HOW & WHY WE RAISE EASY-CARE COOPWORTHS
By Martha McGrath
We began our sheep journey about 35 years ago. My husband and I were living on a farm that my father-in-law owned in southern Maryland. We had dairy goats at the time. The goats had done a good job of clearing the honeysuckle, poison ivy vines and scrub trees from the overgrown fields but not the grass, so when we went to the county fair and saw some cute little Cheviot sheep I thought they were just the thing to mow the pastures! We really liked the ease of care of the Cheviots, but because I had no knowledge of wool or the market for it, I was giving their fleeces to a handspinner friend. My friend kept telling me that we should get some “black sheep,” so when we decided to move to West Virginia in 1989, that’s what we did! Our first WV sheep included a few natural colored Lincoln X Corriedales, and some white and natural colored Coopworths, later we added Jacob, Tunis, Border Leicester and Bluefaced Leicester sheep to the flock. While most of the breeds had lovely fleeces, over time I began to notice that the Coopworths were generally earlier maturing, more prolific and better moms and that the Coopworths seemed to have better resistance to internal parasites and foot problems. For these reasons we decided to concentrate on Coopworths. We like that Coopworths are seasonal breeders. We lamb in the spring, often with the majority of the ewes dropping their lambs within 3 weeks. When the ewes and lambs go out on pasture in May, the rams go with them and spend the summer rotating through the fields we have subdivided with electric netting. The sheep aren’t fed grain on pasture but we have set up creep areas for the lambs when we have had a drought. We pull all rams; including ram lambs (Coopworth ram lambs are early maturing) from the flock in mid August to prevent unplanned breeding. As an average--sized woman shepherd I also appreciate the calm temperament and medium size of the Coopworths which make it possible for me to handle them when my husband, Jim, and the boys are not available.
The Coopworth breed was developed in the 1950s and 1960s at Lincoln University in Canterbury, New Zealand by Professor Ian Coop and colleague Vern Clark, who crossed Border Leicester rams and Romney ewes, with the goal of creating a highly prolific and easily managed sheep that would excel in the production of both meat and wool for commercial use. The best of the resulting progeny were interbred over many years, with selection being based on productivity, rather than appearance. The result was a hardy, adaptive, medium—sized, dual—purpose, longwool breed, known for prolificacy and easy-care characteristics. Coopworth ewes weigh about 160 lbs, rams about 200 lbs. They shear 8-12 lbs of lustrous wool with a staple length of 6-8 inches and a fiber diameter of 35-39 microns with a soft, silky hand.
Coopworth sheep were first brought to the US in 1979. Several other importations to the US and Canada occurred in the early 1980s, including a group of surrogate ewes carrying Booroola Merino embryos destined for the USDA Meat Animal Research Center (MARC), Clay Center, NE. Research by Dr. Howard Meyer, a sheep breeding scientist with the New Zealand Ministry of Agriculture, had indicated that the success rate of carrying multiple embryos to term was higher for Coopworths than for ewes of other available breeds.
Coopworths continue to be selected for productivity and easy care characteristics. Difficult births are of low incidence and ewes have very strong mothering instincts, seldom leaving their lambs after birth. Multiple births are most common and the Coopworth ewe will provide an abundance of milk. Their lambs grow well on grass, making this breed ideal for low-input, pasture-based systems.
When we began raising Coopworths, I realized that I needed to learn about measuring and selecting for productive traits. At that time the US breed association allowed only a percentage of each flock’s lamb crop to be registered. The selection was to be based on a balance of recorded performance and physical soundness. Rams had to be free of physical defects, from a multiple birth (twins or better) conceived within the first 21 days of ewe exposure and with above average growth. Ewes were selected with similar criteria, but did not have to be from a multiple birth nor conceived within the first 21 days of ewe exposure. Breeders were required to maintain production records to justify their selection of lambs to be registered. The records included birth type, birth weight, weaning and adjusted post--weaning weights. These records, along with a fleece weight report were submitted to the Assn. Secretary annually. Ewes with lambing problems, rams with a loss of libido or soundness, or any sheep which produced lambs with genetic faults were to be deregistered.
Raising sheep under these restrictions helped us become better breeders, but we felt the restrictive requirements of the breed association were hindering the popularity of our breed in this country. In 2002 a group of Coopworth breeders formed the American Coopworth Registry with two registration options available to members: purebred registration based on pedigree, and “Performance Designation” based on lamb reports submitted to the secretary. The ACR bylaws contain a list of undesirable traits for which animals should be culled from the breeding flock.
The registry strives to foster an atmosphere of inclusion and operates cooperative sales booths at several large fiber festivals, where members can sell their products. Many members display signs and breed information at their own booths at shows and farmers markets across the country, helping to educate the public and promote the breed to the benefit of all Coopworth breeders. The Registry website maintains a current Member Directory and a Marketplace page where members may advertise their sheep and related products for sale at no additional cost. The newsletter regularly contains articles on selection and culling, and encourages the members to think about their breeding goals and to learn how they can achieve them. Our registry has guidelines for breed improvement, but allows the breeders to decide which traits are most important to them. In the book Managing Breeds for a Secure Future, Drs. Sponenberg and Bixby state “Breeds are well served by different breeders using different breeding strategies.” When breeders have differing strategies, philosophies and methods, the breed benefits though genetic diversity.
No matter what breed you raise, making a list of what is important to you and selecting breeding stock that moves you along that path is key to flock improvement. We have ranked our breeding goals as: 1. structural soundness, 2. soft, lustrous, consistent fleeces measuring within the breed standards, 3. ewes that lamb unassisted and raise twins or trips on their own, 4. ewes that wean 100 lbs or more of lamb, 5. resistance to disease and parasites, 6. ewes that lamb at one year of age, 7. temperament. Other breeders might have similar goals, but rank them differently.
A cornerstone of flock improvement is identifying the animals with superior traits. Traits like fleece luster and handle are very subjective, but others, like fleece weight and lamb weight are objectively measured. The pounds of lamb weaned by a ewe is a useful measurement for evaluating ewes since it includes fertility, ease of lambing, milk production, and mothering ability. We calculate the total pounds of lamb weaned at 60 days of age and rank our ewes every year. Post--weaning weights are a useful measurement in assessing the genetic value of the sire and dam. Lambs can be compared to other lambs fed and raised in the same group to identify the superior performers. For those wanting more than the “kitchen table” approach to evaluating growth traits, NSIP (nsip.org) is a wonderful program for identifying animals in your flock with superior genetics for production.
Along with recording weights, one of the strategies we use to improve our flock is linebreeding. Linebreeding is described as a less severe version of inbreeding, typically to concentrate the blood of one individual or line in a pedigree. Many breeders believe it is the only way to make genetic progress and obtain predictability and prepotency--after all, it is the way many breeds of animals were developed. It has been stated that inbreeding will not create defects, but through homozygosity (an increase in the frequency of pairing of similar genes) will bring to the surface any defects that may be hidden. Because of this, selection and culling are extremely important components of a linebreeding program. Linebreeding can be used to create “lines” within a pure breed that can produce a type of hybrid vigor when crossed, and this system is often used in conservation breeding programs in rare breeds and small populations of animals.
In addition to the maternal characteristics for which Coopworths are well known, the Coopworth fleece is eagerly sought by hand spinners, felters and doll makers. Though the majority of our flock income comes from sales of breeding stock and meat lambs, a substantial portion comes from the wool. Our natural colored fleeces are very popular. Fleece color genetics are complicated, but color is determined mainly by genetic instructions at two locations (loci). The Agouti locus controls the distribution of white and dark fibers over the body. The Brown locus interacts with Agouti to give the final color of the fleece. In Coopworths the most common patterns at Agouti are white, blue--consisting of subtle variations of dark and lighter areas-- and “self” (black). Options at the Brown locus include black, which is dominant, and brown, which is recessive. I have yet to hear of a true brown--or moorit-- Coopworth, though a fleece with sunburned tips can appear brown. The Extension locus is another factor in Coopworth color genetics. There are 2 options at this locus-- “wild” or dominant black. Wild allows the instructions at Agouti to be expressed, making the sheep white, blue or black, while dominant black puts a sort of genetic coat of black paint over the Agouti pattern. Learning about color genetics has allowed us to make a variety of fleece colors available to our customers.
We use sheep coats to keep hay and weed seeds out of the fleece. We sell the well-skirted, covered raw fleeces for $14/lb. Skirted wool that may have some VM (hay) but is not too dirty is sent to a processing mill which washes and cards it into roving and yarn for us. I sometimes hand dye this roving and yarn and sell it on our website and in the registry’s co-operative booths. Every year I keep a couple of the white fleeces and hand wash the locks to sell to Santa doll makers at $4.50/oz. I have learned a lot about wool characteristics and genetics since those little Cheviots, and derive great pleasure in producing lovely, award-winning fleeces.
The Coopworth registry, believing that production is paramount, has not organized any competitive shows but does support youth and adult members who wish to participate in the longwool classes of their 4-H and open competitions. The registry sponsored a card grading show in New Jersey in 2012. Card grading involves evaluating each sheep against the breed standard, rather than against the individuals in the show ring at that time. The registry believes that card grading meshes with the Coopworth philosophy better than competitive showing.
Hardy, productive and adaptable-- this is why we Coopworth breeders say “Coopworth…the sheep for all reasons”!
For more information on Coopworth sheep, visit the American Coopworth Registry website at AmericanCoopworthRegistry.org
( Martha McGrath is a wife and mother of five. She is a 4-H leader, past secretary/treasurer of the West Virginia Shepherd Federation and past president of the American Coopworth Registry.)