Sheep Kept for Their Dairy Qualities

The East Freisian

Sheep have been kept for meat and wool for thousands of years. Not so well known is the fact that they have also been milked for equally as long.

One of the dairy breeds of sheep is the East Friesian. This breed originated in the East Frisia region in northern Germany. It is recognised as one of the heaviest producers with roughly 900 to 1,100 pounds being produced over a 200 to 240 day lactation. Obviously, to achieve the highest yields, ewes need to be fed well. Milk fat ranges from 6 to 7% and average total solids are 18%.

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Ewes are also highly prolific with triplets and quads being 'normal'. When crossed with other breeds, the East Friesian infusion results in higher numbers of lambs and higher milk production. The breed is not particularly hardy although when crossed with a tougher breed, the crossbreds tend to be hardier. Crossbreed lambs are very fast growing.

The East Friesian has been crossed with the fat-tailed Awassi breed to produce the Assaf. The Awassi was the highest producing breed in the Middle East, producing single lactations of over 650 pounds per 210 day lactation but has been surpassed by the Assaf. The Assaf is 3/8 East Friesian and 5/8 Awassi and is now popular with most Israeli dairy breeders. The breed adapts easily to extensive management systems and produces excellent mutton. Ewes will have three lambs in two years with annual milk production 450 litres.

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East Friesians do not adapt well to intensive systems which is another downside to the breed. In North America, the East Friesian has become the breed of choice although the breed is generally crossed with another dairy breeds. Invariably crosses produce more milk than the parent breed. The breed was not introduced into North America until the 1990s.

They are a heathland sheep with several breeds coming under the umbrella of 'Friesian'. It is the German East Friesian that is designated as the East Friesian. Their most common use in their home country is as a milk producer for domestic households.

A good result has come about by crossing the East Friesian with the Lacaune, which is itself a French dairy breed of some renown.

East Friesians are relatively large. Mature ewes weigh between 85 and 90 kg. East Friesians have no wool on their head and legs. It is a poll breed. The nose is pink and the hooves are pale. Most distinctive is the 'rat-tail' which is thin and free of wool. The wool is white with a staple length of 12 to 16cm and a weight of 4 to 5 kg. It is ideally suited to carpet making. The carcass is lean.

East Friesians were first imported into New Zealand in 1992. Stringent quarantine measures came into force with compulsory testing for scrapie, Johnes disease and other diseases. During the four to five years the animals were in quarantine, they were crossed with a number of breeds and the progeny assessed for various factors. Eventually the breed arrived in Australia in 1996/97.