Superior vs Optimal
There is the saying “Everything is Bigger in Texas.” Texans are proud to have the largest populations of sheep and goats of any state in the union. While the size of our sheep have been getting larger and larger over time, by no stretch of the imagination do we raise the biggest sheep in the US. Sheep in the Midwest and Intermountain West tend to be much bigger.
The mild weather and diverse native rangelands of Texas makes this a great place to raise sheep and goats. However, these range conditions tend to better support smaller-framed animals, but this puts us at odds with our general tendency to want bigger and better things. I too am drawn towards selecting replacement rams and ewe lambs that standout in the crowd. But this strategy can have unintended consequences.
For years, we have used the term, “superior”, to define animals that we believe to be the best. But as time progresses, I find the term, “optimal”, to better represent what ranchers see the most value in. “Superior” makes the assumption that merit is defined by one universal set of rules; whereas, “optimal” suggests a balance of many traits that have been carefully curated for a particular environment or management style.
Texas sheep and goat operations are all unique. They have different resources, strive to produce varying products, and construct different goals to measure success. These differences outline the production traits that are optimal for each operation.
The performance of sheep and goats are a combination of genetic potential and management. If an animal has the genetic potential to grow faster, grow more muscle, raise more offspring, or better fight off parasites, it still requires proper management to reach its potential. There are no free lunches!
Moreover, many of these genetic attributes work against each other, especially when feed resources are limited. For instance, an animal that grows faster and has a larger mature size may be less likely to raise multiple offspring or fight off internal parasites. Can sheep and goats be genetically selected to do “all of the above”? Maybe, but it takes a strategic approach fitted with the appropriate management.
If you are a long-time reader, you know that I am a strong proponent of estimated breeding values (EBVs). These values provide a reliable prediction of many of the economically important traits to find the “optimal” genetics for each operation. EBVs are a powerful tool to ensure data-driven selection and enable you as a producer to identify and select for your “optimal” traits. Feel free to contact us to find out how to source animals with EBVs tailored to your operation.
An often-overlooked strategy to optimize sheep and goat productivity is crossbreeding. A common example of a successful crossbreeding strategy is to maintain a ewe flock of maternal, moderate framed females who are well adapted to the environment and range conditions, and then breeding these ewes to a ram that supplies the growth and muscle that we often get paid for at the sale. Not to mention, when the ewes and rams are different breeds, the resulting hybrid vigor is particularly advantageous regarding lamb survival and size. Using crossbreeding to outcompete purebred stock is as close to a “free lunch” as can be found in livestock production. Historically, the use of black-face rams, typically Suffolk or Hampshire, on finewool ewes is the best example of this in Texas. The cross-bred, smut or speckle faced, lambs would generally wean 10 to 15 lbs heavier and all lambs were sold. Straight finewool rams were used on roughly half the ewes to generate replacement females.
Today, this practice is still somewhat common in finewool sheep but the use of terminal sires is not a common practice in the hair sheep industry. It is a viable strategy and needs to be considered more often.
Continuously breeding for animals that are always a little bit superior for a particular trait, without regard to the negative impacts this may be having in other areas has been an epidemic in livestock breeding since the beginning of time.
In summary, sheep flock or goat herd productivity can be optimized by selection of animals that have the desired traits fit for the environment they are raised in. EBVs are a great tool to source the right genetics; however, it is still best to source genetics produced in a similar production system. Even greater levels of productivity can be realized if ranchers’ source maternal-oriented sires to raise replacements and terminal-oriented sires to produce offspring destined for harvest. Always remember, at the end of the day, optimal animals are those that work best for you and, your profit depends on your ability to identify your own “optimal” traits.
To provide feedback on this article or request topics for future articles, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 325-657-7324. For general questions about sheep and goats, contact your local Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service county office. If they can’t answer your question, they have access to someone who can.