(Make sure you read all the way to the end of this post,
because there's an audience participation segment at the end!)
because there's an audience participation segment at the end!)
Sheep breeding season is just around the corner, so today I started working on this year's breeding plan.
I like to weigh my options carefully, and know what I hope to achieve with each breeding. That means considering everything I know about each sheep---bloodlines, conformation, heat and parasite resistance, fleece quality, color genetics, health records, age---before I decide which ewes will be matched with which rams.
It's a complex process, but one that I enjoy. Here's how it goes:
On my computer, I make a chart, with each of the rams' names at the head of a column and each of the ewes' names at the start of a row. Beneath each name I put that sheep's AI %, bloodlines, and color genetics info.
This year, I'll have 5 rams and 22 ewes, so that leaves 110 empty boxes in the chart for me to fill in. First, I put an X in each box that represents a cross that would be inbreeding (father to daughter, mother to son, etc.). Those are crosses I avoid.
Then I mark each of the boxes that represent crosses that would be linebreeding (half-brother to half-sister, or some other more distantly related cross). Used wisely, linebreeding can be a tool to cement certain traits into your flock. I don't use this technique often. But if I'm going to do it, I want to do it intentionally, for a purpose, not by accident. So each of these crosses get noted on the chart, to remind me.
Then I fill all the remaining boxes with the expected outcomes of each particular mating. What percentage of AI blood will the lambs of this cross be? What possible colors and patterns might result?
All those details are just for my reference---things that I might otherwise forget. What doesn't go on the chart is all my detailed knowledge about the strengths and weaknesses of each sheep. This one has mediocre shoulders but superb parasite resistance. That one has a fantastic fleece but not such a good meat build. This one has awesome meat conformation, but suffers from occasional heat stress.
Every shepherd knows there's no such thing as a perfect sheep. The trick of intelligent breeding is to organize the breeding groups so that you get the best possible selection of high-quality lambs from the breeding stock you have.
After my chart is all filled in (and five pages long at this point), I print it out and carry it around with me for several days, mulling over the possibilities.
In this country, colored Icelandic sheep---and their fleeces---tend to be easier to sell than white ones (Due to differing markets and breeding goals, the opposite is true in Iceland). Sheep with a higher percentage of AI bloodlines tend to be more valuable than those with a lower percentage. Exceptional meat conformation and exceptional fleece quality go a long way to making a sheep saleable. And here in the mid-Atlantic region with our hot, humid summers and mild winters, parasite resistance is coming to be the most valuable trait of all.
My goal is to produce as many breeding-stock quality lambs as I can, because there's more money in that than in fleece and meat sales alone. Average prices for Icelandic breeding stock tend to be in the $500 to $1000 range, and by the end of the summer, most reputable breeders are nearly sold out. So far, I still sell most of my stock for prices down toward the lower end of that scale, but it's still a good source of income for the farm.
But to continue building my reputation as a quality breeder, I have to make the best possible breeding choices, cull any sheep that are not up to my breeding standards, and educate each customer about the strengths and weaknesses of each animal she is considering, so that she can make the best possible choices for her own flock's needs too.
It's a lot of work, but I adore these sheep, so everything I can do to help others improve their flocks, as well as improving my own, ends up helping the Icelandic breed as a whole. I'm all for that!
Okay, now you've all heard my spiel about the responsibilities of making good breeding decisions. Now comes the audience participation portion of the blog!
I'm going to put up a poll (top of the page, right-hand column), and let you all vote on which ram you think my ewe Moriah should be bred to this fall. I'll leave the poll up until the start of breeding season (late October), and whichever ram gets the most votes will be the sire of Moriah's lambs this year.
Are you ready?
She's a 5-year old black Icelandic ewe with 25% AI bloodlines. She is hardy and healthy, with excellent horn shape. Her fleece is beautifully soft, but tends to be a bit on the sparse side.
She has adequate parasite and heat resistance but only about a 50/50 record of passing that trait on to her offspring (to be fair, the last two rams I bred her to turned out to have very poor parasite resistance, so it's not her fault).
She's an excellent mother who births easily and takes good care of her lambs without making a fuss. She will most likely have twins.
Here are the eligible bachelors:
- Nicholai: A 4 year old moorit (brown) ram, with massive horns and a calm demeanor. At only 12.5%, his AI percentage is low, but his phenomenal parasite resistance makes him a treasure. I have avoided breeding him to Moriah so far, because they both have rather coarse shoulders. But every year, no matter what ram I put her with, Moriah always ends up standing by the fence absolutely PINING for Nicholai. She's the only ewe I have who has ever expressed any strong preference for a particular ram. Maybe she knows something I don't know? The lambs from this cross would be 18.75% AI blood, and would probably be black.
- Tutankhamen: This new moorit ram lamb is not due to arrive on the farm until early October, but I have high hopes for him. He supposedly has excellent meat conformation and good parasite resistance. He has 62.5% AI bloodlines. The lambs from this cross would be 43.75% AI and would probably be black.
- Taj: Another new ram lamb due to arrive in early October. This one is white, but may carry color. He has excellent meat and fleece bloodlines and a whopping 87.5% AI blood. The lambs from this cross would be 56.25% AI and would probably be white, but might be black or---???
- Titan: One of Nicholai's sons from this year. He's a big boy with excellent meat conformation and a huge horn spread. Both his parents have terrific parasite resistance, so I have high hope for him too. He is 37.5% AI. The lambs from this cross would be 31.25% AI and would probably be black.
- Tenor: Another one of Nicholai's sons from this year. Not quite as big as Titan, but similarly built, with lovely, large horns. Both his parents have good parasite resistance, and his mother is a tremendous milk producer. He is 37.5% AI. The lambs from this cross would be 31.25% AI and would probably be black.
OK folks, that's it. Moriah's fate is in your hands. Will she finally get to be with the ram she's wanted for 2 years? Or will one of the handsome young fellows be a better match for her?
It's up to you!