Canarian goats and French sheep
Recently, I had the opportunity to visit Spain and France. I attended the XI International Conference on Goats in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria (Canary Islands). After the conference was over and I returned to Madrid, I rented a car and visited one of the dairy sheep regions of France. My travel partner was David Gordon, a 4-H and agricultural extension agent from Montgomery County. David is a member of my small ruminant “action team” for University of Maryland Extension.
At the goat conference, we presented two scientific posters. One summarized five years of data from our Western Maryland Pasture-Based Meat Goat Performance Test. The other poster gave the results of a preliminary study in which we compared the carcasses of pen-fed vs. pasture-raised goats.
The Canary Islands is an autonomous region of Spain, seven islands located off the northwest coast of Africa. Contrary to popular opinion, the Canary Islands were not named after the canary bird. In fact, it’s the other way around. Although there is much speculation, the Canary Islands were most likely named after dogs. The connection to dogs is retained in the islands' coat-of-arms and flag.
Goats are the most important livestock in the Canary Islands. Most are dairy goats. There are almost as many dairy goats in the Canary Islands as the entire United States. Even the sheep are milked. Almost all the milk is made into cheese. A big hunk of cheese was included in our conference packet and we had the opportunity to sample many local cheeses.
I was disappointed that we were not able to visit any dairy goat farms in the Canary Islands, nor venture very far from the city of Las Palmas. On the tour day of the conference, we visited a local veterinary college and saw their sheep and goat research animals and facilities. Afterwards, we walked to an exhibition area where they had several local breeds of goats and sheep on display. We were introduced to the historical use of poles or sticks. Shepherds would use the long sticks to leap over ravines to tend to their stock.
It was a day’s drive from Madrid to the dairy sheep region of France. Along the way (in Spain), we saw many large flocks of sheep, being tended to be a herder and dog(s). Our first stop was to the INRA research station in Toulouse, where we met up with several dairy sheep researchers and extension specialists. While in Toulouse, we also had the opportunity to visit INRA's rabbit research facility. Rabbit production in France is quite sophisticated and France is a leader in rabbit science.
From Toulouse, we traveled to St. Affrique, the center of dairy sheep activity. We visited a “typical” commercial dairy sheep farm with 400 Lacuane ewes. Management is intensive. The sheep spend half the year in the barn. During the grazing season, the ewes are allowed to strip graze for a few hours a day, usually alfalfa. The ewes are well-fed. The farm produces its own feed, harvesting its own hay (in loose form) and having its cereals custom combined.
Breeding is via artificial insemination, with rams covering ewes that fail to conceive to AI. Ewe lambs are bred to lamb for the first time as yearlings. Lambing occurs in October and November. The lambs are allowed to nurse their dams for four weeks, after which time the ewes are milked twice per day. The milking parlor was a double stanchion with a pit. Weaned lambs are sold to another farm that fattens them for market. Slaughter weight is approximately 40 kg (88 lbs.).
The farm had an employee and was supporting an extended family. Since milk is produced on a quota system, there is little incentive for improving milk production. Instead, the goal is to reduce production costs and increase efficiency.
In Roquefort sur-Soulzon, we toured the world famous caves where Roquefort cheese is ripened. Roquefort cheese is one of the world’s best known blue cheeses. While similar cheeses are produced elsewhere (including in the U.S.), European law states than only cheese aged in the natural caves of Roquefort sur-Soulzon may bear the name Roquefort. Several companies produce Roquefort cheese. We visited the largest called Roquefort Société.
Roquefort cheese is made entirely from the milk of the Lacaune. The cheese is white with distinctive veins of green mold. The mold that gives the cheese its unique flavor is Pencillin roquefort found in the soil of the local caves. I had never tasted Roquefort cheese before my trip to France. I absolutely loved it and was pleased to learn that my local grocery store now stocks Roquefort.
We visited an AI (artificial insemination) stud in St. Affrique. Being in the dairy sheep region, most of the rams were of the Lacuane breed. The French have established several different selection lines of Lacaune: dairy, prolific, and meat. They have even infused a heavy-muscled Texel gene into one selection line. The Lacaune is definitely a breed that has something to offer the U.S. sheep industry, especially the fledgling dairy sheep industry. Too bad, it is so difficult to import germplasm from other countries.
Another breed that was numerous at the AI stud was the Rouge de l’Ouest. The English translation is “Red of the West,” referring to the breed’s geographic origin as well as its unique pinkish face and legs. It is a very heavy muscled sheep. There were also some Charollais rams at the stud. They are similarly very heavy-muscled.
The Suffolk rams at the AI stud looked nothing like the Suffolk rams we have in the United States. They are smaller-framed, heavier-boned, and heavier muscled. Europeans tend to put more emphasis on muscle and performance, as compared to the United States. All of the rams at the stud are performance and progeny-tested.
In France, most dairy sheep and some meat sheep are bred via artificial insemination. Ewes are inseminated once per breeding season (by an AI technician) with fresh semen from an AI stud. A 70% conception rate is expected, similar to natural service. After a single insemination, rams are put in with the ewes to cover those which did not conceive to AI.
Artificial insemination goes hand-in-hand with performance testing. Significant genetic improvement is not possible without both. This is where the U.S. sheep industry is at a huge disadvantage to France. AI is not very viable in U.S sheep. One reason is because our industry is separated by huge geographic distances. In France, it is possible to deliver fresh semen anywhere in the country within six hours. In the U.S., it is necessary to use frozen semen.
The conception rates with frozen semen are not very high unless the semen is deposited directly into the uterine horns via laparoscopy, a surgical procedure that requires expensive equipment and a high level of expertise. The U.S. sheep industry also lags behind other animal industries and countries in the use of performance testing. The primary purpose of AI is increase the use of genetically-superior males, as determined by performance and progeny testing (not phenotype). There is little value in spreading the semen of a male that will not improve performance.
Our favorite visit was to the INRA research station in La Fage. At La Fage, they maintain research flocks of dairy and meat sheep. The dairy sheep were Lacaune (of course!). The dairy barn had a computerized feeding system that allows for individual feeding of ewes. It takes several weeks for the ewes to learn which feeding slot is theirs. One of the station's current research projects is evaluating the economics of once-per-day milking.
The meat flock is composed of crossbred ewes: Romanov crossed with a local French breed. The meat sheep are being raised on pasture (range). After weaning, lambs are fattened on concentrate diets. One research project was looking at the effect of fertilizing native grass. The station is also doing some interesting behavior studies with the ewes and their lambs.
Europe’s Biggest Livestock Show
Our final stop before returning to Madrid was Sommet de L’Elevage, Europe’s largest livestock show. The show reminded me of the Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival, wall-to-wall people! It had a very large trade show and we had the opportunity to see many different breeds of beef cattle, dairy cattle, sheep, and horses.
The shows were more celebratory than ours.We saw lots of big bells at the show, around the necks of both sheep and cattle. Some of the cattle had beautiful leather collars to display the bells. Most of the beef cattle were very heavy muscled. In fact, one breed (Belgian Blue) requires the cow to have a c-section in order to "deliver" a live calf. They call these cows, “zipper cows!” David had seen these big-butted breeds before, but I never had. Wow! Even Simmental cattle were shown as a dairy breed.
We saw an assortment of sheep breeds: popular French breeds (e.g. Charollais, Ile de France, Lacaune, Rouge de l’Ouest), common European breeds (e.g. Hampshire, Merino, Southdown, Suffolk, and Texel), and rare French breeds (e.g. Bizet, Rava, Thônes et Marthrod). The most numerous sheep breed at the Sommet was the Blanc du Massif Central, a meat breed.
There was a lot of sheep handling equipment in the trade show. Sheep seem to be managed much more intensively in France, from the standpoint of feeding and breeding.
On the way back
On the way back to Spain, we drove through the Pyrenees mountains. While winding through the mountains, we saw numerous flocks of sheep. The Pyrenees are another production area for dairy sheep, but the breeds and production systems are different from those in the St. Affrique area. In the mountains, the sheep have longer fleeces and are horned. They are raised more extensively.
Sheep flock in Spain
Listen to the bells!
Our trip to Spain and France wetted my appetite for travel to Europe. I am interested in learning more about sheep and goat production systems in Europe and perhaps doing a sabbatical. From production standpoint, I think there are more similarities between the U.S. and European countries than New Zealand and Australia, at least in the eastern half of the United States.
Our trip was partially funded by the National Association of County Agricultural Agents.
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