Thursday, November 8, 2007

Real Estate

I've had the sheep flock enrolled in the Voluntary Scrapie Identification Program for a number of years now. It requires a modest amount of recordkeeping, and provides me with free ear tags. Plus, I know that I'm doing my part to help eradicate this devastating prion disease (similar to "Mad Cow"). And, it gives a certain amount of credibility when I sell breeding stock, which I occasionally do.

The system gives my flock a "status date" which marks the earliest date at which all ewes in the flock began to be recorded, inspected and found free of symptoms of Scrapie. Buying a ram from off the farm doesn't change my status date, but buying a ewe would change my status date if the ewe were from a farm that hadn't been in the program as long as I have. Follow that?

Earlier this week I faced a real dilemma.

A neighbor who has been one of my best friends and extraordinary sheep mentor ever since I bought my flock decided to take a break from raising sheep for a year or two, to catch up with other things in her life (like her pretty new quarter horse colt). Her small flock of pretty-much Suffolk sheep has been carefully selected for meat production and mothering ability for the 18 or so years she's had them, and before that they were selected for many years by some older folks out near Alta Vista, Kansas, whom it turns out I know pretty well from Contra Dance activities (it's a small world). A few weeks ago, I sold them a side of lamb descended from their middle-aged daughter's childhood flock.

My friend keeps a closed flock (as I do), and we both have tested for most of the nasty "hidden" sheep diseases like Ovine Progressive Pneumonia. So we don't worry much about biosecurity when we go back and forth between the two farms. I do her sheep and horse chores for a couple weeks every year, and she's been a great help at lambing time and on the rare times I've needed to go out of town for a day now and then (prior to my sabbatical). We figure whatever germs one farm has, the other probably already has them.

I've often bought a ram lamb from her to use just for one breeding season, as a "terminal sire" with ewes from which I wasn't planning keep replacement ewe lambs. Her ram lambs throw great, growthy market lambs when bred to my ladies. I've kept back a couple of the resulting Suffolk cross ewe lambs over the years, and have been pretty pleased with them though they tend to be a bit bigger than I like for handling.

One year, quite a while back, her ram died suddenly right before her breeding season (which is a little earlier than mine). Since biosecurity wasn't a concern, we hauled my registered California Variegated Mutant ram, Donatello, up to her place for a few weeks. He was delighted, needless to say.

I consider Donnie to be the foundation sire for my this point, I only have one ewe that doesn't have Donnie blood. He not only had good conformation and a wonderful fleece, he had an excellent disposition and was easy to handle. He moved well for the dog (unlike one of my current rams, Dudley, who acts like a stump and refuses to move even when Toss "grips" his nose). He had a mild distrust of human beings and always tried to keep a few ewes between himself and me (unlike my other current ram, Buddy, who has tried to kill me at least 4 times in the last few weeks).

To avoid excessive inbreeding, Donnie made a one-way trip a number of years ago. His beautiful, soft, multi-tone gray tanned hide lives on my favorite rocking chair. But he is still very much alive at Pinwheel Farm. Many of my best younger ewes go back to Donnie on both sides--line breeding is when it works; inbreeding is when it doesn't. I've done a lot of line breeding in the Donnie line.

I brought home two lambs from that cross of Donnie onto her Suffolk ewes: Corrie (short for Corvus, since she was black as a lamb, and there was already a "Raven" in my life at the time), dark gray and a great milker, who became a foundation ewe for the folks who bought my best dairy sheep when I went on sabbatical; and Sitting Bull (he literally sat like a dog when we tried to lead him to the truck to transport him to my farm). Sitting Bull was a disaster of a ram. Every lamb he sired was hard to handle--excitable and jumpy. You could actually tell who had sired a given lamb that year just by picking up the lamb--if it fought like the dickens while you held it and ran away when you put it down, it was Sitting Bull's. If it just sat there patiently while you vetted it, then stood there a minute before walking away, just to be sure you were really done, it was Future's. In S.B.'s second breeding season, it turned out that he was determined to savage his ewes--not just typical jostling and butting, but violent repeated lunges that seemed likely to end in serious injuries and/or a structurally damaged barn. That line has been "de-selected" from my flock, as I find that temperament is often largely inherited...the above-described paternity test was an important cornerstone of that realization.

My friend kept two ewes from the Donnie/Suffolk crosses: Magpie (named for her black-and-white ears...we now refer to any ears with that pattern as "Magpie ears") and Little One. Both had far nicer wool than the typical short, somewhat coarse Suffolk wool.... I've brought Magpie's fleece home from Barb's shearing on several occasions. Blue Jay and Stellar, Magpie's daughters, were eventually added to her flock. A third, unnamed Donnie granddaughter was also kept.

(By now you are really wondering about the title of this entry....)

I got an email from my friend the other day. She would be taking the last of her ewes to the sale barn in a few days. Did I want any of them? The Donnie line, perhaps? At sale barn to nothing for older ewes like these. She'd even discount them, since she wouldn't have to pay the sale barn commission.

I know they're healthy, in great condition, ready to breed to the ram of my choice. They'll live long lives and produce mostly twins and triplets. But...the catch is, my friend isn't enrolled in the Voluntary Scrapie Identification Program. So purchasing these ewes would basically throw the past 8 or however many years of recordkeeping, inspections, etc. out the window. My "on-paper" status as a reputable breeder of healthy livestock would be lost. I'd start from Square One.

On the other hand, if I didn't disregard the VSIP rules and buy the ewes, the Donnie line from her farm would be lost.

And I almost didn't buy the ewes. I almost let the artificial rules of the program, the temptation of that long-held status date, send my friend's carefully selected Donnie line to the sale barn.

But I stopped to think about what's REAL.

The truth is, even though my friend has never filled out the paperwork or had the State vet come out to her farm, her flock is just as healthy as mine. I've been there. I've cared for them year in, year out. They show no odd behavior, they have no visible signs of the disease. They live long, productive lives before they are culled to make way for younger ewes. I've bought her cull ewes to augment my own culls that are made into the fabulous mutton and pork summer sausage that I sell from the farm and at Farmer's Market, and the inspector at the processing plant has always passed the carcasses.

And the ESTATE that was at stake? The genetic heritage of the Donnie line, an inheritance that, once lost, could never be regained.

A choice between my reputation on paper as a breeder, and my competence in the sheepfold as a breeder.

I chose to invest in the real estate. My VSIP status date is now 11/5/2007. Magpie, Little One, Blue Jay, Stellar, and their nameless companion who insisted on being part of the load are now in my barn yard, complaining bitterly about their change of circumstances and waiting for my friend to come get them. Seriously, they know which gate they came in and they want BACK OUT that gate. It's crossed my mind to see if they'd find their way home if set free (it's only four miles) but there are some nicely landscaped (i.e. tasty) yards and some busy highways between here and there....

If I can just remember during daylight hours, I'll post a photo of them soon.

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