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Top Genes Via Record-Keeping

Building A Brand Takes Resolve
(And Lots Of Notes)

By Tim King

Milky ewes, meaty, multiple-birth lambs, fast growth on grass diets: All due to scientific selection and careful breeding.

Janet McNalley of Tamarack Lamb and Wool has been on a journey, working toward a goal these last three decades or more. That goal is what she calls a complete sheep. The result is that she has developed a well muscled, growthy sheep that averages 2.8 lambs per lambing.

“Our goal has been to select for a number of traits,” said Janet, who has focused on developing a total meat producing animal. “We are working for a balanced animal that is high in growth, muscle, milk, numbers born, and numbers weaned. Our objective is to have rams that are superior all across the board. It takes a long time. It took me 10 years to get just one ram that was positive in all five traits. It’s a slow tedious process but you are rewarded when you have animals with all those traits.”

It actually took longer than 10 years to develop that ram. Before Janet could begin using the technology that has brought her close to her goal she had to adjust her thinking.

“I set out as a 20-something college student to put together a performance based seedstock type flock,” explained Janet, who has BS in Animal Science and Dairy Science and advanced studies in Animal Breeding. “I was always very commercially oriented, but I was showing Dorsets in the late 1970s. A judge took me aside and he told me I had to decide which way to go. He said that the show ring is a totally different world than the commercial world.

“That was the best piece of advice I ever got. It gave me focus and I gave up on the idea that you can have a show animal and a performance animal. From there it was just following the technology.”

Tamarack’s estimated breeding values (EBV) show her flock genetics have added well over 2 kg (4.4 pounds) in average Maternal Weaning Weight (MWWT), with most of this improvement taking place in the past 9 years.

Going After Full Productivity On Grass Alone

But while Janet was busy chasing down rapidly changing technology, the sheep industry itself was changing.

“We had polled Dorsets in the 1970s,” she said. “I used them for accelerated lambing and fall lambing. I felt it was a great sheep but was not prolific enough. It had a lot of milk but not enough lambs to utilize it well.”

She tried some of the Finn-Dorset-Rambouillet crosses but they didn’t do very well on her pasture-based system. At the time Janet was experimenting with raising lambs largely on pasture. Since then she has refined and improved on what she was learning in the 1970s and 1980s.

“I began pasture lambing and rearing lambs on pasture without any supplemental feed in 1991,” she said. “By 2003 I had eliminated grain feeding of any kind altogether. I even sold the grain bin.”

When the Finnsheep crosses failed to do well on pasture Janet looked “Down Under.” She had heard about the Booroola genetics, an unusually prolific Merino bloodline, which originated on an Australian ranch of that name, and she thought they could help her improve her Dorsets.

“I purchased some Booroola-Merino semen,” she said. “I bred my ewes to the Booroola-Merino rams but I back crossed to Dorsets. My goal was to have a Dorset with a Booroola gene in it.

“It was successful. We have found that if ewes carry this gene they produce an average of 2.8 lambs. Following some good early advice, I had selected for heavy milk production. As a result I believe today we may have one of the heaviest-milking meat-type sheep in the country. I’m not comparing them to a dairy breed, but for a meat breed I have data that show we may have the heaviest milking ewes there are.”

Post-weaning weights (PWWT) are way up due to decades of selection. Tamarack-bred lambs are packing on more than 12 extra pounds of meat each, on pasture, and they’re almost all twins and triplets.
NOTE: The data contained in the bar graphs show genetic progress within the Tamarack flock only, and are not a valid comparison to any other flock.

Sophisticated Data: The Key To Strong Progress In Breeding

Janet’s flock now consists of around one-quarter to one-third of what she calls B+, or Tamarack Prolific, ewes. But, as is often the case, when one problem is successfully addressed two more present themselves.

“So I’ve been selecting for pounds per lamb weaned and I was quite happy with the results,” Janet said. “But the Dorset industry has changed a lot since the 70s. As a result it has been increasingly difficult to find a real Dorset any more. By a ‘real Dorset’ I mean that heavy-muscled medium sized sheep that thrived on pasture. I became quite discouraged and even quit registering my ewes because I couldn’t find rams that were really Dorsets.”

In 1991 Janet enrolled in the National Sheep Improvement Program, or NSIP. Her objective was to conduct objective performance testing to further improve her flock.

“NSIP quit for a short while in 1995 so, not wanting to stop the performance testing, I went with LambPlan in Australia in 1996,” Janet said. “We’ve been on a BLUP, which is ‘Best Linear Unbiased Prediction,’ since then. It’s an objective way to pull out the environment from your weights and measures. I can determine which animals are genetically superior for growth, for milk, and for carcass traits like loin eye depth and fat depth. I’ve been using this technology since 1991 and it’s been an incredibly powerful tool.”

“I take measurements on all the usual stuff: The birth date, the dam, sire, whether it’s a single, twin, or triplet,” she said. “That’s what most people take. Then I take a 100-day weight. That’s my weaning weight. Then we take a 150-day weight as a post weaning weight. At 150 days we also measure the loin eye and fat depth through ultra-sound scanning.

“It’s also important to have the location that the lamb was reared in,” Janet said. “If you have a number of pens in the barn, it’s important to record which one it was reared in. I have a number of different pastures, so I have to keep track of the location as well as the other data.”

If you want to enroll in LambPlan they’ll set you up with a software program into which you enter the data that you’ve been keeping, and then send it to them and within two weeks to a month you’ll get a report, Janet said.

“It’s all managed in your software,” Janet said. “I can get up to 30 different reports. I can rank my animals by my own index (which was custom-developed for me) or I can have them ranked by other indexes such as the self-replacing carcass index. There are also wool indexes and also indexes for dual-purpose sheep. You can rank your animals according to the index and then go out to the paddock, run them through a chute and pick out your top producing animals.”

Plump, meaty 2008 Tamarack lambs—mostly twins and triplets—at 120 days old, on alfalfa alone. This quickly repays clients’ ram investment, even before factoring in the prolific ewe lambs retained as flock replacements.

Muscling & All Season Breeding Even Without Crossbreeding

During the 1990s, while Janet was learning to apply the NSIP and LambPlan technologies to her selection practices she continued to look for a Dorset-like sheep.

“In the late 1990s the Ile-de-France breed was brought into the States,” she said. “What captured my attention about that breed is that it’s a year-round breeder. It’s used in France for out-of-season lambing. It’s the oldest performance-tested breed there is. They were the first—back in the 1930s—to use modern selection tools and performance testing. The result is that this breed is one of the heaviest-muscled breeds in the United Kingdom. In the U.K. it became a very popular terminal sire but in France is actually used as a maternal breed. So it has both the pounds of lamb emphasis and great carcass and growth. Additionally it’s been selected on a more forage-based diet.”

The Ile-de-France sounded like a perfect genetic platform to continue breeding for the complete sheep.

“I’ve been using Ile-de-France and some Dorset from the K-Bar-K flock,” Janet said. “Our selection goals are similar. I’m not trying to be a terminal sire breed or just a maternal breed. I’m trying to be what LambPlan calls a replacing flock—which is where my sheep can do well in a crossbreeding program—but they do just fine as the full breeding program.

“They are also very suitable for farm flocks where maybe the flock size is a little too small to try and maintain two breeds to carry out a crossbreeding program. With anything under 100 ewes it’s rather complicated to keep several different breeds of rams on hand. This is just one breed that will produce a nice crop of lambs you can take to market.”

Tamarack lambs fatten on wild grass and forbs; no grain used.

Numbers Prove It: “Tamaracks” Boost Buyer Gains & Profits

As Janet has worked to develop her complete sheep, which she calls a Tamarack, the industry has continued to change. In 2010, NSIP signed a contract to have LambPlan analyze their data. At that time Janet signed up to have her data compared to all the U.S. sheep in the NSIP pool.

“What joining the NSIP pool does is that it makes our numbers more meaningful to a potential buyer,” she said. “When they look at a rating number for growth, for example, they can take that number and compare it to another flock. I feel it’s a better service to my buyers for them to know how we stand compared to the other flocks. That’s why I did it.”

Janet said that preliminary comparisons with the NSIP flock seem to show that her Tamaracks may be the top milk producing meat flock and that they are very competitive in growth and muscle. She encourages others who are breeding seedstock to use NSIP and LambPlan as one of the tools in their herd improvement plan.

“With 150 breeding ewes it’s costing me around $700 to $800 per year,” she said.

“If you’re selling seed stock your buyers should be happy to compensate you for that. With a strictly commercial flock it’s a little harder to say whether you should use it or just buy rams where the technology has been used.”

Janet encourages newcomers to the technology to mentor with an experienced BLUP user. It will help insure the quality of their data and the usefulness of their results. She says that owners of small flocks may be able to enter a number of years’ data when they enroll. Quality and quantity of data help ensure that a breeder can move toward their improvement goals, she said.

You can learn more about Tamarack Lamb and Wool by visiting their web site at www.TamarackSheep.com or by calling Janet at 320-336-9071.

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