Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Picking up threads (not a sewing post)

There are always interesting points of view to be found on various blogs and the Shetland groups on Yahoo. I have learned from, laughed with, cried over and cringed at what other Shetland breeders do and go through. There are no "shepherd police" (just as there are no spinning or knitting police, thankfully), so I am free to bumble along here at Boulderneigh in the way that seems best to me given my limitations of space, funds and DH cooperation.

Recent threads have me musing about genetics and breed improvement and prepotency. Some breeders say you need to keep your lambs, because they should be an improvement on their parents. I may do this in the future; in fact, I may HAVE to to lock in the poll gene in my flock. But I don't agree that each generation is necessarily better, or should be. What if someone chose the very best specimens alive for their foundation flock? How can you improve on the very best? Hopefully your lambs are just as good as their parents, but how can they always be better? Genetics is not that exact a science, IMHO.

And how long does it take to KNOW if the offspring are indeed better? One year, to verify horn growth (where applicable) and teeth? Two or three years, to see mature fleece development, mothering ability and ram personality? Ideally, I think that is what a good breeder should do: keep all their sheep several years to prove their good traits or reveal their less desirable traits before parting with them. But the vast majority of sheep shows discourage that by only holding classes for lambs and yearlings. And buyers want those cute little lambs....

A catch-phrase in the horse breeding world has always amused me: people advertise stallions as being "an own son of (name of famous stallion)". First of all, what other kind of son is there? An adopted son? Secondly, I've always thought that if I were to choose a stallion, it would be the proven performance horse (I don't believe in halter horses) - Smart Little Lena or Weltmeyer (or Man'O'War or Figure) not an "own son." After all, the son may not be as good as his sire, or inherit the prepotency of his sire to pass on his best qualities.

I tend to feel the same way about sheep. The sons and daughters may be good, but they may not be better than their parents. And I'd rather use rams and ewes who have proven their genetics through their own quality and that of their offspring than to take a gamble on an unproven youngster - if I have to make a choice. With my limited space, I DO have to make that choice. Other breeders with far more space and resources can keep both the older generations AND the younger generations until all is known, THEN make decisions about who to move on and who to keep in their breeding flock.

All these threads on other blogs and lists do help me look at my little flock more critically. As I do, I see good things and not-so-good things - and changing things! Wool on the poll that comes and goes; a lamb with a bad "bite" that has grown into a yearling with an excellent bite. Ready for some "show and tell"? This week I took "rear end" pictures of my current ewes. (Next month when Inky arrives, I will add a photo of her.) What do you see?I see nice, straight legs and four slightly different tails. None of the girls' tails are textbook perfect, but Braveheart's is, and he appears to have improved the tails on all his offspring. From the side, one of my girls is a bit down in the back pasterns and another has perhaps too much angle in her hind legs. Do I keep their daughters and sell the ewes? Or do I sell their better daughters to others, and keep breeding better lambs from the adults who I know can produce them?

That's all the rambling for now from . . .


Mim said...

Your flock shows promise from the back end! A person should chose the very best to start their flock but the very best are never the very perfect, never will be, so there is always up grading to do.
I know you don't have this problem but I've had so much trouble with shetlands when it comes to making better lambs. My rant is for young rams being sold from parents who are known to throw bad horns or the sire even has bad horns but he is used anyway because he has such a nice fleece! These ram's lambs are all sold with a horn guaranty but in five years and three sires used I have no ram lambs that I could have ever kept yet. Now what will my ewe lambs from these breeding throw? A good ram should have several generations of good horns in his background before you give a guaranty on his lambs.
I was trying to get Duncan from Lois but I see I missed. No way to get him down to Reno. My next ram purchase will be an adult proven ram! Trying to get good shetland rams (and I bought from breeders who do well at shows)has filled my freezer with too many wethers.
Rant over, it must be the heat!

Kara said...

LOL, I started taking butt shots today too!

~~Sittin.n.Spinnin said...

They do have a good spread dont they? But you are a vegitarian, do you care that they are well built as a meat sheep? What is it you look for in Shetlands? Maybe you or Mim (or another Shetland breeder out there) could do a post about that, I havent got a clue what a Shetland breeder would consider a good trait! Shetlands are bred for meat and wool, right?

Mim said...

Yes Becky we (I) breed for meat and fleece. The only differences in Shetlands are like the type fleece they have the shape on the nose the placement of ears the tail, things like that, the things that make shetlands, shetlands! The comformation like leg set, straight backs, strong pastures would be just like you want in Tunis I suppose, or horses or cows. I'll work on pictures of my sheep also and show the good the bad and the "beautifully challenged"!

Tammy said...

My highest goal is to enjoy my flock. To that end the best personalities are the ones that stay. I have no desire to have all perfect sheep---but I do have goals to improve my girls with solid rams with strengths that they may not have. This to me is the fun part. Tiny tails for the slightly longer tailed ewes, good hocks for that ewe who might not have the best hockset. And always, always striving for a better fleece. I'm less analytical than most, I suppose, but again, I'm in it to enjoy my creatures more than anything. I have only a small area as well, so the majority of lambs sell each year. I do keep anywhere from 1 to 4 ewe lambs if there is something I really like and space allows. Your girls look great, your foundation is strong, and they are pleasing to you for your goals, so I think you are doing fine. Do it your way, and enjoy the journey!
Take care,

Kathy said...

Michelle, You and I both know from horses you can have "perfect" parents and non-"perfect" get. And as the MIL of a genetisist (sp?) I know that it is not a perfect science. That's why they call it re-search. :)
There are times when the offspring does surpass the parents, but it doesn't mean it will breed true. I don't believe people who say they can, either. The only one who knows what you're going to end up with is Mother Nature.
And way too many times, (I'll say it) Shetland breeders use ram lambs under a year old who have not grown enough to declare themselves. Same with ewe lambs. No one wants to put in the time to have an animal grow into its potential. We live in a society of "instant" thinking far away from sheep producers of old. We want it big, we want it perfect and we want it now. It's sad really...older sheep with many years active breeding left are culled due to age and nothing less. Gone are the days when the old rams, proven by years of survival without wormers, etc., are the senior rams.
You can use bloodlines and family trees (pedigrees) and still get lousey sheep. They should be used as tools - no more, no less, as any other tools we used to try our best at breeding better sheep.
But then again...What IS a better sheep?