What's the best breed of sheep to raise?


There is no best breed or best breeds. There is a great deal of genetic diversity among sheep breeds. There are about 60 breeds of sheep in the US, probably more than a thousand worldwide. Each breed has a unique set of characterstics that make it suitable (or unsuitable) for different purposes, production systems, and markets.

Sheep are multi-purpose animals, and while some breeds are dual even triple purpose, most sheep breeds excel in the production of either meat, wool, or dairy -- seldom all three. It is common to classify sheep breeds according to their primary purpose. You should choose your breed(s) on this basis.

A common way to to classify sheep breeds is according to the type of fiber they grow. Sheep grow many different types of wool -- super fine to super coarse, short to long, white and natural colored, even hair. There is no best wool. The "best" wool depends on the purpose of the wool. While fine white wool (small fiber diameter) brings the most money in the commercial market place, long and natural colored wools bring premium prices in direct (niche) markets. No wool is more economical in many situations.

If your primary interest in raising sheep is wool production, you should choose your breed(s) based on the type of wool you want to market or work with. Fine wool breeds include Merino, Rambouillet, and Targhee (3/4 fine wool). The list of long wool breeds is long. Popular ones include Romney, Border Leicester, Blueface Leicester, and Coopworth. Examples of carpet wool breeds are Scottish Blackface and Karakul. Dual-coated breeds include Icelandic, Shetland, and Navajo Churro. Black Welsh Mountain are the only totally black breed. Jacobs produce spotted fleeces. Shetlands produce fleeces in the widest variety of colors.

The medium wool category includes many different breeds of sheep, including most of our meat breeds. For meat breeds, wool is a by-product. If you're interested in raising sheep for meat, you should choose a meat, dual purpose, or hair breed. The meat breeds are some our most popular and traditional breeds. They are the most popular breeds for showing, especially among youth. Most of the meat breeds originated in Great Britain. The most popular ones are Dorset, Hampshire, Suffolk, Southdown, Cheviot, and Shropshire.

Dual-purpose breeds
Some medium wool breeds are considered to be dual purpose: wool + meat. Their wool is at the upper end of the medium category, and they are good lamb producers, too. Examples of these include Columbia, Polypay, Corriedale, and Finnsheep. Some of the long wool breeds are also dual-purpose (meat + wool): Romney, Border Leicester, Bluefaced Leicester, and Coopworth.

Hair sheep
Some sheep don't produce wool. Hair sheep have coats containing a mixture of hair and woolly fibers that are naturally shed (usually annually). They don't usually require shearing, crutching, or docking. Not having to shear is a big advantage nowadays, since shearers are in short supply and there's not much money in wool unless you niche market it. If it costs you more to shear your sheep than you get for their wool, hair sheep make sense, as they put all their nutrients towards producing meat. The two most popular breeds (Dorper and Katahdin) are also the two most popular US sheep breeds based on purebred registrations and transfers.

Special characteristics
Some breeds possess special characteristics. There are a couple of breeds that are very prolific (give birth to lots of lambs): Finnsheep and Romanov. It's common to use these breeds for crossbreeding to increase the number of lambs born. You probably don't want to raise these breeds in their pure form: too many lambs and not enough milk for them.

The Texel (from the Netherlands/Holland) has the distinction of being our heaviest muscled sheep breed. They're shaped like a "bull dog." It is common to use Texel rams to produce crossbred market lambs for the commercial market.

While you can milk any breed of sheep, there are a couple of dairy sheep breeds in the US. The East Friesian is the heaviest milking sheep in the world. The French Lacaune is hardier and produces milk with more butter fat. It's common for commercial dairies to mix these two breeds. They're also suitable for home milk production.

Some breeds are naturally more resistant to internal parasites (worms). These include Caribbean-derived hair sheep (St. Croix and Barbados Blackbelly) and their composites (Katahdin). Wooled sheep native to the southeastern US are also known for being more resistant to worms: Gulf Coast (and Louisiana) Native and Florida Cracker (or Florida Native). The Texel seems to have some resistant to parasites, making it a good choice to sire pasture-raised lambs. Choosing a breed with some resistance to internal parasites makes sense if you live anywhere where there is a significant worm challenge and your sheep are going to spend a signficant amount of time on pasture.

Heritage and rare breeds
Heritage breeds are breeds that were raised by our ancestors. Rare breeds are breeds raised in limited numbers. Most heritage breeds are rare, but not all rare breeds are heritage breeds. Both have the advantage in that they have not usually been intensively selected for production or show ring qualities. They are truer to their original make-up. Examples of heritage breeds include Leicester Longwool, Cotswold, Lincoln, Hog Island, and Navajo Churro. Most are wool breeds since wool was important to the original American colonies and Native American cultures. There is a long list of rare breeds. They are more diverse in their genetic make-up. For small flocks, heritage and rare breeds can be a good choice. It is important to conserve all breeds.

While there aren't miniature breeds of sheep (like goats), sheep breeds vary considerably in size. Mature ewes vary in weight from less than 60 lbs. to over 250 pounds. Rams vary from 75 to as much as 400 pounds. Breeds vary considerably in height, too, from as small as two feet to the size of small ponies. Soay, Shetland, and Babydoll Southdown are the smallest sheep breeds; Suffolk and Columbia, the biggest.

While most sheep are naturally polled (hornless), some breeds have horns. In some breeds, only the male is horned (e.g., American Blackbelly, Shetland). In others, both sexes are horned (e.g., Jacob, Scottish Blackface). Some breeds have both horned and polled animals (e.g., Rambouillet, Dorset, Icelandic). Some breeds are known for having four horns, even six (e.g., Jacob, Navajo Churro). While horns aren't usually desirable in most commercial situations, some people favor the natural beauty of horned animals.

The adaptability of a breed to its environment is the most important criteria for choosing breed, especially if the sheep are being raised for commercial purposes. Fine wool sheep are best adapted to dry climates. They're more suited to open range (herding situations) because they have a stronger flocking instinct. They are longer-lived. Among hair sheep, the Dorper is best adapted to a dry climate, whereas Caribbean-derived hair sheep are most advantageous for moist climates with high parasite challenge. Breeds native to the southeastern US are also well adapted to humid climates. Long (coarse) wool sheep are better adapted to wet climates with plentiful forage. Many are native to the British Isles. Many of the other breeds tend to be best suited to more intensive systems, i.e., more feeding and confinement.

Any breed of sheep can be raised as a pet. It's often a result of circumstance or personal preference. If you have the chance to choose, avoid horns and intact males. Hair sheep are a good choice since they don't require shearing, and they have some natural resistance to worm parasites. Small breeds don't necessarily make better pets than big breeds, they just eat less. Be sure to raise pet sheep in pairs or small flocks. Make sure the sheep are of similar size and temperment.

Regardless of the breed(s) you choose, they all have the same basic needs in terms of health, nutrition, and welfare. Their natural behaviors do not differ significantly. Their temperments are more a function of how they were (are) raised than their breed. All sheep produce similar products. While wool varies, meat tastes similarly regardless of breed. Age and diet are bigger determinants.

We often say there is as much difference within a breed as between breeds. Choose wisely.


Additional reading
Breed Selection - Sheep 201
Sheep Breeds A-Z - Sheep 201
Breed Directory - American Sheep Industry