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Friday, July 25, 2008

Breeding sheep

I have bred Shetlands for more than 11 years now. And a few other species of livestock, as well as my beloved and dear-to-me dogs. You learn things along the way, there is no doubt about that. A good thread recently is one that refers to keeping some of your 'produce' vs not keeping any, or somewhere in between. It's been a good and thoughtful discussion amongst Shetland breeders with many varied thoughts. Here's mine......

Murphy's Law prevails when you run a farm and try to derive some, not much, income from raising livestock for others as well as yourself. Hobby breeding of livestock is something else entirely. What I consider 'hobby' is when, if all your sheep died one week from some horrible poisoning, you would just take part of your off-farm paycheck and go out and buy some more. A serious breeder of livestock can't afford to do that unless of course you are very well insured as a commercial producer. Proving tho the actual value of the stock, above and beyond market meat prices, is impossible. You can't replace years of hard work in a breeding program...there is no replication of 5 year old ewes that produce triplets of show quality year after year after year and that represent 5, 10, or 15 years or more of a careful breeding program for certain traits. Nope, that ewe can never be replaced.

A few years back I had a couple of dogs come through during a few hours trip to town. They slaughtered all of our rabbits used for meat production, but worse, they killed all but one of my ducks. Ok, so we caught the dogs, animal control came out, and we settled with the owner of the dogs for the value of the livestock - but that was actual meat value, not what they represented ...........those were my HERDING ducks. From which I earn a little income. For which there were NO replacements available.....afterall, ducks used to dogs working them are not found at the local feed store or hatchery. Especially not a meat breed of ducks. No, I lost money, and training time and ability.

Now let's look at your sheep.........or mine so it makes it easier. I have 2 very special rams - the cornerstone to my breeding program. If something got into the ram paddock and killed them, where would I be come breeding season? Oh, you say go out and buy two more. Where? Where can *I* go to get them? Fly them up? Nope, I'm sorry, the airlines won't ship animals with nice big horns unless they are in a specially fabricated wooden crate with all the whistles and bells, and you can bet your bottom dollar it would cost $400-$500 or more to ship up one. Do you have $400 plus the cost of a ram in it's prime in your back pocket you'd like to just give me? I don't think you do, but if so I'll give you my mailing address! HA!

So, I've kept a son of the ram that I needed to sell...I didn't really need him but actually I do for his genetics. I would have kept Captain Hook's ram lamb too had he survived. Did I need to keep them -no, but DO I need to keep them - YES! They are the survival of my breeding program. Same for my ewes....I will not sell all of my ewe lambs. I must keep some - again, if anything happens to one of their mothers, I have my genetics still intact in my own yard.

Of course, if you have little space, then you may want to sell all of your lambs. But what if your favorite ewe dies? Do you have a lovely daughter to hug or gaze upon to remember her fondly by?? I have a few ewes in my unregistered flock that are 9 generations removed from the original ewe from which they descend. Yes, I remember my first 4 ewes fondly. I also know that I eliminated one of the lines of descendants after it was pretty clear that they were subject to bloat - the only sheep I have ever had bloat here. Any major stress and I'd be running with the bloat med to save them. It can be inherited, and when you use sheep for herding you need hardy sheep. In all fairness, it was a line descended from a ewe that was half Shetland and half Alaskan Mutt of unknown variety. Whatever was in there was not hardy, and one of the best things about Shetlands is that they are indeed very hardy. So they were sold off slowly but surely.

I know which of my registered foundation ewes I like better than others. I know that my criteria is pretty straightforward and defined. Do you know what your criteria is? What you will, and better yet, will not accept in your breeding stock? I hope that you do. Do you like the lambs from a particular ewe? If you don't but others do, then maybe that ewe is best in someone else's flock. You must be happy with the individuals you have, if not, why are you wasting your time? I had a great working wether here, but he liked to jump fences. I hate fence jumping. I put up with him for a while, but enough was enough. Do you have a mean ewe that bullies others in your flock but has beautiful lambs? Why are you keeping her? Why not keep one of her lambs and say good riddance! She may do much better elsewhere, she may behave better elsewhere and they will be happy to have her for her beautiful lambs.

I keep some lambs for their genetics, for their beautiful, and for their personalities. Afterall, I must care for them several times a day and it's just easier to care for the individuals you like and enjoy. And isn't it nice to have a son or daughter from your favorite ewe too? Hopefully your favorites are also some of your best. It makes for a good foundation for your breeding program!


Deborah said...

Interesting post. I am struggling to reduce my goat herd right now, because my daughters are not interested in showing anymore. That's frustrating! For four years, I've been buying bucks to improve show quality, and now I'm back where I started six years ago, just wanting a few goats for milk and cheesemaking.

Sharrie said...

A very thoughtful and heartfelt post. Thanks.