I use a variety of characteristics to evaluate our flock of Black Welsh Mountain sheep each year in the fall. I also look at their NSIP EBVs for important traits.
We’ve sorted the rams and the ewes and yearlings and only have the lambs left to do.
Every year I evaluate all the sheep to decide who is staying as a breeding animal, who is for sale and who will go to butcher.
First thing to look at is they must be good sheep. So we check the 3 T’s of sheep, Teeth, Toes and Tits or Testicles, depending on their sex.
All sheep even rare breeds must function in their environment and on our farm that means they have to be able to hold condition, raise lambs and breed on hay and forages alone. Good teeth are critical. I look not only at the shape of the teeth but whether any are missing. The most common reason we cull older ewes is due to missing teeth. Once they start loosing their teeth they are no longer able to eat enough to support themselves and their lambs. It’s better to butcher them while they still have good body condition.
Toes is shorthand for feet and legs. Again our sheep have to walk and move to get their food. I don’t want to have to deal with any foot problems so any sheep that required more than a once a year hoof trimming are candidates for culling. This is also where we cull any sheep that have bad leg conformation. Rams in particular must be up on their back legs and have good strong loins to be able to serve the ewes.
Tits or Testicles is another way of saying they better be able to breed. For rams I measure scrotal circumference. This is highly correlated with the fertility and fecundity of his daughters and is a big selection criteria for a ram. It’s also a measure of how many ewes he can serve. For the ewes their udder shape and lack of any lumps or bumps is critical. We have had occasional cases of mastitis so any ewes with any lumps in her udder will be sent to slaughter.
Once I’ve looked at the critical things for a good performance sheep I look for breed character.
This is where I grade each animal against my ideal or perfect Black Welsh Mountain sheep. I will look at head shape, horns in rams and lack of horn buds in ewes, body thickness, wool quality, no grey or white in the fleece and so on. A good Black Welsh should look like a brick with a sturdy thick body, well sprung ribs and plenty of depth for the rumen. They should not be too tall but should be very muscular. I am looking for a nice medium fleece with decent crimp that will shed snow and rain and be good for handspinning. I want a feminine head on the ewes and a nice masculine head on the rams. Horns on rams should be neither too wide nor too close. In the US most of the Black Welsh have very massive horns. We are a bit out of spec compared to the UK standard so I am working to get the horns thinner and finer and a bit more tightly curled close to the face. It’s a slow process because if you get a close tightly curled horn but it’s too thick the sheep cannot eat as it will interfere with his jaw. In the US it is illegal to sell sheep whose horns have been turned with heat without a full disclosure and some states completely forbid it so a ram must grow his horns in a nice even manner. We cannot change the growth by any means and still sell breeding stock.
I rank our sheep on a 1-5 scale for these traits with a 5 being best, 4 is good, 3 average, 2 poor and 1 is bad. The scores for each trait are added up to give me an overall number. I do use the overall number as one criteria in my selection process but only after culling out the 1’s for critical issues like teeth, udder lumps and bad feet or legs.
In addition to this number I also use the EBV calculations we get from our NSIP recording. EBVs are a way to estimate the breeding value of an individual animal for important traits like number of lambs weaned, birth weight, weaning weight, hogget weight, wool and carcass traits and even worm burden via fecal egg counts. We do not use all the possible EBVs in our selection process but focus on the maternal characteristics. For us the cost to collect ultrasound data on carcass traits, wool micron testing and fecal egg counts is too expensive so we’ve only been collecting weight data on our sheep. I collect birth, weaning, early post weaning, late post weaning, yearling and adult weights. I also record lambing ease, whether the ewe required assistance to lamb and what level of assistance was needed.
In most commercial breeds EBVs are used to select the “best” animals. What we have done is use EBVs as a tool to help select the worst animals. This is a subtle but critical difference. Because we are the only flock recording, the accuracies of our EBVs are not very good. If we select an animal entirely on the numbers and the accuracy is low we could potentially use as a breeding animal one that is particularly bad. But if we instead use the EBVs to select the worst animals, even with the accuracy problems we might inadvertently cull an average animal but are unlikely to cull one that is superior. That is a much less serious problem than using a poor animal as a breeder.
Black Welsh Mountain Sheep are run as a USA Maternals breed by NSIP. This is an index that is focused on dual purpose and maternal sheep. We are in the same group as Polypays. An index takes the EBVs for specific traits, adds a weighting factor and calculates a single final value for the animal. Although indexes are useful it is often important to look at specific trait EBVs especially with rare breeds where you need to maximize genetic diversity.
In our selection criteria the indexes I use are the USA Maternals and the Self Replacing Carcass(SRC). The SRC index is the closest to the Welsh Index used by Welsh Mountain breeders who record purebred sheep with Signet in the UK. I also look specifically at the birthweight, maternal weaning weight, yearling weight, adult weight and lambing ease EBVs.
We produce meat and wool and most of our meat sheep are butchered at 14-18 months as what the US calls mutton but the UK would call hogget. We do also butcher some sheep as lambs at 10 months or so. In an ideal world I want the lambs to grow to butcher size on forages alone within that time easily but I also do not want to increase the birth weights or the adult size of our sheep. It’s a balancing act to get fast growth but keep birth and adult weights low and few if any lambing problems. The final proof of how I am doing is by tracking carcass weights on all slaughtered sheep no matter the age.
We have been recording our Black Welsh flock with NSIP since 2011.
Since then we have increased the carcass weights on lambs by 4.35 pounds and on yearlings by 1.96 pounds. Our yields on carcass to retail meat cuts is typically 65% and we sell our meat at an average over the whole sheep of $12.00/lb since some is sold wholesale and some retail. By using NSIP we have increased our income by an average of $33.93/lamb or $15.29/yearling.
NSIP charges a yearly flock fee based on how many ewes you breed. Our yearly fee was $200.00 for the 55 ewes we bred in 2014 for 2015 lambs. There is also a one time database fee for every lamb on which you send in anything past the birth weight data. This fee is $2.85/lamb and once you pay it you can continue to send in data on that sheep for its whole lifetime.
For 2015 we had 50 ewes produce a total of 72 live lambs. 1 lamb was killed by predators so we have 71 lambs on which we will collect data. That will cost us $202.35 for this year. Our total costs will be $5.67 for each lamb this year. Even with that cost we are still looking at and average additional income of $28.26 for any lambs we butcher and $9.62 for yearlings. As we continue to improve our flock I expect those numbers to get better.
Fall evaluations is when I find out how well I did in selecting my breeding animals last year and start looking at what I need to do for the coming year. It’s a fun time for me even though it is a lot of work.