Dairy sheep comprise just over a fifth of the world's sheep population, consisting of 106 original breeds and thousands of cross-breeds. East Friesian and Lacaune sheep are among the highest dairy producers among the world's nine main dairy sheep breeds. Despite commercial dairy sheep farming being a relatively new agricultural industry in North America, it is fast gaining popularity.
East Friesians are the top milk producers among sheep, while Lacaunes produce a little less milk per lactation, on average. East Friesians are docile and thrive in specific conditions. In contrast, Lacaunes are bolder and can thrive in extreme conditions and terrains.
The milk of dairy sheep is used predominantly for specialty cheeses and powdered milk. Over the last 20 years, the US has imported 50 to 60% of the world's sheep cheese exports. Many small-scale farmers in the US have their own sheep and want the best yield possible. So, let's look at the key differences between the top dairy sheep performers: East Friesians and Lacaunes.
The Key Differences Between East Friesian And Lacaune Sheep
Sheep were domesticated in southwestern Asia about 11,000 years ago and provide wool, meat, and milk. Of the 106 sheep breeds, East Friesian and Lacaune sheep are top milk producers, but they differ in a few respects. Below is some information relating to their key differences regarding their origins, physical attributes, milk production, lambing, and temperament.
Differences In Origin And Distribution
East Friesian sheep are the top milk producers among sheep breeds. They are native to northeast Germany and the Netherlands, from the Friesian province. The Friesian province is also home to Holstein cows, the top milk producers among cow breeds. Australia and New Zealand have the most significant ratio of East Fresian sheep in the world and the best milk production performance.
Lacaune sheep originate from Southern France, specifically the Roquefort area, after which Roquefort cheese is named. In fact, only Lacaune milk can be used to make really good Roquefort cheese.
Lacaunes have been the top dairy producers in France for more than 40 years, and their popularity has spread internationally. Through selective breeding by a French government agency in the 1990s, the milk production of Lacaune sheep has quadrupled.
Differences In Physical Attributes
Even though East Friesians and Lacaunes come from Europe, they come from different terrains and climates. As such, their physical features differ somewhat. Below is a table comparing their physical attributes.
East Friesian Dairy Sheep
Lacaune Dairy Sheep
160 to 225 lbs
154 to 220 lbs
8.8 – 11.0 lbs
4.4 lbs. average
35 – 37 microns
Less than 22 microns
4.7 – 6.3 inches
Table 1: Comparison of physical attributes of East Friesian and Lacaune Dairy Sheep
Differences In Milk Production
The lactation period of East Friesian ewes is about 230 days, and they can produce between 1102 to 1543 pounds of milk in a single lactation period .
To maintain this excellent milk production, the East Friesian sires or their sperm have been imported to improve local breeds. However, it was only in 1993 that the first hybrid East Friesian rams were introduced to the US via Canada.
East Friesians were imported by the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison), the University of Minnesota, and Hal Koller, a dairy sheep farmer in Wisconsin, for research and breeding purposes. Their research showed that East Friesian ewes produced from the hybrid rams produced almost double the amount of milk compared to domestic dairy sheep .
Further studies and experimentation with commercial dairy flocks in the US and Canada confirmed the East Friesian's superiority in milk production. As a result, most commercial operations started using ewes with a high percentage of East Friesian in their genetics.
Lacaune milk is higher in solids than East Friesian sheep, though their milk production is slightly less. Lacaune ewes can produce between 882 and 1102 pounds of milk per lactation period.
In the United States, dairy farmers often cross East Friesian and Lacaune sheep to produce new dairy breeds. The aim of such cross-breeding is usually to improve the milk's quality while increasing milk production.
For comparative purposes, the research that studied East Friesian sheep also included Lacaune sheep. While it was noted that both have superior milk production compared to domestic breeds, the researchers discovered something else:
East Friesian ewes, on average, produced more lambs and slightly more milk than Lacaune-cross ewes. However, Lacaune-cross ewes have milk with a higher fat and protein content than East Friesian ewes. The high fat and protein content of Lacaune milk is excellent for yielding better cheese, specifically Roquefort cheese.
Differences in Lambing
On average, East Friesian ewes produce more than two lambs per lambing (usually twins or triplets). Despite this, reports have shown that the mortality rate of their lambs is much higher compared to other breeds. Their higher mortality rate is attributed to respiratory disease, namely pneumonia.
Researchers also noted that by cross-breeding non-dairy sheep breeds with East Friesian genes, the sub-breeds' mortality rate also increased. This suggests that East Friesian sheep have a dominant genetic trait predisposing them to respiratory diseases.
Their studies showed that lambs with over 50% East Friesian breeding had significantly higher mortality rates than those with under 50% East Friesian breeding. In addition, lambs with 50% East Friesian breeding had a slightly lower survival rate than those with under 50% breeding.
Lacaune sheep are a hardier breed of dairy sheep than the East Friesian breed . Even though they produce less milk and give birth to fewer lambs (on average, one or two at a time), their lambs have a higher survival rate. As a result, they are the most prolific sheep breed in France.
France employs a selective breeding program for Lacaune sheep, incorporating milk recording, artificial insemination, and progeny testing for sires. In fact, their selection and breeding program for Lacaune is the longest-running of its kind in the world.
East Friesian sheep have docile temperaments, making them good dairy sheep for intensive parlor milking systems. Having said that, they do not fare well in extensive management systems. Instead, they perform better in smaller flocks. Additionally, East Friesian dairy sheep are not well-suited to hot climates.
Regarding temperament, Lacaune dairy sheep are bolder and less docile than their dairy sheep counterparts. They can adapt quickly to extreme environments and rocky terrain.
Husbandry: East Friesian And Lacaune Sheep
Sheep dairy farming is a relatively new enterprise in North American agriculture. It has been going on for just over thirty years. Before, sheep farming was primarily for meat and wool production, but sheep dairy farming quickly gained popularity.
Sheep milk products are two to three times more expensive than cows' milk products while having a higher nutritional content too. These advantages make dairy sheep farming a potentially good source of income for small-scale farmers and larger enterprises.
East Friesian Sheep
As we now know, East Friesian sheep are the top producers of milk amongst dairy sheep. Their docile temperament makes them a desirable option for dairy livestock, given the need to handle them regularly for milking. They are easy to manage on a small scale and in specialized conditions, as they are not a hardy breed.
Given they do not thrive in challenging weather and range conditions, East Friesian sheep ewes are ideal for cross-breeding with domestic sheep for their milk production. In addition, an added income can be generated from selling the fleeces of East Friesian sheep.
Lacaune sheep were introduced to North America in 1996 through Josef Regli from Canada. He imported Lacaune embryos from Switzerland and is the primary source of Lacaune genetics in the US and Canada.
Since the late 1990s, it has been difficult for the US to gain Lacaune genetics because of the Canadian-US border closure to ruminants coming into the US . The border closure for ruminants is because of concern over bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). Additionally, it is challenging to access Lacaune genetics from Europe because of the restrictions on animal health imports.
Lacaune sheep are hardier than East Friesian sheep and less prone to diseases. However, it is recommended to cross-breed them with domestic breeds to maintain hybrid vigor and reduce the incidence of disease in lambs.
Interestingly, Lacaune ewes release more oxytocin when milked than any other breed, aiding a faster "let down" reflex. Additionally, Lacaunes reach peak flow faster than most other breeds. Their udder depth is the highest among milking sheep breeds, correlating to their higher milk productivity.
Which Dairy Sheep Do You Choose?
When deciding on which breed to use, you must consider many things. For example, the environment, the flock's size, the lambs' survival rate, and so on. For instance, breeding East Fresian sheep will yield up to 20 more lambs per 100 ewes. But, if you live in an arid or hot region, Lacaunes would be more likely to thrive.
Unlock the secrets to dairy sheep selection by tuning in to this interesting video.
If you want to start dairy farming with sheep, the East Friesian breed is your best bet if you can get your hands on some good stock. They aren't as robust as Lacaunes but will perform better in cooler climates. If you need a more robust dairy sheep, the Lacaune is a better option for you. However, they produce fewer lambs and less milk than East Friesians.