What Makes a Good Dairy Sheep
The dairy sheep industry is relatively new in the US. There are hotspots in the agricultural community where likeminded people have banded together to breed and promote dairy sheep. Within those communities there are very different ways of looking at best practices in health, production, personality, and conformation. The diary sheep industry is in it’s wild west phase, where few standards exist, and anyone willing to milk a sheep can call it a dairy animal.
What is a good animal? If your goal is to get a pint of milk a day for personal consumption, and have an animal that produces fine fleece, then your definition of a good animal will be very different from a high volume sheep dairy. Your valuation must begin with your purpose for wanting dairy sheep in the first place.
Our definition starts with excellent animal health. We believe healthy animals produce more, consistently over a longer time period. In the world of sheep, many animals have a short life cycle. They are born, fed out, and processed before they are a year old. Some producers believe persistent, chronic illnesses like OPP and CAE don’t have an impact on the bottom line because they generally don’t impact an animal’s production until around 2 years of age. This way of thinking is simply not true. Dairy ewes can live more than a decade as highly productive heard contributors. Loosing a beautiful ewe to a preventable illness at the peak of her performance is heartbreaking. Allowing illness to infiltrate a herd promotes the growth and spread of sheep illness for the entire livestock population.
Producers with a health focus will have a wellness and biosecurity plan. They will be able to share testing records, and will document routine care like immunizations. We recommend having a health check done by a vet before buying livestock from any producer.
If your goal is to collect maximum volumes of delicious sheep milk for cheese making, then you will want animals with maximum output. I have had buyers say to me – specialty dairy animals are expensive, I can get a fin sheep and milk her. I agree, you can. But, you may need to get three fin sheep to match the volume of one specialized dairy ewe. Then, you must calculate the long term costs, and weigh that against your franch goal.
Producers should keep some kind of collection records, and be able to accurately communicate production over a season. Dairy sheep are marathon producers in the sheep world. Good lines sustain high production over a 6-8 month milking season. I have meet some producers who are working toward an ever-bearing line.
Dairy Sheep Conformation
Dairy sheep come in a huge range of sizes and looks. There are no breed enforced standards, and a very small pool of high preforming animals to choose from. Breeders introduce other breeds into their lines to improve one attribute or another. Dairy sheep are dairy sheep because their production rates are significantly higher than a meat or fiber animals. This creates a broad space for improvement and creation of the ideal type.
California Francher’s Breeding Goals
Over time we have distilled our breeding program goal to the following attributes:
- Animals should have long bodies with barrel chests and wide set hind legs to make room for large udders. We favor this body style because this gives the ewe room to grow her lamb litter. Plenty of space for the udder allows for better attachments. Udders can get very big and heavy. Good support is key to lifetime production.
- Teat placement and size are very important. Teats can be pinky sized or more like a small jalepenos. Breeding for the perfect teat size is a balance between comfort during hand milking, mothering abilities, and machine milking. Like many attributes teat size perfection is in the eye of the beholder. We are working toward downward pointing teats about the size of adult thumbs, uniform in size and diameter and a cylindrical shape.
- Personality or disposition are important characteristics that do have a tendency to show throughout a line. We have had supper friendly sheep who were so pushy about their need for attention they made it hard to get tasks accomplished. On the other side we have seen crazed wild ewes who make milking time into a rodeo event. Finding a balanced personalty type makes working together a pleasure.
We have shared our views regarding good dairy sheep. We would love to hear what traits matter to you? How do you see the dairy sheep breed changing for the better?