Dobberpuhls Strive For Larger Lamb Chops

By Kelli Gunderson, Livestock Editor

A comment from one of Dale Dobberpuhl's sheep producer friends several years ago dramatically changed the way he and his wife, Judy, breed sheep on their farm southeast of De Pere.

"He said he'd like to be able to eat a lamb chop that was as big as a pork chop," Dale recalls of Ed Dittbrenner, who still raises sheep near Cumberland. Ed's idea sounded like a good one to Dale, and, ever since, he and Judy have focused on breeding their sheep for the largest loin eye possible.

"I took Ed's goal and took off with it," says Dale, an engineer by trade who admits his engineer's ingenuity shows through in his flock of sheep. "I'm always designing stuff," Dale says. "With sheep, I'm not satisfied with what's available so I design my own."

Dale didn't necessarily start out with the idea of designing his own sheep. When he and Judy bought their first registered Suffolks 12 years ago, the sheep served as a 4-H project for the youngest of their seven children.

"We started with large-frame Suffolks," Dale says, "but we were disappointed by how our lambs placed in the wether classes." By the time the Dobberpuhls' children were out of 4-H, "Dad took over the sheep project," Dale says, speaking of himself. It didn't take long for him to replace the large-frame sheep in the flock with smaller framed, more wether-type Suffolks with which he thought he could make a greater improvement in loin eye area. "We weren't going to get the improvement in loin eye that I wanted with the big show sheep," Dale says.

For six years now, the Dobberpuhls have been seriously focusing on improving the size of the loin eye in their registered Suffolks. They pay an ultrasound technician from Iowa to come to their farm twice a year - in June and August - to ultrasound scan their January-, February- and March-born lambs for loin eye area, at a cost of $6 per head. The technician scans the earliest born lambs during his first visit and the later born lambs the second time around. During those visits, Dale likes his lambs to weigh at least 95 pounds to achieve the most accurate scan results, with 125 to 150 pounds being ideal. No matter the weight of the lamb, though, Dale adjusts the final weight to 135 pounds so all his loin eye measurements are easily comparable. With this method, the Dobberpuhls have seen an impressive improvement in the loin eye area of their lambs since they started ultrasounding six years ago.

"We've gone from an average loin eye area of 2.9 square inches to an average loin eye area of 3.5 square inches in our ewe lambs," Dale says. Several of their ewe lambs' loin eyes currently measure 4 square inches and above. Most impressive, however, is the fact that the home-raised ram the Dobberpuhls are currently using as a flock sire (appropriately named 'Big Chops') has a loin eye area of 5 square inches - the largest they've ever measured in their flock.

"Our lead ram had a 5-square-inch loin eye at five months and 12 days of age," Dale says. "That's about market age for sheep, so we've proved a 5-square-inch lamb chop can be accomplished."

Interestingly, the Dobberpuhls owe their accomplishments to breeding from within. Dale says he doesn't know of anyone else in the country who's selecting rams and ewes according to ultrasound loin eye measurements to the extent to which he and Judy are, which means opportunities for bringing in purchased animals for which loin eye areas are already known are few and far between.

"For the past five years, we've used our own top ram lambs for breeding," Dale says. He and Judy choose to breed their rams internally with the criteria that any ram retained for their own use must have at least a 4.5-square-inch loin eye at 135 pounds and come from a dam who's known for her good mothering abilities and easy maintenance. As members of the USDA's Voluntary Scrapie Flock Certification Program, the Dobberpuhls also require all the rams they keep for breeding to test RR (the genotype that's most resistant to scrapie) at codon 171. Currently, there's a good chance the couple's Suffolk rams will test RR, since about 70 percent of the flock has that genotype.

When it comes to selecting ram lambs to offer for sale, Dale and Judy don't consider any ram with a loin eye measurement of less than 3.3 square inches. Like their retained rams, they also like their sale rams to come from good maternal lines. Buyers seem to appreciate the reliability of the Dobberpuhls' selections.

"We're becoming known for our consistency," Dale says of the animals he and Judy sell from their farm, which they call Mint Gold Ranch. They sell rams and ewes privately as well as at sales - the Fall Classic Sheep Sale in River Falls and the Wisconsin Sheep Breeders Cooperative Performance Sale during the Wisconsin Sheep & Wool Festival in Jefferson, both of which occur every September. In order to consign to the latter sale, Dale, a past Wisconsin Sheep Breeders Cooperative board member, has entered a few of his ram lambs in the Wisconsin Ram Test every spring for the past three years. In that test, the rams are ultrasound scanned for loin eye area, among other things. This past spring, the three Suffolk rams the Dobberpuhls entered in the contest averaged a 3.48-square-inch loin eye (adjusted to 135-pound lamb weight), beating the test average by nearly six-tenths of an inch. The Dobberpuhls also had the largest loin eye ram in the test, measuring 4.04 square inches.

Considering the way the Dobberpuhls' Suffolks measure up when it comes to loin eye, it's no surprise other breeders are showing interest in their sheep.

"We've had people drive a long ways to buy sheep from us," Dale says. He and Judy have had several buyers show interest in their rams after learning about the lambs' performance in the Wisconsin Ram Test. Two years ago, "One guy saw the results of the test and said he had to have a ram from us," Dale says. That same producer was back this year to purchase another of the Dobberpuhls' top rams.

In general, buyers of the Dobberpuhls' sheep have varied when it comes to their purpose in the sheep industry. Commercial producers, those interested in producing club lambs, 4-Hers, and those who direct market their own meat have all bought animals from the Dobberpuhls. Direct marketers have especially shown interest as of late, Dale says, undoubtedly because of the improvement in loin eye area possible with Dobberpuhl genetics.

"We've really developed our flock for direct marketers," Dale says. "More and more people are selling lamb direct to the public, and they've been some of our best customers." Although Dale says he's thought of direct marketing his own lamb, he says that wouldn't likely leave him enough time to pay as much attention to his flock as it deserves.

"We've found our niche by providing other breeders sheep with big loin eyes," Dale says. "People know that Mint Gold Ranch is the place to come when they want big loin eyes."

Helping spread the word about Mint Gold Ranch have been venues like the Wisconsin Ram Test, but Dale and Judy are also looking into developing a website - http://www.mintgoldranch.com/ - on which prospective buyers will be able to find information and photographs of sheep available for sale.

"Right now, almost every night we have e-mail from prospective buyers asking for information on our sheep," Dale says. "We could save a lot of time with a website."

Developing a website, for which the Dobberpuhls have already purchased software and posted their first informational page, will likely be Judy's project this winter, during her annual break from lambing. Generally, Judy takes care of the daily chores on the farm while Dale works as a full-time engineer at Manitowoc Cranes. Judy admits she "saves the heavy work" for Dale, but says she appreciates being more involved with the sheep operation than she was two years ago, when she worked as an estate tax preparer. Judy's greater involvement with the sheep has made for some intense husband-wife discussions concerning flock management decisions, as each generally has his or her idea about how things should be done. One of the things the couple agrees upon, however, is that there's room for growth on their 125-acre farm - the same one on which Dale grew up and to which the couple returned just five years ago.

"Right now, we're low on sheep numbers," Dale says. He and Judy currently run about 120 ewes on half their acreage, renting the other half to Dale's dairy farmer cousin who lives across the road. Of the Dobberpuhls' 120 ewes, only about 50 are the Suffolks they breed for loin eye area. Another 40 are predominantly Dorset and crossbred ewes they raise as a commercial flock. And the remaining 30 ewes are White Dorpers that Dale and Judy experimented with for the first time about two years ago.

"We're playing with the Dorpers to see if there's potential there for a commercial flock," Dale says. He especially likes the Dorper's ability to shed its wool in the spring so he "(doesn't) have to worry about shearing." "We could run more animals that way," he says.

Dale's ultimate goal is to manage 600 ewes on the farm where his parents, Norma and the late Rudy Dobberpuhl, once milked the highest producing herd of Jerseys in the state.

"I've always wanted to be a significant livestock person in the state like my dad was with cows," Dale says. "Being an engineer, I don't have enough time to devote to dairy farming, so I thought maybe I could do it with sheep instead."

An indication that Dale might have already cemented his significance in the Wisconsin sheep industry is his and Judy's recent recognition as the Wisconsin Sheep Breeders Cooperative's Commercial Master Shepherds of the Year. The couple received the award at the Wisconsin Sheep & Wool Festival in September, and they say they're committed to continuing the kind of work for which they were selected for the award in the first place.

"There's potential for us to grow here," Dale says. "My plan is to retire into sheep in five or six years. That's something I would love to do."