Writer: Norman Martin
CORONA - Can a mix of hardy range ewes and meaty mutton rams from Texas help boost New Mexico ranchers' bottom line?
That's the question researchers at New Mexico State University are trying to answer. It's part of an effort to raise lamb weight at weaning. So far, scientists have increased sale weight by about 10 percent.
Sheep producers in New Mexico derive their income from two primary sources. One is selling lambs shortly after weaning, which provides more than three-quarters of annual income. The second is selling fine wool to a worldwide market, primarily in April and May.
"We saw an interesting opportunity to improve income on the lamb side by increasing weight at the time of sale," said Tim Ross, an NMSU animal science professor. "I want to stress that we're not creating a new breed. We're simply applying an alternative management strategy to increase profit margins."
Ross' study began two years ago here in Corona using 240 of the university's highly developed Rambouillet ewes. Known for their fine wool, the white-faced Rambouillets are known as the largest and among the strongest of the nation's fine-wool sheep lines.
Selected Rambouillets were used to boost income and meat production by crossing them with a mutton breed. NMSU's choice was Suffolk, a relatively large breed developed in England and well-known for high quality meat. Suffolks have black faces and legs.
Ultimately, 150 of the tough range ewes were bred, half by the lumbering Suffolk rams. The remainder was mated to a Rambouillet control group. NMSU researchers then gauged lamb weight at birth, marking (when lambs are tagged, tails docked and castrated), and finally, at weaning.
In the study's first year, lamb weight at sale jumped 8.5 percent. During the second year, it climbed 10 percent over the control group. Lambs are sold when they're about six months old.
"The bottom line is that we had more pounds of lamb to sell," Ross said.
Ross' sheep studies are conducted at NMSU's 27,000-acre Corona Range and Livestock Research Center. The working ranch laboratory is located near the center of the state, just east of Corona.
One management key is making sure none of the Suffolk traits remain in the herd by separating sheep to be sold and those that are staying in the herd, Ross said. The Suffolk line has rather poor quality wool, and they can introduce black fiber contamination to the wool, which sharply reduces wool salability, he said.
Historically, sheep are a crucial cultural commodity in the state, dating back to the mid-14th century. "Sheep were here long before we had a chile or cattle industry," Ross said.
"Today, we're recognized worldwide for producing a quality product."
Last year the state's sheep producers raised some 215,000 head worth about $21.5 million, according to the New Mexico Agricultural Statistics Service. The bulk of sheep operations are concentrated in two areas. Three eastern counties - Chaves, Lincoln and Guadalupe - make up more than half the total with 113,000 sheep. In northwestern New Mexico, sheep production is centered in McKinley, Cibola and San Juan counties with 55,000 head.
Results of the NMSU study have already filtered back to New Mexico producers through their breeding associations, and Ross is currently developing several publications that will be distributed through NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service.
"If we can give New Mexico producers the basic information about this method, then they can make informed decisions on whether it might work at their facility," Ross said. "Availability of Suffolk rams is a potential question, but if there's a market demand in New Mexico for these rams, then I'm sure someone will get on that bandwagon."
© 2013 New Mexico State University Board of Regents
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