Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Rambling thoughts

Midwinter is a good time to look forward to new fleeces, lambing, pasture planning, flock goals, as well as reviewing past plans in addition to spinning, crocheting, and other projects.

Since getting my first two Shetland ewes in 2002 I have changed my goals and plans a lot! When I got my first two ewes I did not know what I was doing and had to learn all the basics of feeding, etc. and I also spent time reading all the info I got from NASSA (Shetland 2000, etc.) and learned about the breed (I also read about and researched other breeds.)

I originally wrongly thought that all the lambs born would have beautiful soft fleeces that the Shetland were famous for and that I could sell all the extra rams as wethers for pets and in other words have a 'no slaughter/pet' flock. After my first lambs were born and grew up their second fleeces were harsh and I was very disappointed. That year I also went to WI Sheep and Wool Festival/ Jefferson and saw some of Karen Valley's sheep. Oh did they have soft fleece! I could not believe how she could have such nice fleeces while mine (and most other Shetlands that I had seen) were coarse and not very soft. I remember asking her how she got such nice fleeces and she said that she culled really hard. I still did not like the idea of having to cull, but that did start me thinking.

After my first two ewes were shorn I learned to spin on a drop spindle after seeing some friends demonstrate how. I didn't get my first wheel until I was spinning for about 2 years. There are a lot of things I need to improve in my spinning as I don't know how to spin fine or lace weight and I need to learn more about different kinds of drafting.

I had a short adventure with Alpine and Toggenburg dairy goats, but after 5 1/2 years I was sick of them jumping fences so I sold them! I also tried out Katahdin and Dorper hair sheep as I thought "well even if I can't bring myself to eating one of my Shetlands I can eat one of these" and I did. I was not happy to take one of those lambs to the butcher, but I realized that the only bad day that animal had was the day it went to market and for some animals (raised on mega farms) their life is so horrible that the only good day is the day they go to market. I still don't like sending animals especially the cull ewes and goats to market (well except the mean steer), but it is a part of farming. I sold those hair sheep after having them for 2 years as the lambs did not grow as well as they were promoted to grow. I also sold them because I decided that if I am going to have a sheep it has to have lambs and wool! (My Shetland cross lambs grow bigger and better than the hair lambs did.)

In 2005 I read an article in NASSA News about AIing Shetlands with UK semen and I looked at Martin Dally's website and knew that that was what I wanted! That same year my dad took me to the UK to see relatives and he also took my to Rena Douglas'es farm and the Haddington Show where Mr. Watson was the judge. The Shetlands that I saw in the UK all had soft fleeces-some were very fine and crimpy and others were longer more "intermediate." All of those sheep did have much better tails than the ones in my flock at that time and they also did not look any bigger. After seeing those Shetlands (and bringing home 3 Shetland fleeces) I knew for sure that I wanted to AI some of my sheep to improve both the tails and fleeces. (The reason I chose AI over buying an F1 or 2 is logistics ,there is a breeder out west, and the local breeder who had done AI did not have any for sale!) Oh I also jacketed my flock that fall for the first time. I'll never go back to not jacketing! (Unless I could graze year round!) The jacketed fleeces are so nice! (I see a lot of fleeces that are ruined from the VM.) The other benefit from jackets is the fleeces are so easy to skirt as there is a line where the coat was and you just rip that chunk off and set it aside (I use my skirtings for roving and rug roving.)

I was so excited when my fist AI lambs were born! I had AI'ed 3 ewes, 1 each to Skeld, Orion and Jericho. The resulting lambs were a ram and a ewe lamb from each ewe! Two of the rams (PS23 Craigrothie and PS23 Campbell) have gone a long way to improving my flocks fleeces and tails. (The other ram was culled as I did not like his fleece.) That year I also, after thinking about it for a couple years, bought my first Angora doe. She was a black doe and was bred. She ended up having quads 3 bucks and a doe!

In 2007 I decided that I would crossbreed a portion of my Shetland ewes. The reasons were 1. it was a good way to use ewes who were not good enough to use for purebreeding any more, 2. I needed a lamb that was more marketable in the commercial system as I realized that even if all my lambs were good enough for purebreeding that I probably could not sell all my lambs as breeding stock. So I looked at several different breeds: CVM Romaldale, NC Cheviot, Bluefaced Leicesters, Coopworths, ect. I ended up getting a BFL ram even though I had originally leaned toward a Coopworth.

I also had one AI lamb born (PS23 Drummond) from 3 ewes that were AI'ed. That was a disappointment, but that is how it works with AIing! (I have talked to other people and one breeder had 100% the first year and only 2 ewes out of about 10 or 12 ewes AI'ed lambed the next time.)

My first BFL/Shetlands were born in 2008 and I liked how they grew and I also liked the quality of their fleeces, but was disappointed with the fleece weights. I then bought a NC Cheviot ram for comparison and last year I had both kinds of cross lambs born. The interesting thing is the NCC crosses seemed to be hardier at birth and grew faster than the BFL lambs. Now that I a feeding them out the BFL lambs caught up and surpassed the NCC crosses. Interesting. I did not like the NCC cross fleeces as almost all had kemp.

Last spring I also had a huge disaster as I lost 15 ewes (and their unborn lambs) after they broke into grain and then got acidosis. It was very sad. I also bought 3 Angora does and a buck from Texas. Unfortunately I lost two of the does, one to supposed heat stroke (the vet thought that was what she had) , and the other to pneumonia even though she was on antibiotics (I got her necropsied.)

The good thing about last year is I had some very nice AI lambs born(from Jings, Orion and Gordon) as well as some nice lambs out of a ram, WalnutRise Trevor F1 Greyling, that I borrowed from Maureen K.

So looking forward ...

I am really, really looking forward to my Angora kids out of my Texas buck-his mohair at 2 is so soft! It is as soft as if not softer than my colored kids' mohair! (I also hope they have DOE kids as in the past I and some fellow Angora breeder friends' herds tend to be buck heavy.)

I am looking forward to my purebred lambs, each year they are a little nicer.

I am also looking forward to the Coopworth and Corriedale x Shetlands! Both rams have very nice fleeces for their breeds and both should have heavy fleeces and put their stamp on their lambs! (Oh and the Coopworths do make good market lambs. Paul the Coopworth breeder had some that reached 140#. I don't know about the Corriedale as that breeder does not finish their lambs.)
I am going keep several of the crossbred ewe lambs to slowly build up a flock of crossbred ewes. I plan on running about 50 cross ewes in addition to my Shetlands and Angora does. I still have to decide on what breed to use as a terminal sire.

I guess that is enough for now.

I'll put some of my spinning/corcheting project in another post as this is getting too long!


  1. Very interesting; I enjoyed reading about your shepherding history!

  2. Hi Laura! Nice post on your ruminant history.

    Excellent observations such as:
    *All Shetlands are soft - not!
    *One must cull heavily in this breed to get good stock, meaning good fleece and good conformation.
    *Crossbreeding is a VERY good way to make money with this breed, both in the crossbred lamb fleece and the meat.
    *The UK has Shetland sheep with soft fleeces, both very fine and crimpy as well as intermediate (longer tip).

    The meat on the Coop x Corr/Shet will be very mild tasting. We've had a ewe that produced that cross, only reversed. She was Corr/Coop, then cross with a Shetland - till we got the NCC and that cross is very mild as well. Fleece depends on the fineness of all sheep involved.

    Would love to see the fleeces on the Angora kids later this fall.

    Thanks for posting this!

  3. Good luck in 2010 Laura! So much to look forward to...sheep are so fun! I know I won't be culling so hard in my flock as my customers value the genuine, historic Shetland fleece that is crimpy and soft under the neck, but stronger and with dreamy handle midside, and stronger yet for more durability in the britch, just like what the people of the Shetland Islands needed for survival...diversity, unlike the more modern fleeces we see today. Diverse fleeces are easy to spin and very comfortable to wear. I find more uses for diverse fleeces in a variety of projects, and I never get bored with them. There are some small flocks near me that have never been AI-ed, and are not jacketed, yet their fleeces are very soft and beautiful (and remarkably clean), with wonderful handle. Marybay, Esther, and Redwood are all good examples of that. So I haven't experienced what you wrote about. I guess to me, a high cull rate would be admitting failure in a breeding program. I know you are more careful with your culls, but I'd hate to see you lured into that kind of breeding practice. We were so sad to learn of some of the ewes you lost last year. We treasure Cailly's yarn! Holly inquired (out of the blue!) about Cinderella a couple of days ago and wondered how she is doing.

  4. Obviously to each his/her own! I would much prefer to have my lace fleece on one sheep, my sweater fleece on another sheep, my sock fleece on another sheep, and a rug fleece on yet another sheep (although NOT a Shetland, thank-you-very-much!). To me it is not the most practical use of my time to have to divide each fleece into all those parts, so I don't have sheep for which that is required. Like you, I just have to skirt off the uncoated parts for other uses (I've just discovered needle felting, so will use the VM-filled stuff for the inside of my figures) and can then process all the clean, coated part together. I don't eat meat and I don't like to cull, but I have been involved in various animal breeds long enough to know that no matter how good your brood stock and how careful your breeding decisions, those hidden errant genes can pop up, and the resulting animals MUST be kept out of the breeding pool!

  5. Hi Amy,

    Yes there is so much to look forward to! I hope we get more rain this summer than last though!

    I'm not saying that one has to AI to get a nice fleece. Some of my ewes have nice fleeces and they are 100% Dailley. AIing is good way to get new genetics as well.

    Not all fleeces that are not jacketed are full of VM, but since I work at Hidden Valley I see a huge number of fleeces (Shetland-longwool-med.wool)that are FULL of VM. Before I jacketed my sheep I would have 3 or 4 out of about 14 that had nice clean fleeces and 3 or 4 would be pretty much garbage that rest were ok except for the back. I can't produce a clean fleece the way I feed (as all the sheep swarm around me when I'm feeding and they eat over each others backs)unless they are jacketed. This year I even put coats on my goats as last year I threw out about 1/3 of my mohair!

    As far as fleeces some of my first lambs' lamb fleeces were not as soft as Sweetie's or Iris'es adult fleeces-they only get coarser as they age. There was a Shetland ram at Jefferson several years ago when I still had my hair sheep and Lydia, my little sister, said "feel this ram's fleece it is like your hair sheep's! and it was.)I do think though that there are more nice fleeced Shetlands than there used to be in the mid-west.

    Selective breeding (culling) is why we have different breeds of animals. Selective breeding was even used in Bible days. I do cull out animals who don't fit the breed standard (both the Shetlands and the Angoras) and I also cull out animals who don't perform well or are constant trouble makers. There are also throw backs-my very best Toggenburg dairy doe had a gallon of milk a day, but her daughter out of a top of the line buck, was pathetic and only had 1 PINT a day!

    Yes it was very sad to loose so many sheep. Cailly unfortunately was one of them. I do still have Cinderella and she is doing fine! Say hi to Holly for me!

  6. Hi Michelle,

    Thanks! Neat about learning to needle felt!

    Hi Theresa,

    I am doing a Corriedale x Shetland and a Coopworth x Shetland not a Corriedale/Coopworth X Shetland. How were the Corrie/Coop X Shetland lamb fleeces?

  7. Hi Laura,

    Oh, sorry about the confusion! The wool off of the Corr/Coop x Shetland lamb was more like fine Corriedale. But that is probably because the ram was a very crimpy single coated Shetland.

    The Corr/Coop ewe had a fleece that was probably 28-32 microns and good crimp. An easy to spin fleece but not my favorite because it was crisp.

  8. I agree with the culling practices. This breed, even when you have top of the line stock - excellent conformation and fleece - can produce not as good of offspring . . . or they can produce spectacular offspring. Breeding sheep is just like breeding any other species, especially since the Shetland is "unimproved" and a primitive breed. Two single coated animals can easily produce a long, primitive coat and two long coated, long tip can "once in awhile" produce a single coat. But it is not as likely for the long coats to produce the single coat because the genetics for the single coat are more recessive and therefore more at risk for genetic loss.

    Cull rates should be high because the best breeders keep only the cream of the crop for breed stock. The rest are culls or pets. Every year the bar for the cream of the crop gets higher and higher. Sheep that don't pass this year may have easily passed 5 years before in a breeding program. If you start out with great stuff, you are that much farther ahead then if you start out with poor quality stock.

    What is the biggest problem is not the coat length (which is tip length, btw), but the softness vs. coarseness. As you say Michelle, coarse rug wool does not qualify as Shetland wool. Never has. Only the britch should be over 30 microns and that better not be too coarse either as that is a disqualification. After several years and several hundred sheep, my estimation is that Shetland britch wool should be soft enough to spin and be able to be used as outer garment wear. If it is too coarse to even spin, or spins as rope, it's more than likely "too coarse".

  9. Regarding VM, this depends on a few things:
    * How you feed
    * What you feed
    * How messy is that particular sheep (or how much they shove to get to the feed - greedy)
    * How coarse and/or dense the fleece

    Feeding on the ground or in buckets on the ground helps - sometimes.

    Feeding only grass hay helps - usually. Alfalfa is a disaster if it is cut late no matter how you feed.

    You can't control greediness even with a lot of space.

    Coarse long open fleeces are the least likely to have VM - too coarse to hold anything. Fine, soft fleeces, regardless of length or type, are the hardest to keep clean, especially fine soft dense fleeces (the kind of fleece the sheep are known for).

    Black fleeces are a nightmare to keep clean (usually more lanolin and black shows everything).

    Jacketing your sheep aleviates many of the problems regarding feeding and saves your valuable fleeces. You can command top dollar and sell every fleece VM free. And fleeces you keep yourself are a pleasure to spin. Definitely worth it.

  10. Sorry Laura...
    Theresa: Please feel comfortable contacting me. I have read things from credible sources that conflict with what you write:
    a)Shetland wool was used for rugs, and was a source of income. Nothing was spared; poverty neglects choiciness. They made and sold rugs. To say "coarse rug wool is not Shetland wool. Never was." is not what I've learned.
    b) the emphasis that a fleece is only about microns baffles me. It"s much more than that in handle, spinability, knitability, AND wearibility. It's what put the breed on the map for centuries. To focus so heavily on just microns today-technology not available to those shepherds and a teensy view of a fleece, taken in a brief snapshot of time, with a surprising margin of error) does the genuine, historic Shetland a disservice, and skews breeding choices to something other than genuine, historic Shetland fleece, to something new, selected, improved, modern, narrowed; a modern tool on an ancient breed. For example, the pictures in NASSA News of rams (p. 16) look like crosses to me, nothing like what historical photos reveal rams on the Shetland Islands ONCE looked like. If these new sheep are supposed to be returning to the "real" sheep, then why don't they look like the sheep in the archives?)
    c)I understand sel. breeding and culling to be two diff. things (Not Theresa's writing). To me, selective breeding is making more of an animal with features you desire. Culling is removing from your flock animals which suffer or are diseased. Breeding programs that have cull rates above say 5% should be analyzed for credibility before the next season. If the breeder decides nothing is wrong with high "cull" rates, it means the breeder is looking for a new breed with char. they desire.
    d) Proper feeding can eliminate VM on backs. Shetland wool doesn't need a jacket to stay clean. The Doane's write this and feel the same way. Poverty neglects choiciness. So I'm confused on your words "coarse, long, open fleeces are the least likely to have VM-too coarse to hold anything". So what your writing is, that would mean coarse fleeces WERE genuine Shetlands, since sheep on islands, in sand, laying against rocks and low, plants would need coarse fleeces to stay clean?
    d) about black ("Black fleeces are a nightmare to keep clean (usually more lanolin and black shows everything.)"
    Be careful in what you write when referring to a colorful diverse breed. I treasure all of their stunning colors. Much progress has been made in keeping colors and diversity. Your writings sound as if you would disagree.

    With lambs "culled" before they mature, a lack of fleece records kept (because "culls" are gone)I'm not sure how you gain knowledge for a breeding program, or make/change rules for officials. I'm wide open to learn more about how you analyze the results of breeding. My experience has been the best fleeces come after maturity, as lambs go through a lot of stress, growth and changes, which have a HUGE impact on fleece quality. What a shame that lambs are so harshly judged during this time. Shetland fleeces naturally change A LOT from birth on.

    I'm feeling Theresa, with all due respect, that you are not happy with the Shetland breed, and in hopes of changing the breed to something new (the "classic" Shetland you write about), keeping a few, then "culling" dozens that don't meet your approval, calling them "throwbacks". It sounds like a sales competition to me ("Every year the bar for the cream of the crop gets higher and higher....sheep that don't pass this year may easily have passed 5 years before...") Shetland fleeces and wool products were famous for centuries. Five years is a very short time. You're throwing out too much cream with the crop.

  11. Sorry again, Laura! Just trying to clarify stuff others wrote. I'll put my thoughts on my blog. Amy at Wheely Wooly Farm

  12. I'm a little confused. Some of us never said culling is JUST about fleece. What about incorrect tails, undescended testicles, crooked legs, and other obvious departures from good conformation and breed character? Such things DO pop up, even from "good" parents!

  13. My Corriedale Shetland crosses (one set of twins) grew really well and had beautifully soft by hand fleeces with lots of luster. Bigger and softer than my Border Cheviot cross lambs. I wish I had sent in a sample for a micron test but they were the first to sell and left before I thought of it. I think I will keep one next year if the fleece looks as nice (different Shetland ram). The birth weights were about 7 to 8 pounds, about the same as my biggest Shetland lambs. I will be interested in how you think the various crosses compare.

    In terms of VM in fleeces. I have been lucky...Zwool has always sent me back great roving and more back than I would expect. (And as I recently confessed I sent them my first clip to them completely unskirted...tags and all. Really I just didn't know any better!) I am thinking of coating my fleckets next year, as I would like to keep those to process myself for more varigated effect in spinning.

    Good luck...I can't wait to see everyone's lambs! :) Two months and counting.

  14. Hi Laura!

    Excellent post!! Anyone who works and lives on a working farm would understand and realize the importance of crossbreeding to create market animals and money for the farm. A farm that can't or doesn't make money isn't really a farm and wouldn't last long!

    Its interesting that the VM comments abound. I feed mostly from the ground, but do feed out of feeders if I have animals in the barn for most of the day light hours. I do get SOME vm in the necks, but most of mine has all washed out when I've washed them (by hand) and the skirting doesn't seem to take too long. I haven't coated any of mine, although I would love to try it out.
    My fleeces are very dense so this could be part of the reason they don't seem to get too dirty.

    Culling is a way to make your stock better. I applaud you for doing it. It takes a tough person to do it, but its a reality of real farming. You can't keep every animal and not every animal should be kept and registered if it doesn't meet the basics of the breed standard. Or your basic needs.

    I've had so many people (dog world, cattle world, spinners) who have cringed at the word Shetland. They say they hate the long scratchy fleeces that feel more like hair than wool. I've sent them fleeces (either raw or washed) or roving and they've been amazed as how soft it really is, and its not 'ultra fine' but it is in the mid 20's for micron. Very lofty, soft, and you can wear it around your neck with no prickle. I need to get photos up of the scarf from Jazz's fleece.

    You should blog more. I think you are very wise for such a young age :) I can't wait to see your lambs (both pure and cross!) this spring!

  15. Garrett...Hello! How is the spinning going?
    I've read in old NASSA newsletters how Shetland sheep shepherds before us had such hard work in educating people that Shetlands even exist. Being in our country just over 20 years, their numbers have grown, but the breed is still virtually unknown and obscure. I live in a very strong agriculture area, and even the powerful dairy farmer down the road didn't know about them. When my 4-H students exhibit at our County Fair, they have to educate the judges that Shetlands exist. When I'm out at farm markets, people most often comment "There is more than one kind of sheep?" Even in Jefferson, a vendor told me she had never heard of them!! People who visited my sheep there asked us over and over..."What did you say these sheep are called?" So I see right through your words that so many people know about Shetlands, and immediately associate them with coarseness and hair. If what you say is true, (and Theresa claims the exact thing you do and I know you are both breeding for the same goals and work together often), then you guys are doing a bad job in your states breeding and marketing your sheep!
    Rather, I think it's more probable that you are trying to promote super short, super crimpy fleeces. There is nothing wrong with that! But to say that is what a Shetland fleece is would be intentionally and knowingly misleading. See your NASSA Handbook, last page.

  16. Amy,

    the spinning is slowly and surely coming along. I've washed the few fleeces I've not sold (the ones that sold all to private spinners) and have carded some of each and have 'bats' of wool now that i'm learning to spin with.

    As far as coarseness. Most of those who I do talk to about Shetland Sheep, know what they are, and have said they are itchy and coarse. Since I"ve only been in the breed a short 4 years its hard to take marketing in the whole state, but it is a lofty goal! My dairy neighbors don't have a clue about sheep and you are right, most don't know about them. The ones that DO know about them, have been at Michigan Fiber Fest, dog shows all over the Midwest (ND to OH, MN to MO) and Jefferson sheep show. And since you aren't at my side to hear these conversations, you'll just have to 'look right through it' and not believe me.

    Shetlands are supposed to fine, regardless of length or fleece 'type'. I take it you have bred 'fine' long double coated fleeces? That is impressive! I could only be envious of such a goal! Then again fineness is subjective and my fine could be different than yours.

    Am I under the assumption that you have marketed your sheep to EVERY person in the state of Wisconsin in the last 12 months? That's very impressive congrats!

    I do have all kinds of fleeces. I have a double coated emsket ewe who is 22.8 microns but she does NOT feel that fine. Its most likely the scales on the fleece, but her fleece has sold each year to a lady who loves to makes socks out of it. The same lady also buys my lamb fleeces from my kindly fleeced animals.

    As long as they are fine, that is what matters.

  17. Thanks Garrett! Yes, it is an impressive goal to market to everyone in my state. It's a big job! I think, too, if you read my blog, you will find your words are misplaced regarding coarseness. I'm a little worried about your words about meat farming being the only way a farm can be profitable. America has much diversity of products in farming...fruit, berries, vegetables, nuts, crops, seeds, ginseng, livestock, fish, bulbs, cranberries, trees, and yes, even wool! Many, many farms create livelihoods without ever owning a "meat" animal. Sincerely so, glad to hear you are sticking with the spinning, and I hope it becomes a fun activity for you for years to come! Maybe you can make yourself a pair of socks from your wool someday! Amy

  18. Amy, you yourself have chastised people for being diverse in their dealings with farming i.e. having more than one species of animal.

    Are you now stating that is OK to be diverse and have animals for more than one purpose?

    My family was a dairy farm for over 105 years before we sold the dairy cows. We raised chickens for eggs and meat, sheep for wool and meat (that predates me), pigs for meat, dairy, and yes we sold berries from our rows upon rows of june berries, choke cherries, pin cherries, raspberries ,blueberries etc. Not to mention our grain crops, alfalfa and corn that we had both for ourselves and any extra was sold to neighbors.

    The suggestion to Laura was that she is a smart gal who can raise cross bred sheep for market AND raise wool for sale (which she does). I was merely supporting that in light of how you were responding to her practices.

    I do believe knitting will be for next winter! I'm having fun learning how to spin and have just purchased my own wheel so I don't have to borrow my friends' back-up wheel. It is therapeutic, once the frustration wears off :)

  19. Garrett, You didn't get good grades in reading back in school did you? :) On spinning, I'm genuinely excited to hear you got a wheel!! Congratulations!! I think that is the hardest part...deciding what to get. You know, every new spinner faces times of frustration when your spinning. If it gets too bad, take a break for a bit and come back to it. You'll get through those times; we've all been there, right Laura? And whatever is making you frustrated as you spin will be suddenly gone in a moment, you'll see so hang in there. You can always count on encouragement here...
    Good thing this winter is not as nasty as last year's...leaving chores a pretty smooth daily routine. That is great news for those who want to spin! I find it therapeutic, too. So glad to hear you're having fun! Amy PS: you can count on encouragement on the knitting next winter, too:)

  20. Thanks Garrett! and congrats on getting a wheel.

    I have had many handspinner people tell me that my Shetland is nicer and softer that what they had gotten from other people. Most of what I have sold was not super fine either, but fine-medium fine. I have also had people ask if my roving is lambs wool and I get that made from my lowest quality fleeces, so I agree with both Garrett and Theresa on many (people who know sheep breeds and fleeces, not the general public)people thinking Shetland is coarse.

  21. Nice post Laura. It was interesting to learn your personal "fiber animal" history. Happy lambing!