Nebraska rancher sees a future with white Dorper sheep
June 7, 2018
A few years ago, Neal Amsberry was at a sale barn selling the last of his feeder goats when he noticed some hair sheep being sold. Intrigued by the animals, the Lexington, Neb., producer later purchased some Dorper and Katahdin commercial ewes.
"I had been in the goat business for more than 10 years," he said. "During the drought of 2012, I was feeding hay as fast as I could put it up. It was starting to be too much work, so I got out of the breeding goats and into feeding goats."
"I had been feeding 350-400 head of goats for a couple years when I started getting curious about hair sheep," he said. "Two years ago, I bought some ewes with lambs on them, and since then, I have built up to about 200 head. I liked how low-maintenance they are compared to goats."
Since then, Amsberry has sold all his feeder goats and started to transition from strictly a commercial hair sheep flock to adding about 26 head of purebred white Dorpers. I plan to double my herd in the next year or two and build up close to 400 head," he said.
Amsberry sees a lot of advantages to raising hair sheep versus feeding goats. "Feeding a goat to 60 pounds takes a lot of feed during a 60-day period, and to get them to 100 pounds will take a year," he said. "A hair lamb can reach 110 pounds in five months. They grow really fast."
With it becoming harder to find sheep shearers, Amsberry likes that hair sheep don't need shearing. He averages about 1.7 lambs per ewe, which wasn't quite as good as his breeding goats, but less labor-intensive. "Unlike a lot of wool sheep, hair sheep don't need much care. They are really good mothers, and most can have their lambs unassisted in sub-zero weather," he said.
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The white Dorpers breed out of season, and Amsberry said he has a new crop of lambs every eight months. He has found the white Dorpers and the Dorper-Katahdin crosses to be the most prolific. "The ewes have one lamb at a time, get it up, lick it off, and make sure it nurses, before they have the second one," he said. "I like that they don't have them both at the same time, and one freezes to death because it didn't get cleaned off."
MARKET Is THERE
Amsberry is tapping into the ethnic market with 65-80 pound lambs, which he can produce in about 60-80 days. The Dorpers will dress out at 60 percent or more, which is considerably better than goats at 52 percent, he said. "The market is wide open, and the ground floor is there. They came here from South Africa, so it will take some time to build the herd here," he said.
"From what I see, I believe white Dorpers could be the future. There are not millions of them in the U.S., but some people are already replacing their wool breeds with hair sheep," Amsberry said. "There are at least two packing houses in the U.S. that want Dorpers. Consumers like the taste and flavor. They don't have that lanolin flavor or oily taste that some wool sheep have — particularly older ones. Hair sheep have a different flavor than what people remember from World War II."
In fact, Amsberry thinks the Dorpers produce burgers that would have been a great hit for his "Nothing But Goat Grill." Amsberry operated a concession trailer in central Nebraska until a few years ago. "Selling goat burgers was hard," he said. "I practically had to put it in the consumers' mouth to get them to try it. There was a stigma that people had about goat meat, until they tried it. I think the Dorper burgers would have been a better burger and a bigger hit because of the flavor."
As Amsberry builds his hair sheep flock, he's concentrating on improving genetics and developing quality breeding animals he can sell to other producers. "I want to have a strict breeding program, recognizing that not every animal should be kept for breeding," he said. "If it doesn't work for me, it probably isn't going to work for someone else. We have a limited amount of bloodlines in the U.S. for white Dorpers, but we are getting access to new bloodlines from South Africa periodically. There are some really good animals out there that we could use AI from to improve the rest of the animals."
Amsberry's end goal is consistency. "I eventually want to develop a flock of hair sheep all the same size and color," he said. "When someone has all different colors, sizes and breeds, it really hurts when you sell them at the salebarn. If you can develop a consistent product, you will make more money."
For more information about Amsberry's operation, he can be reached at (308) 651-0327. ❖
— Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.