Henry Zerby, OSU Extension Specialist, Meat Science
(Originally Published in Sheep Team Newsletter April 2004)
It is ironic that I am writing about this topic because at the current time, my flock is not producing a profit, although, I have currently charged a lot of fence and renovation expenses against the income of flock. However, I think my flock will be operating in the black in the near future because I have taken the time to give a considerable amount of thought to selecting for “success traits”. As I continue with this subject, please understand that it is not my intention to point a finger at or offend anyone, nor do I pretend to have all the answers for the sheep industry; the following are merely some of my observations and opinions. I am sure some of my biases as a meat scientist will be evident.
First we must define a “Success Trait”; so let’s break it down. What does success mean? Your definition of success may be entirely different than somebody else’s. I have heard success defined as: reaching your goals; making a profit (or often somehow linked to monetary rewards); or receiving the maximum amount of output for a minimum amount of input. You need to decide what success means to you and what success is for your flock. That implies you need to set goals for your flock.
Now let’s consider what qualifies as a trait. A trait is generally defined as something that can be inherited or passed on from one generation to the next with a certain level of heritability. It is something that you can measure, and then actively select to increase or decrease the expression or production in the subsequent generation. Volumes have been written on selection. We are learning more about the genetic code and factors affecting selection and inheritance and genetic diversity every day.
While analyzing my flock, the real question was not how to select, but, what traits to select. If we refer back to the underlying question: “How do we make money with sheep?”, we need to realize that sheep neither make nor lose money; people do!! A sheep strives to do one basic fundamental thing – survive. Sheep have been around for thousands of years. Given that, I could make a very strong case that sheep have repeatedly attained their goal and they are successful. So by now you have probably realized that the concept of selecting for success traits is more about you than your ewes.
Why do you lose or make money with sheep? I remember reading an article in The Shepherd written by John Walker of the Texas Experiment Association, San Angelo, Texas, and later last summer listening to John give a talk on some things that apply to this discussion. John was discussing grazing and some alternative ways to make sheep production profitable, but what was important was the general philosophy behind the message. He stated “part of the challenge is that sheep producers are not rational, they are irrational and they are in a learned state of helplessness. They don’t react well to stimuli.” It is amazing how often I have heard producers complain about the market and/or difficulties they are encountering with their production programs, rather than talking about how they plan to address the situation with some proactive or positive ideas. At times I wonder how we as a group of producers have survived for as long as we have. I also really enjoyed the definition of insanity John presented – “doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results”. That really defines a lot of my sheep production management (habits) as well as those of most sheep producers I know. Once I realized that, I was left to choose one of two options John laid out: a) change, or b) just admit you’re crazy. I have chosen change, and that is what has led me to think about my success traits.
I try to continuously remind myself that I need to produce sheep with the consumer in mind. It is important, to be knowledgeable not only of the consumer, but also the retailer, packer and any middleman in the market channel. I often hear producers accuse packers and retailers of not supporting the producer, and as I listen to their argument it is painfully clear that the producer making the accusations clearly doesn’t understand the retailers or the packers businesses, nor the way a retailer or packer must operate to survive. So here is some brief and general advice: check out your market or your consumer; find out what they do, how they think and what they want; evaluate the competition; get smart, get creative, develop a plan and get to work; produce what they want, when they want it and how they want it.
Equally important to understanding your consumer is understanding your animals. What genotypic and phenotypic traits are you selecting and producing for? Keep in mind that some traits are antagonistic. As you select for more of one desirable trait, you may sacrifice a little of some other trait that is also desirable. So as you select for one attribute, also think about what you are selecting against. For example, are you selecting for what I will loosely term as “show ring traits”? Apparently, one of the major traits used to select show animals is growth rate. I am not suggesting that this is all wrong, it is important that animals have the ability to grow efficiently. Notice I used the word efficiently, not fast. Fast does not always equal efficient. Let’s look at what else you might be selecting for if you choose your show animals or replacement animals based on growth rate. Frame size is highly correlated with growth rate. So when you select those large framed, fast growing lambs to be your show animals and replacements, are you selecting for efficiency, or are you selecting for increased appetite and higher feed consumption? The reason they grew faster may simply be that they ate more, not necessarily that they were more efficient converters of their feed. If you are characterizing growth based on weight, you need to consider if their high rate of growth was due to increased pounds of high quality, tender red meat or was it a less marketable product – fat. If you are simply choosing animals based on frame size, you are also selecting for higher maintenance energy requirements in your replacements. An animal that is larger framed requires more energy, which translates to more feed, which translates to more expense to maintain that animal from one year to the next. Some people will make the argument that this is the type of sheep their market demands. If that is the case, then you need to produce that type of sheep. Just be ready to carry more and more feed over time to the same number of animals. Another option would be to pursue a market that is a better fit with your production strategies (habits).
Another show ring trait is the costs of a particular stud ram or breeding ewe. I often read advertisements about how “this year’s lambs will be sired by our new $5,000 stud ram purchased from this or that sale. The logic seems to be that if this ram or ewe cost over $1,000 or even $5,000 they must be good! Just read the advertisements! I often wonder what types of traits were used to justify that price. Did the producer actually back up the genetics of this animal with production records? Was the purchase price based on specific genotypic traits? Now don’t get me wrong, I believe that there are stud animals that are worth a lot of money, if they are what I refer to as “curve benders”. I think of curve benders as animals that have the genetic potential or ability to: increase twinning percentage, improve the efficiency of growth (not necessarily growth rate), provide or produce optimal milking ability, be resistant to parasites and foot rot, increase pounds of red meat carcass yield, decreases subcutaneous fat (back fat) and inter muscular fat (seam fat), and simultaneously increase intramuscular fat (marbling) and improve tenderness. If they can produce offspring that shift most of these traits in a positive direction at the same time, I refer to them as curve benders because a lot of these traits are antagonistic. Remember, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. So if you don’t have any data on these animals or you don’t collect any data on the offspring of these expensive stud rams and ewes, you don’t really know if they are “curve benders”, or “budget busters”.
Another management decision I found myself questioning is when to lamb. What determines when you turn in the ram for breeding? (We will assume for the sake of education, that date-of-birth is recorded accurately, to suggest otherwise would imply some producers are dishonest.) Is your lambing season scheduled to correspond with what best meets your production system including: pastures, available forage, labor, etc., or is it some date that corresponds with a particular class for some show? I have asked myself a lot of questions as I have started planning for next years breeding season. Should I decide to lamb based on a show book or on market reports? If I decide to lamb in the fall, will they breed naturally? If not, are there methods available that are legal? With my own personal schedule, what time of the year will I be able to provide more assistance to my ewes? Should I provide assistance to my ewes? When is the greatest risk of death loss from a temperature and environment standpoint? When will the ewes’ highest maintenance requirements present themselves, and will I have sufficient pasture or other low cost feed resources available to offset this expense? This year my ewes started to lamb in late January. I had half of my ewes lamb in a four day span. That was pretty good, except they were the four coldest days and nights of the winter. My rams were turned in to breed for that time out of habit and tradition; in other words, for all the wrong reasons. Looking back, I realize that I acted just as John had described. I was being irrational. I have been doing the same things over and over expecting a different outcome!
I am starting to like the idea of really looking at profit driven traits that compliment rather than complicate my production system. These might include: maximizing conception rate, selecting for natural ability to breed out of season, having two lambs born alive and weaned per ewe, improving average daily red meat gain and efficiency. There are some other traits that have been receiving a lot of attention recently, such as parasite resistance and sheep that don’t require shearing. Sheep that posses these two traits have been labeled as “easy care sheep”. I personally believe that this is a bit of a misnomer. “Easy care” to me doesn’t just mean no shearing and/or de-worming. To me “easy care” is a ewe that: is easy fleshing; doesn’t need her feet trimmed very often; doesn’t need de-wormed often; doesn’t jump over, run through, or crawl under fences; is easy to catch when necessary; breeds out of season naturally; milks well; raises all her lambs without assistance; sits calmly during shearing; and has high survivability or longevity. Easy care is a whole lot of things, and should also include producing a finished product or carcass that meets your market’s demands.
I had the opportunity to travel to Australia this past year and visit with a few producers, and tour a lamb packing plant. It was a short but immensely educational trip, and has changed some of my approaches to sheep production. What I saw reinforced my belief that in some aspects, we have forgotten what sheep are and what sheep can do. If you want to make money, capitalize on what sheep can do best. Each time I teach a class, I gain a better understanding and a deeper respect for how powerful and efficient Mother Nature is. As sheep producers, some of us seem to implement a lot of production practices that go against the grain in regard to Mother Nature. Remember sheep are successful; they have survived for thousands of years. Capitalize on their strengths because you won’t beat Mother Nature in the long run!! Don’t try to turn sheep into something they are not. If you want to raise longer necked and longer legged animals, then raise llamas. If you want to feed animals in such a manner to inhibit rumen development (so they have trimmer middles for the show ring) then raise pigs or chickens or some other type of non-ruminant animal.
I raise Southdowns and Tunis, and I am often asked why Tunis. I grew up in a large family (five brothers and two sisters) in central PA. We all had our own breed of sheep for 4-H and FFA as well as a flock of 200 to 300 commercial ewes. I managed the sheep flock for four years between finishing high school and starting college. I gained some experience working with several different breeds, and more importantly, I learned a lot of lessons and gained a lot of knowledge from my father (most of which I am only now beginning to understand). We marketed a few lambs to other youth in the area and showed at a lot of county fairs, but the bulk of our lambs were sold as hot-house lambs in the spring. Over the years I have always been impressed with just how efficient and problem free (easy care) the Southdowns were. As for why I am now also raising some Tunis, besides the fact that they are easy keepers and generally pretty docile, it will take a little explaining.
With my current flock, I plan to continue to market the bulk of my lambs as hot-house lambs, raise replacement commercial ewe lambs for the home farm in PA, and hopefully sell a few registered sheep to fellow breeders. For the hot-house market I want to produce a 30 to 40 pound butter-ball lamb. The commercial replacements will need to be able to survive on pasture and forage and also produce lambs for the hot-house market. I have chosen Tunis to complement the Southdowns to create small framed, easy fleshing, maternally oriented, butter-ball lamb producing, relatively calm F1 replacement ewes. These F1 ewes will be mated to a terminal sire ram to take advantage of heterosis of growth efficiency and carcass characteristics in our breeding schemes. This scenario would not work for most people, but I believe it will allow me to make money with my flock because it is designed with my success traits in mind.
It is no secret that in most cases we over manage our sheep, and under manage their environment. Determine your market and then select sheep and traits of sheep that will produce products that work for your chosen market in your production environment. My ultimate goal with our flock is simple. When I sell a sheep to another breeder or a packer, I don’t want them to tell me that she or he was the biggest sheep they ever bought or had on their farm; I want them to tell me it was the best sheep they ever bought or had on their farm. I don’t know that I will be able to accomplish this, and if I do, I know it will take time, effort and a lot of rational thinking and management of myself, my sheep and their environment. I will not do the same thing over and over again, and expect different results. In closing, I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes “Change is inevitable, progress is not.”