There are three main purposes of sheep – wool, meat or dairy. Choosing one will simplify your choices significantly, but if you want a more diverse set of products, your strategy will become a little more complex. A breed will excel at one thing while having the ability to offer the others to a lesser extent. It will be difficult to find a breed that, for example, is equally good at producing wool and meat, and will certainly fall behind their single-purpose counterparts at any one of these commodities. Finding a breed that produces wool, meat, and dairy in feasible quantities is extremely challenging and will be largely determined by your definition of “feasible quantities”.
Focus is a virtue within any business, and shepherding is ultimately a business like any other. There is only a certain amount of effort you can expend, and applying it strategically is key. A mistake that some beginner shepherds make is thinking that since sheep produce all three – wool, meat, dairy – their bottom line might benefit from looking to use the flock to produce all three. It makes sense on paper – a breed that is best for meat production still produces wool, so why not use it? The same way that a wool breed can be used for meat or dairy. But this approach will only distract you and spread you thin, and making decisions about breeding becomes increasingly complex. It is best to begin by focusing on exactly one product as it will be a good basis for a long-term strategy. Arriving at a quality product, whether meat, wool, or dairy, will require experience and multiple generations of sheep to achieve.
Another good way to categorize breeds is according to their functions within breeding practices. Ram breeds, also known as “sire” breeds, are favored for meat production purposes as they achieve substantial growth comparative to ewe breeds. Ewe breeds, also known as “dam” breeds, are favored if the animal is going to be kept long term. Ewe breeds have better biological defenses against parasites and live longer as a result. They also have a greater chance of producing more numerous offspring, so they are great for lambing. Unsurprisingly, this also makes them excellent dairy sheep. The differentiation between ewe and ram breeds is not exactly clear-cut, and some breeds are therefore considered “dual-purpose” and can be used as a sire or a dam. The rarest type of breed is “landrace”. This is the breed that wasn’t subjected to artificial breeding practices and was allowed to develop naturally within its environment. Landrace breeds aren’t viewed through the lens of their productivity but are valued for their genetic purity. Having landrace breeds around is important for cross-breeding, as they represent a genetic makeup with clear strengths and weaknesses, and can be used to create a crossbreed that is less diluted than those most commonly found in your average flock.