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.
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.
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.
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.
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.