Volume 1, Issue 2

Farm Update

The rain has continued to fall with the total now reaching 50” for the last 4 months. That far exceeds the rainfall total for an entire normal year. Needless to say mud has been a big problem with the ewes and lambs anxious to move to the grass field. Hopefully that will occur before this issue is published.

The artificial insemination lambs have been born and several of them have exceeded our expectations—in particular the "Keepers Kopy" son that we have named "Kurrent Kopy". We are looking forward to seeing his growth pattern over the next several months but so far it looks like he will add a lot of positive traits to our flock. Information will be posted under purchase opportunities on our website regarding availability of specific lambs.

Quarterly Topic: Club Lambs -- Good or Bad ?

The show club lamb market has largely taken over the Suffolk sheep industry mostly because that is where the money is. Unfortunately this fact is not in the best interests of the Suffolk breed.

Classic Heritage Suffolk Ewe

Classic Heritage Suffolk Ewe

 It is important to understand the definition of a livestock breed. A breed is constituted by a group of animals that have commonality in their ancestors (historical basis) and bring together the genomic and phenotypic characteristics that are essentially homogeneous. The purpose of a breed may be based on adaptation to a particular geographical region in conjunction with a desired end product. For instance many English sheep breeds were developed to produce either wool or meat in specific areas-lowland Cotswolds versus upland Welsh Mountain sheep. Suffolks were developed by crossing Southdown rams with Norfolk Horned ewes with the express purpose of producing a sheep with better growth, bigger carcasses, and the ability to be used as a terminal sire on other breeds. The terminal sire aspect, in regard to greater meat production, resulted in tremendous demand for Suffolk rams in Great Britain and the USA. The Suffolk breed had become a dominant force in the production of finished slaughter lambs.

With the advent of the club lamb industry, a new chapter in Suffolk history was soon being written. The blossoming demand for a specific type of Suffolk or Suffolk cross lamb for the 4H, FFA and Jackpot market caused many Suffolk breeders to embrace this new genotypic/ phenotypic Suffolk criteria. Further support came from livestock judges who selected this type of club lamb without regard to the implications for the sheep industry in general. Suddenly sheep, Suffolks in particular, had to have compact muscular bodies with no tails, and minimal ability to thrive in a natural pasture environment. Fancy supplementation (show) diets became the new way of feeding lambs.

It is also important to note that recently there has been a strong indication that the callipyge gene has snuck into the Suffolk club lamb industry. This has massive long term implications for Suffolk sheep in general. For those not familiar with the callipyge gene, a short history lesson may be of value. The callipyge (double muscle) gene was first seen in a Dorset ram in 1983. Despite protestations to the contrary, all sheep that show the double muscling have Dorset blood in them no matter what the pedigree says including Suffolks. Initially the belief was that the callipyge gene would be a strong positive for the sheep industry. Then the downsides started to come to the surface. The two primary ones are the poor quality of the double muscle meat and the lambing difficulties seen in ewes that have an overly muscled rear end. Realistically there should be no place for this gene in Suffolks let alone the sheep industry in general. However greed continues to trump ethics and the gene has definitely become a part of the club lamb industry. It is extremely important for anyone pondering to start breeding club lamb type sheep to realize that the callipyge gene may be lurking in the genetic background of any possible purchase. Asking the right questions and requiring a callipyge gene test be done on any potential club lamb breeding stock purchase may prevent a breeding/marketing disaster.

Consideration of the whole “no tail” syndrome seen in almost all club lambs and their parents is paramount when evaluating the ethical and humane treatment of sheep. I strongly believe the no tail problem has been promulgated by judges and sheep advisors without any regard for its effect on the lamb. Why has this “no tail” lamb type been promoted/selected? Mostly to create an artificial lamb profile that accentuates the perception of rear end muscle development. Practicality has nothing to do with it. There is a laundry list of problems that can come with the removal of all coccygeal (tail) vertebrae in lambs but the two most important are a tendency to have both rectal and vaginal prolapses. That is why some states have moved to ban the procedure and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) recommends leaving at least three coccygeal vertebrae. Judges could quickly put an end to this “gimmick” but many judges are often the same ones selling the tail-less sheep. If the club lamb industry does not wake up to the threat from this procedure they will one day wake up to a public relations disaster. Scrutiny of this procedure in lambs will ultimately lead to charges of animal cruelty by groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). It is just a matter of time.

Lastly it is vital to mention the litany of “show tricks” used to produce winning club lambs. From constantly running them in circles to starving them before entering the show ring there are endless methods to produce that “winning lamb”. It would take several pages to document all the “tricks of the trade”. Suffice it to say that not all them are in the best interests of the lamb or of teaching their young owners the best lessons in integrity and humane treatment of animals.

Capacity and Muscling in Heritage Suffolk Ewes

Capacity and Muscling in Heritage Suffolk Ewes

Needless to say I believe that the club lamb industry as constituted today can and will have a negative impact on the sheep industry as a whole and particularly Suffolks. Certainly there is an opportunity to correct many of the issues associated with the production of Suffolk club lambs but it will require the dedication of judges, breeders, and livestock advisors who have the vision to move the club industry in a new direction that will be better for everyone but especially the sheep. I have purposely shied away from the Suffolk club lamb market because I have no desire to be a partner in a troubled industry. I continue to concentrate on the production of quality brood ewes that can be used for any purpose.

Joseph Schallberger, DVM, PhD
Whispering Hills Farm
Member Academy of Veterinary Consultants

Volume 1, Issue 1

After many requests I have decided to embark on a new venture with a quarterly report. My objective is to provide updated information on farm activities along with current news and analysis about Suffolk management, nutrition, health, genetics, and reproduction. The Suffolk Sheep Bulletin will be issued on a quarterly basis at suffolksheepbulletin.com, via email on request or it can be viewed on our website whisperinghillsfarm.com through a link.

Farm Update

We are expecting our first lambs about February 20. For the first time in 3 years we are expecting artificial insemination lambs sired by the following rams: Keepers Kopy, Manchester II, Chinook, and Leeds. Check with we us in April on availability. We will also be selling some yearling ewes and brood ewes this year because we are downsizing our flock. The weather has been extremely wet recently as we received 23” of rain in December. Hopefully this will not continue through the rest of the winter and spring.

Quarterly Topic: The Rise and Fall of the Suffolk Breed

Mother of Stratford (Guinness 1991 World Record Largest Sheep) with her set of triplets

Mother of Stratford (Guinness 1991 World Record Largest Sheep) with her set of triplets

Once up on a time there was a breed of sheep that was so totally dominant in America that all other sheep breeds were reduced to very distant seconds. That breed was dominant in the show ring, farm flocks, and commercial/range flocks. Registration numbers were up to 180,000 per year. The breed was known for hardiness, longevity, maternal ability, and rapid growth with style consistency. That breed was Suffolks. Today less than 5000 are registered per year. Suffolks now typically are short lived, less maternal, and have varying growth rates depending on size, style and feeding regimen. What happened? Over the next several paragraphs I will try to give a first person account of what transpired from a breeder’s and Veterinarian’s perspective over the last 40 years. I graduated from Veterinary School in 1971 and started breeding Suffolks in 1978 so I have been a witness to the collapse of the Suffolk breed. Hopefully this review will provide insight to those who were not there or who are interested in the history of the breed.

Let us go back to 1978 when, as a Veterinarian, I saw my fist spider lamb. I knew it was a genetic freak but had no idea what the cause was. The next year the same Suffolk breeder/client had several more spider lambs and I had heard through the Veterinary “grape vine” that other Veterinarians were seeing deformed Suffolk lambs. Obviously this was an inherited genetic problem. Over the next several years Suffolks were excoriated over the spider syndrome even though several other breeds were starting to have spider lambs because unscrupulous breeders were introducing Suffolk blood into their sheep to try to gain a competitive advantage within their own breed. Fortunately by the late 80’s the genetics were worked out to the point an accurate genetic test had been developed and the source of the problem had been found - a single Suffolk ram with the mutation whose offspring had been used extensively in the Suffolk breed. With this information the spider hysteria started to subside as breeders could breed away from it, but the first domino had fallen in the collapse of the Suffolk breed.

The popularity of Suffolks in the 1980’s was such that individual sheep were being sold for up to $100,000 each. It was common for top Suffolks to sell for $20,000. Tax schemes were developed by certain breeders where investors were sold packages of Suffolks (ex. 5 ewes and a ram) at inflated prices to gain excessive tax write offs. This further hyped the Suffolk breed without any sound financial basis. With the tax law revisions of 1986 this all changed. Suddenly there was no accelerated depreciation and no investors buying Suffolks. Prices quickly adjusted and were still high because of the popularity of Suffolks but there were no more $100,000, Suffolks. The second domino had fallen. I might add the 1986 tax law change had an impact on all types of purebred livestock (except horses who have their own set of tax law exceptions/privileges).

While this was all going on a third 1980’s Suffolk problem arose—scrapie. Scrapie had always been around but suddenly, with the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) issue in Great Britain, scrapie in sheep took on a new urgency. No breed of sheep is immune to scrapie but in the USA there were more scrapie cases in Suffolks (because they were the most popular breed) than in any other breed. Promoters of other breeds of sheep immediately started to pile on Suffolks as the “scrapie breed” while saying their own breeds were scrapie free. I had attended the 1985 International Sheep Veterinary Society meeting in Scotland where I was informed that most scrapie cases in Great Britain were in white faced sheep and a rarity in Suffolks. Research would later show that most Suffolks in Great Britain were RR (scrapie resistant) while most white faced breeds were QQ (scrapie susceptible). Several prominent American Suffolk breeders were inadvertently disseminating scrapie across the country. In 1988 I can remember having a discussion with one of them in Ohio where he lamented that he had certain bloodlines that seemed resistant to scrapie (ewes lived to 9-10 years of age), and he had other bloodlines where they were constantly coming down with scrapie at 1-3 years of age. Unbeknownst to him he was observing genetic resistance/susceptibility to scrapie. Shortly after this the Whisper flock started to participate in a research project at the University of San Francisco Medical School to illuminate the genes conveying resistance to scrapie. The Whisper flock was chosen because it was both a closed and scrapie free flock. Whispering Hills Farm is proud to have participated in the research that contributed to the discovery of scrapie resistant genes in sheep. Unfortunately for the Suffolk breed the third domino had already fallen, and the popularity of Suffolks continued to head south.

As Suffolk selection became more and more dependent on show ring judges and Suffolk promoters the characteristics that had made Suffolks “the Breed in the Lead” started to disappear along with the lead. Slowly a dichotomy developed with tall frame/no muscling Suffolks on one side and the short, bunched up, no tail club lamb sheep on the other side. The true Suffolks of the 80’s and early 90’s were quickly disappearing because of the new “hype” about size and blockiness, with “practicality be damned”. Many long time Suffolk breeders started to leave the breed because they had been worn down by the Spider Syndrome, tax law changes, Scrapie and now they were being told by judges they were not breeding the “right type of Suffolk”. The final domino had fallen with the split in Suffolk type and the loss of core long time Suffolk breeders. As a result Suffolk breeders that were true to the classic standards of the breed were left in the lurch.

Keeper's Kopy--  1981 Midwest Sale Supreme Champion Ram

Keeper's Kopy--  1981 Midwest Sale Supreme Champion Ram

What does all this mean and where are Suffolks headed as a breed for the future? Unfortunately options are limited because much of the truly great Suffolks genetics have been permanently lost. Additionally the continual promotion of both frame and club lamb Suffolks only moves the Suffolk breed further away from what made Suffolk sheep a great breed. The next Suffolk Sheep Bulletin will discuss this in detail. Current focus on the National Sheep Improvement Program (NSIP) will not provide the boost which many Suffolk breeders expect.  A future Bulletin will address the NSIP and its ramifications.

At present, sheep people who are interested in Suffolks will need to decide whether they want to embrace the tradition of true Heritage Classic Suffolks or whether they will “buy” into the hype of modified frame/club lamb Suffolks. It is a personal choice. I choose to breed traditional Suffolks that follow the standards that really made them a great breed that worked in actual farm flocks producing market lambs and in commercial flocks as terminal sires.

Joseph Schallberger, DVM PhD
Whispering Hills Farm
Member Academy of Veterinary Consultants