Foundation Ewes

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When it comes to AI breeding sheep there is a lot of focus put on the rams. Do they have good type, are they fertile, do they freeze etc.  After spending so much time selecting, testing, collecting and holding your breath while samples are thawed and tested for motility, its easy to forget  that there are two sides to this genetic equation and the one that is much more likely to spell the success or death of any upgrading program is the foundation ewes.

Decision made here – good and bad – will follow you for generations. They affect your lamb crops, rearing success, the fertility of future daughters, AI settling rates, etc, etc etc. This list goes on and on and on…… and on and on and on.

A very common mistake is underestimating the need for ewe power, and making sure that your ewes are properly suited not just to your desired phenotypic outcome, but also to your rearing and management environment. Shipping sheep across the country comes with an inherent set of risks, they are more susceptible to parasites, as parasite resistance is dependent on their immune function, as well as disease, changes in food, differences in minerals and so on. There is an adjustment period – and it isn’t a four week quarantine either. Its possible with careful management you can make that work, but Im basically lazy, and I prefer to stack the evolutionary deck in my favor and let the critters do most of the work for me – hence my commitment to foundation breeding.

So what should a good looking foundation ewe look like? All experienced AI folks will tell you it needs to be an experienced ewe that raised her lambs without help, Ill take that a little further and borrow off a post from Joy Dally, who, along with her husband Martin, operate Super Sire Ltd and have been involved in a number of upgrading programs

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Upgrading programs need long term vision as to selection for important maternal traits that will carry forward. We have learned from years of previous experience that the maternal side of the equation is very important to the final outcome. That is one of the reasons we chose high quality Gotlands as foundation stock in our breeding program. 
These are stout, prolific, high milk producing ewes that will impart many of their positive maternal traits on to their offspring. They are amazing sheep in so ways, personality being one of them…very friendly…but that aside, with our Gotlands we can count on high AI take rates, and multiple, healthy, vigorous lambs that will be well nourished. Of course Martin feeds them well, as you can see!

I have posted a couple pictures of them yet to Lamb so you can see they are serious about their business…producing lambs. The two ewes I have shared pics of below are carrying triplets ( Queen Bee) and I believe a set of quads (good ol 465 ). The color patterning of the Valais Blacknose is inevitable in the F-2s and F-3 progeny of these ewes so is not as important a consideration when creating a sound maternal foundation to build upon. 
We first saw this cross in Sweden some years back and were impressed not only by the vigor of them, but the striking resemblance to the VBS in the F-2s.  – Joy Dally 

 

the results seem to be speaking for themselves with the Gotland/Valais, and there are certainly enough of the fuzzy little beasts –

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and then there are these Teeswater/Valais crosses, with an amazing nose and ear set. Hes got all the hallmarks of growing up into a very dignified little fellow, with an incredible fleece.

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Which brings us full circle, there are lots of options out there for foundation ewes. Each come with positives and negatives, but careful consideration and evaluation needs to be given to all of them to make sure they are outstanding representations of their breed and represent a high quality, functional and productive ewe. Anything less would be a disservice to all the time, effort and energy that have gone into getting these first crosses and subsequent generations on the ground.

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The Science and Art of Upgrading – Foundations

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Until it becomes possible to import embryos or animals with a pure genetic heritage behind them, all new breeds are subjected to the upgrading process. The Wensleydales have gone through it, the Teeswaters have gone through it, as have the Zwartbles, the Gotlands and several other breeds that didn’t have the benefit of having pure foundation stock imported into the US. It sounds relatively simple and straightforward – select a foundation breed, artificially inseminate it, and voila – you have offspring with 50% of the genetic information you are interested in. Do that a few more times until you get to 96% or 98% blood percentage and you have an almost purebred individual, right? Unfortunately, its just not that simple.

Regrettably genetics just don’t find themselves constrained by simple division. How a gene parses data, and their attendant characteristics is a biological roll of the dice. Sometimes you hit the jackpot, many times you don’t. And when you are working with a new set of genetics, the learning curve is particularly steep because you have no idea if you are dealing with characteristics that run the gamut from dominant, to co-dominant to recessive to epistatic to anything in between. You can dedicate lifetimes to learning all about genomes and still be surprised, and in the case of the Valais Blacknose, we’ve never worked with anything like this, and haven’t a clue how its all going to work out.

So where exactly does that leave us – with a whole lot of guesses and not a lot of solid information. And realistically, even empirical observations are going to take time to develop enough “examples” to draw really solid conclusions from. So what does that mean from an Association standpoint? It means that we probably shouldn’t write in stone what we will accept the first time out the gate and give folks an opportunity to figure out what best meets their goals, and that we should be keeping very detailed and accurate records along the way so that we can refer back 3 – 5 years  and mine through all that experience to some useful conclusions.

Which brings us to our first set of decisions – the breed up guidelines.

In looking at all the characteristics that make up a good sheep several come to the forefront as being pretty important to most breeders – they need to be useful and have value, they need to stay alive, and they need to be something that can be reasonably managed with normal practices without excessive cost; which basically equates to the usual list of suspects: physical type, feed efficiency, growth rate, temperament, mothering ability and prolificacy. We will forget the cost part of the equation for the time being as imports by definition are ridiculously expensive and generally not at all cost effective. Its a labor of love – or maybe a love of labor, either way, nobody gambles like a farmer.

In making a guess about which foundation breed(s) are going to give you the most similar  type in the fewest generations –  which admittedly is a pretty important thing for the worlds cutest sheep –  there is some pretty low hanging fruit out there – they look an awful lot like Scottish Blackface Sheep. There could even be some common ancestors somewhere back in those historical pastures, but by no means is that a slam dunk.

There are a number of sheep out there that have at least some similar characteristics – a number of  F-1s are currently incubating in Shetlands and  Dorpers,  as well as Teeswaters, Gotlands, Babydoll Southdowns and various cross bred animals. All have their pros and cons, depending on what your focus is, and we have no real empirical information on how Valais Blacknose Rams will cross on any of them.

But wait, you say – yes we do – they’ve been using  Scotties as a foundation animal in Scotland, we know what they do! That’s partly true, they have been using the UK Scotties in Scotland.  US Scotties, while similar have been Americanized in ways that we really can’t even begin to guess. We know from experience that our country is so large, with such a tremendous diversity in environment, forage and geology, that even moving animals from one side of it to the other can pose significant challenges and result in fundamental changes in type and performance in just a few generations, let alone moving to a different continent. It also means that an animal that has been heavily selected in an extreme environment may not be well suited to many areas in the US and may result in more issues than benefits for some breeders. Because those sorts of issues don’t really promote a wide genetic diversity with the ability to readily adapt to the US production environment and meet all the other tick marks on our wish list, that didn’t seem like a good place to wedge the bar.

There are two very different schools of thought about how to breed up. One involves picking a very similar breed and building on those genetics to incorporate them in an acceptable way into future generations of the animal you are trying to create. The other is to take an animal that is as different as possible and continue to select away from those traits with subsequent infusions of the breed you are working toward so as to remove the base animal entirely and purify your desired genetics.

In both cases the trick is getting the genetics to line up in a way that produces the desired result. A difficult proposition when semen is expensive, AI is difficult and the number of sires is highly limited. Since we are relying on a genetic roll of the dice, the best way to achieve reliable results is to do that alot and find the best results in each group. Further, we realistically don’t have the ability to simply infuse new genetics as a way to correct latent recessive defects exposed by the level of inbreeding/linebreeding necessitated by the extremely limited import pool, so careful selection criteria and heavy culling of unacceptable stock are critically important for the viability of the genetic population. The best, and possibly, the only realistic way to do this is sharing information, utilizing the best genetic specimens from across the country to continue to advance the US breeding pool toward the breed ideal.

To that end, the Association is working toward a centralized record keeping model that collects and organizes individual records for access by all members. Inclusion of foundation breed information, photos, birth weights, rates of gain, prolificacy and other metrics are intended to help breeders by sharing the experiences of other breeders in a complete and standardized way. It may eventually be appropriate to move to NSIP for certain values, but such future decisions will be better evaluated when more information regarding animal performance is available. So for now, the model remains performance rather than method based, with a focus on detailed records, information sharing and an eye toward a more structured future when we have more information available to better inform future decisions.

 

The Journey Begins

Thanks for joining me!

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton

Welcome to the Valais Blacknose Sheep Society USA blog.  The purpose of this blog is to share thoughts, experiences, insights and encourage discussion among those interested in establishing the Valais Blacknose Sheep in the United States.

While much of the initial foundation of the Association has been taken from previous upgrading efforts, and lessons about what does, and what doesn’t work, it is by no means set in stone.

The hope for the VBSS – USA is that by taking a  collaborative and cooperative approach  with support and interaction among members, that we will be successful in more quickly establishing a viable population of these sheep in the USA. In order to do that we are taking a more inclusive approach and letting the laws of genetics and a focus on performance based outcomes guide our approach, rather than instituting extensive restrictive regulations that may be counterproductive to the success of breeders programs, but still preserve the integrity of the pedigrees and the sheep.

We look forward to working with all of you and seeing these amazing and wonderful sheep take their place here in the USA.