Origin of an Idea
The 20th Century was closing with sheep numbers going down and the age of successful sheep breeders going up, an alarming trend for sustained improvement of a breed such as the Texas Rambouillet.
A group of Rambouillet breeders and Texas AgriLife Extension Service and Texas AgriLife Experiment Station personnel met in 1999 to mull through the situation. They decided to establish a procedure for breeding the best sheep from the best flocks in the state with rigorous selection to gain superior genetics for meat and wool production.
Fred Campbell, Concho County rancher, became the chairman of the group that emerged to establish Texas Rambouillet Superior Genetics (TRSG).
The group consisted of:
- Flock owners
- Dr. Frank Craddock, Texas AgriLife
- Extension Sheep and Goat Specialist, Texas AgriLife Extension Service
- Drs. Chris Lupton, Dan Waldron, John Walker and Butch Taylor, all Texas AgriLife Research Scientists
- Dr. Ronald Pope, Managing Director of Producers’ Marketing Co-op, Inc.
- Drs. Gil Engdahl and Mike Salisbury, Angelo State University Animal Scientists
Participating breeders were to allow a selection team composed of sheep extension personnel, Frank Craddock and Preston Faris, to identify a minimum of 10 (and up to 50) excellent ewes per flock. The ewes were to remain on the owner’s ranch, their offspring becoming the property of the TRSG program if they met a minimum standard of quality.
To establish funding, each owner contributed $35 per ewe, and for each ewe and each offspring selected, the owner received One Share in TRSG.
A group of Texas ranchers proved that profit traits in purebred Rambouillet sheep may be enhanced quickly, even under range conditions, by cooperation and scientific breeding.
By 2000 the selection team had identified 200 registered ewes that were called The Initial Flock, which remained on each producer’s ranch.
These ewes had to be the best ewes in the flock, meeting minimum standards for body weight, grease fleece weight, clean fleece weight, staple length, fiber diameter, and conformation.
In addition, ewes were not allowed to have black spots in the fleece or on the belly, they must have sound teeth and mouth, freedom from hairy britch and excessive belly wool, a face cover score between one and two, and were required to produce at least one lamb per year to weaning.
All objective measurements were made at the Wool and Mohair Research Lab, and scores were assessed by the Scoring Committee (Frank Craddock and Preston Faris, Sutton County Extension Agent, retired).
The following were contributing Texas producers, who were each responsible for breeding their own ewes:
- Fred Campbell, of Paint Rock
- Preston Faris, of Sonora
- Kenneth Fincher, of Water Valley
- Hayden Haby, of Brackettville
- Dr. Ed Huston, of San Angelo
- Dr. Jake Landers, of Menard
- Dr. Carl Menzies, of Menard
- Scotty Menzies, of Menard
- Pat Rose, of Del Rio
- Texas AgriLife Research Station, located in Sonora and Barnhart
The top ewe lambs for 2001 and 2002 were selected by the Scoring Committee and became part of the Permanent Flock, and were put on a range performance test. The very top ram lambs were selected and put on the Ram Performance Test at the Texas AgriLife Research Station at Sonora. No more lambs were taken from the Initial Flock.
The Permanent Flock was performance tested by pasturing on the Dry Creek Ranch owned by Carl and Pat Schlinke at Arden, Texas, about 25 miles west of San Angelo. The ranch is typical of the semiarid rangeland on which Rambouillet sheep have done well on diets consisting of a mixture of growing and dormant grasses, forbs, and browse species. These diets provide nutrients that sometimes equal or exceed the nutritional requirements, but at other times are deficient. Usually during 100 days from December 1 to March 15 deficiencies of protein, phosphorus, and several minor nutrients are modified with supplemental feeding.
Ewes were observed at least once per week but were given minimal care except during a period beginning 60 days before the onset of lambing and lasting until lambing was complete. During this period the ewes were fed a supplement either in pellet or block form to provide (free choice) about one-half of their protein requirements and minerals. Once per week during peak lambing, the flock was penned and newborn lambs were matched to their dam, permanently identified with multiple numbered ear tags, vaccinated for enterotoxemia, and docked. Ewes with lambs were separated from the larger flock and taken along with their lambs to a new, special-use pasture that usually provided a higher quality diet and favorable cover. There they remained until spring green-up.
Labor was provided by members of the group and by local rancher Beaver McManus, Bryan Rose, and watchful attention by Carl and Pat Schlinke.
Reproductive management assistance was provided by Mike Salisbury of Angelo State University by using ultrasound to determine reproductive status of the ewes.
Ewes were separated into groups based on months of gestation, in order to simplify checking ewes during parturition and to aid in nutritional management by identifying those carrying two or more fetuses.
Dedication and perseverance are the keys to rapid value improvement in purebred breeding stock; this small bunch of sheep men constituted the Texas Rambouillet Superior Genetics team.
Measurement of Performance
Each year, all ewe lambsexcept obvious cullswere placed on a range performance test. Selection of yearling ewes was based on the following formula, developed by sheep and goat geneticist Dan Waldron:
The TRSG flock was also enrolled in the National Sheep Improvement Program (NSIP).
Expected progeny differences (EPDs) were calculated for weaning weight, post-weaning average daily gain, mothering ability, fleece weight, fiber diameter, staple length and number of lambs born per ewe lambing.
The NSIP combines performance information with pedigrees to calculate EPDs. The use of pedigrees along with the performance information allowed for greater accuracy in the calculation of genetic merit.
Another benefit of EPDs calculated using pedigrees was the ability to have an estimate of genetic merit for maternal traits in rams, based on the records of their female relatives.
The TRSG flock was the only registered Rambouillet flock participating in NSIP during their years of operation.
The Scoring Committee used the Index Values and EPDs along with visual appraisal to select ewe lambs that would go into the Permanent Flock. Approximately the top 50 ewe lambs were selected each year to place in the Permanent Flock.
Each year the top 15 percent of ram lambs were selected based on EPDs and visual appraisal and enrolled in the Ram Performance Test at Sonora. The remaining ram lambs (except obvious culls) were placed on a range performance test. Both groups were evaluated according to the Rambouillet Registry of Merit Index (ROM).
A few rams were also enrolled in the University of Wyoming Rambouillet Ram Performance Test in 2002 and 2004.
With the exception of a few rams that were sold at the Sonora Ram Performance Test Sale, all rams were sold in the TRSG Ram Sale held each year in April beginning in 2002.
Each year three to five TRSG rams were selected from the Ram Performance Test at Sonora and the Range Ram Performance Test for breeding.
Outside rams were also occasionally used, from Angelo State University, Texas AgriLife Research Station, Carl Menzies and Scotty Menzies.
Five to six breeding groupswith 35 to 40 ewes per groupwere bred each year.
Rams were selected based on their records and visual appearance. Strengths of each ram were used to complement the strengths and weaknesses of ewes based on records and visual appearance.
Wool Measurement & Marketing
Individual animal fleeces were measured to establish an independent culling level for those that exceeded fiber quality as measured by average fiber diameter (AFD). It became apparent that some ewes consistently produced higher quality wool while maintaining acceptable wool growth and lamb production. In 2003 a superfine group consisting of 50 ewes was established in the TRSG flock.
Wool marketing and markets encouraged TRSG to focus some attention on superfine wool (under 18.6-micron). While wool production in Texas and other states had some superfine wool, there was little concerted effort to identify sheep producing superfine wool, and only a few Rambouillet breeders were actively selecting ewes or rams to meet a potential need for this market.
The Texas Rambouillet Superior Genetics, Inc. was set up and registered with the Texas Secretary of State as a for profit corporation with capital stock. Individuals contributed mature ewes to the Initial Flock along with a nomination fee. One share of stock was issued to the breeder for each ewe selected and for each lamb or yearling female accepted into the Permanent Flock. Mature proven rams accepted by the Selection Committee and donated to the flock allowed the contributing member to receive 20 shares.
When TRSG moved all nucleus flock sheep to a central location it became necessary to borrow operating money from a commercial lending institution. This money was paid back and the TRSG was able to operate on existing capital and profits. Without the members and associated entities volunteering labor and services the financial considerations would have limited the progress and ability to continue the program.
Cash flow was the main constraint in the early years. Main income came from ram sales when rams were one year past their first breeding. This meant that the first year had little income other than sale of wool and sale of culled lambs. Wool and stock sales usually occurred in the spring and summer months while most expenses came in the winter and early spring.
TSRG received a grant from the National Sheep Improvement Center that proved invaluable in sustaining the program.
Bookkeeping was maintained on a commercial computer bookkeeping program. A certified public accountant was employed to assist with federal and franchise tax filing and to adjust any changes to journal entries.
Income for TRSG came from production of breeding stock, wool, and surplus or cull animals. Production sales were held annually after the first year of operation. Primary offerings were for rams, but yearling ewes were also sold. The breeding stock was offered at auction to buyers in various locations. Potential buyers were contacted direct and through ads in sheep publications.
Wool was marketed through Producers Marketing Cooperative, Inc. (PMCI), of which TRSG was a member. Wool was skirted, classed, and baled, with objective measures taken for marketing purposes.
Participation By Institutions
The collaborative effort between Texas AgriLife Research and Extension faculty was approved by the agencies’ administration with a Memorandum of Agreement. From an agency perspective this collaboration was valuable because it provided a laboratory to evaluate the effectiveness of genetic selection tools (i.e., EPD) in a production setting that was constrained by the need to produce a profit. This model of on-farm testing is not new and is often done in Extension result demonstration projects. However, TRSG collaborationbetween research, extension and producersmoved this type of research to a higher level that allowed investigation of more complex system-level results with a greater degree of scientific rigor.
Pedigree records and objectively measured data were maintained by Dr. Chris Lupton, Wool and Mohair Research Scientist at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center at San Angelo. Dr. Lupton also directs San Angelo’s Bill Sims Wool and Mohair Research and Testing Lab, where all wool measurements were made.
Annually, visually-detectable (phenotypic) and genetic data were submitted to NSIP, which calculated and issued EPD’s. Testing facilities at the Texas AgriLife Research Station at Sonora, Texas, and at the University of Wyoming were used. Angelo State University, San Angelo, Texas, was involved in providing facilities and technical advice, in addition to rams for specific mating selections.
The TRSG 773 ram was enrolled in the 2003 Ram Performance Test, had a ROM Index of 146.47 and placed 1st out of 183 rams.
Effects of Predation
Bobcat and coyote predation greatly impacted the program. With the help of professional trappers and a full time employee using snares, a donkey, and an alpaca, we were unable to control predation on young lambs, especially during one year when the lamb crop was greatly reduced. Perhaps guard dogs would have worked but would have required more investment.
Investment In Local Slaughter Facility
In the third year of our program, we felt obliged to contribute financial support to the local sheep and goat slaughter facility. Unfortunately the local economy could not sustain this enterprise.
Most of the laborwhich dealt with the pairing, weighing, vaccinating, skirting, packaging, measuring, marking and docking of the sheepwas done by members of the group.
Because of distance, schedule conflicts, physical limitations and other reasons, some members did way more than their share of the work. Ranch owners, Carl and Pat Schlinke, were often cheerful volunteers. There was never a shortage of volunteers when it was announced before a workday that lunch would be prepared for the crew by Pat.
Measure of Success
The TRSG enterprise has produced many outstanding rams over the years that were transferred directly to purebred and commercial operators via the annual sale.
However, there are two ramsBrian Faris 622 and TRSG 773that have made the greatest genetic contribution to the program.
The Bryan Faris 622 ram was selected from the Initial Flock of Preston Faris in 2001, enrolled in the 2001 Ram Performance Test, had a ROM Index of 138.73, and placed 22nd out of 157 rams