Saturday, January 17, 2015

Checking Ram Fertility with a Serving Capacity Test

Xami the ram lamb, who's standing funny because he's peeing
It's not just the fully infertile ram you have to worry about. There is also the fact that some rams are more fertile than others.

A highly fertile ram will get more ewes bred. He will also ensure that more of the eggs ovulated by each ewe he breeds gets fertilized, leading to more multiple births. A low-fertility ram can't do this.

In a July 1990 article in Sheep! magazine called "Is your ram a dud or a stud? Knowing the difference pays off" the authors talk about the difference in breeding fertility between rams. In the wild, all rams are in a genetic competition to see who can breed the most ewes. The highly-fertile ram produces far more offspring than his less-fertile brethren, and so his genes have a greater influence over the wild herd.

In domestication, most male lambs grow up to be dinner. The shepherd picks future herd sire based on many different factors, from birth number (twin or single) to coat color to horned/polled status.... We just assume that the pretty boys we pick out will be fertile. And sometimes we are disappointed.

The article speaks of a procedure called a serving capacity test. A ram is observed in a small pen with about three in-heat ewes. The number of times he services the ewes is counted. If a group of rams is given this test, the numbers generated have been shown to predict breeding efficiency.

In a small farm flock the article authors recommend exposing each of your rams to three unrelated in-heat ewes for 30 minutes for the test. Rams who do not breed at all should be given a second test on the next day.

Another test the article recommends for larger flocks is to test 4 or 5 rams at once with 4 in-heat ewes for 20 minutes. Each ram that services an ewe is marked and removed.

For today's even smaller farm flocks, there may be some difficulty in coming up with enough in-heat ewes that the shepherd is willing to let get bred for the purposes of a test. A vasectomized ram with a marking harness can be used to pick out ewes that are in heat. (Make sure your vasectomized ram is really sterile first!!!) 

You may be only able to conduct a little testing. My suggestion is to use a test to choose between several rams of the same age. I wouldn't bother testing the ram lamb or yearling who is the least dominant of a group of same-age rams. He may not have the right personality to get the job done.

If you can't pull off a full serving capacity test, try this method of test-breeding. Pick your top two or three future-sire candidates, create three small breeding pens and fill them with three or four low-value but proven-fertile ewes, and leave each ram with a ewe group over a normal breeding session. Any ram who doesn't get all the ewes bred might be considered likely to be less fertile than you need. Using ram lambs, this may be a way to select for early sexual maturity without using an unproven ram lamb on your whole flock.



Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Hauling Water Buckets in Subzero Weather

We've been having some below-zero weather here in the Upper Peninsula, and even some -30 wind chills. And that means it's time to start hauling hot tap water from the house to the sheep barn.

You may wonder why I'm doing that. Snow on the ground is plentiful right now, it's clean and not covered by a hard crust. When I bought my very first Shetland sheep--- Sandhill Baneberry and Sandhill Trug--- the owners told me that Shetland sheep don't drink water, they eat snow. And it's true that my sheep often prefer it.

But Upper Peninsula winters are harsh, and particularly hard on old sheep and on undersized young ones. On a really cold day, eating snow can chill the sheep. I don't know if it's killed any sheep. But the old sheep seem to be more likely to die over winter, so I like to give extra care.

And so I haul buckets of hot water out on cold days. At first it was the older ewes--- who remembered drinking hot water in winters past--- who hogged the buckets. But the other day my crossbred ram lamb/herd sire Xami got to the bucket and drank like there was no tomorrow. (Xami is still with the ewes since I don't currently have a Shetland ram and since he's a ram lamb he may need extra time to get the job done.)

One of my daydreams is to one day get a heated waterer installed. It can't go in the barn since that has a stone foundation and it would cost more. But there's a spot in the barnyard it could go, and if advisable I could have a bit of a roof built over it. I have several handy men I'd ask for job estimates on that.

But for now, I haul water. I have finally wised up on it and don't haul a lot of water. I check the water level in the bucket and if the sheep aren't drinking, I don't add more to the bucket. So far I haven't had a layer of ice on the bucket bottoms.

I've also discovered that when I give hot water to the ewes, I don't really need to fill the chicken waterer. The ewes' water bucket is hung from a stock panel that divided the barn into a chicken zone and a sheep zone. (The chicken zone will shrink during lambing season as there are 2 stalls where the ewes with twins/triplets will go for a while.) The ewes spill enough water that the chickens get lots to drink from it, too. (I also feed the chicken either wheat sprouts or cooked grain on lots of days which adds water.)

The water hauling is not a dire necessity--- the flock can survive by eating snow--- but I'm hoping it's an aid to their well-being to also supply hot water on cold days. They seem to enjoy it, anyway.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Computerized sheep records: Oh, the agony!

I'm trying to update my flock records, and oh, is it a chore. In the past I've used 2 different sheep software programs to keep records. First was Sheepbreeder's Notebook, which was a nice little program. Then I bought Caprine Stockman (really for goats) and that was a little more flexible. Sadly, both companies have vanished, and I can't transfer the old software to my current computer.

I'd hate to go back to keeping all my records as text files with my word processing software, because I'd have to re-enter the same info many, many times. I'd rather get a basic livestock software to do most of the heavy lifting for me.

This is what I want in flock software:
  1. I want to be able to track information that I'm interested in that other sheep flocks might not be--- such as shedding percentages on hair sheep crossbreds, horned ewes, and such. That means there must be at least a spot for 'notes' on each animal's record. (Some software also offers customizable information slots which would also work.)
  2. I want to be able to print my records out. This is essential for keeping a hard copy at the farm, and to provide printed info to buyers and potential buyers.
  3. I want it to provide a good print-out of an individual animal's basic information. Ideally with a picture.
  4. I want to have pedigree print-outs.
  5. I want prodigy (offspring) print-outs.
  6. I want to be able to add sires and dams of my purchased sheep so they will appear in pedigrees without having those animals on every list--- some way to look at just the animals I actually currently own.
  7. I want to be able to print out lists of current sheep: Shetland ewes, crossbred ewes, twin ewes. This way I could print out working and planning lists of sheep.

I also need it to be at a reasonable price for a small flock. After all, I've bought sheep software twice before and know it's not a one-time-for-all purchase.

I have downloaded a bunch of demo versions and so far haven't found one I really like. And some of these are so expensive I wouldn't be able to buy them anyway.

I've decided to work with these software programs for a while and review them here. Right now I have demos of FlockFiler, Sheep Tracker, Ovitec, Zooeasy and Select Sheepware. Some of these programs are too expensive for a small flock like mine.

If you know of other software that might meet my criteria, let me know.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Ear Tag Colors to Indicate Year (AU System)





Did you know that in Australia they have a system of different color (or 'colour') ear tags to indicate the birth year of sheep? Now it is an Evil Government System like our US scrapie tags, but according to an aussie sheep book I read, it was a local custom with sheep breeders in a certain part of Australia first.

I have been thinking of using the AU colors in my new ear tagging system, which will now feature double-tagged ears on the young lambs. In one ear will go a tag which indicates breed, gender and twin/single status. The second tag will indicate birth year.

Both baby tags will have the same #, which will begin with the year numbers: 1501 for the first lamb of next year. Or first ewe lamb anyway.

They will not be getting their official scrapie tags until they are older. These tags will be in the colors of their breed tags.

I think it might be a good idea if sheep producers would use the AU system for one of their sheep tags. (Two tags per sheep, one in each ear, is a good idea because of the possibility of tag losses.) I wouldn't favor a forced government system of colored tags, though.

On my own farm, the year tags will NOT be the scrapie tags, so I can use all the colors as indicated above. For sheep farmers who want to use year colors on the scrapie tags, the blue must be replaced by another color. I'd suggest dark green, since the green in the system is a light green. Gray is also available--- but I'd leave that as a possible substitute for the black tags.

After a few years' use of the year-color system, one will be able to tell at a glance which sheep are which age. One will be daily reminded if the herd has a lot of elderly sheep, or if they are nearly all yearlings. In Australia where the system had been in use, when asked the age of sheep, the farmer will say, 'oh, she's a red tag' and the listener, if well informed, will know what year that sheep was born.

More ear tagging lore:

Baby tags
Tags that are clearly visible on adult sheep are too heavy for the ears of a newborn lamb. And newborn is the best age to tag 'em. It's not only that when they get a few days beyond newborn they can outrun me. The tag holes heal better in baby sheep. And the healed-up tag hole can be used for a larger tag when the babies get to adult size. Premier recommends tagging lambs with two tags to ensure that each lamb is identifiable even if they lose a tag.

Year numbers
Premier also recommends that you use a baby tag number starting with the year number--- 15 for next year. The reason that's helpful is that you don't have to remember which tag numbers you used on the tags three years ago--- the year number will be different each year.

My new system
I used pink and blue baby tags the past two years to indicate boy and girl lambs, and this has worked out well. My new system will be using more colors so that the tags will also be breed tags.
  • Shetland sheep, twin or better ewes: yellow
  • Shetland sheep, twin or better rams: salmon
  • Hair sheep cross, twin or better ewes: spearmint (pale green)
  • Hair sheep cross, twin or better rams: green
  • Single ewe lambs any breed: white
  • Single ram lambs any breed: gray
The baby tags will be Q-flex 1.0 or 1.5 tags from Premier. Q-flex 3 tags will be used for their Evil Government scrapie tags.

This system means that each sheep will have a minimum of 3 tags in a lifetime. This is not that expensive when you consider that the 'cheap' alternative of one tag per sheep can mean, if the sheep loses the tag, that the sheep can no longer be accurately identified. If you have two sheep lose tags that are the same sex and color, you might have to sell both sheep without papers and suffer a financial loss as a result.

Twins
Why so much emphasis on twins in my system? It's been shown that there are economic advantages to ewes that bear twins. Experienced shepherds all know that--- but we get caught up in breeding for exotic colors or fine wool or wool that sheds or horns on ewes, and we keep single-born lambs as breeders because of their other qualities. My system, in which singles are tagged in white or gray regardless of breed, makes it very obvious that retaining these singles is a compromise in breeding for the valuable twinning trait. I'm still planning to keep some non-twins as breeders--- but only if they have other important traits.






Saturday, December 27, 2014

Goodbye to Shetland Sheep?

I've raised Shetland sheep for about 20 years. I don't register the lambs any more, and mostly I breed to part hair sheep sires. But I kept a few Shetlands pure bred. Until now.

I had two very handsome Shetland rams, pureblood but unregistered. Both died unexpectedly this year. Since I bred the whole flock to the part-Katahdin ram, I didn't have any ram lambs to sub. So it looks like I'm out of the Shetland sheep business unless I can find a ram for next year, while I still have a supply of purebred ewes.

I'm not sure why I want purebreds. It's the crossbreds for meat that are my money-makers. But it's kind of sad to not have any pure Shetland lambs to look forward to in the spring.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Cooking Chicken Grains = Egg

My hens have never laid well during the winter. This  year, even though I have ALL the hens in the barn, which has night lighting, there are very few eggs. Which a couple of days ago became NO eggs.

I've been feeding Purina Layena from Tractor Supply. First I supplemented with corn in a separate feeder, but when I noticed they were eating mainly the corn, I switched out the corn for some whole oats. Which they mainly scattered on the floor, looking for corn.

My Serbian-American friend Petar is getting better luck with his chickens, most of which he bought from me. He said he sometimes cooks the chicken's grain.

So yesterday I cooked up some grain. The hens loved it--- and showed their love in the form of egg. Today I cooked up more--- this time mainly whole oats. They ate every bit as if they loved it as much as they love corn.

I also put some dried beans in with the whole oats. Cooked, poultry can get nutrition from beans without any problem.

I presoaked the oats & beans overnight and cooked it up in my old rice cooker. I cooked it about an hour and they really liked the result. I noticed one hen picking out the beans.

So I'm planning on cooking more grain for the poultry. If cooking can turn grain I had to buy anyway into something better, why not do it?

Friday, July 26, 2013

New hatch to commence soon

Ancona ducks


We are collecting eggs to be incubated in our incubator. We will have the following hatchlings in about a month's time if it goes well:

Purebred Ancona ducklings, white with black markings. We are going to be keeping a few to build up the flock but will have some for sale as day-olds at $5.00 each.

Guinea keets (chicks), mostly Pearl Grey color though I do have some other colored Guinea hens. Day-old keets $4.00.

Mixed breed chickens: I have a Swedish Flower rooster with 2 'Ameraucana' hens that lay brown eggs and 2 older Brahma hens. Goodness knows what the children will be like, but I'll have some chicks available at $2.50 each.