Trying to answer why

One of the commenters on my last blog had a question, and I think it’s a good one:

I wonder if you would share your thought process on why you might keep Odelia but sell OdaMae for breeding? I apologize if this is a highly personal question. I am not a shepherdess, so I don’t know if it is or not.

Making flock decisions is different at every farm, and I can only answer how it works here at our place. Every year around this time, I make a list of flock goals. These goals are specific to the breed, so with two breeds, I make two separate lists. These can be long-term or short-term goals, but they are things that I would like to see in our flock — a wish list of the traits I would like to add or improve on.

Once I have that list, I prioritize it: which traits are most important to me and which can wait a bit. Every trait is numbered by priority, so once I’m finished, I have a list of goals to aim for. Since I think it will be easier for us to discuss only one breed here, I will limit the explanation to the Romeldales, but this same process happens for the Romney flock too. Last fall’s goals for the Romeldales included: 1) produce lambs with dark moorit fleeces – and, if possible, a lamb who is moorit and Swiss markings; 2) increase the incidence of the Swiss markings gene in our flock (a particular pattern that has been quite unusual to date); 3) increase the incidence of dark fiber genetics in the flock; 4) lower flock fiber diameter, if possible, without impacting goals 1-3, and 5) increase staple length across the flock.

I fall in love with each lamb as it is born. Each is perfect and beautiful — at least for those first hours — and we celebrate each one. As they begin to grow, however, they begin to separate out a bit. Some gain faster and some more slowly. Some come from finer fiber lines and some from coarser. Some have better crimp than others, and some have lovely conformation to the breed standard while others might have crooked legs or bad teeth. We evaluate every lamb once a month using a checklist of desirable traits, a total of seventeen qualities that we have improved upon over the years. Without this constant monitoring, we risk losing ground that we have gained in trying to move our flock genetics forward.

Basic conformation traits are required of every lamb determined to be of breeding-stock quality. They must have straight teeth, a straight topline, correct legs, narrower shoulders than hips, etc. One by one, those who do not meet our standards fall off the breeding-stock list that we use to choose our lambs and who will be offered as breeding stock to other farms.

Flock_in_Pasture_2015After the first thirty days of life, each lamb has had one evaluation, and that is when I must choose my lambs. This year I’m looking for specific lambs from among the breeding-stock group. I chose Odelia instead of OdaMae because Odelia is moorit and carries Swiss markings (remember goal #1?). I chose Olive because I have set aside a daughter to replace Gabby for the past four years, but each year a customer visiting the farm has ended up buying that girl. Olive is a bottle lamb this year, making her growth less than spectacular. I know this will change, however, as she matures. Olive improves upon Gabby in two important ways: she carries moorit/brown in her genetics (which I have been folding into the flock for many years now) and she will pass along to each of her lambs a genetic resistance to a terrible disease called scrapie. Olive is in!

We usually add only three lambs of any one breed per year, but when much progress has been made or we’ve lost some girls in the past year, we sometimes keep one or two extra. This year we lost Nillie, and we pushed way ahead in the number of Swiss markings lambs we have available by using a ram who carries those genetics. Instead of seeing that gene in only 50% of his lambs as we would expect, we’ve gotten lucky and had him throw that gene to 90% of his lambs this year. It’s a good year to keep Swiss markings lambs, so instead of keeping only Odelia, we also chose Osage. Why Osage? She comes from a lovely fleece line that produces finer fleece than the other lambs (remember goal #4), and her display of the pattern is darker than any of the other lambs (goal #3). Since Odelia displays the gene in a lighter way, the combination of these two girls gives us one of each type of display.

In addition to the above girls, I have two lambs who will stay temporarily. Whether they will find permanent homes here will be decided next year, based on how things go in the next twelve months or so. Over the past month, I’ve become very attached to Odessa, our little mini ewe lamb. Because she is so small, she would never make it this year as breeding stock, but I have faith that she has important traits that we can use in the flock. Not only is she dark and moorit, but she is a fighter, having bounced back from near death by freezing and now thriving in the flock. I will give her a year to see how she grows, how her fiber looks, and generally, what she looks like once she has put her poor start behind her. She obviously won’t eat much next winter, so she will stay and we will wait with our decision on her until next spring/summer.

Another ewe lamb in a similar situation is Olympia. She is a very dark moorit lamb. She could be dark moorit because of a dominant allele that we are trying to move out of our flock. On the other hand, her coloring may be due to the most recessive of genes at the pattern location. If it is the latter, I want her here. If not, then we may sell her next year or the year after that to another flock where they don’t care where the color comes from. In order to know, I must breed her and see what we get from her in her lambs. I don’t want to move out something I’ve been trying to produce for five years only because I didn’t recognize it when it arrived – so Olympia will stay until we know for sure. She is beautiful in every other way.

I have been working on next year’s goals. Those goals determine which rams will stay and which will be sold – both from the adults and the lambs. In the end, I will need two or three boys who will breed our ewes this fall and move us closer to spring 2016’s goals. Breeding without goals simply rearranges the available genes in random ways. Breeding with goals in mind moves the flock forward towards an ever-rising bar, and sets us up to provide breeding stock and fleece to customers all across the country.

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  • Bev says:

    Thank you for answering this question! I find all things sheep, especially your sheep, interesting. Good to know about OdaMae is still a very desireable lamb and I’m thrilled that you are keeping mini Odessa at least for awhile. I know it is silly of me to be so sentimental about sheep I only know through your blog, but I am ever the vicarious shepherd, LOL. Now I am wondering why you want to a ewe to replace Gabby (I don’t expect you to answer all my questions, but I am thrilled when you do)!

    • Dee says:

      Gabby is getting on in age for a sheep, and I don’t want to lose her bloodline, so we’ve been looking for a daughter who can carry on after Gabby is retired or gone. We have no current intention to get rid of Gabby – unless we find a nice fiber-type retirement home for her. She has put her in her years with us and since we do keep one retirement spot here, she will likely move into that role eventually (now that Zoe is gone) – but how soon is still up in the air. I have not yet decided whether we will breed her again this fall or allow her to retire this year. This decision will depend on several factors that haven’t yet all become clear yet – but I will let you know when I know!

  • Bev says:

    Thanks for your response. My condolences on the loss of Nillie (makes me sad). I don’t know how I failed to mention that before! That makes my purchase of her fleece that much more wonderful.

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