A Glimpse of China's "Mega Sheep"
In November 2018, I was one of several international speakers at a Symposium on Sheep Industry Development in Tianjin, China. While there, I got to visit a couple of "mega" sheep farms.
The seedstock farm I visited had 6,000 ewes on-site (11,000 sheep total) and raised imported terminal sire breeds: White Dorper and Australian White. The commercial farm had 20,000 ewes of the native Chinese Hu breed.
The Hu is a fat-tailed sheep with origins in Mongolia. It is known for its outstanding maternal characteristics, including early sexual maturity, aseasonality, and prolificacy. In fact, the FecB gene, which is responsible for high ovulation rates and litter sizes in Booroola Merino sheep, has been identified in the Hu. Wouldn't it be great to have this breed in the US?
Most people are familiar with the White Dorper, a muscular “hair” breed from South Africa. The Australian White is another composite “hair” breed. Its make-up includes White Dorper, Texel, Poll Dorset, and Van Rooy. The Van Rooy is another South African hair breed (fat-tailed).
The Australian White is called the “Wagyu of the sheep world,” because its meat is considered to have superior eating satisfaction, due to the lower melting point of its intramuscular fat. At least one US farm is now importing Australian White genetics. This is good news, as the US industry strives to improve lamb meat quality.
China is the largest producer (by far) and consumer of sheep meat in the world. While the majority of producers (~88%) have fewer than 30 animals, there are great efforts to intensify sheep (and other livestock) production in China to meet the growing demand for meat and dairy products.
Per capita consumption of sheep meat is much higher in China than the United States: 3.5 vs. < 0.5 kg (1 kg = 2.2. lbs.). The Chinese do not seem to differentiate between lamb and mutton.
China’s largest sheep farm has 100,000 ewes. Wow! On these “mega” farms, the sheep are raised in buildings, similar to pigs. They are kept in social groups, except for the few days ewes and lambs spend in “big” lambing jugs. Some animals (e.g. rams) have outside lots. In fact, the rams at the seedstock operation were taken out for exercise daily.
Breeds which adapt well to confinement are raised. Lambing is accelerated (every 8 months). Some artificial insemination and embryo transfer is practiced; at least it was on the breeding farm. Detailed records are kept. Electronic ID is used. Lambs are marketed when they are about 4 months of age and weigh about 50 kg live (110 lbs.).
The sheep we saw were healthy, productive, and well-fed. I did not witness any stereotypies (abnormal behaviors due to confinement). While a few sheep had hoof issues, the majority appeared sound. The sheep are fed silage-based diets according to the requirements of each stage of their production cycle. Weaned lambs are fed pelleted diets. Biosecurity was impressive.
Some people may scoff at this kind of production system, calling it “factory farming” (a term I despise). While many producers keep sheep (and goats) confined, these kinds of farms (also in US and Canada) take it to a different level. Some sheep never get to go outside. Though they consume largely forage diets, they do not graze or browse.
Confinement offers many advantages. Sheep are protected from predators, parasites, weather, theft, and inadequate nutrition – all factors which not only erode profit margins, but negatively impact animal health and welfare. In exchange, they do not get to “free range.” It’s called trade-offs.
Sheep "chose" domestication. Maybe some breeds would "choose" an environment that kept them comfortable, well-fed, and protected from all of nature's perils. Just a thought.
You can view all of the pictures from my visit to these two farms on Flickr™.
Read Big Meat: Mega Farming in China's Beef, Sheep, and Dairy Industries.
Created or last updated 12.06.18 by Susan Schoenian.