CORVALLIS - If you see a baby animal that looks like a tiny black-and-white Holstein cow following an ordinary-looking ewe, then you have spotted the latest import to Oregon State University's Sheep Center - the Dorper.
OSU animal science researchers have crossed 100 ewes with two Dorper rams. As a result, about 160 Dorper crossbred lambs are expected to show up this spring at the Sheep Center. They are part of a research project to test their suitability for production in Oregon, said Howard Meyer, an OSU animal sciences professor.
Dorpers were developed in South Africa from a cross between Dorsets, a cream-colored English wool breed, and the black-headed Persian, a haired sheep. Dorper lambs usually have a black head and a cream-colored body, while their lambs may have splashes of black or primarily black coats, much like the Holstein breed of dairy cow.
The Dorper lamb project is a sort of piggyback research project for Meyer. His primary research focus in the project is the productivity of ewes.
At the request of an Oregon Dorper breeder, Meyer agreed to the mating of Dorper and Suffolk rams to the ewes from his research project to compare the development of the lambs. Interest in the Dorpers is high because they appear to be hardy and fast growing.
Although now found in Oklahoma, Ohio and parts of Canada, Meyer's research represents the first time that Dorpers are being tested in Oregon.
The Dorper breed was imported to the United States in 1995 in embryo form via Canada, said Ron Gunther, who raises Dorpers at River Wood Farms in central Ohio. Gunther said the breed has several unique characteristics that make it attractive to potential lamb breeders. Aside from its hardiness and its good-sized carcass for the meat market, Dorper lambs do not require shearing.
"I call them a shedding breed rather than a hair breed," Gunther said. With the market value of raw wool depressed, it is hard for lamb raisers to recoup the cost of shearing, which can be as high as $2.50 a head.
Another attribute of Dorpers is that they will mate almost anytime, as compared to most other varieties of sheep, which are seasonal breeders, Gunther said.
"That's an advantage if you are trying to create a uniform supply of lambs," Gunther said.
Meyer said that most lambs go from birth to market in seven months or less in the United States.
According to the American Sheep Association, most domestic lamb is consumed on the East and West Coast, which has larger ethnic populations from nations where lamb consumption is more common. Those include Central and South America, the Middle East and the Mediterranean nations.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that 24 percent of the lamb consumed domestically is imported, creating an opportunity for domestic growers to capture a share of that market.
Meyer said the research project might help determine whether Dorper lambs could be a part of that market growth.