By Aimee Nielson, The 2017 mAGazine
In the early 2000s, sheep producers started looking to hair sheep breeds to make their meat flocks more adaptable. Unlike wool breeds, hair breeds naturally shed their coat, so farmers could produce a quality meat animal and not have to worry about the costs and labor associated with shearing. The CAFE sheep unit had two wool breeds at the time , and the cost to add a hair sheep flock was just not feasible.
Researchers put their knowledge of crossbreeding to work and began to grade up to hair sheep over a series of breeding seasons.
"We decided if Kentucky producers were going to have an interest in hair sheep, we should know something about them," said Debra Aaron, professor in Animal and Food Sciences. "Since our primary goal is to produce a high-quality, lean lamb, we decided to go with the white dorper breed."
The white dorper originated in the 1940s in South Africa to meet the need for a high-quality meat sheep that could thrive in semiarid climates.
Aaron said they began crossing some of the polypay ewes on the farm with a white dorper ram.
"We had to make sure people understood we weren't doing it because we didn't like the polypay, because we're actually quite fond of polypay The polypay us an excellent maternal breed," Aaron said. "We just wanted an additional breed to study, and we couldn't afford to go out and buy them."
After 10-plus years of grading up, UK now maintains a white dorper flock, considered purebred by the American Dorper Sheep Breeders' Society. Along the way, Aaron, professor Don Ely, former research coordinator Tracy Burden, research coordinator Frank Berry, and sheep unit manager Endre Fink, compared the white dorper to the polypay in many ways, including reproduction, lambing, mothering traits, and carcass quality. In true UK Cooperative Extension fashion, Kentucky producers can learn from specialists what to expect from hair sheep. From there, they can decide if the breed may be a good fit for their farm.
"They are very comparable to polypays in carcass quality, but it's really hard to beat the maternal qualities of the polypay ewes," Ely said. "We have found that in general, the hair sheep are more resistant to parasites, which means April lambs can take full advantage of quality Kentucky forages."
One of the best things to come out of the project is the way the results can impact students in Aaron's and Ely's classrooms.
"Our research has been very valuable to our students," Aaron said. "We've been able to show them firsthand what they are reading about in their textbooks. We can show several generations of grading up, and they can visualize the concepts much better than a book can describe."
The UK white dorpers also have had success in the show rings of the Kentucky State Fair and the North American International Livestock Exposition. A few entries went on to become grand champions or reserve grand champions at NAILE. In 2015, UK was named premier exhibitor in the white dorper division at the NAILE.