Will the Sheep of the Future Be SINGLE-Purpose Sheep?

By Michael Piel, Abbot Village, Maine

Maine’s Michael Piel conducts a successful 2,000-head commercial lamb producing and feeding operation, one of the largest in his area. For several years he has been working on a breeding principle that he feels holds the key to a real future for sheep In America. By his own admission, Mr. Piel’s views are unorthodox, and highly controversial. Some, he says, may even think his ideas “far out ” But he documents a case for strict/y single purpose sheep (wool-less, if you please) that is backed by his own experiments, livestock history, and the incontrovertible logic of animal genetics. Thus, his thinking deserves the consideration of thoughtful sheepmen, whether they agree with him or not. Breeders of established dual-purpose breeds will do well to remind themselves of Voltaire’s famous message to Helvetius: “I disapprove wholly of what you say, and will defend to the death your right to say It. ”

One of the interesting facets in the history of animal breeding has been the tendency toward the development of “type,” sometimes for specialized and sometimes for diversified purposes.

During the Middle Ages, for example, cattle were often bred for their value as draft animals as well as for their ability to produce milk and meat. Breeding animals tended to be selected for their average ability in all three categories. An outstandingly good milk producer might not be kept for breeding if she proved to be too delicate for hard work. In later years horses came to replace cattle as work animals. Since cattle were now relieved of the need to work, it became possible to base selection strictly upon the capacity to provide milk and meat. This led eventually to the development of the “dual-purpose” cow.

One of the rules of animal breeding is that the fewer the traits to be selected for, the faster will be the progress in the improvement of each trait. Following this rule, the new “dual-purpose” breeds soon excelled the old “multi-purpose” cattle in the role of milk and meat producers.

Still later, huge ranges in the Americas, Australia and elsewhere became available to the raising of cattle. At the same time large cities were springing up all over the world. Beef could be shipped or driven to the cities over great distances, but milk had to be supplied from nearby areas. Farmers in the vicinity of these population centers found that their greatest profit was to be found in the maximum production of milk. Ranchers in Texas and Australia knew that milk would spoil long before they could get it to market. In any case, most of their range was too arid for efficient milk production.

Taking advantage of the rule that specialization in production means faster progress in improvement, the dairy industry selected its breeding stock exclusively on the basis of performance in milk production, without regard to meat qualities. Beef growers paid no attention to milking capacity, beyond the requirements of rearing calves. Selection was based upon conformation and rate-of-gains for the maximum efficiency in the production of beef. Most everyone is familiar with the great difference in “type” between such specialized breeds as the Angus and Hereford on the one hand and the Holstein and Guernsey on the other. In many parts of the world the “dual-purpose” cow has indeed become a relic of the past. Even the famous “Shorthorn” breed has diverged into two separate lines-one of the beef type and the other of the dairy type. Only in the more backward parts of the world, where transportation and marketing facilities are relatively undeveloped, does the “dual purpose” cow still play an important role.

Sheep, too, have had a history of diversification and specialization. They have been raised for meat, milk, wool and even for fur and fat.

In most parts of the world this diversification has been restricted to the point that most types of sheep are bred for the production of meat and wool only. They are now a truly “dual-purpose” animal.

Nevertheless, even in the case of sheep, the trend of modern times has been towards increased specialization.

On the remote ranges of America and Australia, wool is more easily grown and marketed than is lamb meat, so breeds of sheep are raised in which the production of wool is emphasized. In areas where rainfall is more abundant and closer to the great population centers the greatest-profit is to be found in the marketing of lambs. Breeds of sheep are, therefore, generally selected which excel in lamb production.

Fortunately there are many breeds of sheep. Some of them excel at wool production, some excel at raising lambs and some are fairly good at both, according to diverse conditions. The Merino sheep, for example, is a champion producer of fine wool and will thrive on the most barren and arid range. As a producer of lambs, however, the Merino leaves much to be desired. The Suffolk, on the other hand, has a comparatively light fleece, but is a prolific producer of quality lambs whose growth rate is unexcelled wherever feed is abundant. In between these two extremes are all manner of types in which are emphasized to a greater or less degree, one or the other traits of meat and wool production.

In spite of this tendency toward specialization, it is interesting to note that every one of these breeds, from Merino to Suffolk, remains a true “dual purpose” sheep. In each case selection is based upon considerations of wool growing as well as upon considerations of traits important to the production of meat. A Suffolk ewe that happens to have black spots or hair in her wool is ordinarily culled from the flock, regardless of her conformation and lamb-rearing ability.

In the case of the Suffolk sheep (as in the case of all the other standard breeds) inherited improvement depends largely upon selection for the following traits:
1. MILKING CAPACITY-weaning weights are largely a reflection of the milking capacity of the ewe;
2. RATE OF GAIN-the inherited ability of the lamb to make rapid gains;
3. HARDINESS-the ability to survive and thrive;
5. PROLIFICACY-in spite of the fact that the percentage of heritability for prolificacy in sheep is low, no trait is of greater economic importance than inherited ability to raise twin lambs and to lamb frequently.
6. Feed conversion efficiency;

Since progress in animal selection is a function of the number of traits to be selected for, how much faster would progress be made if numbers 7 and 8, above, were to be eliminated as a basis for selections?

A flock of 100 average Suffolk ewes can be expected to produce about $500.00 worth of wool, at current prices. The flock can also be expected to provide for market 130 lambs, each of which has gained an average of 0.58 pounds per day for 140 days, with an average birth weight of ten pounds. The average market weight (at the end of 140 days) would then be 91.2 pounds. At 25ยข per pound this would be $2,964.00 total income for lamb as against $500.00 for wool.

Now, if we can speed up the inherited progress in the improvement of lamb production by increasing the rate of gain from 0.58 to 0.65 pounds per day, we would have an increase of total income of $742.50. “Rate-of-gain” has a percentage of heritability of about 70 percent, which is, in itself, very encouraging for the possibility of making improvement in this respect by selection.

If we can also increase the inherited potential capability of the ewes from producing 130 lambs to 150 lambs we would have a further increase in total income of $456.00. Improvement in both rate-of-gain and prolificacy would result in a total of $1,198.50 extra income from the 100 ewes. Even if no wool were being produced, we would still be $698.50 to the good.

However, improvement in inherited prolificacy from 130 percent to 150 percent by selection alone would be a very slow process, because the percentage of heritability for multiple birth is a low 15 percent.

Fortunately, there already exist breeds such as the Finnish Landrace and the African Hair sheep which have an hereditary capacity for multiple birth far in excess of 150 percent.

An out-cross of one of these prolific breeds onto our standard mutton breeds could supply the genes necessary to the possibility of a 150 percent (or better) lamb crop much more rapidly than it could be accomplished by selection alone.

In the case of the African sheep, genes would also be introduced for hair coat, out-of-season lambing and extreme hardiness.

In making the necessary improvements in both prolificacy and rate-of-gain, a wool-less breed would have a distinct advantage over standard breeds because of the elimination of WOOL as one of the major factors for selection. A wool-less breed would have the additional advantage that the nitrogen-rich feed ordinarily required for the growth of wool would, In this case, become available for the nutrition of meat and bone. FEED REQUIREMENTS FOR WOOL GROWTH HAVE BEEN VARIOUSLY ESTIMATED TO BE AS HIGH AS 20% OF THE TOTAL

The African sheep is a primitive, domestic animal with a smooth coat of stiff guard-hairs overlying an under coating of fine wool which sheds out at the onset of warm weather. Unfortunately, the conformation of the African is so poor that genes for good conformation would have to be supplied through out crossing. Favorable traits of the African are its extreme prolificacy, its willingness to breed at any season, its hardiness, tameness and excellent milking capacity.

An out-cross of the African sheep with a mutton breed such as the Suffolk would bring genes for POOR CONFORMATION, HAIR COAT, and HIGH PROLIFICACY together with genes for EXCELLENT CONFORMATION, MODERATE FLEECE and FAIR PROLIFICACY. Selection from this out-cross over an extended period of time, for hair coat, good conformation and high prolificacy should finally combine the genes for African Hair Coat, African Prolificacy and Suffolk Conformation into a new breed of sheep ideally suited to make rapid progress in lamb production. From the moment that the African coat has been permanently established in this new breed, improvement in mutton production will be free to progress at a faster pace than ever before, because the fleece need no longer be considered as a legitimate basis for selection.

Competition from synthetic fiber has been increasing steadily over the past twenty years and can be expected to continue to do so in the future. Heavy government subsidies may serve as a crutch to keep the wolf from the door for a long time to come, no doubt, but in the long run it is evident that the downward trend in the demand for real wool cannot be reversed. This is a reality which the woolgrower cannot cause to disappear by hiding his head In the sand like the ostrich. Neither can he shout it out of existence by loud condemnations of the synthetic fiber industry. If the woolgrower is discouraged with this dismal prospect for the future of his product he might decide to switch from sheep to cattle. Unfortunately, there are vast areas in the world which are not suited to the rearing of cattle These areas may be profitably utilized only by sheep. Instead of switching to cattle, the woolgrower may be forced to consider the possibility of making the switch from wool to lamb. Besides, the raising of lambs COULD be a lot more profitable!

Here, on this farm in Central Maine (which is probably the largest sheep farm in Maine, if not in all of New England), we keep around 1,000 commercial ewes for the production of wool and lambs. We usually buy an additional 2 or 3 thousand feeder lambs each year to be fed out for market. It has long been our “well-advised” suspicion that the wool produced by these sheep and lambs has been grown at an actual financial loss to us. On the other hand, our market for lamb meat is close at hand and eager for our product. Prices remain excellent AS LONG AS THE BUYER CAN BE ASSURED OF A FAIRLY STEADY AND UNIFORM SUPPLY.

About ten years ago we, therefore, decided to try to develop a wool-less breed of sheep for the single purpose of lamb production.

Since the African Hair sheep appeared to be the most likely candidate as an out-cross on our standard mutton breeds, we arranged to import three of these animals from a United States Agricultural Experiment Station in-the U.S. Virgin Islands. They eventually arrived by air-cargo at Idlewild airport, in New York: two ewe lambs and one ram lamb-as delicate and fine-boned as fawns. Their conformation was a world away from what I had in mind for the mutton breed of the future! Nevertheless, within the year we obtained a fairly respectable number of hybrid lambs by crossing these sheep with purebred individuals of several dfflerent mutton breeds.

The hybrid offspring of this cross were largely intermediate in type, having a fairly heavy fleece of mixed hair and wool,and intermediate conformation. Rate-of-gain was only moderately good.

Over the next few years we bred the hybrids to each other in all conceivable combinations. Most of the offspring proved to be intermediate in type, like the F1, generation. Occasionally, however, we would get an individual with a strong tendency toward the African coat, combined with improved conformation. The high prolificacy of the African sheep seemed to be inherited by all the subsequent generations and almost all of the ewes producing twins (or more), even at less than one year of age. None of these sheep would have won the blue ribbon at the state fair, nor could they be praised for their ability to grow and finish for the market. Nevertheless, all the surplus progeny was sent to market (at a grade of U.S. Choice) along with the regular lambs without causing comment on the part of the buyer.

At the present time we have about two hundred and fifty ewes which contain more or less African blood. Of these there are perhaps four individuals which begin to approach the goal of woollessness and good conformation. Eventually, we hope, these four animals (along with a few more like them) will form the nucleus of a new family of sheep.

One thing we soon discovered, was that if a pure African is bred to an individual of one of the standard breeds, there is a much better chance of getting an African-like coat if the non-African parent happens to have an unusually scanty fleece. It would therefore be extremely valuable to be able to locate individuals of standard mutton breeds who happen to have excellent conformation combined with a perhaps “freakish” lack of fleece.

The task of trying to develop such a revolutionary type of sheep is NOT to be undertaken lightly. Hundreds ot animals must be bred in order to obtain even a little improvement in just one individual.

Fortunately, there is now, in this country, at least one agricultural college experimenting with the same idea, and I understand that work is also being done on it in some foreign countries.

It should be noted that, if woolless sheep EVER prove to be practical, there will be a place for not one, but several different types of woolless sheep. Differences in environment and market demand will dictate the need for these various types.

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