Breeding / Genetics
Sheep are one of the most adaptable farm animals known to man. The diversity of sheep breeds rivals the dog. As such, shepherds have the opportunity to create a flock specific to their resources and goals. Sustainable agricultural enterprises are those that match the genetic potential of the animal to the natural resources of the farm. Our climate, soil, and land grow abundant cool-season grasses and legumes from mid-April through October. The quality of our pastures is capable of supporting ewes nursing twins and triplets. Sheep that perform well on grass are a priority for us. Stockpiled grass extends the grazing season into December. Hardiness to withstand winter on hay and snow is an equally important criterion in our flock. Our written goal in 1987 when we started our farm was to create a flock that would produce a 200% lamb crop with forage produced on the farm. The genetics we utilized over the past 30 years has slowly evolved; guided by careful observation of the interaction between the sheep and our resources. We started our flock with a group of black-faced ewes, Oxford and Hampshire. They had fast-growing, muscular lambs but were not prolific enough to meet the 200% lamb crop goal. In 1998 we introduced the Booroola gene which was first developed in Australia. The Booroola gene helped us reach our lamb crop goal but many of the ewes did not have enough milk production for the extra lambs. (To learn more about the Booroola gene, click here to see the articles that Bob wrote for the Shepherd in 2009.)
Good milk production is essential for ewes that nurse more than two lambs. We expect our ewes to be capable of producing enough milk to raise triplets on high-quality grass pasture without additional grain supplementation. To boost production in our flock we utilize the East Friesian breed in our crossbreeding program. We like to maintain one quarter to one eighth East Friesian genetics in our ewes.
Over time we observed that our mature ewes that had East Friesian genetics were averaging over two lambs weaned per ewe. We came to the conclusion that we could meet our lamb crop goal without the Booroola gene. We no longer have any ewes with the Booroola gene. East Friesian genetics has much to offer for the commercial production of lambs. Check out this article about the productivity of East Friesian cross ewes. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/237569825_MILK_AND_LAMB_PRODUCTION_OF_EAST_FRIESIAN-CROSS_EWES_IN_NORTHWESTERN_WISCONSIN)
In subsequent years we added Corriedale and later South African Meat Merino (SAMM) breeds to our crossbreeding program for a larger frame and better wool quality. The breeding program is essentially a rotational crossbreeding scheme, using East Friesian, Dorset, Rambouliett, and SAMM genetics.
Market lambs are produced by breeding our ewes to a traditional Shropshire ram. The Shropshire cross lambs are well-muscled. They grow quickly on their mother’s abundant milk and high-quality pasture.
The present flock is the result of focused attention to the goals we wrote more than 30 years ago. Our sheep enterprise today converts high-quality legume/grass pastures into delicious healthy lamb in a soil-enriching, sustainable way.