Saturday, March 29, 2014

2013 Breeding Groups

Time flies by doesn't it? We did elect to breed last fall, and I haven't said much about it...until now. With lambing still a good three weeks away, I thought I would share what our groups were, and what we are trying to accomplish. I am not sure we will be breeding this fall, so this could very well be our last lamb crop for a while.
After working for several years on our flock, it’s safe to say we are seeing the type of progress I envisioned when we started working in earnest on fleece improvement four years ago. There just isn’t a short path from point A to point B. Anyone who thinks you can just throw two inferior Shetlands together and get superior quality lambs is just not plugged into how this breed is. The same is true of using a good quality ram and inferior ewes. You might be able to get a few good lambs each year with that approach, but the quality will never exceed that of the ram with that system (if you can call that a system). That is very much a hit or miss proposition. And if your ram is not top quality, I think you need to have modest expectations. In over 12 years of breeding Shetlands, I have yet to get a top quality lamb out of two average parents. And I would say our success rate of breeding excellent rams to good ewes is far less than 50% as well. If you want to make small annual progress with your breeding program, that’s the way to do it. But that’s just not good enough for me.
The groups that we put together this year are really four years in the making. Some of these pairings will come up dry, but you never really know which ones will work and which ones won’t. But I do expect at least an 85% success rate at this point in our breeding program. Stated another way, if we breed 15 ewes, we expect at least 12 of them to produce at least one lamb that we would use in our program. That doesn’t mean we will keep all of those lambs, just that we are successfully producing against our goals. If we don't get lambs like that, I consider it a failure. Others might not see it that way, but that's how I evaluate our breeding season decisions.
Once again, we culled a lot of good Shetlands last year, and I would suspect that will be the case again this year, but we are past the point where we take a promising lamb and then hold onto it for two years in hopes that we can improve him/her at some point. We have enough very good sheep that we can take that stand. The sheep either exhibits what we are after, or it either moves on to another home or ends up being culled. That’s how we are able to have such a high success rate in our lambs. We know that some of our ewes are going to throw back to stuff that we don’t care for, and that some ewes have a higher probability than others, but all of our ewes have shown the ability to produce to our goals or they wouldn’t still be here.
As I have said before, our breeding program isn’t trial and error any more; it’s a much more complex genetic probability equation. When we pair up two sheep, we expect a certain outcome. We won’t get that outcome 100% of the time, but the success rate is pretty high and improving each year. The way I look at this, it costs me the same to produce top quality lambs as it does to produce inferior ones. I can say that now after sinking a lot of money into some of the best genetics out there, but having done that, the annual cost is the same. It just doesn’t make sense to use ewes in our program that don’t measure up to what I will admit are pretty high standards. This is why we no longer have ewes like that in our flock. Which means we are able to sell good ewes to help others improve their flocks if we think they are that good. If we don't think the sheep can help someone improve, it gets culled.
I will talk a little about each of the rams and why they are excellent Shetlands, but all four that we are using this year are different. We are putting them with specific ewes in hopes of drawing out specific things from the genetics. So, without further ado, here are the groups:
Whispering Pines Egyptian King
He is four years old this year, and we’ve only gotten four lambs out of him. He is a pretty rare Shetland in terms of his density, fine crimp, fineness, and uniformity. He was one of the first lambs we had that exhibited all of these traits. We are looking to get more of those traits in our flock. I personally don’t like his lock structure, but I have seen what he produces, and I believe this group will benefit from his qualities. You never have everything you want in one animal, so you use all of your research and experience in pairing animals in a way that maximizes the potential of getting something that might be better than both parents. That was much easier to do, however, in past years when the quality of the parents was good, but not as good as what we have today. It's much harder to improve these days is what I am indicating. This will be EK's last lamb crop. We have too many rams right now and many that we want to use in the future. I don't like that, but the likelihood of using him again anytime soon was very low. We did use him this year, however, which at least shows we back up our talk about culling. In this case, we are culling a ram we have and are using in our program. The tough reality is that you can't keep everything. As I said above, he was our first "real" Shetland, and although what we did with him this year is a gamble, it also has the possibility of paying off in a big way.
I couldn't locate his adult pictures, but this is what he looked like as a lamb
EK received the following ewes:
Sheltering Pines Constantinople – If I had to point to one ewe in our flock that truly exhibits exceptional Shetland traits, she would be it. She is our largest ewe and has a 27 micron fleece that has not budged since we brought her in as a yearling. In terms of fleeces, it’s not my favorite, but her CV is 20% to go along with a pretty good average micron, and she throws fabulous lambs. Her weaknesses are her fleece (in my opinion), her height (a bit tall), and her tail (although it is fluke shaped). Egyptian King’s tail is perfect and he is on the small side. Plus, history tells us that he has a high propensity to produce a fleece that is finely crimped and uniform. Oh, and he is a black, polled ram. We lack black-based sheep in our flock, and we are sure to get one or two from this breeding. Hopefully, they will be ewes. I have a fine grade on her fleece, but Oliver Henry, the Shetland wool grader at Jameison and Smith in the UK, graded her super fine plus. Fleece grading is a very subjective thing, even with micron testing, but Oliver knows more about it than I do. I'm merely comparing our flock against the hundreds of other fleeces I have handled over the years. Oliver has graded thousands. I do think this is good example of the standards we have at Whispering Pines. I'm criticizing her fleece and Oliver is giving it his highest grade. Either way, it is a very good fleece, in spite of my critique. Here is her picture with last year's ram lambs. Jean Luc to the left.
This is a breeding that I have not tried previously, but my system suggests it could be a good combination. My system is most like the Movie "Moneyball," where some of the best prospects might surprise people. It's not always obvious, but it is an approach that is working well. And it has nothing to do with breeding coefficients or anything like that (although those can be helpful as well).
Whispering Pines Pearl – She is very different than Constantinople. She is super fine for one thing, and also pretty uniform from front to back. Nice tail to boot. What I am looking for here is a black-based ewe lamb that is super fine, nicely conformed, with the head-type that I like. Both EK and Pearl have very pretty heads. I am rolling the dice here since conventional wisdom would suggest that I should breed super fine to super fine, but that’s not the direction I want to go here. My system is telling me to go with this pairing, so I am going to trust that. This is a linebreeding on Wintertime Bond, a super fine grey katmoget ram. I am doing a few line breedings with Bond’s offspring this year, so that is a theme.

Winter Sky Khan
Khan is probably the finest adult Shetland ram in North America. As a three year old, his average micron was 22.5. We have used him quite a bit on our farm, and have several sons that we have retained. We also have several of his daughters, but the rams have been the prizes thus far.

We loved Khan’s lambs last year, and we are putting two of the three ewes back with him this fall:
Whispering Pines Siena - This is the third year we have paired these two. It’s just a cross that has worked extremely well. Siena is a Pompey Magnus daughter. I think there is a reason that this pairing has worked and I am putting my theory to the test again this year. I have a super fine grade on her fleece. No, Shetland, no matter how good, is going to produce well every year, however. Siena's lamb from last year is just fantastic.

The above picture is Siena as a lamb.
Whispering Pines Genoa - Genoa is another Pompey Magnus daughter that we like a lot. She is a very dark grey katmoget with an exquisite fleece. We kept both of her lambs from this spring, and we are repeating the breeding. Genoa is an F2 Orion, and one of the better lambs that we have raised here. I have a super fine grade on her fleece.


The above picture is Genoa as a lamb. Certainly the prettiest lamb we have ever had.

Whispering Pines Stonehenge
Whether this guy is our best lamb from this year or not is open for debate, but to sink your hands into his fleece is an experience. He basically has his mother’s fleece. His mother was a super fine yearling and his father is Winter Sky Khan (a super fine four year old). What we hope to gain here are more lambs with this fleece type. I’ve always said that Genoa has my ideal Shetland fleece, so we hope to add more of that to our flock. Plus, from a genetic standpoint, he is really set up nicely.

This isn't a great picture, but it's the best I can do on a cold, windy day. I would say his fleece is 4" long. His fall micron test revealed an SF of 21.6 with a CV of 15.8. Stonehenge has the best handling fleece, which I think is supported by the above numbers, but Canterbury is finer in those numbers, but doesn't have the handle that this guy has. I could microanalyze that, but you can't quantify Shetland fleece characteristics in all cases. I could list all of the numbers in his report, and there will still be qualitative factors that aren't described.

His ewes are:
Whispering Pines Blue Sapphire – To be honest, this ewe also has an outstanding fleece, but we haven’t quite been able to reproduce it. We are hoping this pairing does the trick. Sapphire is out of Blue’s Clues, who had a very similar fleece to this Stonehenge. Blue Sapphire was super fine as a two year old, but inched above that this year, but still at around close to that, I would say. What I’ve decided though is that I will take an entire flock of fleeces like this regardless of how they micron. Handle is important and she has it in spades. Fleece is very compicated from a genetic standpoint, and impossible to completely quantify, but she has it, which is why I have a super fine grade on her fleece. As an aside, when I say super fine, I am not using it in the same way that The Fine Fleece Shetland Sheep Association does. Our farm system is very similar, but not quite the same. Both are based in theory on the Jameison and Smith system that Oliver Henry uses, however. Most of our sheep fit into both systems, however, but our farm's system if tougher to hit.

Whispering Pines Kiyah – She is one of two Egyptian King daughters that we kept and has great density and fine crimp. She is just an outstanding Shetland. Blue Sapphire is her mother. The same thought process applies to her. I don’t know if I can pull out the kind of fleece type that I want here, but I think I might like it either way. I have a super fine grade on Kiyah’s fleece. Both Kiyah and Blue Sapphire had superb ewe lambs last year that we retained, but did not breed. She won't be the finest Shetland you come across, but I challenge anyone to find one with crimp like she has. I am not a fan of one style of crimp over another, but this sheep has the tiniest crimp I have seen. Her father was like that, and so is Egyptian Autumn, EK's son.

Whispering Pines Kahlua – This ewe is out of Winter Sky Vogue and Wintertime Grasshopper. This ewe has a very nice moorit fleece, as well as solid genetics. I also like the probability of producing lambs with outstanding fleeces with this pairing. I have a super fine grade on this ewe’s yearling fleece. These pictures were from last fall and her lamb picture from 2012. I don't have a fleece picture, apparently. I'll fix that.

Wintertime Itasca – Itasca was super fine as a three year old and still well below 29 microns. Her fleece type is a lot like Egyptian King’s even though they are not related. All of Itasca’s lambs have been awesome thus far. They haven’t all been super fine, but all have had great conformations and fleeces. So, I am not quite sure what we will get here, but I’m quite confident I will like it. Of course, when you breed with a ram lamb, you sometimes don’t end up with anything, so that’s a bit of a gamble in itself. That’s okay though. This ram is too good not to use. I have a fine grade on her current fleece. Very crimpy and dense. I have had a tough time finding or creating good black sheep.

Whispering Pines Egyptian Autumn
This Egyptian King and Blue Sapphire son has been in waiting for two years now. He is thre now and his last test had an SF of 22.1, which is pretty darn good. The average hardly moved from his yearling test. When he was born, I labeled him as a keeper right away, but was somewhat disappointed with his yearling micron test (it was about 23.1). Ultimately, I was waiting for the right group of ewes to throw at him, and this year presented that (last year, I needed some of these ewes to lay the groundwork for the future, so now is the time for this guy). There isn't much to criticize with this guy (even though I almost sent him to market last year due to having too many rams).


His fleece always was spectacular.
His ewes are:
Whispering Pines Blue Diamond – This is a linebreeding on Blue’s Clues. Blue’s Clues was Autumn’s grandfather. One could argue that I should have paired these two earlier than this, but that’s not what our system suggested. I have to think two-to-four year’s down the road with all pairings since I don’t breed ewe lambs any more. The other thing about Autumn that is interesting is that his mother, Blue Sapphire, is wildly spotted, as is Blue Diamond. That’s a bit of sweet and sour dish because most of our spotted lambs don’t seem to make the cut, but this is an awfully good pairing in our system.

Whispering Pines Coloma – This is one of the few Khan daughters we are breeding this year. She is an Itasca daughter that we like a lot, and I just think this could produce something special. It’s a hit or miss proposition though. I haven’t often crossed the Bond and Black Forrest bloodlines, and we also have Wintertime Blues in here as well, so I just don’t know what to expect.

I have to update her pictures also. I don't have either an adult picture or a fleece shot.
Winter Sky Vogue – This is an excellent Shetland ewe with a fleece that has very fine crimp. It won second place at the 2011 Jefferson show under UK judges Kate Sharp and Alan Hill. It also won first place at the Finger Lakes Fiber festival this fall (which granted, doesn’t mean as much to me as the 2011 award). Vogue has had two very nice ewe lambs for us, and we have retained both. Last year, we bred her to Pompey, and that turned out to be a good pairing. This pairing looks good on paper as well, but I don’t have any lambs out of Egyptian Autumn, so I can’t say for sure what he will throw. Will he throw fleeces more like his mother’s or Blue’s Clues, or more like his father’s? Fortunately, all of his ewes have really nice fleeces, so that works in our favor as well. I have a fine grade on Vogue, but most people think it's finer than it tests. I don't grade by hand. Actually, I do, but our grades are assigned using micron results.

Vogue is shown here with Irish Mist
Whispering Pines Irish Rose – We’ve not had much success with this Bond daughter. She is built extremely well, which is something we are trying to expand in our flock. She is a Constantinople daughter and her build comes from her. I really think she has great potential, but we just have to get some lambs out of her. This is another Bond linebreeding that looks really good on paper if we can bring it to fruition. She’s a really nice ewe, with some of my favorite genetics. I have a fine grade on this ewe.

One of the silkier fleeces we have had along with a bolder crimp than most of our flock.
Whispering Pines Frangelico – This Constantinople and Khan daughter produced a really nice ram lamb this spring that we have retained (but aren’t using yet). This ewe has a looser crimp than we prefer, but the fleece has a nice handle, and I really like the bloodlines. She is very similar to Irish Rose in overall build and fleece type, which goes back to her mother.

Whispering Pines Irish Mist – This spotted fawn katmoget ewe is nearly identical to her twin sister Frangelico, except that she is spotted. I am looking for a tighter fleece out of both of these ewes along with their outstanding conformations. Both of these ewes had really good yearling micron tests, and I have a super fine grade on both of them. One thing I will say about grading our sheep is that I am pretty tough to please. I will grade them down one grade if they are on the boarder of the official limit that we use. My philosophy is that we have quite a few super fine sheep (our top grade), so why taint it with a sheep that you aren't sure about.

Sommarang Isla – This moorit ewe is quite nice and was super fine as a yearling. Her two year old test was just above our cutoff for superfine. This ewe has a top notch conformation and produced two really nice ewe lambs this year. She is on our sales list as we try to reduce our flock size, however. I look forward to see what she can produce with this ram. She also had really nice twin ewes last year that look quite promising.

Sommarang Ilke – This moorit ewe was also super fine as a yearling and is a little finer than her half sister Isla. Ilke has a really dense fleece. I feel the same way about this ewe as I do Coloma. I don’t have much experience with crossing these bloodlines, so it could go extremely well, or poorly.

So, those are our groups. I don’t like the idea of breeding 16 ewes, but you have to figure that if we get 25 lambs, we will probably only keep the best 10. And we probably won’t keep more than one or two ram lambs because we have several outstanding rams in waiting. But you never know where the best lambs will come from, so you hate to not breed good ewes. There will be some gems in those groups.
I’ve always said that we want to reduce our flock to 12 superior ewes, and I although I don’t see that happening in 2014, I do think we have that many right now. Now it’s a matter of completing the plan that we have and reducing from there. I’m just not ready to get rid of some of these ewes until I have a chance to see what their genetic potential is. My plan next year is to breed Barenfang again along with Genoa’s ram and Pearl’s. At that point, I’ll be combining Pompey’s genetics with Khan’s in full force, and we’ll hopefully have some top notch lambs in waiting for 2015 with Bond and Genoa’s stamp on them.
Here are two rams that we did not use this fall, but who should play a part down the road:

Whispering Pines Oxford
This is Frangelico’s ram out of Pompey. His name is Oxford and he is very similar to Genoa’s ram, Stonehenge, in appearance and fleece quality. When I ranked the ram fleeces earlier this fall, this guy ranked second in terms of handle. The micron results showed that he was third, but I put a lot of stock in handle. He has a fleece type that is close to my ideal. I’m not looking for all one type of fleece in our flock, but if I could have at least 10 ewes with fleeces like this, I’d be satisfied. He is also Khan's grandson. Behind him in this picture is Stonehenge, so you can see how similar they are even though Oxford is about a micron higher. His SF was 22.5 with a CV of 16.3. I will most likely sell him this year to get our ram flock down in size a bit more.


Whispering Pines Canterbury

This mioget katmoget is out of Pearl and Khan.

I really wanted to use him this year, but I felt that I’d like to give him a year of growth and then put him with some of the maturing ewes from this year. I already know which ones. What do I like about him? A lot of things. His color is pretty unique for one thing. He is also very refined, which is something I want to maintain in our flock. I think our flock is pretty middle of the road in that department, which is where I want to be. I think you can be too refined if you aren’t careful, but I also think you can go too far the other way, which doesn’t appeal to me.

The other thing I like about him is his fleece. It’s just really really nice. He’s a super fine ram who I hope will remain that way. His fall test showed an SF of 20.9 because his CV is only 17.4. His AFD is 22.1. I honestly don't think that's too bad given how lush the pastures were all last year along with the fact that he is a single and didn't have to fight for food. Each sheep handles nutrition differently, do you never really know what kind of impact that will have on their micron diameter. His father has held his diameter really well, but they all don't do that. I wouldn't be shocked if his yearling test goes down a bit like Barenfang's did last year.

I said that I wanted to get more fleeces like Genoa’s, but I also want to get more fleeces like Pearl’s. This ram has that fleece. Another thing I like about him is his head. I would call it a very feminine head for a ram, but I like it. A lot of the polled rams have very ugly heads. Egyptian King is an exception to that, and so is this guy.

Barenfang is a yearling ram that we elected not to use this year, but I do hope to use him next year. His yearling micron test was 21.7 with a 20% CV. I like this ram a great deal, but I just needed to get some offspring from some of our other rams this year. Barenfang is also a Khan son, but he is a Pompey grandson.
The only fly in the ointment in our breeding plan is the number of fawn katmogets. A few years back, we were struggling with grey katmogets and had very few fawns. Now it has gone the other way. I’ve always preferred the katmoget fleeces, but you do want to strike a balance between patterns. I would like to add some solid blacks and whites, but other than that, I think we are making progress. We don't have the finest sheep in the country, but I do think our focus on a holistic approach to breeding is paying off. We continue striving to get super fine sheep that also possess many if not all of the other important Shetland traits. It's nice to have sheep with really fine fleeces, but if they lack good lock structure and other characteristics, it doesn't really matter much.
Finally, if anyone is interested, the following fleeces are still for sale:
  • Vogue
  • Blue Sapphire
  • Kiyah
  • Genoa
  • Irish Mist
  • Frangelico
  • Kahlua
  • Coloma
  • Izarra

These fleeces are also posted on our website along with the prices. Also, if you see any ewes here that you like, let us know and we will consider offers. We need to get our flock down and can't really decide which ewes to let go. Sometimes, it pays to ask. There are some that I know are off limits, but I think all of them are really nice, so you can't really go wrong.