Breeding Sheep for a Hardy Flock

Culling Animals Isn't Easy, But Necessary For a Healthy Flock

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Yearling ewe with no parasite problems, good fleece by mid-summer and good weight on pasture alone. This ewe continues as part of the breeding program.

By Alethea Kenney

When people call me asking about sheep, invariably we end up discussing hardiness. Sheep are often said to have a death wish, to be more sensitive to pain and more likely to die suddenly than other species. I have not found this to be true but I do think the ability of a flock to weather the storms of life depends on the shepherd making some tough decisions about their sheep. Lambing and summer are two good times to evaluate which sheep are keepers and which are culls. Here are my thoughts on breeding sheep for a healthy, hardy flock of any sheep breed.

Decisions About Breeding Sheep

When I look at my flock of sheep, I see some really beautiful animals. I also see some animals that require little to no input from me other than proper minerals and hay or pasture. How did my flock get to be so “hands-off?” The short answer is I chose to breed for that. Or rather, not to breed for animals that need constant attention.

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It’s not difficult to do.

If a ewe needs help at lambing and it’s not related to mineral imbalances (which should be corrected as soon as possible), there’s no reason to breed that sheep again.

If a ewe won’t take care of her lambs, she doesn’t need to be bred again.

If lambs require help other than that brought on by mineral imbalances (which should be corrected in the flock as soon as possible), that breeding is re-evaluated and probably not repeated.

If a sheep needs worming during parasite season, it doesn’t need to be part of my farm plan.

If a sheep needs more supplements than the rest of the flock, it won’t be part of my breeding sheep program.

If a ram is ill-tempered toward me, the ewes or the other rams, his genetics are not going to be part of my breeding sheep program.

In short, if I have to mess with the sheep, there had better be a really good reason or that animal and possibly that line have no place in my breeding sheep program.

What Does Culling Mean?

Culling doesn’t have to mean killing but it does mean the animal is removed from the available gene pool. Remember though, if you keep this animal, you may be doing more work year after year to keep it healthy. Sometimes it’s worth the work for a favored pet, but more often it ends up bringing heartache.

Yearling Ewe With Parasite Problems

Yearling ewe with terrible parasite problems (note the severe bottle jaw from Haemonchus contortus, or barber pole worm), poor fleece and obviously poor weight on pasture with supplemental hay. This ewe was culled.

Pedigree

I think lineage and genetics have the potential to get shepherds into more trouble than out of it if they are not careful. It’s not uncommon for folks to think they have the gold standard in sheep if they have artificially inseminated (AI) genetics and/or a sheep was bred by well-established farms and breeders.

The pedigree is only as good as the performance: If that sheep can’t perform well in the situation it’s in, then it’s not a good sheep for that situation, no matter where that sheep came from.

A sheep needs more than bloodlines: It needs performance and that’s something that needs to be included in all farm breeding plans.

When choosing sheep breeding stock, remember you’ll still need to do some serious evaluation and culling if you want to have a hardy flock. Even the most careful sheep breeding plans don’t always produce the best sheep and this is unfortunate. However, the goal is always to produce lambs better than their parents and better-adapted to their situation.

Selling lambs that aren’t even born yet may not allow the breeder to do the evaluation necessary to know if those lambs will be hardy and a good addition to the gene pool. It’s a difficult situation: Having a reservation for a lamb may make it more difficult to make the decision to cull when needed. Being free to evaluate any animal as objectively as possible is important.

Pets

Are pet sheep or fiber flocks bad, then? Absolutely not! Pets, 4-H show sheep, and fiber flocks are all legitimate reasons to keep sheep.

However, serious breeders shouldn’t sell animals that were pulled from the flock due to their inability to survive without serious intervention and still expect their sheep and farm to keep a good reputation.

An already-established breeder keeping cull animals for fiber or as pets is one thing, that breeder knows the work ahead to keep the sheep healthy. Selling cull animals to others can ruin a breeder’s and the breed’s reputation.

Lambs

Two lambs off to a good start, each is a twin, mothers had no lambing difficulties. Their growth, parasite resilience, and fleece will be charted as the summer progresses to see if they are hardy sheep that will improve the flock.

Responsibility

It’s never easy making decisions about life and death. It can be easier (even if you’re opposed to eating your sheep) if you have a place for cull animals to go to live a productive but non-breeding life.

However, the responsibility of maintaining a breed according to its breed standards and improving the hardiness of a flock should not be underestimated. It can be very easy to determine which sheep to keep. They will meet breed standards or be conformationally correct while not requiring extra work and input from the shepherd. Sheep can perform very well with little help from their shepherds when constructive breeding and culling decisions are made. A healthy, hardy flock of sheep is a joy to see and to shepherd.

Alethea Kenney keeps Icelandic sheep in Northern Minnesota. She is also a traditional naturopath, herbalist, and aromatherapist. For more information, contact: Reedbird Farm Icelandic Sheep, 25700 280th St., Shevlin, MN 56676; Phone: 218-657-2502; website: www.reedbird.com.

Originally published in the January/February 2015 issue of sheep! and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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Comments
  • Michelle M.

    I understand where you are coming from with your reasons for culling. I have owned my share of poor performers, but over the many years of breeding sheep I have learned to not be so quick to cull. I have one of those breeds that are not very common, so putting out the cost to bring in new genetics is a big deal. A few years ago I bought a ewe lamb from a breeder east of the rockies (l live on the west coast) and she has struggled with the parasite levels we have on the wet coast since acquiring her. Some days I think I am taking care of a race horse. According to culling rules I should have eliminated her, but I didn’t, and she has produced two exceptional rams (1 sold for breeding and 1 I have kept for breeding) and this spring a lovely ewe lamb. These offspring show no issues with parasites. I have not wormed her lamb yet and it has been warm and wet spring. I have recouped my purchase cost and then some. Another experience that I have had repeatedly also goes against culling rules. This involves tiny lambs. I had a lousy mom give birth to triplets one year, 2 boys and 1 girl. The ewe lamb was tiny, and probably weaned at only a month – she just couldn’t compete with the other two. She was so small I did not want to sell her for breeding stock and thought she would never be big enough to breed. She caught up somewhat, although still small and I did end up breeding her. She is now the matriarch of the herd and has never failed to produce and rear the largest twins for the last 6 years. If I had culled the mom or culled her I would never have known that. My last example is of twin, premie, hand raised ewes, (3 lbs at birth, the mom died 24 hours after giving birth). I did not feel comfortable selling these two cuties as breeding stock, so I let them grow up. Although still smallish, they had their second set of lambs this spring. One, a 10 lb handsome ram lamb (big for an Icelandic) and the other a good healthy set of twins. I have learned over the years, just because mom ewe might be lousy, doesn’t necessarily mean her lambs will be. I usually let them prove themselves over a couple of breeding cycles before culling, especially when genetic diversity is a factor. Thanks, michelle

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