Thursday, September 21, 2017

2017 Ram Lambs



We had 15 ram lambs born this year and I was careful to note in early May that I thought all were quite good. You are never sure about that, but I always have a sense right away. It doesn’t always go that way, however. Over the past few years, we’ve had a few ewe lambs that we didn’t care for that ended up being quite good, and a few lambs that were not as good as we expected. All said, we’re probably about 95% accurate at birth (inaccurate enough that I no longer trust my early assessments).

Last week, I revisited that earlier assessment so I could determine which (if any) rams we should keep. As good as I thought they would be, they would have to be really good to earn a permanent place in our flock, given the quality of the other rams (and the fact that we already have eight adult rams).

Emma’s ram was the first one I looked at, but I already knew I was keeping him because I kept close tabs on him all summer, given his friendliness. So, I knew he was good. He is conformationally correct, has great fleece density, and is so soft. He is what I would like all of our sheep to be like. 





Often times, the finest Shetlands can also be shorter in fleece length, but I don’t think he is going to be that way. His mother has a good fleece length and so does Nitro, so I’m not surprised that this ram seems to have the full package. On the glass is half empty side, I’m not sure this lamb adds anything to our flock that we don’t already have in Nitro. Time will tell, but we’ll keep an eye on him. If nothing else, he is a good combination of genetics. I really wanted to see what I could produce by combining Canterbury and Nitro genetics. The more I look at him, the more I like him. He is certainly one of the overall top rams we've produced. Of course, I might only be saying that because he isn't a katmoget.

Pearl’s black ram is also a keeper. Nitro is the father. Our goal here was to get a black ram with fineness and fleece length and I believe this one has both of those traits. Black, perhaps more than any other color, is an enigma for us. It’s really tough to find fine black Shetland sheep that have the full package of stuff. I think this guy does. Pearl is Canterbury’s mother, so that bodes well I think.



As you can see, the nice crimp extends very far back. I don't show it here, but it looks like this all the way back to the tail.

I’ve also made no bones about liking Jane Eyre’s fawn katmoget ram out of Nitro. At this point, he may not have that classic Shetland look, but I’m interested in seeing him full grown. He looks like an athlete as this point. Very trim, long bodied and streamlined. His fleece will not be as long as Emma’s ram, but I am curious how it will end up in the spring with a full year of growth. When I put Nitro with Jane Eyre, I was trying to add some fleece length to what she has without losing her fineness. That was a tall order, but we got some interesting things with this lamb, and I believe he checks both of those boxes as well. His mother is our finest ewe. I always say that when you get a lamb that you like with several generations of excellence in the immediate family tree, hold onto it.



I thought I had a fleece shot, but turns out I don't.

I still have not decided on all of the ram lambs, but those three are keepers. I do not have a need to keep a fawn katmoget, but all of them are of that quality, so I may keep one.

This is one that is in contention for that honor. He is out of Mr. Darcy and Pamela, two excellent Shetlands. He is incredibly dense and I would say he is the finest of this group of ram lambs, and possibly of all of the lambs this year. As I said, rams this fine also typically have shorter fleeces, but this guy doesn’t. He just has an incredibly luxuriously handling fleece.




The problem is that we already have four really fine fawn katmoget rams, so if I keep this one, another needs to go. Plus, a few of the other fawn katmoget rams may not be as fine, but they also have some traits that maybe the others don't. This is never easy. Of course, this kind of fretting and stewing over which lambs to keep has gotten us to a good place.

I also like this grey katmoget out of English Garden and Mr. Darcy. Again, a bit longer fleece, but still very fine and tightly crimped. I still remember putting Itasca with our F1 Todhill Jericho ram that we had at the time. That was a breeding that I did primarily for conformation, knowing that the fleece would likely be good, but perhaps not as fine. That’s how it turned out. Really solid lambs with dense fleece, good length, and average fineness. So, this guy has retained all of those good traits and added fineness to the mix. I’m always amazed what happens when you look long term and not just for the next generation. The only thing I don’t like about him is that he is a light grey, which I don’t care for. Mr. Darcy is incredibly dark (and finer), but he also lacks some of the traits this guy has.




I also like this really fine moorit out of Genoa and Nitro. He is probably the nicest moorit we’ve had born here. Does he add anything to our flock? I haven’t decided yet. He has scurs, which is almost always a disqualifier for me since I am usually looking for excuses to cut the ram lamb group down to a reasonable number. The fact that I am still considering him is impressive in itself.




The last ram that I am mulling over is this guy out of Siena and Mr. Darcy. I don’t believe he is as fine as perhaps any of the others, but I still think he is fine enough. The question is whether he offers other qualities that are worthwhile. He is dense and he has good fleece length. He is built well also (thank you Siena).




What I really like about him, however, should be pretty clear from the pictures. His fleece is a bright, shiny, dark silver. It’s almost metallic. It’s a combination of a dark katmoget fleece with brilliant luster added. It’s almost like a clearcoat finish on a car. In fact, if they made cars this color, I would want one. So, I have to decide whether this is really something to add to our flock. One of the other ram lambs also has some of this, and he is finer, but this guy has it in spades. I was not able to capture that quality in the photos, however.


With 15 ram lambs, I’m not sure it would make for great reading if I wrote about all of them, but there is really only one that I would not keep from a fleece perspective, and even he is structurally outstanding.
I will post my thoughts about some of the ewe lambs at some point, but the decision making process was more urgent on the ram lambs, so it forced me to take a hard look.


I always find our ram lambs to be a good indicator of where we are against our flock goals because they are so important to the future of the flock. If we continue producing good lambs, we'll always have a good avenue for continued progress.


The key for us now is to determine what the next phase should look like for our farm. I don't feel like getting finer is either necessary or desirable. I do think fleece length and luster are. I think that needs to be our focus going forward without losing the fineness that was so hard to get. The perfect fleece for us would be one that is dense, lustrous, fine, 4" long with great elasticity. To get there, our rams have to have it.

Friday, September 15, 2017

2017 Flock Goals



I haven’t done a good job at blogging about the flock in quite a while, so I am going to get back on top of it in short order. I think Jen and I have worked hard at getting our flock where it is, but there is always something to work on. I’m going to do a series of posts on what has worked and hadn’t for us over the last few years in terms of our breeding goals. I’ll start with our breeding goals.

Goals should always be tangible and measurable. Right away, you can see the problem as it pertains to Shetlands. Much of what a lot of us are working on with Shetland is intangible. Yes, we can all do micron testing and post our numbers, but that’s only a piece. We’ve never had a micron goal for our flock, and as each year goes by, I understand why. It’s just the wrong thing to do. Whether we realize it or not, establishing a goal for micron counts drives counterproductive behavior. I’ll give you an example.

This spring, we micron tested 35 ewes and rams. Thirty had fleece microns below 25.0 (86%). Of those, only two had Spinning Fineness’ above 25.0. Moreover, 14 of those had Spinning Fineness numbers at or below 20.0 microns. The lowest was 16.5 microns. Impressed? Don’t be. When I look at those numbers I ask a few questions? Is that too fine? Are the fleeces too short? Are they appropriately dense? Is the handle there? Usually, the answers to those questions is no. Sometimes, I feel like we have reached a boundary condition and we swing the pendulum a bit to correct things.

When I look at our goals, what does all of this mean? Our goals are:

·         Great density
·         Great handle
·         Fineness
·         Fleece structure
·         Crimp

In short, we want the type of fleeces that make me weep openly when I stick my fingers into them because they are so luxurious to the hands.

The problem is that I don’t have numbers to shoot for for any of that. I know it when I see it. That’s a terrible set of goals, in other words. Unofficially, I will tell you that our goal has been to have all of our two year olds at or below 25.0 microns. Well, this is the first year I can say that we achieved that. It’s not the wrong goal, but it has to be combined with the others because I can tell you that it would be very easy to lose all of the other important traits we are seeking if we focused only on that one goal.  You can have sink your hands into it luxury with that goal, but if you can't translate that into yarn, what do you really have? We want to create an experience for the handspinner that they have never seen before.

Our overriding goal is to produce Shetlands that would fit right in with the best flocks in the Shetland Sheep Society in the UK. I would love to have four pound fleeces with 5” long staples containing tiny tight crimp, but it doesn’t work that way. All of the goals need to be weighed against each other to strike the correct balance.

When I look at our successes, I think of Knightley as a great example. This year, his second fleece had an AFD of 22.2 and an SF of 21.1. His fleece has a great handle and is uber dense. 


Everything is there. We have finer, but does anyone really need a Shetland fleece that is finer than this? It easily doubles in length when stretched and yet is a solid 3" unstretched. He got his density from his mother Siena, who is one of our coarsest ewes at 27 microns. But she is one of our best producers because her father is Pompey Magnus, who was superfine as an adult, and her mother was Cor de Nuit, who was not all that fine, but was so dense and squarely built. I always felt Siena was a good combination of traits. I think Knightley is better. As I've said repeatedly, you have to look down the road a few generations.

Canterbury is Knightley's father. Canterbury’s four year old fleece had an AFD of 18.8 and a SF of 17.8. Which is the better ram? When you sink your hands into both fleeces, you might conclude that Canterbury’s is better. It’s finer. But it’s not as dense or as long. So, I would say if the goal is to fix ewes with fleece flaws, he is a good choice. He helped us tremendously. Actually, Canterbury's fleece isn't shorter, but it's not as dense. You can really see and feel the difference in micron though. Canterbury is also very fine boned. I would not put him with very refined ewes. That's just me. As a lamb, he was one of the most unramly looking rams I've ever seen. More pretty than handsome. But he introduced some good traits to his lambs with the way I used him.

That is the value of setting goals. I am very aware that my vision of the ideal Shetland might be different than someone else’s. I am educated on what the breed looks like in the UK, but even so, other people with the same knowledge have different preferences and goals. We have different approaches as well.

So, this is an evolving process. There remains a lot of work to do. If it was all about fineness, I could declare victory and move on. It’s not, so this complicated tapestry of Shetland genetics continues its grip on my soul. There’s always another river to cross (often more than once) and another mountain to climb. 

This year, I found it incredibly difficult to sell sheep because I liked all of them so much. How many people sell 20.0 micron adult ewes? We did. We had to in order to keep our flock size down and retain some of the yearlings and ewe lambs (I think we have 30 ewes in that bucket). They are the future of our flock and the foundation for the next round of incremental improvement. When you look two or three years down the road, those are decisions you have to make whether you like it or not. We just aren’t a breeder that sells all of our lambs each year. To me, that means our adults are all perfect. I don’t feel that way. I always feel like next year’s lamb crop will be a cut above, and so far, that’s been true. Selling most or all of your lambs each year means all improvement stops. We have very few sentimental favorites. The ewes we retain each year fit a specific objective for the future. All of the ewes that we sell would also serve a valuable role if we had room to retain that many.

In closing, I wanted to share a few more pictures to illustrate some successes.

The first picture is a fleece shot of Kyrie’s fourth fleece. She is three this year. The camera does not do this justice. Great density and fineness. Very tiny crimp also. She is a smaller ewe, but the fleece is spot on. It is not our finest fleece, but it is very fine.





I'm not saying everyone will or should like this fleece, but I do.The funny thing is that it's not really all that fine compared to others that we have. Her Spinning Fineness is a very respectable 24 microns, but I would've guessed lower than that by the handle. What gives this fleece the traits I value? She is out of Egyptian King (a black Bond son who had a very finely crimped and dense fleece) and Pearl (who has a dense and finely crimped fleece also). It's good breeding. Granted, I was shooting for a black lamb with that particular pairing, but sometimes you get what you want, but in a different color.


This is Wentworth’s second fleece. It looks very different than Kyrie’s even though they have the same micron. Wentworth’s fleece is very dense and had better length than Kyrie’s (although both are acceptable). 

Wentworth’s fleece does not have the same handle as Kyrie’s, however (not many do). The difference is in the scales on the fibers. There is no way to quantify that, but that too is one of our goals. I liked Wentworth and still wonder whether I should’ve used him on some ewes at some point, but I opted not to. When I looked at all of our goals, there were just too many other things I wanted to achieve, so I didn’t. You always wonder what would’ve happened if I had though. The point is that what you have here is a very fine Shetland fleece with good length and density. Almost the perfect combination. The tips look a little blocky here, but on the sheep, I think they looked good. There is just so much density here. All the fibers are really packed in.

I will post pictures of this year's ram lambs soon just to contrast the above adults. It's easy to get all enamoured with your lambs and lose sight of what they will be come in two or three years. Above are three fleeces that became something special, even though they are quite different.

The point of all of this is that I can declare success with all three fleeces even though someone on the outside would scratch their head and wonder how I could do that with such diversity. The reason is that all are dense, fine, crimpy, and soft. We're not trying to create cookie cutter sheep here. We don't want them to all look the same. We actually have much more diversity than what I am showing here. When I share the ram lamb pictures, I think the difference will be apparent. I haven't done anything with the ewe lambs this year, because I knew we were keeping all of them. The rams are a tougher nut to crack because I have 15 that are quite different, but they all have really solid pros and very few cons. The trick is figuring out what we really need to move us forward.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Wisconsin Sheep and Wool Festival 2017

Just arrived home from the Wisconsin Sheep and Wool festival where we had a vendor booth in the country store.  Once again, a fantastic weekend, thank you to all who stopped by to talk about soft shetland wool!  We really appreciate everyone's support and positive feedback to our efforts to supply unbelievably soft and bouncy Shetland wool to our very talented knitting and spinning friends.

I was really inspired by the feedback we received and look forward to seeing you all next year!