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How the West was Won (with Smaller, Tougher Sheep)

02 November 2016

In parts of the western United States, rangeland stocking rates are as low as one sheep to every 10 acres. Sheep need to be tough to survive in this harsh, unforgiving country where the weather, predators and sparse forage mean only the most sturdy survive, writes John Wilkes.

Good legs and overall fitness for the walk to find food and water is vital. According to Lisa Keeler and Erasmo Garcia, who run their herd of Suffolks under the name Surprise Company in mountainous Wyoming: “We’re really good to our sheep, but they have to be run hard. It’s the old cowboy way: you have to be tough if you live at our house. We don’t have the time or the finances to baby anything.”

Based in Kaycee, Wyoming, Surprise Company began its operation in 2011 and has bucked the ‘bigger is better’ trend. Its 500-head flock produces 100 yearling rams and 70 ‘buck’ lambs for sale annually by promoting their sheep as ‘Hardy, Heavy Boned Suffolk Rams’.

These sheep exhibit a more characteristically British body type than the larger Suffolks typically found in the US. Surprise Company sheep are fast growing, and thicker set with plenty of bone to carry a heavier quantity of lean meat relative to size.

More traditional types of US Suffolk ewes

In recent years US breeders have tended towards breeding larger sheep to confront the region’s challenges. However, the idea that ‘bigger is better’ may be counterproductive. It doesn’t necessarily enhance the sheep’s chances of survival – and cross-breeding for larger sheep might also have a negative impact on genetics for prime lambs from sizeable rangeland breeds like the Rambouillet, Merino and Columbia when bred to large terminal sires.

Lambs from these breeds that are cross-bred to augment body size need to finish at ever heavier weights, and this risks that they become over-fat. The US sheep industry is concerned about finish and the excessive carcass sizes produced by the need to feed.

The quest for a moderately sized terminal sire – and one that’s tough enough to service ewes that run prairies and mountains season after season – inspired lamb producer JW Nuckolls of Hulett, Wyoming to intervene.

Nuckolls, which won the American Sheep Industry Association’s Distinguished Producer Award in 2016, moved from traditional US Suffolk rams to a smaller Suffolk-type that had demonstrated enough stamina and longevity to meet the environmental challenges of the western United States. The goal was a fast-growing, quality 60kg lw lamb at slaughter. Nuckolls achieved this using a mature ram weighing 125kg – substantially lighter than traditional US Suffolk sires, which tip the scale at 160kg.

Surprise Company were breeding the Suffolk-type ram JW Nuckolls needed. As owners Lisa Keeler and Erasmo Garcia explain: “Our four-month-old ram lambs standing alongside traditional Suffolk lambs of similar height and age would weigh at least 6kg more.” Adds Keeler: “Our rams have the ability to pass on gains of 340g per day at grass. This translates to over 450g per day when grains are fed.”

Some of the 500 head Surprise Co. flock

Fast, efficient growth is reflected in their rams’ offspring. In 2011 founding stud rams were selected with a 5:1 feed-to-gain ratio setting the current standard.

“We accept nothing less than 14 square centimetres of loin eye with zero fat at 10 months of age,” says Keeler. This degree of consistency spurs competition among ranchers to purchase Surprise Company rams – the majority is sold off farm. A per centage of April-born ram lambs are typically sold in July straight from their dams; remaining sheep sell in September at the Wyoming State Ram Sale. The average price in 2016 was £600.

Prices for rams are competitive because of their longevity tendered. Nuckolls paid Surprise Company an average of £1,680 to select from their top-end yearling rams after ultrasound measurements were taken for loin-chop depth.

Over the past four years, most of the rams Keeler and Garcia bred are still working. Some flock ewes are still fertile even at 12 years of age and produce viable lambs. Older ewes lamb indoors whereas the main flock copes outside unaided.

Young Surprise ram lambs

Hardiness and longevity are defining factors. Nuckolls concurs: “These rams seem to be survivors. Of the others you buy, half of them die in the first year and you need more the next.” He adds wistfully: “It’s good for the ram business, I guess.”

The structure of these sheep appeals to JW Nuckolls: “I like the bone on them. Other fine-boned US Suffolks are narrow bodied with no capacity to stand a storm.” He explains: “That extra bone gives Surprise Company rams more substance, which is contiguous to their viability in my opinion.”

He has forthright views on US lamb quality. Nuckolls blames feeding grain for too long for excessive fat and carcass weights. His motivation for developing a more feed-efficient terminal sire is that “Cheap corn is not conducive to making good market lambs”.

Nuckolls endorses the breeding policy of Surprise Company: “I’m sure this type of ram will have even more impact. The ratio of lean meat in their cross-bred lambs is high and they finish quickly.”

Nuckolls weans his lambs in early October before customer finishing at Fornstrom feed lot, Pine Bluffs, Wyoming, which is 60 miles from Mountain States Lamb Cooperative Greeley slaughter plant.

He is highly supportive of Mountain States’ recent plans to employ video-image carcass analysis. He believes this will afford the opportunity to further penalise underachieving carcasses. At present there is a longstanding £0.90p per kilogram forfeit on yield grade 5 carcasses at Mountain States.

According to Nuckolls, “The industry needs heavy discounting for lambs that just don’t perform in the red-meat area.” He continues: “Last year 35 per cent of domestic lambs slaughtered were yield grades 4 and 5 – that’s totally unacceptable.”

The work Keeler and Garcia perform with their Suffolk-type rams may help remediate carcass-quality issues. The alternative genetics offered bring attention to longevity, a less-pursued trait among mainstream breeders of terminal sires that are destined for western flocks.

Since Surprise Company’s founding in 2011, they have taken a road less travelled within the American sheep industry. Their choice of name is fitting. Their success is undoubtedly attributable in part to the unexpected benefits of their “tough and gentle” rams.

John Wilkes

John Wilkes
Freelance journalist

John Wilkes is a former UK Sheep producer now living in Washington DC. His experience in both the UK and USA gives him a unique perspective on livestock and food production.

Nowadays he writes and consults about livestock and agriculture. He also hosts a broadcast radio program called The Whole Shebang on Heritage Radio Network from Brooklyn, New York.

John is a board member of The Livestock Conservancy in the U.S. and a member of The American Sheep Industry Association.