For the record, I am not a self-proclaimed expert. Instead, just a rancher using Gods resources and the desire He placed in me to raise sheep. I have been around commercial sheep all of my life, and in the purebred Dorper business for eleven years. At some point, a clear mental picture of my version of the ideal Dorper (and/or White Dorper) sheep became my target for breeding. It is what the whole Wildcat Ranch breeding program pivots around.
So, “What is a Dorper supposed to look like?” It is a hot topic because the moderate, deep- bodied Dorper clashes with the streamlined look of leggier breeds.
Whether you are a breeder or a show ring judge, it is your obligation to have a credible answer. When you envision a great Dorper, is that picture a spin-off of another breed? Or is it a picture that is unique and backed by a deep understanding of the Dorper? For what it’s worth, I will share my vision of what a White Dorper is and what I believe they should look like.
The ideal picture of the Dorper comes from identifying the purpose of the breed. During the 1930’s, there was a surplus of slaughter sheep in South Africa that could not be moved because the carcass quality was so poor. I suspect these ranchers were in a serious economic crisis and it really forced them to take some aggressive steps to either create a breed that worked, or else go broke. Out of this dire scenario emerged some intense stockmen who defined clear performance requirements of a new breed. First, there was a need for a meatier, more carcass-oriented sheep to satisfy consumer demands. Secondly, the dry desert climate and cold nights required the breed to be hardy and efficient …with good fleshing ability. Finally, the sparse, rough terrain meant the breed had to be super-sound and good-footed.
With performance goals in place, the South Africans experimented with crossbreeding to find the foundation of a new breed. Through intense trial and error, the pioneer breeders found that crossing the Dorset Horn Ram with the Blackhead Persian Ewe created the best results for their needs. Through generations of stacking these genetics emerged their new breed and they called it the Dorper. Let me emphasize that the performance of the breed was highly scrutinized during the years of development. Outcrosses were experimented with British mutton breeds, but were omitted because their adaptability to harsh conditions disappeared.
Thus the Dorper breed was created. Selective mating continued to improve the breed and certain features have become prevalent: size moderation, volume, and soundness…functional traits…plus muscle.
Hovering over all of a Dorpers features is femininity in the ewes, and masculinity in the bucks. A ewe with a more feminine head and neck, a wedge-shape design with depth in her flank, and one that is a notch looser constructed tend to have more maternal ability. Likewise, a large-testicled, masculine ram with strong libido is equally critical. The longer I raise sheep, the more I realize how crucial this is and the role it has in getting more lambs on the ground in less time.
I recommend any breeder or judge to acquire the book “Dorpers into the New Century” by Dolf Lategan. Order one by contacting the American Dorper Sheep Breeders’ Society at ADSBSoffice@centurytel.net. In this book, it goes into systematic detail about genetics, management, mating, cull flaws, and everything you can think of. What is impressive to me though, is the fact that the South Africans meticulously wrote a manual on selection criteria. These “Breed Standards” are specific descriptions about what to look for regarding an individual sheep’s conformation, size, fat distribution, color pattern, hair covering, and the overall balance and appearance, or Type. They no doubt wanted to prevent future breeders from vainly altering phenotype that was already attempted years ago when the breed was developed.
I personally believe the South African breed standards have merit and should apply to the Texas show ring, including market lamb classes. There is no doubt that we like pretty sheep in Texas, so I suspect we will add another degree to South African standards: eye appeal… a look that is smoother in its transitions, a touch flatter in the shoulder, and a bit cleaner breasted than the common specimen. I support a more attractive look, as long as we do not sacrifice the 3-dimensional traits of the Dorper to get it.
I foresee THREE foundational characteristics of the Dorper that will test the show industry preference. Here they are, and my argument to select for them:
- Skeletal moderation. A heavy, moderate size frame makes the Dorper more viable. Obviously, a smaller animal requires less maintenance energy, and allows for an easier fleshing, more efficient animal. The exact size is certainly debatable, which leads me to instead support a size range that is successful. For the northern producers, maybe a sheep on the top end of the scale fits your cold climate better, while a ewe weighing 20 pounds less might be better in an arid southern region. I am okay with both as long as we all keep them within reason of “moderate” and well behind the scale of today’s Southdowns and commercial Ramboullets. On the opposite end of the spectrum are squatty built, really short legged Dorpers. Usually they are thick, but not feminine enough. They are really tight wound and appear restricted when put in motion. I have experience with that type of ewe at the Wildcat Ranch, chasing traits of muscle and volume, and found they have a lot of trouble giving birth. You can count on assisting every one of those kind and losing a percentage of their offspring. Now I cull every one of them.
Consumer demand is the other reason why Dorper sheep need to be moderate in size. There is a market segment that wants a consistent and smaller carcass. Craig Jones with Prime Fresh Foods located in Goldwaithe, TX, recognizes this demand and is utilizing the earlier maturing, moderate size of the Dorper to meet these customer demands. They are harvesting lambs that weigh about 100 pounds coming straight off of the pasture at 5 – 7 months of age. According to Mr. Jones, those good Dorper lambs yield 1’s and 2’s with an average of a 3” loin eye. I am unaware of another breed in America today that can grow that fast and deliver that much meat to bone ratio. There is no doubt, Dorper lambs do not fit traditional orders where lambs are put on feed until they reach 150-200 pounds before slaughter. So it makes sense to me to keep the Dorper moderate, and let it serve the niche of the market that it is designed for, while wool breeds serve theirs.
- Hide. The last asset of the Dorper that will test the current show ring preferences is the hide. A Dorper’s hide was meant to be a bit denser to resist those flys, and give them a shield against adverse weather. There is no doubt; “onion-thin” skin is pleasing to touch. But the truth is, thin skin is only cosmetic, not practical. Compare that to a dense, soft hide without excessive skin or undesirable wrinkles. Such a hide is an asset to a true practical sheepman. I realize it would take quite a bit of courage for a market lamb judge to praise a lamb for a denser hide, but the Dorper class gives an opportunity for an exception to that trend. Such a judge switching his preference to a heavier hide when the Dorpers enter the ring would be impressive.
Texas breeding sheep shows do tend to follow the South African breed standards. Market lamb shows can, if we want them too. To me, champion stud rams could become champion club lambs, with the help of a little rubber band. Their structural design and proportions are the same! Besides the effects of testosterone, the contrasts in a banner ram and a banner wether come from feeding and management. Our best buck lambs get fed all they can eat. The same club lamb is on a high quality, strict diet, plus an intense exercise regime. When you track and feed a show lamb properly, it firms up those abdominal muscles making their belly flat. Their bodies get shapely, the internal fat never builds, and their backfat is controlled. But that rib design, depth, and width are still the same.
Already today, there are “streamlined” lambs being bred that are leggy with a shallow middle. They are bred that way on purpose by very sharp show barn breeders, speculating on that freaky look to win banners. With Houston’s addition of a Dorper lamb show, they are even lured to alter the genetic purity of the Dorper to get that extra cool look. I support the existing ADSBS definition of a purebred Dorper/White Dorper as an animal upgraded to 93%, but I am afraid that rule will be overshadowed by lust for the winner’s circle. You, the major show judges wield the power in this scenario, so I ask …is that the route you want us to take? Is this freaky look really “better” for a breed that was purposely made not to look that way?
I am sorry, but my answer is counterfeit lambs do not have enough volume to fit the ideal Dorper picture. Its’ that simple.
2015 marks the first year that major shows in Texas have changed from “Hair Sheep” to purely “Dorper” market lambs. My hope for the Dorper is for judges to select a type of animal that fits what the breed was designed for. I specifically challenge market lamb judges to tweak their eye when the Dorper classes come into the ring, and boldly select a champion that looks like a Dorper, not an extreme lamb that most closely fits the design of another breed.
- Thuens Botha, South Africa
On a final note, I commend those of you who support the true fullblood Dorper. I send a special thanks to our Wildcat customers who dare to show a legitimate Dorper, and all breeders keeping this new venue pure.
Moreover, my hats off to all of you in the sheep industry. Our God given role is not just to provide lamb to consumers, but to educate and preserve the sheep industry in a manner that honors Him. To do that, it takes producers, extension agents, teachers, feeders, packers, judges, stock show administrators, and the list goes on and on. My appreciation extends to you all.
Thank you and please contact me anytime!