Sustainable pasture lamb production

2004 Annual Report for LNE03-193

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2003: $147,495.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2005
Matching Federal Funds: $29,913.00
Region: Northeast
State: Maryland
Project Leader:
Niki Whitley
UMES - Maryland Cooperative Extension

Sustainable pasture lamb production


The overall objective of the proposed research is to develop a sustainable approach to sheep production that is beneficial to the farmers in terms of profitability and promoting a satisfying lifestyle, while also enhancing the environment and protecting community values. The specific objectives are therefore: 1) to compare the lambing survival of three sheep breed crosses; Texel, Dorper and Suffolk-sired Katahdin crossbred lambs, 2) to compare the growth performance of these breed crosses on a pasture production system, 3) and to compare the carcass characteristics of these crossbred market animals in order to develop an alternative but competitive livestock enterprise in the Northeast and nationwide. Body weights at weaning as well as pre- and post-weaning will be collected and average daily gain recorded. Live animal ultrasound measurements for loin/rib eye area and backfat will be conducted at weaning and post-weaning. Fecal egg counting will be conducted to determine parasite resistance among the breeds. A subset of lambs will be slaughtered at finishing and carcass and meat quality traits will be measured. University and on-farm studies will be conducted. A product of this project will be the implementation of a crossbreeding system with low input that allows small producers to take advantage of niche markets that prefer smaller animals and/or pasture-raised lambs. Other products will include newsletter articles, an Extension fact sheet, and 2 new farms involved in pasture lamb production.

Objectives/Performance Targets

Of the 40 sheep producers engaged in this SARE project, 10 will use a Texel or Dorper ram with their herd to increase profitability and lifestyle satisfaction by producing an improved, crossbred, pasture-raised market lamb.

The desired change is an increase in the number of sheep producers, over a three year period, producing pasture-raised crossbred market lambs that grow fast, have increased internal parasite tolerance, and have desirable carcass qualities compared to traditional crossbred lambs when raised in a low-input, sustainable production system. This performance target will have been reached when at least 10 producers purchase, lease, or borrow a Texel, Dorper or Suffolk ram into their flock (preferably of Katahdin ewes) for sustainable pasture-lamb production. We will know this through workshop surveys and follow-up farm visits.


Milestones for this project were: 1) 50 interested sheep producers will respond to flyers to gain understanding about improving their market lambs and pasture management, 2) 35 producers will attend first workshop, 3) 20 producers will attend second or third workshop, 4) 15 producers will start to utilize better pasture management and will practice a new skill (fecals to determine parasite loads) on their own farms, and 5) 10 producers will purchase, borrow or lease a Texel or Dorper ram to use in their herd to increase profitability and lifestyle satisfaction by producing an improved, crossbred, pasture-raised market lamb.

So far, milestones have been met as follows: approximately 40 producers responded to flyers and 20 attended at least one workshop, 8 attended a second workshop. The parasite workshops were more popular than any others, so they will be the focus this year. To date, 3 producers have practiced a new skill (fecal egg counting or eye color to determine need to deworm – eye color training was added this year) and 4 have already have purchased/borrowed or have decided to purchase/borrow a Texel or Dorper ram to use in their flock (either using their own money or letting the project provide one for them).

Changes include: Increased number of ewes available, use of bonding pens, addition of a small Katahdin sired group (producer interest), purchase of rams for producers due to biosecurity issues and an earlier start on producer studies because of intense interest. For the 2004 study, no animals were sold at weaning due to producer and marketing personnel interest in repeating the auction of pasture-finished animals due to preliminary study results. A feedlot section was also added with Dorper, Suffolk or Texel-sired lambs because 2-3 producers were interested in the comparison for ideas to keep their farms profitable to sustain their business. To try to account for some ram variation, different rams of each breed were used during at least one of the three studies (prelim, year 1, year 2), though it is realized that year of the study will also impact the data. To expand outreach efforts, breeding for the second study was divided into a UMES study and an on-farm study with the assistance of a local farmer/producer. Seventy ewes (20/terminal sire breed, 10 for Katahdin sire) were bred at UMES, while the producer is managing 70 UMES ewes on his farm in a similar breeding scheme. The producer will collect at least: birth weights and number born and selling weights and number available for sale (he markets off-farm) for each breed type to determine the profitability of the breed crosses/purebreds in farmer-run, direct-marketing situation. In addition, further expansion of the producer impact of the studies will occur as collaborator Susan Schoenian conducts the 2005 pasture study with up to 90 UMES weaned lambs at the University of Maryland’s Experiment Station in Keedysville, MD (Western Maryland Research and Education Center) while the remaining lambs are pasture or feedlot finished at UMES. Because in the previous 2 studies, symptoms of parasitism seemed to be more important for determining when to deworm than fecal egg counts, fecal egg counting will probably be focused on less in the UMES workshops, and observations (including FAMACHA eye color chart use) will be stressed. Also, the last available effective anthelminitic for the UMES farm seems to have lost effectiveness, so doses have to be doubled, and an alternative to anthelminitics will soon have to be found.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

In a preliminary study in which only 8, 12, and 14 ewes had lambs from Suffolk, Dorper, and Texel rams, respectively, Suffolk sired Katahdin lambs had a better growth performance than the other 2 groups of crossbred lambs. However, the Texel-sired Katahdin lambs brought the highest price per pound of liveweight at auction when compared to the Suffolk and Dorper-sired Katahdin lambs (though the Suffolk brought the highest price per lamb because of heavier body weights). Parasite data was not different among breed types, though overall counts were low at most of the sampling points. Sensory data and carcass quality indicated little differences among the 3 breed crosses. Though Suffolk had longer carcasses, the weight of primal cuts was not different among breeds. This data was reported in several arenas and through workshops, seminars and producer tours of the project, 2 local Katahdin producers that sell off-farm to ethnic buyers were very interested in the “look” of the Texel and wanted to use one on their farm, even though the data supported that Suffolk grew faster and brought more per lamb at the auction. In 2003, as part of the Northeast SARE research and education project, 112 Katahdin ewes were split into three groups and bred to a Suffolk (n=35), Dorper (n=37), or a Texel ram (n=40) in 2003. An additional group of ewes (n = 21) were also bred to a purebred Katahdin ram as a “control” as requested by a couple of producers at a meeting about the study. At producer request, at weaning, 15 lambs/terminal sire were raised in a feedlot for breed and nutritional regime comparisons. The data from 2004 is not yet completely analyzed, but it seems that Suffolk sired lambs grew faster both on pasture and in the feedlot. Fecal egg counts did not seem to differ (again were low), although lamb losses may be influenced by sire breed (only lost Suffolk and Texel crosses to parasitism). Symptoms of parasitism seemed to be more important for determining when to deworm than fecal egg counts and our anthelminitic seems to have lost some effectiveness. In addition, on average, grain fed lambs were finished within 40 days after weaning while pasture raised lambs were not finished until around 120 days after weaning.
In 2003, one adult and one 4-H livestock producer asked to use the UMES Texel ram to breed their Katahdin ewes. Both were very satisfied with the resulting offspring, and in spite of Suffolk growth differences for the UMES study, the adult producer bought a Texel ram to use again in 2004 because he felt his ethnic buyers would not want the black-face or colored lambs that result from using a Suffolk ram with Katahdin ewes. The 4-Her moved out of state before this breeding season, but indicated that though she liked the look of the Texel offspring, she did not like shearing the wool crosses (for show) and was more interested in Dorper sires in the future for that reason. One local small producers used a Texel ram with Montedale ewes and one sheep producer with almost 200 ewes is using White Dorper, Suffolk and Texel rams with Katahdin ewes and comparing with his own Katahdin-sired lambs as part of a collaborative on-farm/University study.


Susan Schoenian

Area Agent
MD Cooperative Extension
Eric Berg

Assoc. Professor
University of Missouri, Columbia
Dahlia Jackson

Extension Specialist (former UMES Grad Asst)
Delaware State University
Department of Agriculture
1200 DuPont Highway
Dover, DE 19901
Office Phone: 4108450958
Willard Lemaster

MD Cooperative Extension