A stunning disappointment

With only an occasional exception, our breeding rams come from our own flock. We make genetic progress each year by carrying one or more particular traits into the next generation, and then we keep only those lambs who reflect this genetic improvement. The only way to know whether a purchased ram will reflect an improvement over what we already have is to monitor and test each of the desired traits in the source flock — and most people just don’t take the time. Over the seventeen years that we have been breeding, our rams have shown a proven ability to carry us forward.

Even knowing this, it takes a while to know whether a particular ram has genetic “forward momentum.” Although there are certain things we can know within the first year — like average daily weight gain or comparative size — there are many traits that won’t show until later, and overall fleece quality is one of them. The Romeldales tend to settle into their adult fleeces by their first fall, when we might use them for breeding, but the Romneys aren’t really mature until they are over a year old — and for some lines, it can take even longer than that!

Our ram lambs are meant to be the very best we have to offer, an improvement over their sires and dams. I recognize that many qualities of our ram lambs don’t show until they are older. And most often the ram lambs are used as genetic backup — if the adult is unable to perform for some reason, I can bring in the ram lamb who also holds the same trait. Otherwise the ram lambs sit out their first breeding season, until we have a more complete picture of their mature qualities — even though that means they’re almost a year and a half old before I even know whether I’ll use them.

We sheared our rams yesterday — all of our adult rams and those ram lambs from last year that I hope to use this fall. There is a lot riding on this shearing, since it is the final piece in our evaluation of the younger rams. We’ve watched them grow into fine young adults. Their size and rate of gain have lived up to our expectations (or they would already have been considered non-breeders like Peter). Structurally, they reflect the body and conformation to the breed standard that we look for in our boys. The final piece is all about the fiber they carry. Is it fine enough? Long enough? Crimpy enough? Soft enough? Uniform enough? Is it structurally such that any informed person looking at it knows the breed immediately? Only positive answers will move that ram into his own breeding group this fall.

I set aside a good number of ram lambs last year — the P year — for breeding this fall. One of the boys who raised our hopes was Preacher (the son of Grace), a recessively patterned colored Romney whose fleece was very dark. He carried not only the color and pattern that I was looking to increase in the flock, but he also came from my oldest line — a descendant of Zoe (who appears in his pedigree in several places), now gone for nearly three years. Her fleece was the softest Romney we’ve ever had, and we’d love to see more of her temperament and longevity in our flock. My high hopes for Preacher continued to increase as he came into his own. Not only did he seem to be the ram we’d been waiting for, but he was also resistant to scrapie (a viral-like sheep disease involving the central nervous system). Even better, he would pass this resistance to all of his lambs, regardless of the dam. We looked forward to his action in a breeding group this year and his lambs in 2018.

Unfortunately, it is not to be. When we sheared Preacher yesterday, his fleece was a stunning disappointment. Much of it is a great example of what we used to call “Brillo fleece,” a harsh-feeling fiber with terrible handle, only okay crimp, and little luster. As soon as his fleece began to come off, we all stopped and stared in horror. Preacher was to have a large breeding group this fall, and now he is instead destined for the auction.

Yet this is a great example of exactly why monitoring traits is so important. You never know how genetics will come together. We must constantly collect data and assess our breeders if we want to continue moving forward. I still have ObiWan and O’Connor, who so far both have amazing wool, one colored and the other a white color-carrier. Osiris might get a turn to show us what he can produce; like O’Connor, he is white but carries color. We will also have Korbin (who I purchased last year from Montana) back from his stint in Wisconsin and ready to make lambs this fall. We have choices, but not what we thought we had in Preacher. Yet we’ll try again with some of this year’s Romney ram lambs. Qayin and Quest both have the same genetic scrapie status as Preacher, in a terrific package. Hopefully one of them will knock our socks off next year to make up for this year’s loss of Preacher. But once again, only time will tell.

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  • Jane M says:

    Why would Preacher pass on his resistance to all the lambs regardless of the mom? Is it a genetically trait? Very geeky question and such a disappointment on the fleece!

    • Dee says:

      Yes, it is a genetic trait that we test for. It is located at codon 171, one copy of R confers resistance to scrapie, and two copies will pass one copy of R to every lamb. Like many of our rams, Preacher is RR. Our two current colored Romney rams are QR, and pass resistance to only half of their lambs.

  • Jane M says:

    Do the ewes also have the ability pass on this trait? I think they must… … But they only pass it to one lamb at a time … So the ram is much more critical… Did I work that out right? ; ). Jane

    • Dee says:

      Exactly right! While more and more of our ewes are RR, they produce four lambs per year at the very most. A ram, on the otjer hand, can service between 100 and 150 ewes in one breeding season – and even here at our farm where we use five to seven rams in a season, any one ram can have up to twenty or more lambs once spring arrives. We want our ewes to be at least QR, and strongly prefer that at least four of our six rams are RR, and the others at least QR.

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