Shepherd to Shepherd: Producer Forum #2

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For our second producer forum we asked our four shepherds what data they collect besides that used for NSIP; how they manage their data; what software programs they use; and how they analyze and use their data to make selection decisions.


Michelle Canfield, Canfield Farms, Western Washington

I use Ranch Manager for my day-to-day husbandry records. Mostly what I keep in here are records of medical treatments & other events; location of sheep (pasture vs barn); breeding & lambing records; and purchase & sale records. It supports functionality to track weights and financial data, but I don’t use those features, as I prefer to manage that data separately.

Ranch Manager can export a lot of data into Excel, and I use this feature to “dump” out lamb crop data (sire, dam, birth date, birth weight, sex, birth type) into a spreadsheet. Then I “massage” the data to get it into the right format to import into Pedigree Master for my NSIP submissions.

I use Excel the most. I keep a “running” file for maintenance of NSIP import data, adding to it as lambs are born, sold, or have died; and as I take weaning weights, post-weaning weights, scrotal circumference, etc. I keep a lot of notes to myself in there to keep everything straight: bottle lambs, grafted lambs, lambs that were e.g., born as twins but raised as singles because something happened. This file is teed up to copy/paste into a text file (in MS Notepad), where I can quickly import into Pedigree Master and submit. During spring and summer, I’m usually submitting updated data to NSIP every two weeks.

I back up all my data in the cloud; this is really important! I have a backup script that runs nightly and makes a dated copy of my Pedigree Master and Ranch Manager database files. This is because sometimes I can make a data error in the database, or data corruption can happen. So, just having a backed-up copy of today’s version is useless if today’s version is corrupted. On occasion, I need to get back to a prior version, so I want incremental versions saved for a long period in history in case I need to “go backwards.” My main Excel file is synchronized to my cloud Dropbox account, and I also always save a dated copy of it every time I pull in a new data set from Pedigree Master. This allows me to look back at prior versions and EBVs.

It may be worth noting here that I almost never use Pedigree Master itself. I open it up long enough to import or export data from/to Excel. Rarely, I may look at the pedigree view if I want to understand a particular EBV. For instance, a lamb that’s got a low NLB even though I know the dam has had a lot of twins/triplets. I may want to see what other animals in the pedigree are pulling that score down, and what the accuracies are. And, of course, I use the error checker before I submit any new data, and this does help me catch typos, etc., in my data. But in general, I find PM to be a fairly crude tool for doing any data entry, analysis or records management.

Lynn Fahrmeier, Fahrmeier Katahdins, Western Missouri

While Pedigree Master is a “clunky” program that is hard to enter data into, it really is not a bad program for small flock management. I used it exclusively for several years but always struggled with all the paper that I carried to the working chute. I decided to use the Shearwell Farm Works program so I could use their handheld StockRecorder with EID (Electronic Identification). Farm Works has way more features than I will ever use, but it has been a real game changer for me. I very seldom take paper records to the lambing barn or to the working facilities. I can scan lambs and collect weights in a fraction of the time as I did before. There is a video on my FaceBook page, Fahrmeier Grain and Livestock, that shows me using the StockRecorder in the lambing barn.

I am participating in the data collection project for Dr. Ron Lewis’s GEMS project. So, I am collecting Body Condition scores, FAMACHA scores, Lambing Ease scores, Death Reasons, Udder Depth and Teat Placement scores for this project in addition to my regular weights and measurements. It will be interesting to see what data from the GEMS project become a long-term collection protocol for my flock.  

One weight that I would encourage all flocks to take is a pre-breeding weight on all ewes. If you are in NSIP, this weight can be inputted into Pedigree Master. If Katahdin NSIP breeders could collect enough weight data, I think we could find a researcher to develop an Adult Weight GEBV. This would be a huge step forward for those flocks that want to manage adult weights to limit the cost of feed for ewe maintenance. Even without an Adult Weight GEBV, this is an important measurement to calculate the weaning efficiency of the ewe and it can tip you off to when a ewe starts to get too old to maintain good body condition.

For the most part, I let NSIP analyze my data and create GEBVs. GEBVs are orders of magnitude more accurate than trying to predict the genetic merit of an animal based on just one animal’s data. I then use the GEBVs to match ewes to rams based on the breeding goals for my flock. I am not trying to chase any single trait to the max, but hope to produce animals with a set of traits optimized for my environment and management style.  

Roxanne Newton, Hound River Farm, South Georgia

Other than Pedigree Master, I don’t use any commercial farm management software. I start at lambing by using a barn record to keep track of data about both the ewe and her lambs. On it I record everything: DOB, sex, sire, birth type, birth weights, udder info, FAMACHA scores, body condition scores, lambing problems, treatments, coat and hoof color, and anything else that may be useful. I then enter that information into an Excel spreadsheet that I use until the next year’s lambing. I like spreadsheets because I can sort the data to evaluate not just the lambs, but also their sires. For instance, I can calculate the average fecal egg count of each sire’s offspring. This helps to decide whether a sire performed better or worse than expected and helps me determine if a ram should be kept or removed from the breeding program. I do the same thing with weaning weights. It’s amazing to realize that some rams can significantly outperform others in lamb growth or parasite resistance which is sometimes missed by looking only at an individual animal, its raw data, or even its EBVs. These are important economic traits that can really affect the profitability of a flock.

Once I’ve gathered the data at weaning and postweaning, I keep track of who I sold a lamb to and at what price, results of genetic tests/codon, registration numbers, and the total pounds of lamb weaned by the ewe. A lot of the same data is collected multiple times: at birth, weaning, vaccination, post weaning and thereafter. Along with EBVs, this information helps me make culling and ewe replacement decisions. Having this level of detail readily available is helpful and saves me from having to go out to the pasture and try to locate an animal if a client has a very specific question such as hoof color.

My spreadsheets are relatively the same year after year so it’s easy to go back and evaluate whether a ewe had the same success or problems in previous years, especially as it relates to her lambs’ growth or parasite resistance. I don’t think we pay enough attention to how the genes from a particular pairing mesh to create the ideal progeny. Sometimes just breeding a ewe to a different ram can result in significantly better (or worse) offspring. It’s our job as breeders to figure that out using the records we keep.

My replacement ewes are selected first on their level of parasite resistance. Certain ewe lines flourish in my climate and system so I pay close attention to pedigrees. I try to look at the big picture and not focus too much on small differences. To make positive genetic improvement we have to stick to our goals. With genomics and the new GEMs project, selection is going to get a little easier.

Isabel & Etienne Richards, Gibraltar Farm, Central New York

We use Ranch Manager as our primary sheep management system. We extract data from there to do further analysis and import data to Pedigree Master for data submission. In addition, we use Google Sheets to summarize information; Katahdin Tools for searching for animals; Breeding Goals software for breeding planning, ram candidate searches, etc. (this is similar to MateSel software from Australia); and MySQL for database queries and analysis.

We collect data on paper and enter it into Ranch Manager when back at home. We make a paper worksheet with all the sheep listed, pertinent historical information and columns for recording whatever we will be collecting that day. For instance, if we collect weights, we include a previous weight so we can see if there are animals that are not gaining at the same rate as others and investigate further.

We collect more data than what is required for NSIP. We track disease and treatment to make sure we adhere to drug withdrawal times in sheep we sell and also to ensure that sheep are culled when a condition may affect future production. For some conditions we will cull their offspring as well. Fecal egg counts on ewes at lambing tell us which ewes are shedding large amounts of eggs on pasture that will affect the lambs during the growing season. We collect BCS (body condition scores) on ewes at breeding and lambing and use the information to make culling decisions. We collect the weight of ewes at breeding and information about mothering ability for our ewes. We use this information for culling decisions and to allow selection of ewe and ram lambs only out of ewes that are good mothers. We find that the NLW EBV is not adequate to evaluate mothering as a poor mother can have lambs that steal and survive even though their dam is not really the one raising them. NLW also does not account for lambs lost due to no fault of the ewe. Additional information collected on lambs includes actual weaning weight (weaning data for EBVs is taken at 60 days and that is not when we actually wean); polled status; and conformation.

Selection is never based on just one source of information. We try to utilize all the information we collect and the EBVs we receive when making decisions. We make a distinction between selection and culling. Ewe lambs and ram lambs are selected for production potential where EBVs have a larger influence, while culling decisions for ewes and rams are based on production history where production has a larger influence. To be considered as a replacement, ewe lambs need to have EBVs that are equal to or better than the top 20% in our ewe flock. For ewes that have lambed, we are more interested in their production than in their EBVs. At the end of the day, we sell meat. Ewes that produce well are more valuable than ewes with good EBVs.


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