Selecting the Right Sheep Breed For You

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASelecting the right sheep breed starts with what do you want the sheep to do? With the answer to that question it directs your answer while eliminating those who don’t do so well at what you want.

For example if you’re looking at showing in open market lamb competition you might get away with a Hampshire or polled Dorset but your primary choice will be Suffolk. That is what excels in the show ring. However there may be some arguable exceptions. A small sized youth may be more comfortable and learn more with a cheviot or Texel which aren’t as tall but still make the muscle weight to show. True it would take an exceptional animal to win, but for many the WINNER is learning to make the most of choices and livestock husbandry, which they’re more likely to do hands on.

If you’re looking to raise lambs outside on pasture what kind of range do you have? How big are your pastures and are you interested in meat or wool? If the latter do you have a market or are you willing to work hard to develop one? Do you want to mess with wool at all? If you aren’t willing or able to shear the sheep and there isn’t someone to hire then don’t think about anything but hair sheep or maybe hair cross.

The fiber market is exacting – no weeds, seeds or “trash” in the fiber which weakens the fiber as well as takes more work to clean. This necessitates *GOOD* pasture that is clean to insure the fleeces aren’t contaminated.

For those without a great deal of room interested in wool the Shetland may be an option – maturing about 90-125 pounds with ewes slightly smaller, the Shetland has a Bradford count in up upper 50s or higher, with 2-4 pounds per shearing not uncommon. Several colors are available and they are considered a rare breed both in the UK and the US.

If you’re dedicated to conservation the Leicester Longwool may be of interest. This is an old breed once kept by George Washington now critically endangered. They have a heavy curly fleece that is commonly 11-15 pounds with some up to 20 pounds. Those with more room and a real dedication to wool may consider the world’s largest breed – the Lincoln. Adult ewes are often 200-250 with rams 250-350 pounds, with distinctive long fleece that is well wooled to the knees and hocks. The Cotswold is slightly smaller.

Another interesting breed for fleece is the Romney big enough for a good eating and with a low “grease” – or lanolin – content to the wool. While the lanolin can be a good product many correlate the amount of lanolin affects the taste of the lamb, which if affecting the fat makes sense.

If you’re not interested in fleeces as much consider the Barbados blackbelly, Wiltshire horn or possibly the California Red.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThose without a great deal of room may find the 160-200 pound size of the Cheviot (ewes to 160 pounds) easier to handle than the larger breeds. If volume is your interest Polypays can be the solution, with the ability to lamb more than once a year and breed early. Another option is the Southdown but these do have wooled faces and legs, an objectionable quality for some. For something the same size but completely different consider the ‘redheads’ – Tunis sheep have red heads and a reddish cast to the wool. They’re born red.

For something completely different there’s the Karakul, originally brought to the US for pelt production. They are a “fat tailed” breed with ewes 100-150 pounds and rams 175-225 pounds not uncommon. They may be several colors and are distinctive in the sheep world.

The Cheviot isn’t to be confused with the slightly larger North country Cheviot – similar but the latter is not uncommon for ewes to be 180 and rams 300 pounds. The North Country Cheviot is also known for being aggressive on dogs.

In the larger range size of Suffolks ewes are 180-250 pounds with rams 250-350 pounds. Hampshires are also black faced and ewes are minimum 200 pounds with rams 275 and up. In appearance the Hampshire has wool on top the head where the Suffolk does not. Another similarly sized breed is the Oxford which has a black face but more wool on the face, down to the nose.

Slightly smaller at maturity is the Dorset, with ewes 150-200 pounds and rams 225-275 pounds. These may be horned or polled. They have a white “open” face (no wool on face).

Remember these mature sizes when you get “cute little lambs” – don’t tease them or play with them in any way that they butt at you. A 200-300 pound ram can do a lot of damage – don’t fear them but do treat them with respect. If you’re not large enough to ‘tip’ them for trimming and shearing plan and train when they’re small enough to handle. With one Dorset ram I knew throwing him wasn’t going to happen (I’m 5’2″!) so from the time he was a few months old I picked up his feet. He learned much as a horse and as an adult he was very easy to do his feet. Often I could do all 4 faster than others could tip him!

Also research the grazing and finishing abilities of your chosen breed. These are just a few of the sheep breeds available, and there’s many who are in other countries but not here.

  • Breeds vary from adult weights of about 100 pounds to over 300 pounds.
  • Some are wool specialists while others are for meat
  • Consider the amount of pasture you have – don’t overgraze.

Did you know?While in the US we think of sheep for fleece or fiber, the Friesian breed was developed for milk. Dairy sheep, including cheese, is in the US but less common than the other uses.

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