Top 10 Breeds of Sheep for Meat and Wool
Updated: Sep 15
Sheep are one of the most common livestock animals in the world. They can be used for meat, wool, and milk, among other things.
If you plan on raising sheep for meat or wool, it's important that you know about the different breeds of sheep so you can choose the best one for you.
There are a lot of breeds out there, some excelling in meat production, while others are bred specifically to produce high-quality wool. Luckily, we’ve done the work for you and found the top ten sheep breeds for meat and wool production.
Read on to learn about each of these amazing dual purpose sheep breeds!
The Merino sheep is the cream of the crop when it comes to wool production. It is estimated that this fine-wooled breed makes up more than 50 percent of the world’s sheep population!
The Merino breed originated in Spain during the Middle Ages. In fact, they were a staple of Spain’s wealth during this time — it was even a capital offense to export one of these treasured animals.
When Napoleon invaded Spain, the world gained access to the Merino and its high-quality fleece.
The first Merinos were imported to the United States in 1802. The breed was further developed in Australia.
The Merino is a medium-sized sheep. Ewes weigh between 125 and 180 pounds, while rams weigh in between 175 and 235 pounds. You’ll also notice that rams have long, spiral horns that wrap around the sides of their faces.
This breed is known for their longevity and hardiness, as well as their strong flocking instinct. They will also breed out-of-season.
When it comes to their wool, there is no comparison. Merino wool is the finest, softest wool in the world. This means it is less likely to itch when used in clothing, making it highly desired in the fashion industry.
While they are most known for their wool, the Merino is being increasingly used for meat. There is currently a movement among breeders to make them a dual purpose breed.
The Suffolk sheep is an English breed known to be a big, hardy animal. Developed in England during the early 19th century, this meat and wool breed has become quite popular with farmers who need a large-bodied animal that can thrive on poor quality pasture.
They were created by crossing Norfolk Horn ewes with Southdown rams. This fairly new sheep was imported into the United States in the late 19th century, but they really gained popularity following the Second World War.
Today, they can be found in all of the world’s top wool-producing countries. In the United States, they are the most popular pure breed of sheep that is raised for wool and meat.
The Suffolk is typically white with a black head and legs that are open, or free of wool.
They are a large, meaty breed that is ideal for meat production. Suffolk lambs are fast-growing and yield high-quality, heavy carcasses.
In general, the Suffolk's size and weight range from 120 to 150 pounds for rams and 100 to 130 pounds for ewes; however, some individuals may weigh as much as 200 pounds.
The Hampshire is a medium-sized breed of sheep that originated in the south of England in the 19th century.
It was developed by crossing Southdown sheep, Wiltshire Horns, and Berkshire Knots, among other breeds.
It is a dual-purpose sheep, meaning it can be used for meat and wool production. The Hampshire has been crossbred with other breeds to develop new strains, such as the Suffolk.
Hampshire sheep are popular in their native UK, but have also been introduced to many other countries including Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.
Ewes generally weigh between 175 and 220 pounds, and rams weigh between 220 and 310 pounds.
They are a large breed that is white with black faces and legs. Their faces and legs are closed, which means they have wool covering them.
This breed is an exceptional dual-purpose sheep breed because of their fast rate of growth and superior carcass quality. They are often used to sire crossbred market lambs.
When it comes to their wool, they are beloved for their down and their medium-wool fleeces.
The Columbia sheep is an American classic. In fact, it is the first breed to have originated in the United States.
It was developed specifically for meat and wool production in 1912 by crossing Rambouillet and Lincoln sheep. The goal of its original breeders was to create a sheep that would produce more wool and meat and replace the need for crossbreeding on ranches.
The Columbia was originally bred for the harsh environment of the Western United States, but today it is raised all across North America. It is also increasingly being used as a sire for crossbred market lambs.
The Columbia has a large-sized body, with rams weighing in between 225 and 300 pounds and ewes weighing between 150 and 225 pounds.
The wool on this breed is not as fine or soft as some other breeds, but it is able to be harvested and used as a heavy, medium-wool fleece with good staple length. They produce hardy, fast-growing lambs that do well in range-like conditions.
5. Dorset Horn
Dorset Horns are a small, black-headed breed of sheep. They're named for Dorset County in southwest England, where they've been bred since the 17th century.
Dorsets are a dual purpose breed used for both wool and meat; they're a good fit for beginners and small farms.
The Dorset Horn has many positive traits: it's docile, easy to handle and provides plenty of milk, making it an ideal choice for first-time farmers who want to keep their animals close by.
The main reason for their popularity is their ability to breed out of season, much like the Merino. In fact, it is believed that the Dorset originated from crossing Merinos with the Horned Sheep of Wales several centuries ago.
The Dorset breed was originally imported to the United States in the late 19th century. In 1948, the Polled Dorset was bred into existence. Today, there are both horned and polled varieties available.
One downside is that this breed isn't great at growing fat—which means your final product will be leaner than other breeds (though still tasty).
The Dorset Horn is also a good choice for small farms. Like the Soay, this breed is small and can be raised on limited acreage. In fact, they're often kept indoors during inclement weather because they don't have heavy coats like other breeds.
Dorset ewes tend to be prolific and will produce a lot of milk. Their lambs grow moderately fast and will finish with a heavily-muscled carcass that is ideal for meat production.
Their medium-wool fleece rounds them out as a fantastic all-purpose sheep that is great for small farms and big ones alike.
The Cheviot is a breed of sheep native to the Cheviot Hills in Northumberland, England. This hardy breed was developed as early as the 14th century.
They were bred to thrive in bleak, windy conditions. Some characteristics that help with this include easy lambing, strong mothering instincts, and quick maturity.
They were introduced to Australia in 1938, and there proved their ability to withstand the chilly, wet winters and hot, dry summers.
A century earlier, they had been introduced to the United States and gained popularity there.
Their original purpose was to produce high quality meat and wool, while also remaining suitable for hill grazing. It is a hardy breed, resistant to foot rot and other diseases.
The Cheviot is a medium-sized white-faced sheep with a distinctive appearance. They have clean, or wool-free, legs and head, with a black muzzle and feet. They are characterized by their stylish, alert carriage and hornless heads. Ewes generally weigh between 120 and 160 pounds, while rams weigh slightly more at 160 to 200 pounds.
Cheviot wool is long, strong and dense. It is fine in texture with a helical crimp that gives the wool added strength. In fact, it is often blended into other yarns to add durability to the finished product.
The Cheviot breed has been known for its ability to thrive on poor quality pasture and is still used today as an "improved" breed for cross-breeding purposes. This breed is truly a hardy breed, and requires less care than other breeds to thrive.
The Polypay sheep is a medium-sized synthetic breed that was developed in the United States in the 1970s. They were originally created with foraging, hardiness and longevity in mind.
They were developed at the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station in Dubois, Idaho and on a farm in Sonoma, California. Targhee x Dorset crosses were bred with Rambouillet x Finnsheep crosses.
The resulting Polypay was able to produce two lamb crops and one wool crop per year. Their prolific tendencies, good mothering instincts, and extended breeding season helped to launch them into popularity across North America.
Polypay lambs tend to have moderately fast growth and good carcass quality. Their medium-wool fleece makes them a solid dual-purpose breed of sheep.
This breed produces meat that is well marbled with fat, while also providing large amounts of high quality wool used in textiles. These sheep have a high resistance to disease due to their ability to spread out over larger areas than other breeds do.
Finnsheep, also known as Finnish Landrace, are a medium-sized breed of sheep. They have a thick, dense fleece that is good for spinning.
This hardy and adaptable breed is thought to be several hundred year old. They are believed to have descended from the wild Mouflon that live in Sardinia and Corsica. They also share ancestors with other Scandinavian short-tailed sheep breeds.
They were first imported to the United States in the 1960s for the purpose of producing crossbred ewes.
The reason Finnsheep ewes were chosen for crossbreeding efforts was because of their hardiness and ability to succeed in an accelerated lambing program. They are also known to have strong maternal instincts and are very prolific.
Furthermore, Finnsheep lambs are known for their hardiness and high survival rate.
Today, this breed can be found around the world. This is partially due to their soft, medium-wool fleeces.
This high-quality wool, along with their ability to produce milk and meat, make them a solid dual purpose breed. They also excel in the show ring.
9. Rideau Arcott
Rideau Arcott sheep are a small, dual-purpose breed that excels at producing both high-quality wool and meat. "Arcott" is actually an old word for "to eat.”
The Rideau is one of three Canadian sheep breeds that exist. It was developed at Agriculture Canada’s Animal Research Centre in Ottawa in 1968. Suffolk, Shropshire, Dorset, Finnsheep, and East Friesian sheep were all crossed to make the Rideau.
During the breed development process, emphasis was put on fertility, year round lambing, and retail cut yield.
Since its release to the public in 1989, the Rideau has quickly grown in popularity. They are ideal for use in commercial flocks to improve maternal traits. More often than not, ewes will carry triplets or twins.
The Rideau Arcott's smaller size makes them easy to handle. They are also quite hardy, making them a good choice for novices.
Rideau Arcott sheep are also slower to mature than other meat breeds, and as such tend to be more expensive to keep. However, for those who want a small flock of sheep that can provide both wool and meat, the Rideau Arcott is an excellent choice.
The Rambouillet is the U.S. version of the Merino sheep. Although Merinos are still raised in the United States, it is much more common to see flocks of Rambouillets, especially in the Western states.
The Rambouillet was developed from the original Spanish Merino, and as such, they have very similar wool. They also have their differences, though — the Rambouillet is larger than the Merino, and is more of a dual-purpose sheep.
The Rambouillet was created when Louis XVI of France imported 386 Spanish Merinos to his estate in Rambouillet in the late 18th century.
Although the breed originated in France, it owes a lot of its development to the United States and Germany.
Today, the Rambouillet is considered the most important commercial breed of sheep in the U.S. It has been used to develop several popular crosses, including the Columbia and the Polypay.
It is able to thrive in many different production environments. Occasionally, it is crossed with the Merino to improve wool quality.
The Rambouillet is a dual purpose breed of sheep. It produces a high-quality carcass and fine wool.
This breed is large in size, hardy, and has strong flocking instincts. Ewes have strong maternal instincts that have made them popular in crossbreeding programs designed to improve lamb production.
There are many different breeds of sheep that you can choose to raise for meat, wool or both. Each breed has their own unique qualities and traits.
It is important to know which breed will work best for your needs before making a decision on what kind of livestock you want on your farm.Use the list above as a starting point and do your own research to find the best breed for you.
Courtney Garrett is a freelance writer and editor traveling the world as a digital nomad. She earned her Bachelor of Animal Science with a specialization in Livestock Science and Management in 2019, and has worked with dairy cattle, sheep, goats, dogs, chickens, and more over the past 10 years. When not writing, she enjoys horseback riding, swimming, and taking walks with her Havanese puppy, Ella.