Saturday, January 17, 2009

Overview of PWF's Sheep Breeding Program

PWF began in 1997 with two small flocks. Janet Snyder (Topeka, KS) had collected a small, eclectic group of sheep for handspinning purposes. These included Judy, an older Finn-Romney cross ewe, who from Janet’s lambing records would have been at least 8 years old when she came to PWF and produced triplets three years running before dying of malnutrition due to inexperienced management. Donatello, a purebred (and subsequently registered based on some investigation) CVM ram, was another of Janet’s flock. These two are the fine-wool and dairy foundation of PWF’s flock.

PWF also acquired a group of grade Lincolns from Keith and Sharon Penner, including several sired by their outstanding Martha. Their seedstock was from ____ Farm in Colorado. We also obtained an outstanding Lincoln/Karakul/Finn cross ewe, Lina, and a registered colored Lincoln ram, Lancelot, (bred by Dobree Adams in KY) from Judy and David Weyerts’ flock, and subsequently Blackie, a registered colored Lincoln from Harold Koenig’s Rock House Farm in Virginia, as the foundation of our longwool bloodlines.

A serious worm infestation in our second year showed that some of Janet’s bloodlines were especially susceptible to hamonchus contortus; these lines were culled. A second heavy natural culling process for haemonchus sensitivity occurred in 2008.

In about 2000, we began hand milking on an experimental basis. Judy x Donatello triplet daughters Eider and Elderberry showed the highest milk production among our early finewool flock; Lucy (Lina x Lancelot) was the overall highest producer as well as by far the best-milking longwool. Most longwools were low in milk production, which gave insight into their slow-growing lambs. We began culling/selecting, in part, based on milk production with the aim of increasing lamb meat production first as well as moving towards a triple-purpose flock. Future, East Friesien (43%)/Dorsett, was purchased from Rainbow Homestead in Viroqua, WI, to increase the dairy production. His progeny’s easy births and extremely vigorous newborns were, like him, placid and easy to handle as well as having a long, compact, chunky frame.

Experiments with crossing Donatello onto Barb Clauson’s grade Suffolk ewes gave mixed results. Many resulting sheep were flighty and hard to handle, as well as maxing out the size of our handling equipment. CVM/Suffolks appeared bigger than more compact EF/Dorsett crosses, but in fact had very similar carcasses. However, we continue to experiment with integrating these bloodlines into the breeding program as a way of diversifying our linebreeding along Donatello’s lines. Dense pelts of minimally felting wool is one benefit from incorporating "Down" breeds (Suffolk, Dorsett) into our program.

While we commonly save back ram lambs to breed to somewhat unrelated ewes, and on occasion have bred fathers to daughters, we try to keep bringing diverse bloodlines into the otherwise closed flock through purchasing good-quality ram lambs from farms using management systems and production goals similar to those we aspire to. After infusing dairy genetics into the flock via Future (who never threw a black lamb), we sought out colored fleece, increased wool density, and enhanced meat production through Sampson (who died his first year at the farm) and his son Buddy. Sampson was Ile de France/Dorsett ram from Tamarack Lamb and Wool in Wisconsin; Buddy was out of Perfle who is Lincoln x Future.

In 2008, we bred to two ram lambs from our own flock (both sired by Samson’s son Buddy), plus two ram lambs from Anna and Massimo Ferrarra’s "daughter flock". Exact parentage of these rams is unknown, but they likely have blood from both Dante (EF from Shepherd’s Dairy in NE) and from Victoria ___’s "daughter flock". It’s clear that the white ram, at least, has some heritage from Elderberry, due to the characteristic brow ridge feature.

We are frequently breeding related sheep, while trying to ruthlessly cull any undesirable characteristics. "It’s line breeding when it works; it’s inbreeding when it doesn’t." Key negative traits we seek to eliminate include
--supernumerary teats
--black lambs that are weak at birth or unthrifty
--more susceptible than average to haemonchus contortus
--birthing problems not traceable to unusual environmental or management error
--mothering problems
--harsh fleece ("steel wool")

In general, we have selected for sheep with these positive traits:
--calm personality, easy to handle
--easy to confine
--two relatively large, teats and good udder conformation
--high volume milk production
--stand well for milking
--175% or better lambing average (our goal for the flock is 200% for mature ewes, 100% for yearlings)–twins expected, triplets prefered
--no birthing assistance needed
--vigorous, "self-starting" lambs
--excellent mothering–ewes expected to claim and raise twins and ideally triplets without assistance
--medium size, ewes from 150 to 175 lbs.
--excellent quality, dense wool of several types (fine felting, fine non-felting, long lustrous) in a variety of colors
--black hooves (less maintenance than white)
--horns optional; while they present some management challenges the skulls are more valuable
--long back, meaty rump, short neck and legs
--tolerant of haemonchus contortus, heat, humidity, etc.
--easy keepers on pasture/hay
--short rat tail (mobile, not much wool, stays clean without docking)
--clean face and legs, preferably clean head.
--just for fun, we are really enjoying the "border collie" markings (white on face, lower legs, and tail) in Samson’s lines, event though they don’t come through on a fleece or pelt. They do make it easy to identify individual sheep at a distance.

Our "dream sheep" is the as-yet-mythical "Silky Milky", a dairy sheep in a range of fleece colors (white through pure black) with a long, yet relatively fine, lustrous Lincoln-type fleece, soft and minimally felting...quiet, easy to handle, adapted to a grass-fed system, producing at least 2 market lambs per year with hanging weights of 50 lbs. or better at 7 months on pasture alone. A line of colored fine-wool, non-felting dairy sheep is also sought.

Probable future ram acquisitions will include Gulf Coast Native from milking bloodlines from the David Bennett flock in Jamesport, MO, to improve parasite tolerance, and additional infusions of dairy and longwool genetics. Moorit (brown/red) coloration would be another desirable introduction to the genetic mix.

Rapid progress in developing desired flock characteristics has come from rigorous deselection of animals not meeting the highest standards. A ready market for Mutton and Pork Summer Sausage and for machine washable sheepskins helps to make it economically sound to retire animals from the breeding flock after a relatively short tenure, so that promising progeny can be kept.

That being said, ewes that prove themselves on all accounts are long-lived. Judy’s daughter Eider is approaching her 12th lambing with a 200% adult lambing rate.

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