Sustainable pasture lamb production

2005 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

Review: 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.  Susan Schoenian held more through her IPM grant but will not be able to do so next summer, so we will be doing more next summer.  As long as there are producers interested, we will continue the parasite workshops through Maryland Cooperative Extension (MCE).  To date, 6 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 5 have already have purchased/borrowed or have decided to purchase/borrow a Texel, Dorper or Suffolk ram to use in their flock (either using their own money or letting the project provide one for them).  

Changes in Plan of Work
Changes include: Increased number of ewes available for UMES research, 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.  Nutrient analysis was conducted (again, due to producer questions/interest).  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 (Ralph Tarr).  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 Texel ram at the producer’s farm died before breeding, so he collected collected market price for Suffolk cross lambs (compared to that from Katahdin and Dorpers sold in previous years).  Further expansion of the producer impact of the studies occurred when collaborator Susan Schoenian conducted the 2005 pasture study with 84 UMES weaned lambs of the different breed types at the University of Maryland’s Experiment Station in Keedysville, MD (Western Maryland Research and Education Center). Remaining lambs (approximately 20/breed type) were pasture 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 was focused on less in the UMES workshops and research, and observations (including FAMACHA eye color chart use) was stressed; packed cell volume was used to determine when to deworm for the 2005 UMES studies.  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.

Because several on-farm studies started early and rams were returned to UMES and available for use, breeding is being conducted in 2005 (now) for a UMES study in 2005, this time with 3 sires per breed as suggested by USDA-ARS geneticist Mike Brown and designed in consultation with him. Mike Brown suggested continuing the project the next year as well and if so, this would be conducted with UMES funds, showing true continuation of and interest in the project.

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 was similar to 2003 for growth data but Katahdins were the lightest.  Suffolk sired lambs grew faster both on pasture to weaning (then average daily gain was similar to finishing for all breed types).  Suffolks grew fastest in the feedlot.  Fecal egg counts were higher for Texel and/or Suffolk than hair sheep breeds at different time points measured, but the total FEC were so low that the differences were not deemed “biologically” important. 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.  Retail weights for meat from pasture lambs was not influenced by breed.  Grain fed lambs sold at auction brought more that pasture raised lambs, but pasture raised lambs had better meat yield (retail cuts) with better muscling and less fat (probably due to age – grain fed lambs were finished within 40 days after weaning while pasture raised lambs were not finished until 160 days after weaning.  Meat from Dorper and Katahdin lambs had “healthier” attributes (higher CLA, better ratios of saturated to unsaturated fatty acids) than meat from the breed types with wool.

In 2003, one adult (Erroll Mattox) and one 4-H livestock producer (Marleigh Fritz) 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 got 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 and because he liked the Texel lambs.  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 producer used a Texel ram with Montedale ewes and one sheep producer with almost 200 ewes (Ralph Tarr) used 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 but only got data from Suffolk compared to past years’ Dorpers and Katahdins.   He determined that Suffolk crosses grew very fast and was amazed at the difference between them and the hair sheep, however, he decided that he wants to raise breeding stock that he does not have to shear or dock tails for and is thus only interested in hair sheep.  After breeding Dorpers and Dorper crosses along with Katahdins, he also said he likes Katahdins better because he feels they are lower input than Dorpers.  A producer using a high percentage Dorper ram purchased via the project (Jeff Hevner) raises crossbred animals and has used quite a bit of Suffolk in his flock.  His father is a “diehard” Suffolk breeder and reportedly liked the Dorper lambs which really means a lot.  Jeff has asked to get another Dorper ram through the project for late 2005 breeding, so he is also impressed with the lambs.  

A Texel breeder (Bev Pearsall) sent me information from a chat room with 2 producers indicating that they like a Texel ram to add muscle to crossbreds and that Dorpers make really nice hothouse and smaller “ethnic” market lambs.  David Greene, sheep producer and former MCE employee) reported that he had already tried Suffolk and Texel on his Katahdin, Polypay and Southdown ewes but wanted to see what Dorpers would do in the hotter weather in the feedlot (they were trying them on their own, not part of the project).  He felt the Texels did not add enough size, but did not report anything negative about the Suffolk, only that increasing muscle was always his goal as a meat producer.  A Virginia producer, Granville Hogg, bought Dorper crossbred ewes from UMES before the project started and wanted to use a Dorper ram on his Katahdins because he liked the ewes he had gotten.
Brian Schiner, a producer with crossbred ewes (some are hair sheep) used Texel and Dorper crossbred ram lambs provided by the study and was more satisfied with them than the Texel he had used the year before.  Several producers inquired about Dorpers but did not want to crossbreed  (Barry Glassman), needed a ram before we had one available (Jeff White), or were looking for ewes (many people).  

A flock of 9 Dorper x Katahdin and 6 purebred Katahdin adult ewes were purchased at a reduced price from University of Maryland College Park.  They also requested a Dorper ram, Katahdin ram and Suffolk ram for their own crossbreeding (flock used primarily for teaching purposes).  This further expands the outreach for this project.  In addition, the ewe lambs from the Keedysville (WMREC) project were auctioned off via sealed bid because hair sheep lambs are getting harder and harder to find and many producers were looking for some.  This was a success though the wool crosses only sold for a little better than “market/slaughter” prices – several people were able to get hair sheep that could not find any available at prices they could afford.

Project information has been reported in several issues of the Maryland Sheep and Goat newsletter as well as in presentations at professional societies and in producer meetings.  There is a great interested in more meat quality data as more people begin to direct-market meat as value-added products.


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