Tuesday, September 23, 2008

To Breed or Not to Breed - Rich

That is the question. It’s a question I often stumble around with like a drunken pirate in the French Quarter of New Orleans.

How do we pick our breeding groups? We start with an idea about the type of lambs we want, don’t we? Do we want a brown or black based lamb? Do we want patterns or spots? What about modified colors? I think we consider all of these characteristics, don’t we? Or do we merely throw caution to the wind sometimes and put a ram and a ewe together because we like both of them and think we’ll like the lambs as well? Or do we pair up the ewes with rams that we think they'll get along with the best (you know, like we do with people). I was only kidding about that last part, but the point is that we all have different reasons for why we put together certain breedign groups.

For example, as we've discussed our breeding approach this fall, we have been afraid we’re going to end up with too many black based lambs. But we have a clear plan for where we want to go, and to be honest, lamb color isn’t really high on the list of what I am after. I don’t really care whether a lamb is brown or black based. Yes, I would prefer a nice mix, but our focus remains on conformation and fleece. I came across lots of rams this year with nice characteristics. I even found a few browns that I liked a lot. But I didn’t find a brown that had everything that I wanted. I saw some darn good ones that I probably should have taken, but at this point in our program, we're after very specific things in our rams (and I won't bore you with them).

As a result, most of our ewes will go with our two mature flock sires this year once again because they both have more of what I want than any others that I came across. Cihat and Clover both have excellent conformations, nice fleeces, and either carry brown or are brown.
Clover is mioget, but doesn’t carry spots.
Cihat is black and spotted and may carry modified genetics. I don’t know about that yet. But I do know that both rams have exceptional conformations by my standard (which admittedly, might not be the same standard that everyone else uses).

Then there is Black Walnut, a ram lamb born on the farm this year. He is the closest thing we have to all around perfect! He has a perfect conformation, a lovely intermediate fleece with nice luster, and is a spot carrying katmoget. Does he carry modified genetics? Possibly. So, we are going to use him this year on a few ewes to see what he throws. I haven’t decided how many yet. So he’s kind of a hybrid between Clover and Cihat in terms of what he brings to the program.

So, what else do we need in our program? Well, this is year three of our conformation improvement plan, so if all goes well, we should have a flock of ewes with conformations that don’t make me vomit every time I walk into the barn. I’m already comfortable with where we are at with conformations, but I think we can do better. Some people might think I’m nuts to poke holes in our ewe conformations, but I have a high standard in that area. I'm not saying other people don't have as high of a standard as we do, I'm just saying that there is a very specific type of conformation that we want and we are still working hard to get that. I want people to see one of our sheep and say "hey, that looks like a Whispering Pine sheep".

And I’m not one to believe that a spotted shetland can’t have an excellent conformation and fleece as some would suggest. I think we’ve all seen examples that prove that thought process wrong. We have several in the barn that prove that incorrect. It seems to be more of a struggle with the spotted sheep, but I remain dedicated to developing excellent spotted shetlands.

So, what else do we need? We need better fleeces. I think we share that goal with just about every other shetland breeder out there. Shetlands should not have average microns above 30. I think most people would prefer something closer to 25 than 30, but that doesn’t mean everyone should strive for 20 micron sheep either. I think you can have nice fleeces in the middle of that range and be quite happy with things. In fact, we have a lot of ewes just like that, and we are quite happy with them. But it’s fun to play around with genetics, so we are beginning our fleece improvement program in earnest.

Black Walnut plays a part in that, but we brought in Leyland almost exclusively for that purpose. I’ve already blogged about him, so I won’t add much more. He is different than anything else we have. His fleece type is different, his markings are different, his conformation is different. He just looks different. I think that’s good. We aren’t going to use him heavily this fall, but I do want to see what he can throw. If he improves the fleeces on some of our ewes, we could have something. Plus, he doesn’t act like a ram. He’s very laid back. So, we’ll see. This is only year one of the fleece improvement program. If he doesn’t give us exactly what we’re looking for next spring, we’ll have some nice lambs to sell. I’ve found that a lot of people are quite happy with sheep that I’m not in love with. It’s more a matter of taste than quality. We sold some sheep this year with nice conformations, but not exactly what I like. That’s a win win situation, so I’m happy about that.

Next spring will be one more leg of the journey. Each year, I feel like our lamb crops have improved, and if that holds true again, we’ll have our nicest crop this spring. Given the planning that we put into it, I wouldn’t expect anything different. We put a lot of thought into the potential of the offspring when we put two sheep together. If we don’t see the possibility of an improvement in more than two characteristics, we don’t do it. It’s that simple. It could be an improvement in the ram, or the ewe, it doesn’t matter. We’re also getting too old to be gaining ground in two characteristics while we take a step back in one or two others. As a result, that weighs heavily in our breeding decisions. It’s okay if we don’t improve in all areas, but I really don’t want to take steps backwards.


Kara said...

Hey Rich,

Great photos of some very handsome rams. I like modified, spots, and patterns! You are not using White Pine? Can't wait to see which ewes you kept in your breeding flock and which ram you put them with. I still haven't microned mine, what is involved in doing that?

Kara said...

I forgot to say earlier, my brown based and Ag sheep seem generally speaking softer than the black sheep. Do you find that?