There are numerous sheep breeds in the world and raising sheep serves many purposes. Some sheep breeds lend themselves to provide the whole range of products, Rambouillet sheep, Dorset sheep and some other sheep breeds are good providers of wool fiber, lambs, milk, and eventually, meat. Spinning, weaving, knitting, crocheting, and felting are ways to use the wool fleece for making garments, cloth and bags. The skins or pelts are used for rugs and bed coverings.
Sheep fiber from breeds such as Merino and Border Leicester have very different wool fiber. The breeds differ in the staple length of the wool, the diameter of the individual strands and the color. With all the breeds of sheep available, knowing your purpose for raising sheep is extremely important. Choosing from all the sheep breeds for your small farm should start with your primary purpose in mind. Are you raising sheep primarily for fiber, meat or breeding stock? Additionally, some breeders enjoy showing their sheep in breed shows, for conformation and type.
Learning as much as possible about sheep emergencies like sheep bloat, hoof diseases, and worming practices is also very important. When raising sheep you want to have a lot of practical knowledge to help get started. Part of the information you will need when raising sheep is how the fleece is used.
Sheep Breeds Primarily Raised for Fleece or Fiber
While any breed of sheep raised for fleece may be genetically better at growing wool than meat, all breeds can be used for meat. Lambs especially may provide added income when you don’t need any more wethers or rams in the flock. The reverse is true also. Most meat sheep breeds will also grow wool. An important factor to understand when choosing breeds for wool production is staple length and micron count. Understanding these terms will help you determine if the wool is going to be useful to you for handcrafts.
The micron count number refers to the diameter of a wool fiber from a sample of wool. The lower the number, the finer the wool. Generally, fibers with low micron counts such as Merino are used for clothing. Wool with higher micron counts such as the fiber from Suffolk sheep will be used for felting, rug fiber and other non-clothing uses. The staple number refers to the length and strength of the fleece. Staple classification will determine how the fleece is used for machine spinning or hand spinning. Short staple length might only be good for felting.
Merino Sheep – A Spanish breed with superior, fine quality wool. The wool has a range for micron count of 17 – 22 microns and a staple length between 2.5 and 4 inches.
Rambouillet– Developed from Spanish Merino and used extensively in the western United States in large sheep flocks. This breed is large boned and tall. The Rambouillet have a long life expectancy. Micron count – 19 to 24. Staple length 2.5 to 4 inches.
Cormo – An Australian breed brought to the United States in 1976. Cormo sheep have a fine wool with a micron count between 17 and 23. The Staple length is 2.5 to 4 inches. White wool.
Finn or Finnish Landrace – Imported from Finland in the 1960’s, the breed is mostly white although some colored sheep can be found in the breed. The staple length is fairly long, measuring 3 to 6 inches. The micron count is 17 to 23.
Border Leicester – A Cheviot and Leicester breed cross from England. The micron count is higher at 30 to 38 but the long staple length of 5 to 10 inches makes this white wool breed a common favorite.
Lincoln, Wensleydale, and Cotswold are three breeds from England that produce a higher micron count wool that has a very long staple length of 6 to 15 inches. Some of these sheep might be sheared twice a year.
Dorset – A breed from southern England with all white fleece. The sheep is a medium size and the fiber has a micron count of 26 to 32. The staple length is 3 to 4.5 inches.
Shetland– This small Brittish breed still comes in many colors and markings like the wild ancestors. There are 11 colors and 30 recognized markings. The wool has a micron count of 26 to 33 and a staple length of 2 to 4.5 inches.
Suffolk – An English cross of Southdown and Norfolk breeds. The Suffolk is the largest breed in the United States. The sheep have white wool with black faces and heads and legs. The fiber is a medium grade of 26 to 33 microns. The staple length is 2.5 to 3.5 inches.
Southdown – Imported to the United States in 1803. This is a small to midsize sheep with a brown face and medium weight wool. Southdown sheep have a long lifespan. The fleece micron count is 24 to 29 and the staple length is 2 to 3 inches.
Tunis– From North Africa and imported in the late 1700’s. Tunis are a medium size red and tan-faced sheep. The micron count is 26 to 31 and the staple length is 3 to 4 inches.
Karakul, Icelandic, and Navajo Churro have very long staple length double coated fleece. The undercoat has a shorter staple length.
Sheep Breeds Often Raised for Meat
When raising sheep for meat, the producer is looking for sheep breeds that have fast growth and a good carcass size. Usually, these are medium to large breeds. And many of the breeds previously mentioned as being raised for fleece can also be raised or utilized as meat animals.
The Dorper breed is in high demand as a meat breed. The breed originated in South Africa and gains weight easily on pasture. Many raise and breed the white line of Dorper sheep because they are a hair sheep and will shed their coat. The breed was developed by crossing Dorset horned sheep with Blackhead Persian sheep.
Hampshire, Suffolk, Black Bellied Barbados, Targhee, Polypay, Cheviot, Dorset, and Jacob are also commonly raised for meat production.
Dairy Sheep Breeds
East Friesian – An excellent milking breed yielding over 1000 lbs per year of milk.
Finnish Landrace and Polypay, along with the East Frisian are known for their high fertility and multiple births in addition to the high milk production.
Being open to the range of products that a sheep breed can supply will increase the farm income when raising sheep for profit. The fleece, pelt, and meat can all provide sales revenue when raising sheep. In addition, milking sheep can provide another food source on a sheep farm.
What sheep breeds do you raise and why? Let us know in the comments below.