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Home  > Question of the Week

Question of the Week

Permalink I want to raise sheep. What is the best breed to buy?

Answer: What do you plan to do? Here you need to think about your farm goals. Do you want to sell market lambs or fi ne wool? Are you interested in conserving rare breeds or in selling meat at the farmers market? For goats, is it meat or milk that is your focus? Some breeds are better suited to a certain purpose than others. Choosing a breed that is well-adapted for the purpose will result in greater profitability and less stress.

Where do you live? Some breeds are well-adapted to a particular climate or region and will not do well elsewhere. For example, Angora goats thrive in the dry areas of the United States but may be very susceptible to parasites if moved to the humid South. Icelandic sheep are a great choice if you want to raise fiber in a cold climate, but heat stress may be a problem for them in the South. Consider the climate that will make the animals comfortable before choosing a breed.

What do other local producers raise? If no one else in your region is raising a particular breed, it may be because that breed does not thrive in your climate. It also might be true that a breed is just not well-known in your area, even though it is perfectly suited. In that case, you might fill a niche and create a demand by educating others about the breed. On the other hand, if no one else in your region is raising a breed, where will you need to go to purchase breeding stock? And who will buy the stock you raise? If you are raising Suffolk sheep and there are lots of 4-H members in your county who want market lambs to show, you have a ready market (assuming you have high-quality, healthy stock). Those same 4-H members may not be interested in Jacob sheep. Someone who wanted to draw people to the farm and also sell to handspinners would be VERY interested in those Jacob sheep, and not the Suffolks! So consider local availability and demand, along with farm goals and your interest in marketing.

What are your criteria for animals on your farm? This is related to the idea of the breed meeting your goals but takes it a little farther: let’s say I have decided my main focus is to raise lambs for meat. I will sell live lambs. And I want them to weigh 100 pounds in 120 to 150 days. A well-fed Suffolk might fit the bill; they are known for fast growth. On the other hand, let’s say I want animals that are parasite-resistant, hardy, and able to breed out of season. I also am interested in conserving a rare breed. Those criteria steer me away from the Suffolk and toward the Gulf Coast Sheep. But now we have to prioritize because they are NOT known for fast growth.

How do you plan to raise and market the off-spring? Again, this is an important factor in your decision. Using the comparison between Suffolk and Gulf Coast sheep, you might consider available feed and your personal values and decide that your farm is best-suited to raising sheep on pasture alone. The hardiness and parasite-resistance of the Gulf Coast breed then may make your decision easy. On the other hand, suppose your customer is a restaurant that wants large lamb chops: the larger breed would be preferred (unless you convince the restaurant of how "cool" it is to conserve a rare breed and encourage genetic diversity). An ethnic customer might be much happier with the smaller Gulf Coast lamb, available nearly year-round due to out-of-season breeding.

The question of which breed to buy is really impossible to answer without having all the background information. Then you must factor in personal preference; there is no sense in raising a breed you do not personally enjoy, no matter how many fi ne attributes it has. (For example, I will not raise Lamancha dairy goats because I do not like their ears.)

For many purposes, cross-bred animals will work better; they bring hybrid vigor and improved hardiness, as well as combining two sets of admirable traits. But the main thing to look for in breeding stock is not breed: it is health, local adaptation, and suitability for the market.

To learn more, consult ATTRA's Sheep and Goats: Frequently Asked Questions, which offers answers to many common questions about raising and marketing sheep and goats. You can find many more useful resources in the Livestock: Sheep and Goats section of the ATTRA website.



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