Reviewed August 2007
Sheep have been a part of Saskatchewan's agriculture for more than 150 years, with early settlers bringing breeding stock to harvest the province's vast rangelands.
There are more than 300 breeds of sheep. Many are similar in appearance but may differ in adaptation and use. Breeds can be classified according to endpoint in three categories: ewe breeds, dual purpose breeds, and terminal (meat) sire breeds.
Meat breeds are noted for their deep, wide and symmetrical carcasses, and wool breeds are classified by length or type of wool (fine wool, medium wool, long wool). Other classifications include fur type breeds, and hair breeds which are selected for non-wool producing capabilities.
Rideau Arcott and Outaouais Arcott
New breeds to emerge in the industry include the Texel, Charollais, and East Friesian. Smaller framed and muscular, both the Texel and Charollais are designed for lean, high cutability carcasses, making them excellent terminal sire crosses. East Friesian sheep are noted for their high milk producing abilities and are used as dairy sheep for the production of fine cheeses.
Building a Quality Flock
Livestock breeding takes time, discipline and market sense. There are no shortcuts to building a functional flock that has saleability.
Producers need to decide early which traits they will focus on. To prioritize traits, one has to read or assess what is important to the commercial lamb sector.
Talk to commercial producers who have been in the business more than five years. Talk to feeders who have experience with several breed crosses. Get out and visit producers and remember they are usually willing to share what they have learned. Listen to their experiences.
One rule to live by: match your ewes to your environment and the offspring to market demand. Remember that behind every sheep flock there is a unique set of resources. What is your environment? Where can you best compete?
When starting out in sheep, it is best to do most of your learning with a small flock. That way, mistakes are less costly. You need to be reasonably comfortable with all management aspects (feeding, herd health, breeding, lambing, weaning, marketing) before you expand. It is highly recommended to begin in the commercial crossbred sector, as purebred producers need to be able to meet the needs of this sector to survive. It can take years to build a purebred flock to a point where you can provide consistent genetics to the commercial sector.
Planning Makes for Success
Consider your breeding plan. Decide if you will use a two-way cross with the ewes and match them with an appropriate terminal breed. If you plan on raising your own replacement ewes, consider using a maternal breed on some of your best females. Plan how you will select those to turn back into your herd.
Ask yourself some questions: when using a terminal sire breed, would you focus on feedlot gain, breeding ability and carcass traits? Is it a maternal cross, which has to live in tough range conditions and winter with low-cost feed, but yet re-breed and wean a profitable lamb(s)? The answers to these kinds of questions will create a job description for your ewes and rams and help you decide which breed crosses suit your farming operation.
Can you deal with people?
Remember the purebred sector is very much a people business. You need to be comfortable with selling yourself and your program. The average lifespan of a purebred program breeder is about five years, which means there are lots of aspects which go unidentified and contribute to an exit from seedstock production.
You also have to be prepared to deal with a range of personalities and requirements in your customers, including the "tire kickers" which can frustrate you. Keep in mind you need to be able to service your customers - they are your business.
Do you know your competition?
The purebred industry is a competitive business. You need to be able to market in the long-term, and sell your product to meet your expenses in the short-term.
It takes time and patience to build a credible reputation, then transform that credibility into a comfortable living.
Do you know what other purebred breeders offer, other breeds and their purpose, and where you fit in the industry? No breed can be everything to everybody. In fact, you can't be anything to everyone.
It's a lot easier buying purestock than selling them later on.
Customer service is key
Experts say there are seven things your customers want to tell you:
Your integrity is important. Don't forget about your sheep once you sell them. Did they work for your customers?
Other key items include the existence of guarantees, delivery, number of repeat customers, and how much service you provide after the sale.
Will you enjoy the challenge of merchandising a differentiated product?
Protection of the flock by guard dogs can provide effective predator management, which is important to the success of a sheep enterprise.
Market plan important
Have your market plan clearly in mind before you start. How will you sell your product? (auction mart, Board-organized, private treaty, farmgate carcasses). How will you arrive at a price? Do you know your costs and margins?
How will you build a quality-control plan? The market places a priority on uniform sets of well-matched livestock because it's an advantage in the feedlot. How will you build-in consistency? How will you measure success each year?
Will you keep the right kinds of records to track success and the genetics in your flock? Production and financial records can play an important role.
Do you have the right combination of product, price, promotion, and production?
Do you know how to do an appropriate business plan when the time comes to expand? Can you communicate this to your banker? What are you time, labour, hired help, and financial constraints and can you address them?
Keep yourself tuned to the industry
Read. Read. Read. Market reports, producer success stories, industry newsletters, extension updates, seminar results, and sheep magazines are all sources of applicable information. Remember you may have to adapt them to your situation.
The ability to discern fact from fiction is a key skill that will help you survive. Address problems head-on.
The following table attempts to classify the most common breeds of sheep, with ranges of expected performance levels for several traits. Optimum environmental conditions are assumed for the performance of each breed.
Saskatchewan producers aim for high quality lamb carcasses with an acceptable level of finish.