Sharing experiences is the hallmark of education. In this new producer forum, four experienced EAPK members enrolled in NSIP, from very diverse areas of the U.S., answer questions and share their knowledge and insights into shepherding. In a series of interviews, Lynn Fahrmeier (Fahrmeier Katahdins, Western Missouri), Michelle Canfield (Canfield Farms, Western Washington), Roxanne Newton (Hound River Farm, South Georgia), and Etienne and Isabel Richards (Gibraltar Farm, Central NY) describe their operations, unique challenges and what traits and qualities best fit their goals, management system and environment. The interviews will continue throughout the year with additional questions. In 2023, a new series will begin allowing four different producers to share their experiences.
Tell us a little about your operation, especially things that impact or influence your selection.
Canfield: I run around 120 ewes and lamb on pasture in April. I don’t bring ewe/lamb groups into a barn or jug unless there is a problem, and that occurs with less than 5% of my ewes. I want ewes that can really do it on their own, even in a big pasture and sometimes with tall grass. I live in a temperate rainforest region north of Seattle, WA. Our climate is pretty mild; but we do sometimes have challenging spells of cold rain or wet snow. And in recent years, we’ve been facing record heat waves in summer. I find Katahdins to be very well suited to an extensive, low-input husbandry model.
Fahrmeier: We are from west-central Missouri, about 40 miles east of Kansas City, an area of rolling farmland. Our flock currently numbers about 140 ewes. Our main income is from corn, soybeans and wheat and Donna’s job as a teacher. I am transitioning some of our 1700 acres of cropland to certified organic production as well as transitioning all owned ground to regenerative practices including extensive use of multi-species cover crops. This will allow me to integrate livestock grazing on much of my cropland acres from late fall through early spring as well as summer grazing after small grain harvest. These changes will allow me to start lambing in mid spring instead of the dead of winter. Plans are to expand and to become a forage-based flock selling market animals at 90-100 days of age and selling yearling breeding rams that have been developed on pasture instead of at a feed trough.
Newton: We’re located in South Georgia. I guess you could call it sub-tropical. Our temperatures are in the 90’s from April through October. Winters are mild with very few sub-freezing nights. With our warm climate and high humidity, worm larvae can survive year-round, so parasite resistance is really important. We run about 75 ewes on our native Bermuda/Bahia pastures. Because of the poor quality of our forage and hay, we supplement ewes during the last month of pregnancy through mid-lactation. Our fields are overseeded in winter with oats and annual rye grass. This allows our January born lambs to start grazing with their dams at a very early age. With that comes early exposure to parasites, which if managed well, gets their immune system working at an early age. It also allows us to collect fecal egg counts in late March/early April which has become an important tool for identifying innate resistance in the lambs. Most years we provide creep on pasture, although when it’s started and for how long, is mostly determined by environmental conditions affecting pasture quantity and quality.
Richards: We are in central NY and have 175 breeding ewes. We are 100% grass-fed, we do not feed any grain or grain byproducts to any class of animal on our farm. All our animals graze perennial pastures with daily moves, spring, summer and fall. Animals overwinter and lamb in the barn where they eat grass mix hay. We do have severe winters and hay is a major expense for our operation. We lamb in late March and April and want all non-breeding animals to leave the farm before we have to start feeding hay. Good mothering is very important to us as we are only two people managing lambing all our ewes in a 34-day period with 90% plus of our lambs being born in the first 17 days. Ewes that can produce triplet lambs that fit into our market are very valuable so we do not pull triplet lambs in order to identify these girls.
Realizing that most flocks do not engage in single trait selection, what are the top three EBV-measured traits that you focus on in order of importance and why?
Canfield: I start by sorting with the USA HAIR Index (and now the Maternal$ Index, in the temporary absence of the Katahdin Index). I use this as a “coarse sort” to identify my top-tier, potential keeper animals. Then weed out any that are towards the bottom of my spread for Maternal Weaning Weight (MWWT), Number of Lambs Weaned (NLW), Number of Lambs Born (NLB), Post Weaning Weight (PWWT), and Weaning Weight (WWT), in that order. I do consider parasite resistance but it’s not a major factor of loss or growth limitation for my environment, so is a lower priority for me.
Fahrmeier: My flock’s goals are slowly shifting, so my selection criteria are also slowly changing over time. Currently, I am placing a high emphasis on NLW. Since profit is closely tied to this lowly heritable trait, we need to keep applying constant selection pressure to keep from going backwards. Second is probably parasite resistance (PFEC). This important trait can save time and money because of less treatments, and research is showing that lambs with high parasite resistance generally have a stronger immune system overall. My third EBV-measured trait is Eye Muscle Depth (PEMD). Although Katahdins are a maternal breed first and foremost, at the end of the day, we are selling meat. We shouldn’t try to be a terminal sire breed, but we can add some muscle to the lambs to make them more desirable to our buyers.
Newton: Although we try to select sheep that are balanced or above average in all traits, our main selection goal is parasite resistance. We have been selecting for that trait since 2007. In our climate, parasite resistance is the key to survival. Even in meat lambs, resistance to parasites allows them to reach their full growth potential. The other two traits that we select on are the Katahdin Index, because it allows me to select for MWWT, NLB and NLW as a single trait, and post-weaning growth (PWWT) because it’s a reflection of the lamb’s genetics for growth separate from the dam’s influence (milk/mothering). In our environment, both parasite resistance and growth are needed to thrive.
Richards: We select for high MWWT & WWT and low WFEC. Our production goal is to maximize the number of lambs weighing at least 90 lbs by six months old, in a management system where no animals are fed grain or grain byproducts at any stage of production. Our historical production data has steered us to focusing on MWWT and WWT to reach this goal. We use non EBV traits to ensure at least a 200% lambing rate for adult ewes. We never blanket deworm all our lambs so focusing on WFEC helps reduce the frequency of FAMACHA checks. Ultimately fewer lambs die or get stunted because of parasites.
Are there traits that you try to maximize or that you intentionally limit or minimize?
Canfield: I haven’t hit a ceiling of discomfort yet with any growth or productivity trait (though I expect I may eventually!) I am mindful of ewes with an imbalance between NLB and MWWT, as if she’s going to have triplets, I want her to feed them all on pasture with no special inputs and have them grow adequately. I also keep an eye on BWT, especially in rams, as I do find that rams with a BWT EBV of 0.6 or higher will give my ewe lambs trouble in deliveries, creating more overhead for me.
Fahrmeier: I don’t think there is any trait that I try to maximize since maximizing any one trait usually comes at a cost to another trait. I might come close to maximizing NLW in some replacement ewe lambs. I am a little concerned about the WWT becoming too high, as selecting for high weight traits will lead to larger adult weights. Heavy ewes eat a lot more than more moderate, lighter weight ewes. When selling light lambs into the ethnic market, you can’t justify the extra cost to feed big, heavy ewes. I am also a little concerned about high MWWT. I have trouble drying up ewes that have a high MWWT EBV, although having this trait too low can be a problem with early lamb growth. As I experiment with transitioning from a winter lambing flock to a spring pasture lambing flock, I might need to reconsider selection pressure on this trait.
Newton: Ideally, I make my breeding choices so that the offspring are balanced in all traits. That’s harder to achieve than maximizing any given trait, in my opinion. The only trait we maximize is parasite resistance. In our experience, a super high PWWT EBV is correlated to increased frame size. Large-framed sheep have a harder time maintaining good condition in our hot environment and with our poor-quality native grasses. We don’t try to maximize maternal traits since it seems to be antagonistic to high parasite resistance. We like to keep NLB and NLW EBVs just above the 50thpercentile. That’s the target for consistent twinning when breeding in August here in Georgia. We prefer twins over triplets but will keep ewes that can raise triplets well in our system. I believe many of my solid twinning ewes would be more prolific if bred later in Fall, but late-born lambs (March/April) don’t grow as well here because of the heat.
Richards: We maximize MWWT, WWT and Parasite resistance concurrently in a balanced manner. We cull based on poor body condition scores to ensure that ewes function well in our management system. We use production data to ensure they produce well in proportion to their adult size. We shy away from using rams with very high NLB. In our flock adult ewes with NLB above the 50th percentile typically have triplets and quads. We use phenotypic data to select against adult ewes that single multiple times or have quads multiple times. We cull all ewes that reject any of their lambs to minimize (ideally eliminate) bottle lambs.
What other traits or characteristics play a significant role in your selection process?
Canfield: I keep careful records on prolapse, dystocia, mismothering, mastitis, medical interventions and anything else that takes time and energy from me during lambing and rearing. I don’t have a “one strike you’re out” policy, but by two or three strikes, definitely!
Farhmeier: Weak pasterns are a breed-wide problem that I don’t think we take seriously enough. I am always checking replacement animals for good pastern angle and also for proper jaw bite. Hair coat shedding is another important trait. One way to differentiate our Katahdins from other hair breeds is to always select for slick shedding breeding stock. I also select against long legged replacement animals. I would much rather have animals packing on pounds of meat early in life than building long bones. Early maturing think-muscled lambs are what I prefer and select for.
Newton: Easy care is really important to me as a “mature” shepherd with no hired help. My best ewes are ones that I can’t pick out of a line-up because they haven’t required extra care. I prefer medium-framed, stout, easy-keeping sheep with good shedding coats and good conformation. Since we breed in August and only keep the rams in for two cycles, I think we inadvertently select for early maturing ewes.
Richards: We measure ewe pre-breeding BCS and cull all ewes that are not able to recover body condition. Ewes that reject lambs are culled independent of their EBVs or past production performance. Ewe lambs are expected to lamb at 12 months old. We use Post-Weaning Scrotal Circumference (PSC) to maintain early sexual maturity. Total weight of all lambs weaned by a ewe is compared to her pre-breeding weight to help ensure that larger adult size does come with an appropriate increase in production.
What is your primary market and how does it affect your breeding goals and trait selection?
Canfield: My main market is for natural, grass-fed lamb; so, I need lambs that can thrive outdoors on forage alone, no creep feed. I also sell seedstock to smallholders, beginning homesteaders and CSA operators. They need turnkey sheep that can put meat in the freezer with minimal “fiddling.” Katahdins are very popular in my region because they are such hardy, hands-off twinners. Buyers appreciate having EBVs to aid in their selection of breeding animals to meet their individual goals. I have some customers who choose breeders based on “fun” traits like color; or based on affordability factors if they are just getting started. Though I do sell register-able animals, I find that most of my buyers do not value the registrations and aren’t willing to pay extra for them. The majority of my seedstock buyers solely utilize data and metrics to make their selections, because meat production is their focus. My animals having EBVs offers a high value proposition for them, and I believe it gives me a significant edge over other producers in my area.
Fahrmeier: My goals aren’t static, in part due to changing market opportunities. Originally, we were selling 90-100-pound lambs to a broker that hauled them to Chicago, and then later, 120-pound lambs for farmer’s markets and restaurants in Kansas City. When that sale channel ended, we sold to Superior Farms for a couple years. We have transitioned to the ethnic light lamb market as it is now the most profitable. We consciously decided to not sell many breeding animals the last couple of years as we made this switch. Once we transition to a completely forage-based operation, we hope to start selling the very top percentage of our registered forage-developed yearling rams as breeding stock.
Newton: We mostly sell registered breeding stock. Animals that are just average are sometimes sold as commercial breeders. We also sell some commercial breeding rams and a large number of ram lambs for meat. That percentage depends on the year and honestly, on the genetics we used to develop that lamb crop. The goal of my breeding program is to produce offspring that are parasite resistant, balanced, and better than their parents. Simple in theory, but difficult to achieve.
Richards: Our market is rather diversified. We sell feeder lambs as well as 90 pound plus finished, 100% grass fed lambs to farms that sell lamb at farmers markets near NYC. The lambs that are not appropriate for that market (poor parasite resistance, triplet lambs out of ewes that do not have enough milk) are sold at local auctions that go into the ethnic market. Our selection focuses on our finished lamb market, selecting for ewes and rams that can efficiently produce these lambs in our management system while maintaining at least a 200% lambing rate.
By: EAPK Communications Committee