Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Dating Game, For Sheep

(Make sure you read all the way to the end of this post,
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?

Here's Moriah:

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.
(To make it even more challenging, the photos I have of the ram lambs were taken when they were quite a bit younger, so they don't show their current level of development.)
  • 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!


Meggie said...

Would "course shoulders" in both the ram and ewe mean a difficult delivery? If so, I vote for Tenor. If not, I say let the lovers get together...Nicholai gets my vote if you feel the chances for a viable lamb or lambs are favorable.

Nancy Chase said...

Hi Meggie!

No, "coarse" shoulders just means that they are more narrow and a bit pointy-shaped on top, like a roof, rather than broad and flat across.

The broad, flat shoulders are a desirable meat-conformation trait (on my ewe Pandora, for instance, I can lay my palm flat on the broad space between her shoulder blades---this is considered very good).

So, no, I don't foresee any birthing problems with that cross. Moriah always lambs very easily.

I just usually try to breed her to a ram who will offset her shoulder conformation, to try to produce better meat-conformation lambs. Not that they will necessarily end up BEING meat, but with good meat conformation, they could go become breeding stock to produce other meat lambs.

On the bright side of the Nicholai/Moriah cross, he would almost certainly improve on her wool quantity and would most likely produce some lambs with very good parasite resistance.

This is a fun game! I love hearing other people's opinions about the decision.


Anonymous said...

You mention colour is more popular than white - are there preferences within the colours? Does black sell better than Moorit?

How long do Icelandic ewes and rams remain breeding? Just wondering how many more chances Nicholai would have with her? If it were me I think curiosity would strike and I'd put Nicholai in just to find out what happens.
If the result was poor shoulders, but otherwise great, then the following year one of Nicholai's sons would be the pick.

I'd hesitate about the white one, since you could end up with an unpopular colour plus uncertain parasite resistance.

Meggie said...

Nancy: Thanks for the reply. I LOVE reading your blog and learning about sheep. I'll be sure to check in frequently to see which ram wins the lovely Moriah.

Leah M said...

I'd go with Nicolai this year to see what you get: I've a hunch Moriah might actually know something the rest of us don't.

If Moriah has another few breeding seasons in her, you can always breed her to Tenor next year, who would be MY second choice also -- that looks like a small-gamble-big-returns match to me.

I'm a great believer in the hidden wisdom of animals and children, however, so I'd be inclined to gamble once on Moriah's choice just to see if I could find out what she sees in her irresistable Nicolai!!

Leah M.

Nancy Chase said...

In answer to the question about colors: Moorit tends to sell a little bit better than black simply because moorit is the recessive gene, which makes it less common. So, supply and demand... moorit tends to sell better.

Also, moorit fleeces seem to sell a little better too, perhaps also due to being a little less available.

Of course, then we could get into the whole range of other patterns that Icelandics come in: gray, badger, mouflon, spotted. But that's another whole story.

Anyway, yes, I agree with the assessment of the drawbacks to breeding to the white ram. Those are precisely my concerns with that cross.

However, on the plus side of that breeding, the white ram would strongly offset Moriah's low AI percentage, and Moriah's decent parasite resistance might very well offset any potential issues with the ram's as-yet-unproven parasite resistance.

There are pros and cons to all of them. That's why it's so much fun for me to hear other people's thought processes on the subject. It's cool to see so many of you thinking along the same lines that I am!

Oh... and in answer to the question about how many more lambing seasons Moriah has ahead of her: If she continues in good health as she has been so far, she could easily have another 5 or more lambing seasons ahead of her.

So, unless something unforeseen happens to her, this is not anywhere near her last chance.


Anonymous said...


My vote goes to Taj, with Nicholai as clean up if she recycles. Taj definitely carries morrit or black color under that white pattern; but may not throw it, ie. you just may not see it in his lambs. Or you might get a real surprise which is one reason I really like the white sheep! For the record, IMO, white Icelandics are not really an "unpopular color". More and more flocks now are trying to add white.

His AI genetics are quite likely to help with meat conformation. I would not be shooting for a high "percentage of AI" even if that is what many people are selling these days. Fleece is a toss up since they don't care that much about it in Iceland; although it is possible his breeder was trying to improve fleece.

Parasite resistance is a complicated issue. While it seems to run in families, I don't think anyone is sure exactly how it is passed on to progeny. There are many different mechanisms a sheep can have to be resistant and some might be more genetically related than others. I do think that our AI sheep are a little less resistant in the first generation -- but in later generations it is harder to predict. Then too, sheep that are average resistance/heat tolerance in some parts of the country are SUPER in other parts!

How are Taj's horns? Nicholai has a very nice set of horns that he might pass on! How good are his legs? How much do you need new blood? What fun!!!

Nancy Chase said...

Aha! Those are clearly the questions of someone who is an experienced breeder!

Yes, for the sake of the blog, I've simplified some of the issues (color genetics, AI%, etc.) in my descriptions. But your comments are all good ones.

Based on his parents' color genetics, Taj is probably homozygous white, but has a 1/3 chance to carry the solid pattern instead. So it's likely, but not certain, that all his lambs will be white.

Not a dreadful disadvantage, to be sure, but in my experience, colored sheep do consistently sell better.

I've found that my customers will buy a white sheep if it's nicely built, but given a choice between two equally well-built sheep, the colored one will almost always sell first.

As for the conformation issues... you have to remember that Taj and Tutankhamen won't arrive here on the farm until October, so I've never seen them in person yet. I purchased them from a reliable breeder, based on her evaluation of their potential and my examination of their bloodlines and photos.

So until I can examine them in person, I won't be able to do my own evaluation of the individual details of their conformation.

Obviously, what I see in person may alter a few of my choices about which of my other ewes to breed them to. But for the sake of this game, Moriah will go with whichever one my readers pick for her!

Kanisha said...

No question love will out. I am new to the selection for breeding of sheep but I too am fascinated by the variety of combinations and the expectation! However in this case i think my heart would defiantely rule my head what better match can there be than looove!

shepherdessNC said...

I like this game since i breed Corriedales, and understand what you are trying to accomplish. I really like the general look of the first ram she also likes so much , my question becomes of all of your selections, who has the most consistent fleece and earliest lamb gains as a proven ram ? shoulders aside it is still by the lb. and a consistent fleece throughout is the best fiber you can create so if sparse, in her fiber, is HE denser?
Melissa ... also a blogger
and I use fiber to create large needlefelted pupest and sculpture. my entrant in MDS&W this year used icelandic on the cheeks and I never go to a festival where Im NOT buying a nice icelandic fleece ... or 3... as a handspinner, the gaurd hairs can be a delight or a total dissapointment... as a spinner my 2 cents will always be "breed to improve the fleece"

Nancy Chase said...

Hi Melissa. Great comments!

Nicholai is the only proven ram of the group, since the others are ram lambs. His lambs tend to have decent early growth, but better than average mid-to-late season growth (due to the parasite resistance he passes on to his offspring).

With the ram lambs, all I have to judge by is their own early growth: Tutankhamen is larger than Taj, and Titan is larger than Tenor.

For fleeces, Nicholai has an abundant fleece with a soft undercoat (thel) and a fairly coarse outer coat (tog).

Judging by their parents, Titan and Tenor will most likely have abundant, medium-textured fleeces. Taj and Tut, I'll have to judge for myself once I see them in person.

Improving the fleece is one of my criteria, but not my top criteria. Most of my buyers care about meat build more than fleece quality, so I try give slightly more weight to that in my breeding decisions.

I do have one line of sheep with spectacular fleeces, and I've been breeding to expand that in my flock. If you look on my sheep web site (, you'll see them listed: Paisley, Rhonwen, Tansy, and Teasle. Rhonwen's fleece is so nice, she got actual fan mail from the person who bought it last year!


shepherdessNC said...

I would have to give the proven ram a shot, and then give serious scrutiny to the offspring of the new rams. you havnt said anything negative enough enough about that proven ram to take him out of the "party" and with such a nice ewe, (I LOVE blk fiber) I prsonally would always breed for black.. considering what a pain it is to dye for lol but know why you wont. Im for the proven ram ..
let the youngsters prove themselves on some younger, maybe unproven ewes.. small groups ... and see if they give needed bonuses to those girls, but my girls here, they dont pine for a ram... if they did, they would get at least one chance with him...
true love and all sways me...
lol Melissa

Karen said...

This is a fun challenge. You didn't mention if the ewe is carrying moorit or not. I'm leaning towards Titan for these reasons:

You said he has excellent meat conformation, which I assume means he has good broad shoulders. That gives him an advantage over Nicholai in that area. He's moorit and has good horns, and you said he comes from very parasite resistant parents, which gives him a better than even shot at having and passing on the same good resistance. In all these areas then he's running neck and neck with Nicholai. However, he's got higher AI percentage than Nicholai, so if that's important, he beats his daddy in that area. While the lambs would probably be black, they would carry moorit, so you could obtain moorit from future lambs of the offspring. From his picture, he looks like he has a nice wide front (which would make sense if he has great conformation). It's harder to tell about his back end from the angle of the photo.

As a second pick, I would choose Tenor. Good parasite resistance in his line and you mentioned his mother is very milky, so hopefully this trait would be passed on to his daughters.

What about the fleece on these guys?

Nancy Chase said...

I don't know for sure whether Moriah carries moorit, but since the 5 lambs of hers I've seen have all been black (from moorit rams), I strongly suspect that she doesn't.

Your comments about Titan are pretty much exactly in line with my opinion of him. He does have a nice broad chest and good shoulders. Decent hindquarters, and very good overall size and growth rate.

Although Titan is not a proven ram, I did use his full brother last year, with very good results as far as improving the meat conformation and parasite resistance of the lambs.

Tenor is a little smaller than Titan, and a little coarser in the shoulders, but otherwise fairly similar. They are 3/4 brothers, after all.

I won't be keeping them both long-term. I plan to evaluate them for another year and then choose which (if either) one to keep for future years.

Fleece-wise, I'd say that the three I have here now (Nicholai, Titan, and Tenor) are all pretty similar. Abundant, fairly consistent wool, but somewhat coarser than Moriah's.

(Well, of course, the ram lambs have soft wool right now because they are lambs, but judging by their parents, they'll most likely have medium-textured fleeces when they grow up.)

Mark said...

I'm a sucker for young lovers which is why I cast my vote for Nicolai. I guess you can't let them have a tryst and then do the real mating with the one which will give you the best marketable traits. Hmm. Are we anthropomorphizing these sheep?

Anonymous said...

Nicholai has my vote he's got those sleep bedroom eyes. It's no wonder she's in love with him.

Sue said...

Taj has my vote as he has the greatest percentage and with a contrasting color you could get any or both colors. Sue