EMERY - When Rex Laufmann started raising sheep more than 25 years ago, the Emery, farmer's goals were modest: keep livestock on his farm place and raise animals both he and his family could enjoy.
During the past five years, as domestic demand for mutton has continued to strengthen, Laufmann has developed genetics that are maximizing his production potential. With ewes that raise three and four lambs each spring, Laufmann is helping meet the need for feeder lambs.
Marketing experts tell us there's no way we'll ever saturate the feeder lamb market, Laufmann says. The demand for mutton in the U.S. has been growing steadily for the past 10 years. Sheep require a lot of hands-on attention, which means it's unlikely that you'll see large sheep herds. That's good news for producers like myself who have about a hundred ewes. In the past, we were selling our feeder lambs for 40 and 50 cents a pound. Now we're realizing $2.10 a pound. And there's no indication that market prices will be going down anytime soon.
Laufmann's core sheep herd possesses Polypay genetics. His first attempts at improving genetics led him to do some linebreeding, cultivating the best genetic characteristics of his ewes.
That alone improved productivity, Laufmann says. I started seeing some black lambs from the Polypays. When I found the Romanov buck that I've been using, it was like adding dynamite to my genetic program. He had almost all triplets in his background for three generations. That's almost unheard of for sheep.
Laufmann says he stumbled across his genetic program in his search for a purebred buck. When he read about some impressive offspring statistics of the Romanov buck owned by a producer in Iowa, he investigated the claims. His research revealed that the buck had been used at an Iowa Research Station in a USDA research program designed to create a new sheep breed.
Romanov sheep originated in northwestern Russia and were imported to the United States in 1985. They're used mainly as meat animals and also produce some wool/fur. When they're born, they are covered with hair. When they're a few weeks old, the hair falls off and is replaced by wool. Romanovs can also be used to help manage vegetation. Laufmann has found that his buck also introduced high reproductive rates to his herd.
The first year I used the Romanov buck, the 12 ewes he bred all had twins, Laufmann says. Those same 12 ewes produced a total of 30 lambs the following year. Because Romanovs are so hardy, I've only lost one or two lambs every year. The lambs are really vigorous. It may sound rather odd, but they seem to be smarter than some other sheep breeds because they figure things out more easily.
In addition to their high fertility rates, Romanov sheep will mate year-round. Purebreds are black when they're born and turn gray as they mature. Carcasses are very lean. The thick wool is often used for rugs, mats and wall hangings.
Laufmann also introduced some Montadale genetics in 2008 to increase hardiness and carcass qualities in his lambs. To overcome a slight disadvantage of the Romanov breed, lower average daily gain, he plans to develop a small herd of Clun Forrest ewes because they produce significantly higher percentage of milk fat for lambs.
I'll probably go to Montana to find the ewes I need, Laufmann says. I'll build up a small flock that I can use to raise some feeder lambs and breeding stock. I've been selling some of my lambs as breeding stock in the last few years. Producers who are using them have just been ecstatic with their production results.
Because raising sheep is a sideline for Laufmann, he carefully plans lambing so that only a few ewes lamb every two weeks. Before they're ready to lamb, ewes are confined so both they and the lambs have adequate protection from weather conditions and the rest of the sheep herd. Those practices help him keep death loss at a minimum.
With the multiple births that I'm seeing, I check ewes frequently to make sure the lambs are thriving in those first few hours, Laufmann says. For someone who's just starting to raise sheep, having the multiple births may be a challenge. If a producer has a large herd out on pasture, they may have less success with multiple births. Whenever a ewe has triplets or quads, I keep her and the lambs in a pen by themselves for a week to 10 days. I think that really helps the lambs survive.
When lambs are between 40 and 80 pounds, Laufmann takes them to the Tripp-Newell sale barn at Tripp. Typically, the lambs are purchased by someone who feeds them to a weight of 120 or 130 pounds before they're ready to be harvested.
Even though Romanov breeds will produce lambs three times in a 24 month period, Laufmann lambs just once per year. He believes he realizes greater overall success by giving his ewes the extra time to recover from lambing.
With his improved genetics, Laumann noticed he was able to reduce input costs related to feed products. With just the Polypay genetics, he was providing a commercial supplement and extra grain at lambing time. Now he's only feeding extra grain prior to breeding season to enhance fertility.
I used to use Nurse Maid to give the ewes an extra boost, Laufmann says. That probably cost about $5 per lamb. With the Romanov genetics I haven't had to use either the extra grain or the supplement once the lambs are born. When I know ewes are ready to lamb, I do increase their grain ration, but my overall input costs are still lower than they were.
Increased disease resistance, fewer hoof problems and elimination of wool blindness are all additional benefits of the Romanov genetics.
I like the glossy black color of the lambs and most of the lambs have a white star on their forehead, Laufmann says. They don't pick up all the cockleburs and mud that the Polypays did because they don't have as much wool on their legs as other sheep breeds. They seem to be cleaner in general.
I've more than doubled my lamb crop with this genetic strategy, so I'll keep doing what I'm doing for now, Laufmann adds.