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Purebred sheep
Purebred sheep: Katahdin

Smut-faced lamb
Crossbred lamb

Wool breed rams
Wool breed: Romney

Wide bodies
Meat breed: Texel

Columbia ewe
Dual-purpose: Columbia

Upgrading to Dorper
Upgrading to Dorper  

Southdown showman
Southdown

Oxford ram
Sire breed: Oxford

Polypay ewe lamb
Maternal breed: Polypay

Merino ewe with twins
Whiteface breed: Merino

Blackface sheep

Blackface sheep

Rambouillet rams
Fine wool: Rambouillet

 Romney ewes at the feeder
Long wool: Romney

 Black ram
Natural colored

 Black and White Katahdins
Hair sheep: Katahdin

Rat tail
Rat-tailed: East Friesian

Horned Dorset
Aseasonal: - Horned Dorset

Quintuplets?
Prolific: Barbados Blackbelly

Karakul
Rare: Karakul

Dairy ewes
Crossbred dairy ewes

Crossbred lambs
3-way cross lambs

Mixed breed ewes
Mixed breed ewes

Lincoln ewe
Long wool: Lincoln

Suffolk lamb
Suffolk ewe lamb  

crossbred lamb
Hair x Wool lamb

Shetland ewe
Shetland

Lap lamb
Tunis 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 are chosen.

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.


Breed Categories

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.

Purpose
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 for meat.

Classification of U.S. sheep breeds by their primary purpose
Wool
Meat
Dual purpose
Minor

Fine wool

American Cormo
Booroola Merino
Delaine-Merino Debouillet
Rambouillet
Panama


Hair


American Blackbelly Barbado
California Red
Dorper
Katahdin
Romanov
Royal White
St. Croix
Wiltshire Horn

Wool

Columbia
Corriedale
Finnsheep
Polypay
Targhee

 

Dairy

East Friesian
Lacaune


Black Welsh Mountain
Blueface Leicester
Calif. Variegated Mutant
Clun Forest
Gulf Coast Native
Hog Island
Icelandic
Jacob
Karakul
Navajo-Churro
Scottish Blackface
Shetland
Soay
Long wool

Border Leicester
Coopworth
Cotswold
Leicester Long wool
Lincoln
Perendale
Romney
Wensleydale

Wooled


Cheviot
Dorset
Hampshire
Montadale
North Country Cheviot
Oxford
Shropshire
Southdown
Suffolk
Texel
Tunis

Use
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.

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.

Face Color
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

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.

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.

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.

Hair Sheep
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 maternal characteristics.

Specialty wools
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
Fine
Medium (meat)
Long
Specialty
American Cormo
Booroola Merino
Debouillet
Delaine-Merino
Rambouillet
Border Cheviot
Clun Forest
Dorset
Gulf Coast Native
Hampshire
Hog Island
Ile-de-France
Montadale
North Country Cheviot
Oxford
Shropshire
Southdown
Suffolk
Texel
Tunis


Blueface Leicester
Border Leicester
Coopworth
Cotswold
Leicester Longwool
Lincoln
Perendale
Romney
Wensleydale


Carpet
Karakul
Scottish Blackface



Colored
Calif. Variegated Mutant
Black Welsh Mountain


Double-coated
or primitive

Navajo-Churro
Icelandic
Jacob
Shetland
Soay





Medium
(dual purpose)
Hair
Columbia
Corriedale
East Friesian
Finnsheep
Panama
Polypay
Targhee

American Blackbelly
Barbados Blackbelly
California Red
Dorper
Katahdin
Romanov
Royal White
St. Croix
Wiltshire Horn




Other characteristics


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).

Prolificy
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

Adaptability
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 colder climates.

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 breeds.

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 or more).

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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Late updated 15-Feb-2014 by Susan Schoenian.
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