Smallholders Insurance from Greenlands

Author Topic: Zwartbles sheep  (Read 4200 times)

Startingout

  • Joined Dec 2021
Zwartbles sheep
« on: February 20, 2022, 07:53:28 am »
We are getting some Zwartbles sheep. My reading so far suggests that they are generally easy lambers, milky, friendly, easy to handle, and hardy. People on the breed society FB page are very enthusiastic.

However, I've also read on a few sites, that they can be hard to get fat, and now that feet can be a problem?

[member=2128]Womble[/member] you kindly said you could give some advice?

SallyintNorth

  • Joined Feb 2011
  • Cornwall
  • Rarely short of an opinion but I mean well
    • Trelay Cohousing Community
Re: Zwartbles sheep
« Reply #1 on: February 20, 2022, 09:23:44 am »
It's good to collect some views from both sides of the fence, I would think, so that you are forewarned and can be forearmed as to any predictable problems.

Breed Societies and breeders are always very enthusiastic about their breed and find it hard to see fault!  lol.

When I came here, with my little mixed flock of easy keepers with nice fleece, the incumbent small flock were Zwartbles. 

I will try to be objective...

Good points

- very hardy, girt thick fleeces that the weather doesn't permeate

- very friendly sheep, extremely easy to tame and to get to follow a bucket

- very milky (originally a dairy breed), so generally their lambs do extremely well

- great big sheepskins (buy back from the abattoir and send off for tanning) which are gorgeous, and provide another income stream

- naturally polled (hornless)

- decent crossing sheep, we never had issues with lambs getting stuck no matter what tup we used.  The only difficult lambings we had with Zwartbles were over-fittened ewes having triplets, not enough room inside the fatter sheep to get all the lambs organised and birthed.  My advice would be to keep them at around CS2.5, not as high as 3 and certainly not over 3. 

- the meat is amazing.  I had expected to be able to convert the folks here to the primitives and crosses type sheep easily because Shetland and Manx meat is so flavoursome.  But in fact the Zwartbles meat is excellent, even I say it's very nearly as good as Shetland or Manx. 

- huge joints.  Is a bonus for us, we are a community of 20+ adults and 10+ children, so when we do a roast, we will eat a lot of meat!  We do either one Zwartbles leg, or 2 Shetland cross legs, or 3 pure Shetland or Manx legs! 


Less good points

- whilst some Zwartbles are now bred for softer, crimpier fleeces, many have fleece which is not particularly appealing to me as a handspinner.  And even the softer, crimpier ones do not float my boat.  But they have their fans and the fleece is by no means unusable.  Being always black, and the offspring always black no matter what you cross them with, it's not good fleece for dyeing!  And it doesn't wet felt easily (unless from the softer crimpier lines), which can be a bonus - but not to a felter, lol.

- the corollary of being so friendly (and so large) is that inexperienced keepers often over-tame them, and then can't safely get feed into the troughs etc as the huge sheep just bowl them over!  My advice would be to aim for a mutually respectful relationship, where the sheep aren't in fear of you, but do not invade your space unless invited.  And remember how big that cute little lambie will grow... ;) 

- feet are generally not the best.  My advice would be to be ruthless in terms of who you keep and who you breed from.  If she's needed attention to her feet more than once, she's dinner; doesn't go back to the tup.

- can be very susceptible to fly strike, and it can be harder to spot on the very thick black fleece.  I would suggest you use anti flystrike meds / sprays (as well as vigilance, the meds aren't a guarantee but will reduce the incidence hugely.) 

- the corollary of being very milky is that the ewes will need feeding before and after lambing.  I wouldn't try to keep triplets on a Zwartbles (unless maybe she - and the lambs - will accept help in terms of you topping up the lambs in the field) because she will lose so much condition she would become a prime candidate for twin lamb disease the following year.  If you do keep triplets on a Zwartbles ewe, wean at 16-18 weeks so you have time to dry her off and then get some condition back on her before she goes back to the tup.  (Not too much condition, but you don't want her as low as CS2 going back to the tup after triplets.)

- they get quite fat if they have a year off (even if they started very thin after doing their lambs too well), so we found it best to keep ewes in lamb and cull any gelds.

- first timers are best lambed indoors or at least penned up with their lambs for the first 48 hours.  They mostly don't bond well the first time without intervention.  I have never seen this after the first time, once they have experienced mother love it seems to kick in fine on subsequent lambings.  (We are an outdoor lambing flock here, and they are generally fine with that after the first time.)

- Ewes have quite short working lives.  Our best Zwartbles, Gwenneth, was an excellent ewe in every respect, but was worn out after 4 crops (all twins.)  And she had been put to the Shetland tup 3 of those times, a Romney once, so she hadn't been overworked.  None of the Zwartbles ewes here had ever kept on going easily for 6, 7, even 8 crops, like some Shetlands would.  (We have one of Gwenneth's last Shetland x daughters in lamb for the first time now, will be interesting to see how she does.)  Fortunes have been spent here, unsuccessfully, on meds and investigations on favourite Zwartbles ewes who are not recovering condition after their 3rd or 4th crop...   My advice would be don't expect long working lives, and cull any ewe who doesn't regain condition easily before tupping. 

- They are so big that small shepherds may struggle to tip a Zwartbles over for attending to feet, trimming bellies, etc.  However, we found most of the Zwartbles amenable to being taught to have their feet lifted like a horse.  It's more difficult to do their feet this way, though. 

- huge joints.  (Listed in both lists.)  If you are a family of two, a whole Zwartbles main joint will likely go off before you eat it all.  (So tell your butcher to do shanks and leg steaks, split the shoulders, etc.  And/or do rolled joints, which can be cut down to whatever sizes work for you, with the legs and shoulders.)   


All of which said, if you buy wisely from a flock which breeds for good mothering and good feet, and you don't over-handle them, they are a great choice for novice sheepkeepers.
Don't listen to the money men - they know the price of everything and the value of nothing

Live in a cohousing community with small farm for our own use.  Dairy cows (rearing their own calves for beef), pigs, sheep for meat and fleece, ducks and hens for eggs, veg and fruit growing

Startingout

  • Joined Dec 2021
Re: Zwartbles sheep
« Reply #2 on: February 20, 2022, 09:46:54 am »
Wow! Thanks for such a detailed list. I had read that people tend to tend to Zwartbles standing, rather than tipping.

What are your views on Shetlands? That is our other thought.

twizzel

  • Joined Apr 2012
Re: Zwartbles sheep
« Reply #3 on: February 20, 2022, 11:59:19 am »
Zwartbles and shetlands are total opposite ends of the spectrum. One very prolific, the other fairy low maintenance and not so prolific.


One downside to being very milky with any breed can be more prone to mastitis.

Womble

  • Joined Mar 2009
  • Stirlingshire, Central Scotland
Re: Zwartbles sheep
« Reply #4 on: February 20, 2022, 12:28:05 pm »
Okay, let's try this as objectively as I can. Warning - this could get long!


Let's start by saying that not all Zwartbles are built equally. There is what people refer to as the Dutch type, which are tall, leggy and elegant. Then there's another type which are stockier and more commercial looking. The type you pick should reflect your overall aim for keeping them.


One accusation I've seen is that Zwartbles tend to have bad feet. Six years ago, I would have agreed with that, and we gave our flock a round of footvax to get on top of a persistent footrot problem. However, I now believe that the issue was caused by a zinc deficiency in our pasture which was causing them to have weak hooves. I say that because sheep which arrived here with perfectly good hooves started to get horizontal cracks where new (post-arrival) growth met old (pre-arrival) growth, which then let in infection. Once we gave them a "zinc-rich" Rockies mineral lick, those problems disappeared. We never repeated the footvax, and 3/4 of our flock have now never had it.

We now rarely do anything with hooves except trim the occasional overgrown one. Sometimes the lambs get a bit of scald (like athlete's foot between the toes), but that's easily dealt with with a bit of spray, or if it's a few of them, putting them through a zinc sulphate footbath.


Re mastitis, yes we've lost a few good ewes due to mastitis. However, I don't think it's any more of an issue with Zs than it is with any other non-primitive breed. I have a friends who keep a large flock of Zs alongside others on a commercial sheep farm, and that's also their view.

OK then, advantages and disadvantages. As you'll see, often the disadvantage is just the flip side of the advantage, so it all depends on what you're looking for:


Advantages:


  • They lamb really easily, and are great mothers. We rarely need to assist a birth, and if we do, there's plenty of room to get your hand in!
  • They tend to be ridiculously friendly. I can walk up to most of ours in the field and catch them. To catch the flock, I open the pen up and then walk into it, and they follow me. This saves a lot of money on dog food.
  • They're big sheep. There's a lot of meat on a Zwartbles.
  • The lambs will finish the same year they're born. This is important for us because our land has a much smaller carrying capacity in winter c/w summer. Because we're not over-wintering hoggs, we can keep more ewes.
  • The meat tastes great. We consistently get comments of 'best lamb ever'. They tend not to get over-fat (our lambs tend to grade U3L or R3L, which is fine).
  • They're milky and prolific. Most of the time ours have twins or triplets. Whilst we will try to give one triplet to a ewe with a single, if that isn't possible, she tends to raise all three no problem, though we do wean them earlier to give Mum a chance to recover.
  • They're very beautiful sheep, and easy to spot in both mud and snow  ;D . If you're going to have to tend to your flock every day, you might as well have something you like the look of.
  • Most big flocks are MV tested / accredited. There is therefore a very low chance of ever having problems with MV.
  • There is a market for the fleece to crafters (particularly felters) if you're prepared to put in the effort for the meagre returns (we aren't!).
  • They make excellent "recip" ewes for embryo transplant, because they're easy lambing and produce more milk and for longer than other breeds. This is worth mentioning because firstly it gives versatility and secondly it provides a market for mis-marked ewes.
  • They can lamb at a year old (we don't, but some do, particularly to a smaller tup). Also if you were on good ground and really wanted to, you could lamb them three times in two years.

Disadvantages:


  • They tend to be ridiculously friendly. I once heard two farmers talking at an auction: "I just don't understand these Zwartbles. I mean, if you want a big wooly dug, get yersel' an effing poodle"  ;D .

    If you have a small flock, their friendliness can be great, but for example, it's really difficult to feed ours without getting knocked over in the mud because they have no fear of me and won't keep at a distance. This is also embarrassing at the abattoir because they invariably refuse to leave the trailer. Part of this will be the amount of contact they have with us, and the fact that we never chase them around, so they never learn to run away from us. However, part of it is just that they were originally a dairy breed, and are inherently friendlier than most. If I had five sheep, I'd get Zs. If I had five hundred, I definitely wouldn't.
  • They're big sheep. I can't tip the tups, and have to check their feet as you would a horse. That said, because they're friendly, this is no problem at all, and actually they're easier handled than our previous Manx Loaghtans, just because they're far less skittish.
  • They definitely need more feeding than other breeds. If you don't feed the ewes, they will 'milk off their backs' (lose condition) because they're putting so much into their lambs. If you don't feed the lambs, they tend to suddenly start growing upwards rather than outwards, and can be hard to finish. I think it's fair to say that Zs are higher-input, higher-output than a lot of breeds.
  • Black sheep tend to get a slightly lower sale price in the fat ring than white sheep. Also it's harder to spot fly strike on a black fleece, and we've not yet found a marker spray that works well (we colour code the white bits instead!)
  • Most big flocks are MV tested / accredited. Though you can show ,and sell at breed society sales without accreditation, you'll achieve a lower price. Accreditation unfortunately does not come cheap. You can keep the cost of that down by only buying from accredited flocks in the first place, and then keeping distance between your sheep and other people's, but it's wise to be aware of that from the outset.
  • If you want to get serious about showing, you have to lamb in January.

Right, that's enough for now. Feel free to disagree folks - debate is good - but please keep it respectful!
"All fungi are edible. Some fungi are only edible once." -Terry Pratchett

Buttermilk

  • Joined Jul 2014
Re: Zwartbles sheep
« Reply #5 on: February 20, 2022, 12:45:13 pm »
I keep Zwartbles so I am biased.

I decided that if I was going to be chasing sheep at least it would be ones that I like the look of.  Mine cross graze with the horses and lamb indoors during February.  I have never had to flush the ewes before tupping and with only one left to lamb this year they have all had twins.

Whilst the wool will not wet felt I have found that it needle felts very well.  I have purposely chosen the nicer fleeces in my flock and we have found it excellent for novice spinners to learn with.

The biggest bad point is that they are prone to foot problems, especially on wet ground. 

A lot of pedigree breeders get hung up on the markings and prioritise that over conformation.  This means that you can pick up well bred sheep with poor markings for less money than perfectly marked sheep.  I also have found that these sheep will breed perfectly marked lambs :)

Due to only having small numbers I sell my ewes on when quite young, they go to either a commercial flock in the next village or as embryo recipients for a local texel breeder.  This year I will be selling 6 of the 10 that have lambed as I have six ewe lambs from last year to come into the flock.  As it has been a ewe lamb year I will have to sell 6/7 ewe lambs at weaning this time as the majority of the sheep have had twin girls.  Numbers could very easily get out of hand if I kept everything.

Womble

  • Joined Mar 2009
  • Stirlingshire, Central Scotland
Re: Zwartbles sheep
« Reply #6 on: February 20, 2022, 02:17:39 pm »
A lot of pedigree breeders get hung up on the markings and prioritise that over conformation.  This means that you can pick up well bred sheep with poor markings for less money than perfectly marked sheep.  I also have found that these sheep will breed perfectly marked lambs :)

Yes, that's definitely true!


Also there are a fair few around with poor conformation AND poor markings. Hobby breeders (yeah, I know I'm one as well) tend to love all of their sheep and hence want to sell all of them to good homes, when plenty should have gone to the butcher. That is especially true of tups. The good news is that a good but not show-winning tup from good bloodlines is often pretty cheap. Also we found that because lots of people lamb in January, you can buy a good, proven tup in September for less than you'd pay in April.
"All fungi are edible. Some fungi are only edible once." -Terry Pratchett

Startingout

  • Joined Dec 2021
Re: Zwartbles sheep
« Reply #7 on: February 20, 2022, 07:19:24 pm »
So priorities are conformation, then markings. Only breed if they meet the society standards. Ruthlessly cull for bad feet, udders, and mothers.

I did have a chance to buy some mismarked unregistered Zwartbles but I couldn't really see the point if I want to (ideally) add to the breed rather than destroy it!

I have been told that another ⅓ acre may be available. It's not much, but it's a start that word is getting around about our venture. I'm hoping that more land gets opened up through word of mouth. In the meantime, we know that we are starting small and will need to stay small unless we get more land, so it makes sense to only keep and register the very best we can produce.

twizzel

  • Joined Apr 2012
Re: Zwartbles sheep
« Reply #8 on: February 20, 2022, 08:05:09 pm »
So priorities are conformation, then markings. Only breed if they meet the society standards. Ruthlessly cull for bad feet, udders, and mothers.

I did have a chance to buy some mismarked unregistered Zwartbles but I couldn't really see the point if I want to (ideally) add to the breed rather than destroy it!

I have been told that another ⅓ acre may be available. It's not much, but it's a start that word is getting around about our venture. I'm hoping that more land gets opened up through word of mouth. In the meantime, we know that we are starting small and will need to stay small unless we get more land, so it makes sense to only keep and register the very best we can produce.


Itíll be hard to cull ruthlessly especially when you have to buy in replacements for the first couple of years, but it is 100% worth doing. Itíll make your life easier in the long run and your flock will be better for it. With a small flock thereís absolutely no room for passengers, so decide what your culling reasons are, and stick to them. Breeding your own replacements will improve your flock too, as youíre not buying someoneís second best (no one sells their absolute best stock  :thinking: )


How many acres have you got to start with?

Startingout

  • Joined Dec 2021
Re: Zwartbles sheep
« Reply #9 on: February 20, 2022, 09:31:07 pm »
We're only on 4 acres to start, so super small flock. Although through word of mouth already there may be another bit of land opening up. The landowner is also on the look out for more land. So I'm hopeful that in time we can start to expand.

For now, small is good 😊

SallyintNorth

  • Joined Feb 2011
  • Cornwall
  • Rarely short of an opinion but I mean well
    • Trelay Cohousing Community
Re: Zwartbles sheep
« Reply #10 on: February 20, 2022, 10:25:59 pm »
(no one sells their absolute best stock  :thinking: )


Mostly true, but folks do have to move tups on once they are coming onto their daughters.  And if they've used him for two or three seasons, then he has done a good job, so an "aged" tup can be an opportunity to get an excellent animal for a fraction of what he would have cost as a shearling. 
Don't listen to the money men - they know the price of everything and the value of nothing

Live in a cohousing community with small farm for our own use.  Dairy cows (rearing their own calves for beef), pigs, sheep for meat and fleece, ducks and hens for eggs, veg and fruit growing

Womble

  • Joined Mar 2009
  • Stirlingshire, Central Scotland
Re: Zwartbles sheep
« Reply #11 on: February 20, 2022, 11:42:53 pm »
So priorities are conformation, then markings. Only breed if they meet the society standards. Ruthlessly cull for bad feet, udders, and mothers.

Yep. Buy as well as you can to start with, and then cull any with persistent problems. We ended up overstocked a few years ago when we lost some rented grazing. That led to some really difficult decisions, but basically any animal we weren't 100% sure about went to the abattoir. You know the Pareto principle that 80% of your problems come from 20% of your root causes?  It turns out that if you put those root causes in a casserole, suddenly your life becomes much easier!

BTW, I wouldn't necessarily say only breed if they meet the standard - at least not with respect to markings. Mis-marked sheep are still sheep, and will still breed well. You just won't be able to sell lambs from non-registered parents as pedigree.

Also, you didn't say whereabouts you are, but we're actually overstocked again, and will be selling some ewes with lambs at foot soon...
"All fungi are edible. Some fungi are only edible once." -Terry Pratchett

Startingout

  • Joined Dec 2021
Re: Zwartbles sheep
« Reply #12 on: February 21, 2022, 09:35:17 am »
Ooh that's exciting. We're in Southampton.

Womble

  • Joined Mar 2009
  • Stirlingshire, Central Scotland
Re: Zwartbles sheep
« Reply #13 on: February 21, 2022, 09:55:33 am »
LOL, sadly that's a long way from us in Scotland. However, once you've definitely decided on Zwartbles, join the Zwartbles Sheep Association, and that gives you access to a list of members that you can search to find other flocks nearby.
"All fungi are edible. Some fungi are only edible once." -Terry Pratchett

Startingout

  • Joined Dec 2021
Re: Zwartbles sheep
« Reply #14 on: February 21, 2022, 10:33:25 am »
Yes it is far too far away, although my Dad is Scottish, so I love Scotland!

I have found a few people on the Southern Zwartbles group, so we have made contact and visited our first sheep. We're getting them in March 😊

 

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