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
· Fleece structure
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.