Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page

Crossbreeding sheep for milk and meat in a Mediterranean environment

by Michael Welham

The sheep in the countries bordering the Mediterranean number about 122 million (Mason, 1967) and vary from the super fine-woolled Merino of Estremadura in Spain to the coarse-woolled Greek Zackel or the fat-tailed desert-adapted sheep of the Near East. Many are triple-purpose breeds unspecialized for any one type of production. Hardiness, the ability to withstand periods of adverse conditions (i.e. sub-maintenance feeding, heat, drought, disease or poor management) and low production appear to be their most important common features. Exceptions are the Chios (or Sakis) breed noted for prolificity and milk yield, and the Sardinian breed, noted for milk production.

In many areas along the northern Mediterranean ewes are milked after lambs are weaned. This may be at 4 to 6 weeks of age in cheese-making areas. Examples are the Lacaune breed in southern France with lambs of 14 kg live weight, and the Langhe of the Piedmont region in Italy (15 to 20 kg). The importance of milk is underscored by the fact that in many of these areas one twin is killed at birth to raise milk sales.

Where the emphasis in production is on meat and wool, ewes may be milked virtually to dry them off, or for short periods after weaning. This occurs with the Merino in Spain when an Easter lamb of 23 kg is sold, or in Turkey where yields of 30 to 35 litres are secured after weaning. The Arab breeds of northern Africa are mainly exploited for meat, with heavier lambs for mutton production taking priority, although milking, particularly in northern Tunisia, is practised for cheese, butter or cooking fat production.

In the northern African countries shepherds wander with their flocks through the countryside, returning to the village or encampment at night. The main advantage of this system is that it facilitates the efficient use of cheap land resources; however, it is a hard life with low recompense for the shepherd. In the more advanced Mediterranean countries attitudes are changing and toleration of such a life is diminishing. Spain has 17 million sheep, more than any other Mediterranean country except Turkey, and an expanding industrial economy competing with agriculture possibly indicates what may happen in other areas which are so far less advanced. Sheep flocks, particularly milk flocks, are declining as labour becomes more difficult to obtain, leaving only the more profitable units and family flocks. At one time or another every country of the area has attempted to improve its own breeds by selection and importation of genetically superior stock. Such programmes have often been short-lived as a result of infertility or poor adaptability of imported breeds. In many cases the genetic potential of purebreds or crossbreds has not been realized by improved feed conditions, or else disease has wiped out the imported stock. In some instances one aspect of production has been improved at the expense of others of greater economic importance because targets were badly chosen.

Michael Welham is with Cría Ovina de Malpica, S.A., Malpica-Tajo, Toledo, Spain.

This article attempts to show why and how a planned programme of genetic, feed, health and management improvement implemented by a Spanish sheep-breeding company on its dairy and meat farms brought an over-all increase in returns from meat and milk production.

Sheep have been raised on the Malpica estates for centuries. When the present owner, the Duke of Arión, took over the estates in 1955, he continued sheep production with the Talavera (Talaverana) breed, originally a Mancha x Merino cross. He began to improve milk and meat production by crossing Talavera ewes with Mancha (Manchega) rams, a breed originating in the La Mancha region which is an “entrefino” type, i.e. with wool intermediate in fineness between the Merino and the coarse-woolled Churro. However, by 1970 it became apparent that rising costs could not be met by continuing with the existing system of sheep farming. The gains made by using the Mancha rams were insufficient and too slow to combat these costs. Hence it was decided that the approach to sheep farming would change radically. Increases in efficiency began with the importation of Awassi milk rams and Cadzow Finns with a genetic superiority for production that enabled their F1 daughters to support a more capital-intensive system. Some of the major economic improvements resulting from this new approach have been a 300 percent increase in production and a 50 percent reduction in land area utilized by sheep. In 1970 less than 10 000 litres of milk were sold per man employed. In 1975 this figure was over 30 000 litres, and by 1977 an output of 60 000 litres per man employed should be achieved. There have been similar increases in efficiency in the meat flocks, where lamb sales have increased by 350 percent per shepherd.

The dairy sheep farms of Cría Ovina de Malpica, S.A. (the Malpica Sheep Breeding Company Ltd.) are based around Malpica-Tajo near Toledo, some 106 km southwest of Madrid. The farm land totals 1 300 ha, lying between 400 and 540 m above sea level. The climate is continental, with cold winters (although the minimum is rarely lower than 1°C) and hot summers (up to 42°C). Rainfall is irregular during the winter months, with no summer rainfall. Snow is rare.

When taken in hand by the Duke of Arión, most of the land was low scrub with llex species or olive groves. Since then the scrub and olive have been cleared, and all the land can be irrigated with a fixed mains and movable pipe system.

The ewes and young stock have a bulk ration based on 80 ha irrigated mixed pastures (Lolium perenne, L. multiflorum, Festuca pratensis, Dactylis glomerata, Trifolium repens varieties), 60 ha irrigated forage cropping which is sown to rye in the autumn for spring silage and then to forage maize or hybrid sorghum in the spring for late summer or autumn ensiling, and 120 ha subterranean clover, mainly Mt. Barker and Dwalganup varieties. In addition, wheat, barley and sorghum grain stubble, soybean residues and sugar-beet tops are utilized by dry sheep.

The original sheep stock on the farm consisted of 500 Talaveras. In 1966 a further 3 000 Talaveras and Manchas were purchased from farms in La Mancha, Albacete and surrounding districts. Mancha rams were used until 1971, when the Israeli Awassi was introduced.

The meat flock is based in the province of Cáceres at Madrigalejo, 300 km southwest of Madrid. This farm is situated along the northern side of the Ruecas river, which has an irregular flow and dries out in late summer. Of the farm's 770 ha, irrigated pastures and forage cropping occupy 100 ha. The remainder is under dryland farming, with 525 ha subterranean clover and 75 ha of oats for feed and straw. Summer temperatures are higher than in Toledo and spring growth earlier, permitting grazing by late February, compared to mid-March in Toledo. The original stock on the farm consisted of 800 Merinos. Since 1973 these are being replaced by quarterFinns produced by breeding the Cadzow Improver (derived from Finnish Landrace, Dorset Horn and Ile-de-France) to Manchas and Merinos.

Milk programme

The Israeli Awassi was chosen as the basic milk yield improver because, apart from high yields, it is and extremely hardy animal suitable for large flock management. In 1971, 150 ewes were imported. The flock now numbers 480 ewes and ewe lambs. A further import was due before the end of 1975. Adaptation to Spanish conditions has not been a problem, as shown by mortality and production figures. Of the original 150 ewes, 103 were still in production in October 1975, 22 had been sold because of their low production following an outbreak of mastitis, and the remaining 25 died, giving an annual mortality rate of 4 percent. Yields from first lambings averaged 348 kg milk in 232 days, and from second lambings 410 kg in 264 days. The over-all average, including lambings by ewes 12 to 13 months of age, was 356 kg in 234 days.

Fifty rams were imported in 1971 and a further 130 in 1974. These, plus selected Spanish-born rams, have been used for the crossbreeding programme and for sale. The Company has produced 15 000 first crosses, mainly with Talaveras and Manchas, and estimates that a further 25 000 have been produced from Churros and from Castilians (Castellanos), an “entrefino” breed of Castille that is similar to the Mancha breed but is smaller and has a lower milk yield. Besides direct sales, the Company also operates an integration programme, sending out rams to other breeders and buying back 90 percent of the ewe lambs.

Under large flock management the crossbred ewes recorded have given 180 litres in 170 days in the first lactation and 210 litres in 200 days in the second and third lactations when lambing once a year. The practice of three lambings in two years with the higher-yielding crossbreds has been discontinued, but the system is still used with Mancha ewes, of which 84 percent successfully lamb three times every two years. The crossbred yields are substantially higher than the 80 to 95 litres obtained from the basic Mancha stock on the farm.

Parallel to the breeding programme, stringent health, feed, management and husbandry programmes have been implemented. An example is the irrigated pasture, which accounts for increases of about 20 to 25 percent in milk sales. Virtual eradication of losses due to brucellosis and contagious agalactia has been a further boost to yield. All ewes are now machine-milked through two carousels and two pit machines.

The Company now has 6 000 milk ewes and has nearly reached the carrying capacity of the farms for a balanced cereals/sheep system; further production will have to come from higher yields. The lambs resulting from the milk flocks either go to the Company's feedlot or are sold as milk lambs of 12 to 15 kg. Much of the capacity of the 9 000-place feedlot is empty at present as milk lamb prices are 140 to 156 pesetas per kg live weight and fattened lambs of 30 to 32 kg will sell at 105 pesetas per kg live weight.

All Awassi cross male lambs are fattened for slaughter and give a better growth rate than pure Talavera or Mancha lambs (1.8 kg per week compared with 1.5 kg). The Talaveras and Manchas also show a check at 28 to 29 kg, whereas the Awassi cross will grow well to 32 kg. Crosses with Churro ewes show even greater advantages over the purebreds. As shown by Antonio Bermejo Zuazúa at the Jose Antonio establishment in Valladolid, the fat tail in the first cross is negligible, the fat covering weighing on average 150 g. The F1 Awassi × Mancha milk ewe produces a very acceptable lamb when mated to a meat sire.

The Company has imported Suffolks, Hampshires, Dorset Downs and Cadzow Prime lamb sires (an Ile-de-France, Cheviot, Border Leicester Mix). Although all have given a remarkable increase in milk lamb weight and in growth rate (2 kg per week), the Suffolk and Hampshire are the most successful as all-rounders, and a further 130 rams of these breeds have been imported for the Company's own use, and for sale.

A small programme is devoted to absorbing the Awassi, and the Company now has seven-eighths bred lambs. Udders of the three-quarter bred Awassi are noticeably larger than those of the halfbreds, but it is too soon to give results for large numbers. The Mancha ewe has advantages over the Awassi such as a very short or non-existent anoestrus period, higher lambing percentages, better carcass and wool qualities, and the F1 appears the most suitable commercial cross. However, should milk prices continue to rise, the higheryielding but less prolific three-quarter bred Awassi may be acceptable. The Company has also begun selection of Manchas. Of 1 200 ewes, 300 have been identified as high yielders (130 litres), with the top 1 percent over 200 litres. These will be bred to Mancha rams from the National Flock of Valdepeñas. The Mancha has tremendous potential, but like other Spanish breeds has been sadly neglected. With quite normal treatment ewes can produce three or four lambs at a time, although infrequently, and ewes from the National Flock have given up to 491 litres of milk.

Malpica milk sheep (Awassi × Manchega F1)

Milk lambs derived by crossing Suffolk, Hampshire and Cadzow Prime lamb sires with Malpica (Awassi x Manchega) milk sheep

Throughout Spain, and particularly in Toledo province, a variety of Awassi crosses may now be seen. Appearance in the local Talavera stock market twice monthly has given the cross some prominence, and now the Awassi cross (or Malpica ewe) appears in the Ministry of Agriculture's price list for Spanish breeds.

Meat programme

The Cadzow Improver has been used for the last four years to produce a prolific crossbred with Mancha, Talavera and Merino ewes. However, with the passing out of business of the Glendevon Sheep Breeders station in West Lothian, which produced the Cadzow Improver, the Company may turn to the Finnish Landrace or Romanov to continue the programme. It now has 2 500 Cadzow crosses, which are kept in Cáceres province Lack of adequate water has prevented the full demonstration of the prolific ewes' capacity, but this has now been remedied with surplus water made available under the Badajoz Plan. The spring lambing of 1974 gave 195 percent lambing for the Cadzow F1 compared with 108 percent for Merinos of a similar age and 133 percent for Cadzow cross first lambers. All figures refer to lambs born per ewe lambing. Mortality was only 6 percent.

An even more interesting development has been the general improvement in fertility of the Finn crosses over the Merinos on the same farm. Under nutritional stress the Finn cross tends to come into season and produce a lamb, whereas the Merino will either fail to mate or return to heat and remain barren.

Lambs got by meat sires could compete in carcass quality with prime lamb produced anywhere in the world. The Company has found that Suffolk and Hampshire crosses can be taken to 36 to 38 kg live weight without excess fat in the males. No ram lambs are castrated in Spain.

Now that more water is available, the main objective is to increase ewe numbers to 4 000 and lower feed costs by full feed production (apart from protein supplement) from within the farm.


Mason, I.L. 1967. Sheep breeds of the Mediterranean. Fao and Commonwealth Agricultural Bureaux, Farnham Royal, Bucks.

Previous Page Top of Page Next Page