Thursday, November 6, 2008

To Breed or Not to Breed (Part Deux)

This is part two of my breeding vision. This is probably the closest thing you’ll see to a Jerry McGuire moment from me.

Breeders all have different thoughts about what they want their flocks to look like. Some breeders want patterns, some specific colors, others fine fleeces, etc. That’s what makes it fun. But what is our vision and how do we achieve it?

I won’t attempt to speak for anyone else, but I do know what my vision is and how I want to get there. I may be wrong about my approach, but I do know where I’m headed. Our vision is this: We breed for health, conformation, and nice hand spinner’s fleeces (in that order). We select and breed sheep for those things. So, to me, vision is the choices that we make. Cihat is a spectacular ram who produces very nice yarn. He’s not fine, however. He does produce a nice hand spinner’s fleece though.

I think people can get too caught up in having their name on a sheep. To me, that’s not a vision. To me, a vision is having a clear idea of what you want your flock to look like, and then pairing sheep that you think give you the best odds of achieving that. Maybe you want a certain type of spotting. Maybe you want all polled sheep. Whatever your vision, I think the breeding decisions you make really define who you are.

So, the breeding choices you make are really the first step in the process.

The second step (and perhaps the most important part) is what you decide to keep and what you decide to sell. Personally, I’ve decided to only sell stuff that I think is breeding stock. We didn’t always look at it that way. When we first started, if someone wanted one of our sheep, we would sell it. But if we’re putting our name on a sheep, shouldn’t we take those decisions pretty seriously? I think so. That whole process is very subjective, I’ll admit, but it defines who you are. Just because we have our farm name on our sheep, however, doesn’t mean it fulfills OUR vision. That’s the only point I’m trying to make.

So, if all our registered stock is of breeding quality, how do I decide which ones to keep? I only keep the ones that fulfill my vision (or bring me closer to it). What do I want my sheep to look like? Should they look like another farm’s shetlands? No.

So, can I put two of farm A’s sheep together and end up with one that fulfills my vision? Absolutely. That’s possible if I end up with a lamb that looks like my vision of what a Shetland should look like. If it was Farm A’s vision, he/she would’ve kept those sheep.

If I pair sheep in any other way, then I’m merely perpetuating someone else’s program. I don’t think that’s wrong, by the way, but it’s no vision either.

Our vision consists of the choices we make with our flocks.

Obviously, this doesn’t happen overnight. Eventually, I think you end up with a lot of sheep with your name on them when you get closer and closer to your vision, but that takes years. It takes longer when you make stupid breeding and sales decisions (as I’m prone to do).

I spent more time this year than ever putting my breeding groups together and I’m still finalizing them. Why is it taking so long? I take it quite seriously. Plus, this vision thing is making me crazy. I want to get to point D, by skipping points B and C.

Will a pairing of Black Walnut with Buttercup, for example, bring me closer to my vision of the perfect Shetland? I like both of them and both are Whispering Pines sheep. That would, therefore, seem like a logical choice. They also compliment each other. One’s strengths are the other’s weakness. Since neither is perfect, will that take me closer to my vision or not? I still haven’t decided. I might get closer by crossing Buttercup with a ram from another farm. After all, I chose those rams because they were part of my vision. I didn’t choose them because they were cheap or friendly or smelled nice.

Most Shetlands do not look like my vision of what they should. That’s no criticism of those sheep. They probably match up quite well with the current standard. And yes, Shetlands should be fine, but how fine? If you can’t spin the fiber because it’s too short and is weak, is that a good thing? No, but if it’s course, that’s no good either.

It gets back to an earlier post that I made on the subject. Will pairing two sheep take me back a step or closer to my vision? That’s not always easy to determine. I often go with the odds.

At the end of the day, I have to go with what I believe to be my best chance at getting the lamb I want. Do I want the softest fleece, big horns, spots, patterns? Ideally, I’d want all of those things. I don’t have one ram, however, that gives me all of that. Some people might.

I mentioned Black Walnut because he is the best combination of those things that I have. But he doesn’t have as nice a conformation as Cihat (not many rams do), and he doesn’t have as fine a fleece as Leyland (not many rams do), and he doesn’t have the gorgeous color and pattern combination that Clover has (not many rams do). That’s what makes it fun and challenging!

At the end of the day, what’s most important to me as a breeder? That’s what drives my breeding decisions, and it’s also what makes our flock different than other flocks. It doesn’t make mine better, mind you, just unique.

Right now, my vision is heavily weighted toward conformation and health. Black Walnut has a fairly even weighting of important attributes. He might take me closer to my vision in terms of fleece, but if I want a show quality conformation, should I go in another direction? It’s a good debate. He’s very very good in all things I value, but he isn’t excellent in any of them. He may be show quality, but he doesn’t look like my vision of what I want a Whispering Pines sheep to look like. I like him a lot, make no mistake about that, but if I were to do a composite police sketch of my perfect shetland, it would look similar, but a little different than him. It would look like Cihat and Clover with Leyland’s fleece micron, and Black Walnut’s staple length. That doesn’t mean, however, that I couldn’t get that sheep by breeding him to one of the ewes that I like. That’s why I’m breeding Leyland to Black Walnut’s mother (Violet). That could bring me my perfect shetland. It may not.

That’s where my current indecision lies. It would be easy if I had a ram with the perfect combination of everything.

All of my rams serve a purpose or they wouldn’t be here. Now I just have to find the magic combination that I’m looking for and end up with a bunch of lambs that fulfill my vision…in 10 years.


Kara said...

Makes sense and you make some very good points! Ohh, Leyland and Violet, might give you a gul/kat to boot. Any yes that combo of rams would be ideal! I think you will get there faster than you think, you have choosen some very beautiful animals.

Michelle said...

Your thought-provoking post makes me weaken in my resolve not to breed ewe lambs, as I think my ewe lamb Butter could be a "golden cross" with the ram who is just visiting for this breeding season. But I must work with very limited space, a husband who doesn't want the flock to grow, and an uncertain economy....

Jen and Rich Johnson said...

I have the same problem with ewe lambs. I vowed not to use anything under 52 pounds this year, and I'm sticking to that. It's tempting though. Luckily, the three I'm not breeding this year, will replace three that I won't breed next year. That's the only way I can look at it.

Jen and Rich Johnson said...

Kara, I wasn't sure what made sense for my last three ewes. I could make a case to put them with several rams. At the end, I decided to go with my gut on two and experiment with the third. We'll see how it goes. I'll probably post on our final groups next week some time. I'm focusing less on patterns and spots this year and more on conformation. Getting a gul/kat won't help me much unless I like what it looks like.

Cynthia said...

Regardless of uniquely personal goals, your thoughts are the truth of breeding Shetlands. There are no shortcuts of any kinds. The UK stock we Americans have had through available semen have forced our hand as jugglers-in-training: We keeping putting our best balls in the air and know that we are going to fumble more than we recover for quite awhile.

Good luck with your breeding groups!