Conserving Romeldale CVM Sheep

An Interview with Patti Sexton, Romeldale CVM Sheep Breeder

Photo courtesy of Patti Sexton.

By the National Romeldale CVM Conservancy – In 1915, A.T. Spencer purchased New Zealand Romney rams from the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (the 1915 World’s Fair) in San Francisco. The prized rams could not be returned to New Zealand, and A.T. Spencer seized an opportunity. These rams were bred to Rambouillet ewes and with careful selection created a sheep with improved meat carcass and longer fleece length. The Romeldale sheep breed was born. Beginning in the 1940s, J. K. Sexton’s family continued work to firmly establish the Romeldales as a breed. They raised them in large range band flocks in northern California and sold each year’s wool clip to Pendleton Mill.

Romeldales have a high rate of twinning, are excellent mothers, and are non-seasonal breeders. Their wool is a fine fiber with a breed standard micron range of 20-25. A full fleece can yield 6-12 pounds of wool with a staple length of 3”-6”. As a dual-purpose breed, Romeldale also produce a mild flavored meat.

Originally raised as white sheep, during the 1970s naturally colored lambs were born in the Romeldale flocks. Family friend Glen Eidman began working with these sheep to develop a range of colors. At the time, he saw potential for the breed within the developing fiber arts community. Due to his foresight, the California Variegated Mutant (CVM) portion of the breed was developed. Today there is a range of both natural and variegated color that includes grays, browns, and blacks.

Once raised in large numbers, most Romeldale CVM flocks now average less than 30. Fewer than 500 new sheep are registered each year. These numbers have earned the breed “Critical” status on the Conservation Priority List managed by The Livestock Conservancy.

Patti Sexton and her brother Dick Sexton continue to raise Romeldale CVM sheep. Although their work is on a different scale, their flocks remain as an important legacy for breeders. Their knowledge and background are an unparalleled resource for those of us working to conserve this beautiful breed. Recently, Patti graciously gave of her time to offer a glimpse into her family’s fostering of the Romeldale and a friend’s development of the California Variegated Mutant.

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Do you have any comments on the history of this sheep breed? What would you like us to know from the perspective of having raised Romeldales in large range band flocks?

PS: A.T. Spencer had a very clear vision on developing the Romeldale breed. He knew there was a great need for a dual-purpose breed specifically suited to the unique challenges of the Sacramento Valley of California. It needed to be able to tolerate the hot, dry, dusty summers and the wet, cold winters. It needed to thrive on the feeds available. It needed to be hoof-rot resistant as well as clean-faced and legged to deal with the problem of wool blindness and with the abundance of stickers.

Photo courtesy of Patti Sexton.

My grandfather (Ken Sexton) set out to improve upon Mr. Spencer’s vision with the use of a very intensive replacement program that focused on wool quality and uniformity and on the rate of gain (in the lambs), rather than just overall size. He also put great emphasis on twinning ability.

On my family’s ranch, we ran 5000 head of ewes. They were split into two groups based on quality. Only those ewes in the top group — those of the better quality — were bred to Romeldale rams. From this group, the ewe lambs that were to be considered for replacements were selected. As the second group was of a little lower quality, they were not a part of our breeding program and were bred to Suffolk rams to produce a superior market lamb.

Our replacement rams were chosen from just the very best 5 percent of our ewes. The final selection of the replacements was done the following year after they were shorn as yearlings, at which time we had enough data compiled on them to enable us to fairly judge their qualities. This final selection admitted only ¼ of those originally selected as lambs back into our breeding program. Even though we ran a large number of ewes, the actual group from which we chose our replacements was relatively small, as those we deemed were of good enough quality to be retained in our flock.

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What would you consider to be the ideal Romeldale? Can you share with us primary considerations in regards to conformation that would have been taken into account by both the Spencer and Sexton families?

PS: My family’s ranch was quite large, so it was imperative that the sheep have good strong legs and also that they not have low hanging, misshaped udders that would hinder their movement; however, working hard to continually produce the best quality market lambs possible, making overall conformation of the greatest importance.

Photo courtesy of Patti Sexton.

The ideal Romeldale is a medium sized sheep with ewes weighing from 150-170 lbs. and rams from 200-250 lbs. It has an alert, intelligent eye and expression, ears that come straight out of the head and point a little forward and a well-placed, graceful neck, creating a head carriage where the chin is on a level with the tail.

The Romeldale should be deep bodied with a broad, strong medium length back, sturdy straight legs, well-placed under the body, a slightly low tail set. Looking at a sheep from behind, you should see the depth of body in the distance from tail to scrotum or udder, and good muscling on the inside of the hind legs. The ewes need to have a well-placed, well-formed udder.

The pigment of nose, around eyes and of the hooves can be either black or pink, with a black spot being acceptable on the hair of the sheep’s face, ears, or legs only.

The Romeldale should have a 4 or 5 face — meaning it should be open faced with clean legs. It should have low belly wool and be free of wrinkles on the body. The wool must be within the 60s to 64s grade, with no less than 3” staple length and with no black spots in the fleece.

However, there are a number of other considerations that are of equal, if not greater importance. A ewe may be an excellent physical representative of the breed. But, she must produce a lamb every year. It must be a lamb that thrives, she must be a good mother and produce ample milk for her babies to grow well. Along with producing and raising a lamb, she needs to produce a quality fleece, as well. If a ewe cannot do these things, it doesn’t matter how good her other qualities might be, she doesn’t belong in my breeding program.

With the status of the breed listed as “Critical” on The Livestock Conservancy Conservation Priority List, we have a small population of Romeldale CVM sheep available as breeding stock. With this in mind, do you have any conformation points that are non-negotiable and must be met for an animal to be included in your breeding program?

PS: For me to keep a sheep in my breeding program, its qualities really need to fall within the guideline averages of the breed. It would be a very difficult task to have accepted truly undesirable traits into a flock — and then try to breed them out.

A small number of quality sheep are of more value to the CVM breed than a large number of mediocre ones.

In the 1970s, Glen Eidman began his work to develop the California Variegated Mutant (CVM) part of the breed. Did Glen make any allowances in conformation, or changes to his breeding practices regarding selection, in order to pursue the variegated color possibilities within the breed?

PS: The first CVM lamb was born in 1970. It was a twin to a white lamb. My Dad thought its markings so unusual that he had my Grandmother take a photo of it. Over the next few years, more of these oddly marked lambs showed up in our flock. We didn’t keep any of them as we couldn’t chance our white wool clip becoming contaminated by the colored wool.

Patti’s Dad with 1st CVM lamb 1970. Photo courtesy of Patti Sexton.

At the time, it wasn’t known for sure whether or not the CVMs would breed true for color and the distinctive badger face markings, but Glen Eidman suspected that they would and he felt sure that if they would reliably pass on these traits, that the color and quality of the wool would be of great interest to the hand spinners.

Once Glen had decided to go forward with a CVM breeding program, we began saving the CVM lambs for him to choose his foundation stock from. At weaning time Glen would carefully go through them — checking them over for color, markings, wool quality, and conformation. He selected for his breeding program only the best of the CVM lambs that we produced each year.

One year, after Glen had picked out his lambs and a few of us stood visiting with him, his attention kept going back to one ewe lamb he’d picked out. She was a beautiful lamb, but there was some small thing that he didn’t like about her. Finally, he turned her back out — she didn’t make the grade. Glen knew that to have a quality breed — you have got to start with quality stock.

Glen and my Grandfather were business partners. He was very involved in the intense process we went through in selecting our breeding stock. He, more than anyone, was responsible for instilling in my siblings and me the importance of following a very strict selection and culling process.

There appears to be some variation in the fleece between white Romeldales and the recessively colored CVM. Can you talk more about the types of fleece acceptable within the breed?

PS: It was very noticeable in the early CVMs that the sheep themselves were more wild than their white counterparts. They have also tended to have less lanolin in their wool and to be more britchy than the Romeldales.

But the qualities that I look for in my breeding stock are the same: 60s to 64s wool grade, a soft fleece with at least 3” staple length, the fibers need to be strong with a fine, even crimp and a lot of elasticity and memory. The fleece should be dense with a fair amount of lanolin which helps to protect the fine fibers and to keep the dirt out.

The length of the staple and the grade should be uniform throughout the fleece with as little britch and belly wool as possible. A fleece should never be cotted, dry, full of dirt or contain any kemp. The ewe fleece should weigh between 6 to 10 lbs and the ram 10 to 12 lbs.

Photo courtesy of Patti Sexton.

The history of the Romeldale CVM breed reads as a great collaborative effort among a close group of family and friends who were passionate about the sheep and their fiber. Conservation breeding programs rely heavily upon the same effective collaboration between breeders who are now scattered great distances from each other. Can you share with us your hopes for the future of the breed and those working as conservation breeders across the country?

PS: Breeders need to have a very clear idea of what they want to accomplish with their breeding programs and a solid plan on how they are going to achieve that goal.

In the breeding of livestock, there is always something more to be learned. Those who are truly passionate about the continuation and quality of something, are usually happy to share information and ideas with others. Making those connections with likeminded people will often lead to conversations that bring up ideas a person may never have considered on their own. Breeders, especially in this day and age of the internet, don’t need to be next door neighbors to be of great value to one another.

Over the years there have been different breeds of all types of livestock that have changed to better supply market demands. But, the traits, the qualities on which the Romeldale breed was founded 100 years ago, do — I believe — still hold great value in today’s market.

We are appreciative of your time! Breeders do not always have the chance to hear from someone with your unique perspective and experience. If there is anything else you would like us to know, what might that be?

PS: Thank you for the opportunity to share my perspective on this breed which has been such a big part of my life.
I would like to let everyone know that I am currently working on a book — the history of the Romeldale/CVM breed, the people who had a hand in forming it, and the improvement programs used to ensure its continued quality. I hope to have the book completed and available by this time next year.

Sources: National Romeldale CVM Conservancy www.nationalcvmconservancy.org and The Livestock Conservancy www.livestockconservancy.org

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