Good golly, Miss Molly!

Our flock is all about moving the genetics of our two breeds forward. When shepherds talk about genetic improvement, exactly what that means is up to the individual shepherd. Most of us have goals for our sheep and flocks, and put together breeding groups and make selections based on those goals. In our Romeldale flock, we have been working at several different aspects of sheep and wool over the years including improving internal parasite resistance/resilience, increasing staple length (the length of wool growth in one year), decreasing fiber diameter resulting in softer wool, and increasing the diversity of color and pattern in our flock to produce different colors of fiber. We’ve made great progress in each of those areas, but like most goals, once we achieve one milestone, we tend to focus our sights on another a bit further down the road.

I realized years ago that there are many advantages to keeping recessively patterned sheep, so all of our Romeldale flock now gets its color from recessive genetics – it has helped with parasite resistance, fertility, and hoof health. As I got into the breed more, I began to look for a recessive moorit brown ram and came to realize that they were few and far between, so that became my first goal way back in 2007. In 2011, I produced a beautiful moorit ram lamb named Karlisle from my flock, and with him, began to produce more similar rams for other flocks. Eventually Karlisle was sold to breed elsewhere, and I moved on to trying to create the same type of ram lamb, but with a twist: I really, really wanted a lovely recessive moorit ram, but this time, one that was dark brown over the entire fleece area, producing a nice cinnamon or darker fleece – a true example of achieving one milestone and then shifting focus just a bit farther out.

For the past three years, I have been trying to produce this dark moorit brown ram lamb. I’ve put ewes in with rams during breeding season that brought together just the traits that I wanted in a breeding ram, and that would hopefully come in just the right combination to give me the color and patterns that I wanted. Having this ram would put us in a position to do so much more in uncovering any undiscovered color genetics within the breed, plus give me much better control over the fleeces our lambs would produce. Having a very dark moorit ram would mean that I would control the color percentages of our flock by the ewes’ color: if 40% of our ewes were black, 40% brown and 20% white, our lambs, too, would follow a similar color spread.

Yet, for three years, I’ve been unsuccessful. In 2015, I put together enough ewes with the right rams that I should have had six opportunities for my dream ram – and each of those opportunities had a 25% chance of success. That year, I got one dark moorit ewe lamb (Odelia, who is absolutely lovely!), but no ram lambs at all with the correct color and pattern combination. In 2016, I increased my odds by having 12-15 possible lambs of the correct combination – half with a 25% chance and the other half with a 13% chance – and I got some lovely ram lambs with the right fleece type, but they were all black instead of brown.

So last fall, I went all out: every pairing in every Romeldale field had the opportunity to produce my dream ram. When we ultrasounded the ewes in December and found that we had so many open ewes this year because of conditions last summer, I was crestfallen, knowing that with less lambs, I had lower odds of success again this year. I went about my chores each day whispering to my ewes, ” You know what I’m looking for again this year, right? Did you and your guy work hard to give me my boy?” They would simply look at me curiously and wonder what all the fuss was about – and I kept dreaming about my ram lamb.

Nypsi, who delivered her lambs on Monday of last week was my first chance at the lamb I so wanted. I knew all of her lambs would be brown, and both she and the sire Nahe carried a very dark gene for fleece pattern. If only those genes could come together – but when the time came, I got two very lovely brown lambs, each getting one light gene from sire or dam, resulting in really nice but lighter-fleeced lambs.

Romeldale Molly with sons Qallen (on left at 11.6 lbs) and Quillan (on right at 12.0 lbs)

Molly was next, due today, and bred by the same brown ram. In her case, there was a 50% chance of dark lambs, but this time, the challenge was to get them in brown – Molly is black-based, so that meant that the color genetics would have to come together to produce brown, reducing my chance t0 only 13% for each of her lambs – not great odds. When I awoke on Sunday morning to check the barn monitor in the pre-dawn hours, I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and looked again. There, on the monitor were two little dark lambs curled up in the straw of the drop pen! I grabbed my gear and headed out to the barn to meet our new arrivals!

Even better, when I actually got my hands on Molly’s twins, both were moorit brown – BOTH OF THEM! The final check came as I clipped their navels to avoid infection. I picked up one at a time and flipped them to attach the clip and, believe it or not, BOTH were ram lambs! Not only had Molly given me my hoped for ram lamb, but she had given me one and a spare! Wow! And Molly’s line is perfect for a breeding ram with beautiful fiber, very correct conformation to breed standards, and great temperament¬†¬† – it just doesn’t get any better!

Good golly Miss Molly! You’ve done it! And welcome to Molly’s two boys, Qallan (11.6 lbs) and Quillan (12.0 lbs)! May you lead long and productive lives!

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  • Erika says:

    Congratulations on meeting your goal, twice! I am glad to be reminded I am not alone in talking to my sheep about their future behavior!

  • Jane M says:

    I am fascinated by these stories about sheep color and genetics… Dare I ask what became of Peter?

    • Dee says:

      Peter is still here and still tiny. I am in the process of testing a theory of mine regarding the growth of Romneys, and the results of this work will factor into my decisions about Peter. For the time being, however, he will remain here to grow up. We’ll take a good hard look at him in late summer or early fall. Until then, he’s holding his own with the other yearling rams!

  • Janice says:

    I’ve been wondering about Peter also since I met him soon after he was born. Does his wool still have that coloration? I loved it then!

    • Dee says:

      Because our sheep are all coated all year ’round, I seldom know exactly what their fleeces look like until or unless they need a coat change. Since Peter is still quite small, he hasn’t gotten a fresh coat in quite some time, so I’m not sure what his fleece looks like now! He has lost much of the color in the hair of his legs, but hair and wool act very differently when it comes to color. We likely won’t know for sure what his fleece will be like until we shear in May…

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