The last speaker I listened to at the KHSI Expo was Dr. Kreg Leymaster, a researcher from the USDA Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) in Nebraska. His talk was inspiring, he made me feel pretty fired up about our breed! 🙂 MARC is doing a lot of research on sheep breeds, trying to winnow down which ones are the best producers, the best tasting as lamb, and have the lowest maintenance requirements. I gather that the general vision at MARC is to help America develop the dreamiest sheep breed ever: one that consistently produces 200% or better lamb crops, with no help, thrives on the average forage offered by the open range (not grain feed lots!), and renders high quality, good-tasting lamb. The ultimate put-dinner-on-the-table sheep!
Now, I hope I got all the details right about their study, but in case I didn’t, I think you can find a lot of info and results on their website, on this study, and others they have done.
To find this Holy Grail of sheep breeds, they started with a flock of 50% Romanov ewes, chosen for their documented ability to produce large numbers of lambs (“litters”). He feels they are a better choice than Finnisheep in this regard, though Finns are also known for multiple births. Then, they crossed these ewes with many different terminal sire breeds, to assess the production of those other breeds when they are all given a chance at rendering lots of lambs via the mothers’ multiple birth genetics. In other words, he wanted to remove multiple births from the equation, and answer the question: if all of these breeds could have multiple births (instead of the crummy ~1.3 lambs-per-ewe statistic a lot of breeds have now), which ones would be the best producers in other ways?
They did a multi-year study of these crosses (holding back ewe lambs from each generation to put back into the study), and the evaluated all the breeds on many different points- both meat quality, as well as pounds per ewe born, weaned and slaughtered (because it’s not helpful if a ewe gives birth to a lot of lambs, but a lot of them also don’t make it all the way to market).
At some point he noted that they learned, though this wasn’t the focus of the study, that there is a balance between mothering ability and litter size. Another case where bigger isn’t always better- if a ewe has a whole bunch of lambs, she’s just not going to be able to raise them without help. And raising lambs without help is kind of an important goal that impacts profit. So, something that needs more research: what is a good goal for number of lambs born that improves our current lame stats, but doesn’t go overboard such that we end up spending too many resources feeding orphaned lambs?
They split the study across two management methodologies. The first one was the traditional approach we’re most familiar with, the “high input” intensive barn-birthing operation. There, all ewes and lambs are given as much assistance and intervention as required to be successful. Student employees followed strict and standardized procedures for all lambs, weighing them, the clip/strip/dip routine, plus vaccine, and supplemental support for triplet+ births. The other system was a total pasture “low input” environment: no shelter, no help. Student employees were instructed to tag and record lambs only, and do nothing more, not even weigh them at birth. If a ewe or lamb was struggling in any way, even with the most trivial of complications, they were to leave them be, and let nature take its course.
So hearing this study setup, of course all of us in the audience were waiting with baited breath to see where Katahdins fell in the results. Because we all brag about their high meat quality, how tender, tasty and low fat it is; and their great mothering ability and low maintenance traits. Of course, we thought we’d be the blue ribbon winner in this race, right?
Well, not exactly. 😉 It turns out that the Katahdin is only middle-of-the-road in most of the categories they evaluated, in meat quality and overall production ability, in both the high- and low-input systems. (<sigh> I have to go update my marketing brochure…) But, he did have some good things to say about our breed, that I’ll get to in a minute. The big winner in their study was actually the White Dorper (to be differentiated from the “regular” Dorper, which has a black head- that breed was also in their study, but didn’t do quite as well). It came out ahead in most ways, as far as its ability to put good meat on the table, in both the high- and low-input systems. So, there ya go!
The biggest losers might cause a twinge for our more traditional meat breed producers. It turns out that breeds like the Suffolk, that approach the size of small donkeys when you see them at fairs, are the furthest from the Holy Grail we are seeking. There is a statistical correlation between fast growth and: higher death rate, lower fat, tougher meat (those two are probably related), and large rib eye. So, you get a visually impressive, huge lamb with big, lean chops, but they are tough to saw with your steak knife, and you don’t get as much meat on the table because of their high mortality!
So, does this mean we should all sell our flocks and switch to White Dorpers? No. And here’s where Dr. Leymaster had some very encouraging things to say to this audience, the Katahdin breeders in America. Though our breed currently has some lackluster performance numbers (not bad, just middle of the pack), he feels that we are best positioned to improve that, out of all the breeds out there. He said that after they did all this amazing research, only two breed associations contacted them and/or sent representatives to learn what their organizations should be doing with this information: ours and the Texel breed association. Given that the sheep industry has been suffering for eighty years, it would seem that unless breed organizations and producers are agile and ready to change and embrace new ideology, they are probably going down with the ship. KHSI, and the hair sheep concept, may be one life raft off that ship.
Dr. Leymaster feels strongly that the future of any livestock industry is in science, math and statistics. Long ago, the dairy milk industry proved this by using mathematical methods to choose breeding stock that would increase milk production. So their industry has been making incredible gains in the last thirty years. (Now, we know they’ve also made some mistakes, but their record of improvement is still noteworthy.) We are a bit behind. We have to let go of the old-school stockman mentality of evaluating breeding stock based on what they look like, especially in the show ring; and switch to letting math tell us which of our animals are the best producers and have the the best genetic potential.
This is where the big sell came for the National Sheep Improvement Program (NSIP). The idea behind this is to forget about who had the prettiest sheep at the show, then go a step beyond just evaluating your own local flocks production statistics, and tie your local statistics into the larger body of data across the nation. If I input the production and growth records of all my sheep into the database, and you live on the other coast but own a cousin to some of my sheep, you should be able to benefit from the genetic stats I have provided to help you predict the potential of your sheep too! If we work together, we can create a giant web of statistical information on genetic potential that would benefit everyone’s breeding programs. KHSI has been a big contributor and participant in NSIP, so we score more points there. Of course, I love it, I’m a software engineer! I can’t wait to sign up, I’m shopping for a sheep scale now so I’ll have data to input next spring!
So, that’s the vision: is using technology to create sheep flocks that handily produce 200% or greater lamb crops that survive to market weight, in low input systems, while still rendering high quality lamb. And the Katahdin breed and its parent organization fit squarely into that goal. Are you fired up now too?