Monday, December 7, 2009

dolldrums and seeking data information on sheep

So its taken about a week to accumulate enough snow to equal about 3/4" on the frozen ground. Just the day before Thanksgiving it was still 45 degrees. This next week the highs are single digits. I'm not ready for the extreme cold. But if its going to be this cold, we should have a lot more snow! The snow insulates our water and sewer lines and helps keep plants roots from drying out and dying.

I've not much to report with the sheep. Breeding groups have been done for awhile. The clean up rams are back in with the rest of the boys and its now the long wait for lambs to arrive.

I've hit a wall so to speak with the sheep. I absolutely love my two breeds. I love everything about them. Their diversity, their uses, their personalities, their wool, their amazing traits. I have however realized that for the most part, those who keep these two breeds keep them for their wool and not really from a production standpoint. And I want both dang it!! Most meat breeds are bred and selected for with EBV's (estimated breeding values), mothering abilities, milk, lambing ease, lambing growth etc. There is no data for my two breeds as they are used for wool here mostly in the US. Granted BFLs are supposed to be the premier crossing ram onto hill and upland ewes. Its gaining popularity here in the US, but still not at the speed I was hoping for. They are known as a wool breed here as the wool is in high demand. I"m doing my part in compiling data, as like me, my neighbors who raise meat breeds select their next replacement animals based on data like lamb weight, average daily gain (or grass raised), weaning weight, and not so much on emotions or personalities (although temperament is highly sought after). With the Shetlands and BFLs its more of a 'crap shoot' with breeding pens. yes you can breed for structure, you can breed for wool qualities and mothering qualities but not to the degree you can with the cattle. The cattle seem to have a better predictability when having used their EPDs/EBVs for the past several decades.

Shetlands are mainly used for their wool. Some people just keep them as pets, some actually eat them too (and boy are they excellent tasting!). I guess perhaps blogs with the sheep folk are more 'friendly posts that are more happy-go-lucky', which is fine, but it seems the moment I talk about how no sheep is perfect and trying to improve my flock all these red flags go up and people start coming down on me for trying to improve the breed or make them something they are not.

I"m not doing that.

Read that sentence again!

I was on the phone for three hours on Friday with a friend from Colorado. He, like myself, is in the same two breeds and had agreed that its hard to talk production or stocking rates or EBVs with the majority of our fellow breeders as most do not have a desire to know this, or just simply don't care. Now that's not a dig at anyone! Its perfectly fine if you have a spinner's flock, or are just breeding for fun or whatever, but it should also be allowed to talk about production. The breeds are not typically known for data for production, but why can't we have something to go on?

I'm not in to changing the Shetlands or BFLs into something they aren't. But I am wanting to know what our 'base' is for each breed. What is our range of birth weights? What is our range of fleece weights? milk? body condition? If we were able to create a base, we could look at them and compare them (if nothing else but to just compare) to other breeds that are similar in nature, or completely opposite. What is wrong with taking down numbers that we currently could get and see the results? Wouldn't it be fun to see how a Shetland birth weight compares to say a Dorper or Columbia or something? Just to have that data available to people who have curious minds like myself?

Maybe if person A had a flock who had the highest weaning weights, would be highly sought after for replacement ewes, if they were what the buyer wanted (i.e. pasture raised, no grain, naturally resistant to worms, etc). It might be another selling point. Maybe you don't want huge sheep or fast growing sheep! Find those flocks that have slower growing animals or find a flock that had the fleece weights you wanted. It would be more helpful if we had data fields to report this to, and then be able to compare them across the breed. Its not 'improving' the breed, its just defining where we all are with our breed as a whole. And figuring out where in that range of data your animals and your goals fit.

The cattle business is quite a bit bigger. They've done a great job of promoting beef, they've pooled their resources, come up with cutting edge technology like DNA testing, color coat testing, genetic disorder testing and loads of production based and maternal based data. I guess I'm spoiled with all the OPEN information. People WILLINGLY give their calving records, (birth, weaning, yearling) and maternal records to the open database! People are happy to claim in the Simmental breed that they can in fact register something that is only 1/4 Simmental and go on to make note of what the other 3/4 of the animal is. that 3/4 is then used in the database as well. They go back to the breeds that make up that 3/4 and take the data from that breed and then use that percent to figure out what affect it would have on the animal overall. Its an amazing thing.

Our association just passed a new rule by the B.O.D. that all animals of certain blood lines (breeds associated with the genetic diseases) had to be tested for 1-4 new DNA testable genetic diseases. While I think this can have a negative effect initially, I believe that in the long run it will better benefit our breed(s) of cattle as a whole as we will no longer have to worry about these terrible genetic diseases popping up down the road, like they are now.

Gosh I've barely scratched the surface and have said a lot, but still not really felt like I've defined anything I wanted to.

Maybe I'll just shut up and end with a few photos from today....


Somerhill said...

I think some BFL breeders are starting to see things the way you are, Garrett. We are actively looking for rams with EVDs. We've discussed using NSIP here in the US, and at least one breeder is. Do you plan to enroll your flock, too?

I've got 2 reasons I have not as yet. One is that there has not been any financial incentive, because buyers were not looking for records beyond maybe "is he a twin?". The other reason is often, our flock is a looooooong way from a set of scales. That is, if I had a set of scales..... I just have not been able to justify spending money on a set of scales for mere curiosity.
I do select for lambing ease, mothering ability, udder health, and conformation based on commercially viable traits.

Give the breed some time, Garrett. Not 10 years ago, it was almost extinct in the US. We've come a long way, baby. :^) :^) With a long way yet to go!

Theresa said...

Hi Garrett,

The Shetland, in this country, as you have stated, is raised for wool, as pets, and sometimes to eat, with a VERY few of us using these animals as "livestock" with all of the entailing data points. This is NOT to knock any of the above Shetland owners. This is the stark reality. Breeders who wish to use Shetlands as "livestock", i.e. - as a farm animal that pays for itself and hopefully much more (like any other farm crop) are in a much different category. All that should be asked is the ability to agree that each breeder should be able to raise the animals in a way that best suits their needs. Shetlands were never introduced to this country as "livestock" but as an exotic animal that needed rescuing from low numbers. That certainly doesn't mean that they shouldn't be used as livestock since that is exactly what they are used for in the Shetland Islands. You know how I/we stand - Shetlands are a breed to be used as a dual-purpose animal AS THEY ARE USED IN THE ISLANDS AND HAVE BEEN FOR CENTURIES, and they should be "improved" to bring out the best of the breed, in wool, production aspects, and conformation.

And yes, there is much to say on the subject. I keep as much data as possible but I only know less than a handful of Shetland breeders who care about the numbers. Most breeders don't raise enough sheep to have a statistical base and wouldn't know what to do with the numbers anyway. This isn't to knock that, it is the way it is. Most do not have as substantial vested 'farming' interest in their sheep, i.e. - they aren't trying to make any money off of them but to just enjoy them. That is fine!! If you only had a couple of acres and wanted a few sheep, Shetlands are perfect for it! They are the hobby lovers dream in sheep. Just keep in mind this one thing - Shetlands are a breed that is perfect for just about anybody who wants sheep, be it a few spinning pets/lawn mowers, a few breeding sheep/spinning pets, a more serious breeder who is working on one or two specific aspects (such as spots or polled, etc), or for the really serious farmer/shepherd who wants to go the limit of this breed and do the serious breeding for ALL characteristics such as fine fiber, productivity, second tier production, conformation, and any other personal favorites (spots, patterns, etc.) as well as the headache of all the entailing paperwork! To me, I think of it as a "tiered" system of breeders/shepherds within the breed - know that your audience can include all.

Got to run and finish making the sweet potatoes to go with the gourmet blush wine vinigrette marinated Shetland lamb steaks we are having for dinner! Gosh, all that paperwork does have its rewards!!!

Laura said...

I agree with what Theresa said.
I do record lambing percentage, weaning weights, lambing weights, and fleece weights. This past year I decided to record when an sheep had the rise and if it was rood as well as if they had dander. (I do cull animals who always have dander.) I do take into account the temperament and I am going to cull a few ewes who are overly wild and cause problems when I'm trying to round up my sheep. I also cull rams with bad temperaments. I am currently breeding for both wool and meat.

I did have some Katahidin ewes and a Dorper ram and the lambs weighed about 6# at birth. The ewes all had triplets-not necessarily a good thing. (I also bought a couple wean weathers to finish.)The lambs did not grow as well as my Shetland cross lambs. They were tall and leggy, but did not fill out very well. They weighed about 50-55# in 7 months. We ate one of the Dorper/Kathadin lambs and it was a little stronger than a yearling Shetland ram that we also ate. Hair sheep are generally smaller than wool breeds. I met a lady who did have success with her Katahdins and she crossbred about 3/4 of her flock to a Suffolk ram for market lambs as they grew a lot better and sold for more money per LB. (The sale yards do not like hair sheep.)She purebred the rest of her flock for replacement lambs.

How do you figure out estimated breeding values? What are EPDs?

Becky Utecht said...

Garrett, I know this isn't as extensive as you're looking for, but I'm just about to publish the data I gleaned from the 2009 North American Bluefaced Leicester Breeder's Survey I conducted this summer. I finished it up last week and was just in the process of refining the grammar, etc. before I release it. Granted, there are not many farms breeding registered BFLs in NA, but I did manage to get responses from 37% of them. I'll post a pdf with the results. My survey includes lamb weight ranges, lambing percentages and lamb survival rates in various age and breeding types of BFL ewes. It also includes data on the same for ewes of other breeds who were bred to BFL rams. I know we'd all like to see more detailed data collected, but it's very hard to get breeders to actually submit data. I am so very thankful to the breeders who were brave enough to share their data with me and include comments. I think that many breeders with smaller flocks would have a tough time keeping the detailed records for NSIP because they don't have access to a good livestock scale. I would enroll in a program like NSIP or Lamb Plan if I had an accurate way to keep the records. For now I'm doing the best I can in my own little way collecting at least a bit of data on lambing in NA BFLs.

Garrett808 said...


I think that the survey you do is a humongous step forward in getting people to think. I'm sad that not more than 37% sent them back. That's too bad. In our cattle you have to give the information to register your calves or you can't get the paperwork.

I think the info you asked for is wonderful with many good points of conversation starters!

thanks for all you do!

Karen Valley said...

With all the variables in fleece types and weights...with all the variables in feed management from flock to flock...often dictated by environments which are highly variable within our country...I believe it would be very hard to have statistics across the board that would actually tell the tale. It also brings up the subject of standardization and the hue and outcry that would cause along with the idea of turning Shetlands into a truly "commercial" breed which I don't approve of. There are more than enough breeds of sheep out there that one could raise that would fit into a statistical base rather easily.

If one goes for animals with heavy fleeces, then the more dual-coated, primitive animals are going to outshine the more single-coated ones. Ditto with weights which would bring about the same thing we see in the showring with the heavier/larger animals taking the class.

Please let's stick to micron testing for good fleece type and culling for conformation faults and poor mothering, etc. And not lose the refinement and adaptability of the true Shetland.


Garrett808 said...

Hey Karen! Thanks for posting.

Again I'm not trying to increase size, weight or fleece size, just wanting to see what our 'base range' is for the breed. You are right its quite variable of a breed so I would love to know just how variable! How much or how little the lambs are at birth, weaning and yearling and fleece sizes. obviously things like nutrition, genetics and age will play parts in all of this, but over time they all average out. That's how the cattle work.

Its just a thought. The more I can wrap around my brain the better for me :)

Juliann said...

Garrett, I think most of us choose a primitive breed because we didn't want to deal with all that. Most hardcore production shepherds arn't going to run out and choose Soays, Shetlands, or Jacobs, they will select breeds that have been selectively bred for decades for the traits you mentioned.
Besides, I think there is so much valiability any results would be almost useless. Look at the UK. Ewes from 49 to 100 lbs, rams 60 to 150. Doesn't tell us much except we have a lot of variability, and we knew that already. :)

Jared Lloyd said...

Yessir, we'll do what we can. Did you hear that NSIP may coordinate data with LambPlan? If we can get an ultrasound between a co-op of US breeders, our BFLs can be enrolled in the UK SRS. Which is really freakin' cool!!!

Reading a sale catalog from the future:

Lamb from breeder A has more loin-eye depth EBV. Lamb from breeder B has higher milk/growth EBV... Etc. So we can choose the sire that we need to improve that trait.

Anyway, I'm excited about it. LOL

Theresa said...

Interesting comments. The Shetland is a highly variable breed. Big birthweights do not correspond to big adult weights and vice versa. One of Tori's ewes - that is the biggest ewe on the farm - weighed 2 lbs at birth! She was called a "slab-sided yearling" by a big time sheep breeder! She was NOT a "keeper" when she was that age because she didn't look like she was growing. Well, she "bloomed" into a very nice mature ewe with well sprung ribs and a perfect conformation. How is this explained? Shetlands are a slow maturing breed of sheep.

Statistics are great for any breed of animal. It helps you track what goes on in your flock overall, it helps show you where certain family lines shine (low birth weight but higher weaning weights, etc), and it helps other shepherds when they come to visit your flock to buy because you have data to show them.

Myself, I would not be interested in adult weights of 65 lbs for ewes and 85 lbs for rams and takes 3+ years to get just to there. It is feasibly not good for me. If a shepherd wants a flock to have 20 micron 2 lb fleeces as their goal - great! But it is completely useless to me as the fleece alone does not pay for my sheep. My sheep HAVE to pay in both lambs and wool. The environment here where I live allows for maximum potential to be reached for both weight and fiber production. Therefore raising Shetlands for wool, purebred, and the production of crossbred, fast growing on grass market lambs is the ONLY way to go (because I'm one of those unfortunate few that have to make my animals pay for their upkeep and more or I would have to find another line of work and allow the DH to have someone row crop it) And yes, it is VERY possible to have top end weight animals with FINE fleeces that are single coated. Fine as determined by Oliver Henry's Shetland fleece standards, not Cormo or Merino standards.

I completely understand, as I said before, others not wanting to do this or to even see the value in it. But as a "farmer" shepherd who uses the numbers to help make decisions on who goes and who stays, numbers play a very important role when you are shopping for new genetics. There are lots of rams for sale out there, and ads that say "cute ram that throws spots" just doesn't cut it for me. Having some parameters such as "well conformed to the breed standard, --- lbs, with a (AFD,SD,CV, etc) micron fleece, 4.5" long, -- number of crimps per inch, dense, very silky, is A-/A-, -/-, -/-, is proven and is -- scrapie resistant" tells me that person is SERIOUS about their animals and is SERIOUS about Shetlands in general.

Yes, our breed is variable, but please don't discount the value of numbers and data. Our breed can stay in the backyard, as other sheep people view us, or we can add value to them by actually using what is out there and put forth an animal that can be useful to the rest of the sheep world. And if you ONLY want to use their wool for yourself, the numbers are still valuable to those of us who are wondering where in the world this breed is in the US (example - I saw on a blog recently a ram LAMB that tested at 36 microns with a 33 CV - is that where our breed is in general?!?!? If so, the breed needs to be reclassified in this country as a coarse wool breed.)


Available sheep

With my work load continuing to pile up, and less time to spend with the sheep, I am offering the following: My entire flock of BlueFaced ...