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This article was published in 1961
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The Sheep Industry in the U.S.S.R.


L. RIKARD-BELL, B.V.Sc., Veterinary Executive, "Haddon Rig" Stud, Warren

Following a visit to Australia last year by a party of Soviet Sheep Specialists, a reciprocal visit was made to the U.S.S.R. in August, 1960, by an Australian party of four comprising Professor P. McMahon. Professor of Wool Technology, University of N.S.W.; Dr. E. M. Roberts, Officer-in-Charge, Wool Testing Service, University of N.S.W.; Basil Clapham, General Manager, F. S. Falkiner and Sons; and the writer. The Soviet Authorities gave every assistance and extended every courtesy to the party and made available all facilities to inspect the fine wool producing areas and the associated scientific institutions.


Merinos were introduced into Russia during the reign of Peter the Great (1672-1725), thus anticipating the introduction into Australia by a matter of some 60 or 70 years. Little progress was made and by 1914 there were only four to five million Merinos and most of these were destroyed during World War I and followed, with the result that, in 1923, only 363,000 remained. In 1928 Russia imported 7,000 Merinos from Australia, Saxonian Merinos from Germany, Rambouillets from the U.S.A. and stud sheep from the United Kingdom and the Argentine. By 1935 the Merino flocks numbered 3,000,000 which had increased to 25 million by 1939 an increase of 22 million sheep in four years. (It should be noted that the early so-called Merinos were the offspring of pure Merino rams and longwool ewes and their offspring, but by the fourth generation types approaching pure Merinos were apparent). During World War II the numbers decreased to 16 million by 1946. By 1959, Merino and Merino types had increased to 50 million which represented 38% of all sheep in the U.S.S.R. In January 1960, the total number of sheep in the U.S.S.R. was 136 million, but under the existing 7-year plan to end in 1965 a target of 200 million sheep, or a 54% rise on 1959 figures, is envisaged, and of this number 60% or 120 million are to be Merino or fine fleece types. This would appear to be a very ambitious but not an impossible goal.


There are 60 different breeds of sheep in the Soviet Union, but the word "breed" is used loosely and would be described more correctly as a "strain" rather than a separate breed. Seventeen of these are fine-fleece Merinos — 60/64's quality, and seventeen are semi-fine fleece types — 56/58's. The remainder represent the semi-coarse and coarse woolled breeds. These produce sheepskins for clothing — Romanov and Romanov-Karakul — coarse carpet wools and milk and mutton production.


This is a hardy mountain breed and they yield 50% of their liveweight as meat, but up to 70% in fattened sheep. Rams yield from 55 to 100 lb. of fat, and ewes 20 to 35 lb; rams cut about 6 lb. of wool and ewes 4 lb. Rams. when mature, weigh 300 lb. and ewes 180 lb.


This breed produces a very dense, but very light and durable fleece and is used for clothing. The fibre density is double that of the Merino. The breed is very fertile, the ewe producing at least two lambs per pregnancy and lambing twice a year. The ewes weigh about 134 lb. and their fertility is used to improve the fecundity of other breeds by intercrossing, e.g. — Romanov-Karakul, a hardy breed of the Northern areas of Sverdlovsk-Urals.


This type is bred for the production of "Persian Lamb" and to obtain the tight curls, the lambs are killed when very young and skinned. The sheep are run mainly in Uzbekistan and there is a large export trade, Kazakhstan delivered over 1 million skins in 1959. Garments made from these skins are very expensive.


These produce a specialist wool with high felting properties used for making felt rollers for the paper industry. The felt is about three times as durable as that made from Romney or Corriedale wool The staple is from 3½ to 6 inches long and the quality is 44/50's.


Perhaps the most important representatives of the fine fleece section are the Soviet Merino, Askania Merino and Prekos of the older breeds and the Stavropol Caucasian Grozny and Altal of the newer breeds. Most of the newer breeds have been developed at the Stavropol Institute, and while space does not permit consideration of production details of all these types, it must be mentioned that leading Merino sires produce up to 60 lb. of greasy wool, and the average is 35 lb. to 40 lb., with a clean scoured yield of 35% to 45%. The rams are very big and average well over 200 lb. liveweight. In fact, one ram, off shears and after a three day starvation period, weighed over 300 lb.


This breed is of particular interest as it was founded on Australian rams. After World War II, a programme of breed improvement with very careful selection was carried out to improve body weight and frame while retaining the superior wool qualities. By 1952 this was considered to be a new breed and it was used to improve wool qualities in other breeds. The average body weight, off shears, of rams is 220 lb. while ewes weigh 115 lb. The greasy wool production of rams is about 36 lb., the best being 47 lb., and of ewes 19 lb., with a clean scoured yield of 45% to 50%. The average of a flock of 25,000 ewes was 16.5 lb. to 19 lb. with a yield of 44%. Fertility is high with an average weaned percentage ranging from 130% to 150%.


The Prekos, predominately polled, is an interesting breed which was initiated in France from Border Leicester rams and Rambouillet ewes and then perfected in Germany, probably with Saxonian Merino infusions. Russia imported 86,000 of these from Germany between 1925 and 1930, and the main flocks are in the Ukraine, Krasnodar, and at Omsk in West Siberia. The fibre length is 2" to 2½", 60/64's quality and over 60% clean scoured yield. The Prekos is & dual purpose breed, early maturing and very plain bodied with no neck folds. It is being used to improve the coarse wool Caucasian breed.


Some quite good polled Merinos were seen on this visit. Some of them had infusions of the Prekos, while others came from flocks with a strong infusion of Rambouillet blood. A number of rams from pure Rambouillet flocks were polled and this is of particular interest when one seeks reasons for the polled Merino "sport" of Australia, and one recalls that some of our major strains have had early infusions of Rambouillet.

The opinions on polled stock vary and some farmers regard them with disfavour, claiming they lack virility, while others state they are more fertile and cut better wool. This divergence of opinion is very similar to that existing in Australia. However, in Russia, both polled and horned rams are used in the one flock, providing the polled rams attain the accepted standards.


Attempts to evolve a Corriedale type were commenced at the Stalina State Farm in the late 1940's using Lincoln and Romney Marsh rams on Stavropol ewes. The Romney infusion was not satisfactory from a wool point of view and was discarded. The approach was genetically similar to that used for the Australian Corriedale, but they have a long way to go with this breed. Top ewes cut about 15 lb. of greasy wool with a staple length of 4" to 5" and a clean scoured yield of 52%. The weaned lamb percentage is 120% and the lambs weigh 71 lb. to 78 lb. at 4 to 5 months. Importation of Corriedales from Australia and New Zealand would hasten the stabilising of this breed up to accepted standards.


The extensive use of artificial insemination has been the greatest single factor in the numerical increase to date very rapid upgrading of flocks; this progress being denied to the sheep breeder using the more conventional methods of paddock-mating or hand-service. Only top rams with high production figures are used and this superiority is transmitted to large numbers of offspring in a very short space of time. On an average, a ram in a single season will provide semen sufficient to inseminate from one thousand to two thousand ewes. One exceptional ram, a Caucasian Merino, inseminated 17,680 ewes from semen collections over 155 days. In five years some 46,000 ewes were inseminated from this ram and the ewes lambed 120%. Soviet scientists claim that they have been successful in preserving ram semen for up to six months after which time a conception rate of 25% is obtained. If this claim is factual, it represents a considerable advance in this field of science.


This does not appear to be an immediate, or for that matter, a future threat to the world wool market. The internal requirements of the U.S.S.R. have probably been met by less than 33% to date. The target under the seven year plan envisages a production of 1,200 million lb. of greasy wool by 1965 compared with 765 million lb. for 1959. Even should the 1965 target be realised, this will in no way meet the demands for their vast and increasing population. The high cost of production and the internal price paid for wool, from £2 to £3/10/- per lb. greasy, would prohibit the entry of the Soviet wool to world markets, unless the U.S.S.R. was prepared to dump large quantities at a great loss. This step is regarded as most unlikely, as by so doing, she would deny her people the advantages provided under the seven year plan.

Clothing, by our standards, is of deplorably poor quality. This fact is appreciated by the authorities and every effort is being made to raise it as soon as possible.


Whatever arguments were valid when the embargo was imposed they are meaningless now. The U.S.S.R. has demonstrated that it can produce high grade Merino sheep and it is capitalising on this achievement by exporting sheep to such countries as India, China, Rumania, Jugoslavia, Afghanistan and Czechoslovakia. It is true that the importation of some thousands of Australian Merino rams in the late 1920's accelerated the improvement of the Soviet Merino, as did the importation of Rambouillets from the U.S.A. and Saxon merinos from Germany. They probably would have attained this goal without our help. It must be remembered that we developed our Merino breed from low-producing stock imported in the late 1700's.

From the viewpoint of world wool production and the battle of wool against synthetic fibres, the Soviet drive for wool production is to be lauded, not feared. The aim, surely, is to boost world wool production sufficiently to cope with the demands of a rapidly increasing world population and to guarantee wool in both quantity and quality to textile manufacturers.


Space does not permit of a full review of this aspect but the U.S.S.R. has many real problems confronting her in the control and eradication of animal disease and has a force of approximately 42,000 veterinarians and 49,000 partly trained men engaged in this work.


Contrary to popular Western ideas, all the sheep in Russia are not owned by the State and in the period from 1952 to 1958 the total number of sheep owned by the State and Collective Farms declined from 87% to 79% and privately owned sheep rose from 13% to 21%. At present there are 6,500 State Farms and 55,000 Collectives but the agricultural policy aims at establishing more State Farms in preference to Collective Farms as the latter are much less efficient. There are over 345 State sheep farms running Merino stud sheep and equivalent to our parent studs. There are also 90 or more Karakul studs. The Collective Farms are engaged in either mixed farming or sheep raising only.

Some of the State Farms are very large and the following figures give some idea of the areas and stock populations:— The Red Shepherd State Farm in the Ukraine has an area of 27,000 hectares (1 hectare is equal to 2.47 acres), of which 15,000 hectares are used for fodder and green maize, 1,500 hectares for maize grain and 600 hectares for silage. The rainfall is mainly Autumn-Winter rain and averages 12" - 13". The farm carries 26,000 sheep, 3,000 cattle, of which 1,000 are milkers, 3,000 pigs and 35,000 poultry. The sheep are divided in 35 flocks with 4 attendants per flock. In all there are 1,400 workers on the farm with a technical staff of 34 diplomates, 15 having college degrees.

The Soviet Fleece State Farm in the North Caucasus carries 40,000 sheep including 13,000 breeding ewes, 22,000 poultry and has 700 employees. The rainfall is 10" and the carrying capacity is 1 sheep per hectare. Here the elite or top ewes are classed to very high standards at 12 mos. of age and then are mated at 2½ years. The aim is to have 3 lambings in two years and this has resulted in 418 lambs per 100 ewes over the two year period the best lambs being dropped in January-February.

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