How should we assess the state of, and prospects for, the Suffolk breed? If we look at 'the numbers,' the answer is 'not good.'
If we extrapolate the ten year trend in registrations, Suffolks will fall into 2nd place among the breeds – below Hampshires – within two to three years. If we consider that, in 1970, Suffolks registered 5x as many sheep as Hampshires, this is sobering indeed. It is not that the Hampshire breed is doing well – far from it, they are in steady decline, too – but that they are doing less badly, since the present fad for Hampshire wether sires is bolstering their registrations.
The reason for the decline in our registrations is not a mystery. Article after article have pointed out and decried the trend, but to little effect. It is quite simple. Since the 1970s, the show ring has taken the breed in its own direction – to a model based on aesthetic considerations rather than on commercial utility. Our breed has not been alone in this; we have merely been the 'Breed in the Lead.' The fact that we have separate 'production classes' speaks eloquently to the fact that our 'breed sheep' are not selected for production traits.
This has happened because our breed associations – NSSA, ASSA, and USSA – long ago abandoned any role in enforcing a breed standard, and effectively turned over the breed to the tastes of judges. An acquaintance of mine, the past president of another meat breed association, put it succinctly – "we don't have breed associations, we have registration associations." We register but don't regulate – certainly not conformation, nor integrity, either, for that matter. Those who have tried to influence Association policies in the direction of promoting carcass and convenience traits have experienced frustration at best, if not outright hostility and abuse.
Over time, this has had its effect. Show ring genetics have progressively found their way into commercial stock, reducing productivity and longevity. Breeders focused on production traits find it increasingly difficult to find outside genetics (at least, with reliable pedigrees) that they can bring into their programs.
It should be noted that there are many who think that this is just as it should be. An editorial in The Banner not too long ago asserted that breed associations have no business enforcing conformational standards, and decried those on association boards who argue for policies promoting production-oriented livestock. The next month, the author of the editorial noted, with evident satisfaction, that the mail response to this editorial was overwhelmingly positive – which probably says more about the readership of The Banner than anything else.
Nor does integrity in the show ring bear close scrutiny. 'Aging' of lambs is so commonplace as to be expected. When a new Suffolk family begins to show sheep, one of the first things they learn is that they will regularly compete against people who lie about the age of their sheep. They are then faced with the ethical dilemma of whether to follow suit (after all, 'everyone does it') or to have their lambs consistently placed down as 'giving up too much size' to the lambs above them. Similarly, pedigrees, particularly in the wether sheep ranks, are frequently questionable or completely fabricated. No serious effort has been made to address these abuses, for fear of offending influential breeders. 'Bully pulpit' appeals to ethics have all the credibility of athletic steroid bans without testing.
So, what should we do? Quit breeding sheep, or give up on keeping registered stock? Of course not! The one thing necessary, for each of us, is to choose to ignore this nonsense – the unproductive sheep, the show ring abuses – and focus on breeding the kind of sheep most of us actually like – thick-muscled, structurally correct, easy-doing, fast-growing, moderately-framed, durable and long-lived. In other words, the kind of sheep that first made the Suffolk the dominant terminal sire in the US and worldwide. Most of us know how to select for this kind of sheep, which is precisely the kind of sheep that US agriculture requires. All we need to do is 'say no' to prevailing show ring fashions, and the conventional wisdom of those who are economically and/or emotionally tied to the show ring. If we can do this, we can focus on producing truly outstanding sheep that any real livestock breeder can be proud of. To find the kind of genetics we want, we may have to search far and wide to identify like-minded breeders, or search for older treasures in semen tanks. But our breed has not yet fallen so far that we cannot produce this kind of animal.
However – make no mistake – having this courage of one's convictions is tough. More than a few long-time breeders, even those with commercial sheep operations, have heeded the siren call of the show ring and changed their stock in ways they know are non-productive, against their own better judgment. I've been struck by the number of times I've heard comments from such veteran breeders, "yes, our sheep in (fill in the blank, 'early 70s', '1950s', etc.) were better" – and then asked myself, "So why did you make them worse?" The answers are not hard to find: peer pressure, a desire for recognition in the show ring, and the lure of big payouts on individual sheep.
So consider this a call to 'do your own thing' – breed the kind of sheep you believe in and can be proud of. And if your neighbor 'disses' your sheep for not being tall enough or elegant enough, or whatever – just smile to yourself, and feel sorry for those who are only 'following the crowd.'