I wrote in a previous post about using an eighteen-point evaluation to assess our lambs. But it didn’t start that way. When our first lambs arrived, I was simply happy that they were alive and well; keeping them that way was my biggest challenge. As time passed, however, I found that we needed to be more selective in how we looked at our lambs. If we could no longer take every ewe lamb into our flock, how would we decide? I decided that basing our selection on feelings of the heart was not a sound business model — and that was the impetus for our first evaluation sheet.
That first sheet listed all of the lambs down the left side of the page and only three traits across the top: teeth, legs, and topline. My thinking was this: all of our sheep were expected to feed themselves on our pastures through the summer. If they had crooked teeth or a bad mouth, they wouldn’t be able to rip the grass sufficiently well; if they had crooked legs, their gait through the fields would be compromised, putting them at a disadvantage; and if they had a sway-back, they would be less able to carry twins or triplets without issues. Even to this day, every trait monitored goes directly to the bottom line for our flock: each sheep must be able to produce, both lambs and wool.
Eventually we split the evaluation into separate columns for front and back legs, since this provided better information as to the exact issue for lambs that scored poorly there. In the beginning, we also weighed our lambs every thirty days on a hanging scale. When they became too heavy for me to lift onto the scale, we shifted them to a bigger hanging scale. We would have them hop onto a bale of straw, and then we’d attach the harness and pull out the bale from underneath their feet, letting them dangle. We eventually stopped this when the chain holding the harness snapped one day and hit my right eye, nearly blinding me in the process. From that day forward, we weighed only smaller lambs — until we bought a walk-in hog scale years later.
As the years passed and we began to see more lambs who met our criteria in all existing columns, we began to add more guidelines. First we added fleece traits: luster, handle, crimp, and length (always based on length at a certain age). I would score these with a minus if the trait was poorly reflected in a particular lamb, an O if it was okay but average for our flock, and a plus if above average. At the 60-day check, we changed to a scale of 1 to 5 for these fleece traits, helping to better define the fleece that each lamb carried.
Over the years, we also added columns for coloring (black-based or moorit), the presence or absence of halo-hair at birth, genetic scrapie resistance (as tested at codon 171), Agouti color pattern and spotting genes as determined from birth photos, ratio of the length of loin in relation to body length, straight topline, smooth shoulders, correct front legs (parallel from the front knee down for both of our breeds), correct hocks, the presence of neck wrinkles and/or scurs, and fleece that is darkening with age. We still continued to monitor all of the things we were previously watching, because as soon as you stop tracking any particular trait, you run the risk of its reintroduction into your flock. The only traits that we ever dropped were those that we added in error, those that we decided shouldn’t be monitored at all.
As I mentioned in a previous blog, it’s a rare lamb that hits my ideal mark in every trait in a given year, and that’s fine, since my needs for the flock will shift from year to year. One year I might be looking for dark moorit ewe lambs, while the next year I’m looking for any color and pattern if they are RR at codon 171 and will be good fiber producers. My requirements from year to year will change due to circumstances within the flock and the previous year’s breeding goals. The evaluations aren’t about finding the “ideal sheep” — they are more about identifying the traits in each particular lamb and matching that lamb with its best outcome. Sometimes this means a place in our own flock. Other times it means a breeding life at another farm. And sadly, sometimes the best we can do for a lamb is a fall trip to the auction, where we hope they will be picked up as unregistered sheep. In that case, although they may not reflect their specific breed well, they may still make a great generalized breeding animal. Finally there are the select few who become dangerous in our fields — mainly the boys who set up a dynamic where it’s them or me — and they end up at the meat locker in fall. Each lamb finds a place based on what we see during the series of evaluations as they grow from newborn babies to nearly adult members of their breed.
Visitors during lambing often tease me because every lamb born in our barn is greeted with an exclamation of its beauty — at birth, they all seem perfect to me. Yet the reality is that, as they grow, some become obviously more perfect for specific uses than others, and slowly these differences become more and more obvious, if we keep track. Here at Peeper Hollow Farm, we check — pretty much every month — to try to match the lamb with its best purpose. You can’t fix what you don’t monitor, and you can’t monitor what you don’t measure. It all starts with looking and measuring and then deciding what to do about what you’ve discovered. It isn’t easy, but your flock depends on the decisions you make. Having data to back up your choices makes those choices a bit easier to live with.