The world sheep breeds are estimated to be more than a thousand in total. Over half of these are kept for wool production. Fine wool sheep breeds are the most popular among farmers due to their superior wool which is in demand thereby making them highly profitable.
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Characteristics of Fine Wool Sheep Breeds
Fine wool sheep breeds are characterised by their soft, luscious wool measuring between 16 to 24 microns. In some areas, fine wool is considered to be less than 20 microns. Although they can be bred for both meat and wool production, fine wool sheep breeds are usually selected for their ability to grow dense, fine fleece that is ideal for the production of ultra-soft, high-end clothing. Their fleece is often shorter in comparison to that from long wool sheep breeds. None the less, it can outweigh fleece from some long wool sheep breeds as their fibre spins well. Fine wool sheep breeds tend to grow slower than other sheep breeds and so nutritious feed and good living environments are necessary for the production fine lustrous wool. Note that fine wool sheep breeds produce fibre that varies according to quality. Some wool can be superior and command a higher market price than others. For this reason, farmers should be aware of the different types of breeds and their characteristics so as to select an appropriate breed.
The Merino is often referred to as the king of sheep due their superior wool production, hence are among the best fine wool sheep breeds. Merino sheep differ considerably with regards to size, conformation as well as extent of skin folds. They have white faces and legs; they also have wool growth on their faces. However, it is seldom extensive enough to cause wool blindness. Merino sheep can either be polled or horned. Horned Merino have long spiral horns that grow lose to the head. Polled breeds have very small stubs called scurs. This breed generally weight about 80 to 105kg (rams); ewes weigh about 55 to 80kg. Their average fibre diameter can be as low as 15 microns thereby making it the best and so commanding a high market price. However, the average fibre diameter of all Merino sheep is less than 24 microns. Merino breeds should be shorn at least once a year as their coat grows continuously. If the coat is allowed to grow, it can cause heat stress, mobility issues and blindness. There are several breeds of Merino sheep which are classified as fine wool sheep breeds: strong, broad wool (23 to 24.5 microns), medium wool (19.6 to 22.9 microns), fine (18.6 to 19.5 microns), superfine (15 to 18.5 microns) and ultra-fine (11.5 to 15 microns). An upside to keeping Merino sheep is that they provide farmers with an excellent opportunity for crossbreeding in order to improve wool quality. Since fleece characteristics are highly heritable, Merino crossbreeds add staple length and clean fleece yield to crossbred offspring.
Rambouillet sheep are the largest of fine wool sheep breeds. Ewes weigh approximately 63 to 82kg and rams about 90 to 136kg. Rambouillet ewes are polled whereas rams have horns with a sprawling curl which extends away from the face or curl tight close to the head. Rambouillet sheep are easily identifiable by their white face and legs which are covered in wool. The wool covering the face is rather long causing wool blindness hence the need for frequent grooming. To solve this challenge, most farmers are making use of the selective mating system. Rambouillet breeds are fast growing and so are able to produce satisfactory fleece weights at 6 to 9 months of age. Rambouillet sheep are basically categorised as fine wool sheep breeds because their wool has a fibre diameter of 19 to 24 microns. Ewes have fleece that weighs 4.5 to 6.8kg. They have a staple length of 6 to 10cm and a yield of roughly 45 to 55%. The upside of keeping this breed is that it has a longer breeding period which is valued by most farming who have an interest in cross breeding. In addition, they have fewer skin folds which reduces skin and external parasite problems.
This breed is believed to have originated in the 1920s in Tatum, New Mexico from a crossbreed of the Rambouillet and the Delaine Merino breed. Debouillet sheep are medium sized; they have white faces and legs covered in wool. The rams can either be polled or horned but ewes are generally polled. Debouillet rams weigh approximately 79 to 113kg while the ewes weigh about 57 to 73kg. This breed is known for its high quality fleece hence it is among the fine wool sheep breeds in the world. The fleece weight is around 4 to 8 kg with a staple length of 7.5 cm to 12.5 cm which is 18.5 to 23.5 microns. Yield is about 45 to 55%. Deboillet sheep are hardy and adaptable to unassisted pasture lambing. They are able to produce fine wool under varied environmental conditions. Despite this ability, it is essential to provide the flock with a nutritious feed for health purposes and to maximise productivity.
American Cormo Breed
The American Cormo sheep is also among the fine wool sheep breeds. The breed was developed in the early 1960s in Australia from a cross breed of Corriedale rams and fine Saxon Merino ewes. American Cormo sheep are easily identified by their open faces without any wool. They are mainly white in colour and are usually polled. This breed is highly famed for producing white, fine and long fleece with a unique degree of fibre consistency. The fleece weight is roughly 2.25 to 3.6kg with a staple length of 6 to 10cm. The yield is anywhere between 50 to 65%. Wool from American Cormo sheep has an average fibre diameter of 17 to 23 microns. An additional benefit of breeding American Cormo sheep is that they are hardy and well adapted to a range of climatic conditions. Though small in size, the American Cormo is a desirable sheep breed because they typically require less food than other breeds, economically producing wool year-round. In addition, they are fertile and make good mothers; they also tend to grow faster than most breeds.