some are even triple-purpose
(dairy, meat, and wool), most sheep breeds excel in either the
production of meat, wool, or dairy -- seldom two or all three.
Thus, if you want to milk sheep, you shouldn't choose a meat
breed, even though it produces milk to feed its lambs. Nor should
you choose a wool breed, if your primary purpose for raising
sheep is meat production, even though wool breeds are harvested
Classification of U.S. sheep breeds by their primary purpose
American Blackbelly Barbado
Black Welsh Mountain
Calif. Variegated Mutant
Gulf Coast Native
Leicester Long wool
North Country Cheviot
The most popular terminal sire breed in the United States is
the Suffolk. Hampshires are also popular for this purpose. In Europe, the Texel is the most popular sire of market lambs. Some sheep breeds are
considered dual-purpose, because they have traits which make
them suitable as either a ram or ewe breed. Examples of dual
purpose breeds include the Dorper, Dorset, Columbia, and North Country Cheviot.
Sheep breeds are often categorized as to whether they are more
suitable as a ram or ewe in the breeding program. Ram or "sire"
breeds excel in growth and carcass (meat) characteristics
whereas ewe or "dam" breeds excel in fitness
(e.g. longevity, parasite resistance) and reproductive traits
(early puberty, prolificacy, milk production).
Sire breeds are often called "terminal sires" because
the offspring from their matings are all marketed (terminated)
whereas lambs sired by a ewe breed ram, such as Finnsheep, are
often kept as flock (ewe) replacements.
Sheep breeds are often described by their face color. Black
or non-whiteface breeds (e.g. Suffolk, Hampshire, Shropshire, Oxford, and Southdown)
tend to excel in growth and carcass traits, whereas the white-face
breeds (e.g. Rambouillet, Targhee, and Polypay) tend to have
superior maternal and wool traits.
In some countries, black-face sheep are strongly discriminated
against because the dark fibers and hairs in their fleeces can
contaminate a wool clip. In Australia, they developed the
White Suffolk breed to prevent this problem. There is some effort in the United States to develop a whiteface terminal sire breed.
Fiber or Coat Type
Ideally, hair sheep and wool sheep should not be raised together in the same pasture or pens, especially if high quality wool is the production objective. This is because hair fibers from the hair sheep may contaminate the fleeces of wool sheep. The risk of contamination may be low, but because it is possible, some wool mills will not purchase wool from flocks that comingle hair and wool sheep. The fleeces from hair x wool sheep should be discarded to prevent contamination of wool clips.
The most common way to categorize sheep is according to the
type of fibers they grow or the type of coat they have. All
sheep grow both hair and wool fibers. Hair breeds have more
hair fibers than woolly fibers and usually shed their coats annually.
Some hair breeds have few if any wool fibers in their coats, especially if they are being raised in a warm climate. Hair sheep usually do not require shearing, crutching, or docking.
In contrast, wooled breeds have more woolly fibers and need to be sheared,
usually at least once per year. Ideally, wooled sheep should
be crutched, if they are not sheared prior to lambing. Crutching
is the removal of wool around the vulva area and udder. Originally,
all sheep were hair sheep. The soft, short undercoat ("down")
of hair sheep was favored in selection programs and led to the
development of the wooled breeds of today.
Fine wool sheep
Fine-wool sheep grow wool fibers with the smallest fiber diameter
(usually less than 22 microns). Their fleeces tend to be the
shortest in length and contain the most lanolin (wool wax or grease).
Fine wool fleeces usually yield a lower percentage of clean
fiber than longer, coarser fleeces. However, fine wool is the most valuable
wool in the commercial market place because it is used to make the highest
quality wool garments and has the most versatility of use. Fine-wool is less likely to itch when
it is used in garments that are close to the skin.
Fine-wool sheep tend to be hardy and long-lived. Most trace their
ancestry to the Spanish Merino. Fine-wool sheep have a strong
flocking instinct and are well-adapted to arid climates, such
as South Africa, Australia, and the western United States and
Canada. Fine wool sheep (mostly Rambouillet) and their crosses are the most numerous
sheep in the U.S. sheep industry. Worldwide, fine wool sheep comprise approximately
50 percent of the sheep population.
Long wool sheep
At the other end of the spectrum are long or coarse wooled sheep. They grow wool fibers that have a large fiber
diameter (usually more than 30 microns) and long staple length.
Their fleeces yield more clean fiber because they contain less
lanolin. Carpet wool is even longer and coarser than long wool.
Long wool sheep do best where feed resources are abundant.
Long wool sheep are most common to cool, wet climates such as the United
Kingdom, New Zealand, and the Falkland Islands. Many of the
long wooled breeds in the U.S. can trace their ancestry to the
British Isles. The fleeces from the long wooled breeds tend
to be favored by hand spinners and weavers.
Medium wool sheep
The length and fiber diameter of
medium wool fibers is intermediate between fine and long. Most
of the meat-type breeds grow medium wool. Medium-wool sheep
comprise about 15 percent of the world sheep population.
It is estimated that hair sheep comprise about 10 percent of the world's sheep population,
and their popularity is increasing in temperate climates such
as North American and Europe. In the United States, there are
two general types of hair sheep: "improved" and "unimproved"
(or landrace) breeds. The unimproved breeds tend to be indigenous
sheep breeds that have adapted well to the local environment
in which they evolved. Examples include the Barbados Blackbelly
and St. Croix.
The American Blackbelly or "Barbado" is believed to
be a cross between the Barbados Blackbelly, Mouflon, and Rambouillet.
The Wiltshire Horn is a shedding sheep native to the British
Isles. The improved hair breeds are crosses between hair sheep
breeds and meat-type, wooled breeds. Examples include the Dorper,
Katahdin, Royal White, and Meatmaster.
Hair sheep can also be differentiated by the their place of origin. Some
hair breeds originate from tropical climates (e.g. Barbados
Blackbelly and St. Croix). These breeds tend to be more resistant
to internal parasites. Other breeds originate from arid regions
and are best-adapted to similar conditions (e.g. Dorper and
Damara). The desert breeds tend to be heavier muscled than the
tropical breeds, whereas the tropical breeds tend to have superior
There are several breeds which produce specialty wools. Carpet wool is the coarsest wool produced by sheep. As the name implies, carpet wool is used to make carpets. Double-coated breeds grow a longer outer coat and a short fine undercoat. Primitive breeds have similar types of fleeces (inner and outer) that naturally shed. There are a few breeds whose fleeces are a specific color or color pattern. The Shetland breed produces wool in the widest range of colors of any breed.
Classification of U.S. sheep breeds by wool or coat type
Gulf Coast Native
Calif. Variegated Mutant
Black Welsh Mountain
Type of Tail
Some breeds are grouped together because they have a special
kind of tail. Fat-tailed or fat-rumped breeds make up about
25 percent of the world sheep population. They are well-adapted
to arid regions and are found mostly in Africa and Asia. Among
U.S. breeds, the Karakul is fat-tailed and the Tunis and Dorper
have fat-tail origins. The Awassi (recently introduced via semen) is also a fat-tailed sheep.
The U.S. is home to several breeds of the Northern European
short or rat-tail variety of sheep: Finnsheep, Romanov, East
Friesian, Shetland, Icelandic, and Soay. The tails of these
short-tailed breeds do not need to be docked. In addition to their unique tails, these breeds are
known for their prolificacy (large litters).
Some breeds of sheep are noted for the birth of large litters. Prolific breeds of sheep include Finnsheep, Romanov,
Booroola Merino, Barbados Blackbelly, and British Milk Sheep.
The Booroola Merino is noteworthy because it has a single gene
that is responsible for its high reproductive rate. The "F"
(fecundity) gene can be transferred to other breeds.
A single gene affecting prolificacy has also been isolated in
Icelandic and Cambridge sheep. In most sheep breeds, litter
size is a quantitative trait affected by many different genes.
Despite its low heritability, prolificacy or litter size is a trait that most sheep producers should select for, assuming the environment is conducive to the rearing of multiple lambs.
Rare and Heritage Breeds
There are many organizations and individuals dedicated to the
preservation of rare and heritage breeds of livestock. While
heritage breeds are usually no longer of commercial significance,
it is important to preserve their genetics for reasons of
biodiversity and historical relevance.
In addition, some of the heritage breeds may be hardier than many of the
more popular breeds that have been exploited by the show ring or single trait selection.
Heritage breeds are especially ideal for small, hobby farms or historical
farms or estates. The Navajo Churro is considered to be the oldest breed of sheep
in the United States. Gulf Coast or Florida Natives also descent from the sheep brought to the Americas by the Spaniards. A British breed of significance is the Leicester Longwool. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation leads efforts to preserve this historic breed.
Ewe Breed Selection
When choosing a ewe breed or type, many factors are important.
1. Adaptability to the production environment
2. Type of coat or wool
3. Level of reproduction
4. Timing and frequency of lambing
5. Level of care
While any breed of sheep can be raised in any geographic location, it makes sense to choose breeds which are best adapted to the environment in
which they are going to be raised. For example, fine wool breeds
and hair sheep (of desert origin) are good choices for hot, dry climates where feed may be scarce. Where it's hot
and humid, the Gulf Coast Native or hair sheep (of tropical
origins) are good choices, because of their heat tolerance
and parasite resistance.
In cold, wet areas where feed is abundant, the long wool and
meat breeds are good choices. Since dairy breeds and prolific
breeds are usually raised under intensive management systems,
environmental adaptation may be of less importance. Some sheep are
adaptable to different climates. For example, hair sheep will
grow thicker coats (i.e. more wool) when they are raised in
Type of Wool or Coat
The type of wool or coat desired is obviously an important consideration
when establishing a ewe flock. If you do not want to shear your
sheep, hair sheep (or goats) are your only choice. For the commercial
wool market (sales to wool pools and mills), the fleeces from
fine wool ewes and their crosses will bring more money. Due to the
absence of dark hairs and fibers, the wool from white-faced
breeds is more desirable than the wool from black or other non-white-faced
If commercial pelts are a consideration, the pelts from white
faced sheep and fine wool breeds are more desirable in the commercial
marketplace. If you're interested in producing wool for hand
spinning, any breed of wool sheep can be raised, but the wool
from the long wooled breeds and specialty breeds seem to be in the greatest demand. Natural colored fleeces and pelts are also
desirable in niche markets. The leather market is an untapped
market in the United States. The pelts from hair sheep produce
the highest quality leather.
Level of Reproduction
Not all shepherds desire large litters of lambs.
On the other hand, ewes that produce only one lamb may not be
profitable unless feed costs and overhead are very low. Breed
choice can have a large impact on the reproductive rate of the
flock. Prolific breed ewes will produce litters of lambs (3
Ewes containing 50 percent or more of a prolific breed will
drop lamb crops in excess of 200 percent. Ewes containing
25 percent of a prolific breed are capable of producing 200
percent lamb crops. Under proper management and nutrition, many
breeds are capable of producing a 200 percent lamb crop.
Of course, any breed of sheep can be selected to produce larger
lamb crops, though it requires a long-term commitment, as
litter size is only 10 percent heritable. In addition, a high
litter size is only advantageous if quality lambs are produced and the extra lambs can be raised
to market profitably. It is important that litter size be matched to the production environment.
When to Lamb
In temperate climates, most sheep are seasonal breeders, i.e. "programmed"
to mate in the fall when day length is shorter and to lamb in
late winter or spring, when the pasture begins to grow. To produce "out-of-season" lambs, that go against this "norm," you'll need
to select a breed that is able to breed at different times of the year.
In the U.S., the Dorset is best known for its ability to lamb
year-round, though there are considerable differences for this
trait within the breed. In fact, the Horned Dorset is usually
considered to be superior to the Polled Dorset with respect to out-of-season
breeding. This is because many Polled Dorsets have been bred for show ring qualities and not production traits.
Other breeds with extended breeding seasons include fine wool
sheep (e.g. Rambouillet and Merino), hair sheep, Finnsheep,
Polypay, and Karakul. The breeds which are most seasonal in
their breeding habits are the long wool breeds and meat
breeds of British origin.
Any breed of sheep can be selected for the ability to lamb in
the fall. Spring breeding can also be achieved with light or
hormonal manipulation. The introduction of a ram may also stimulate
estrus activity in seasonally anestrous ewes.
Level of Care
Sheep raising is usually more labor intensive than raising
beef cattle, but there are breeds of sheep which are naturally
hardy or have been selected for their easy or self-care nature.
Such breeds include hair sheep, Border and North County Cheviots,
Coopworths, fine wool breeds, and some of the rare or heritage breeds
(e.g. Soay, Shetland, Icelandic).
Those breeds which generally require a higher level of care
(or labor) include the British meat breeds, long wool breeds,
prolific breeds, and dairy breeds. Of course, any flock of sheep
can be selected and managed to minimize care (labor). In other
words, if you want to work hard raising sheep, you can.
If you want the sheep to work for you, you need to favor easy-care
traits (e.g. unassisted lambing, minimal hoof trimming, minimal
deworming) in your management and selection program.
Ram Breed Selection
Before choosing a breed of ram, you need to determine his
primary purpose. Will he be used to sire market lambs or do
you want him to sire ewe lamb replacements? Or both? For producing
replacements, you need a ram with the appropriate type of wool/coat
and reproductive characteristics.
For market lamb production, you need a ram that will sire lambs
that are suitable for your target market(s). For example, if
you want to produce lambs for the mainstream, heavy lamb (100-140
lbs) markets, your choice of a ram breed would be very different
from the ram breed you would choose to sire lambs for the hot
house (35 to 50 lbs) or ethnic markets (60-100 lbs.)
This is because lambs sired by large-framed breeds such as the
Suffolk and Columbia are not very desirable at light weights
because they have inadequate muscling and fat. Conversely, lambs
sired by small and medium sized breeds such as the Dorset and
Southdown, will likely get too fat if they are fed to heavy
weights, as these lambs are more ideally suited to the lighter
weight lamb markets.
Some producers have been able to create a demand for the meat
from certain breeds of sheep. For example, many ethnic buyers
like hair sheep lambs because they are accustomed to similar-looking
sheep in their homelands. Hair sheep and coarse, long wooled
breeds are ideally suited to the freezer market, because their
meat has a milder flavor than lambs from fine-wool breeding. At the same time, it is important to remember than diet exerts a larger influence on lamb flavor than genetics.
In fact, diet should also be considered when choosing the sire of market lambs. Lambs sired by small and medium-sized breeds will fatten more easily on pasture diets than lambs sired by large framed breeds. Conversely, lambs with a higher genetic potential for growth should probably be favored in feed lot finishing systems. Parasite resistance is another important trait to consider (in a ram breed) when the aim is to finish lambs on grass.
Purebred rams are often favored over crossbred rams because
there will be more uniformity in their offspring. However,
crossbreed rams tend to be superior in their breeding ability.
Selecting a breed of sheep
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