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Perception and Selection in Purebred Sheep

Perception and Selection in Purebred Sheep

This one is for my fellow sheep breeders. I don't want to post it in a Facebook group and get a bunch of comments from random strangers, especially the ones with two acres and five sheep who use cheap auction mart rams. So I decided it’s time for a new blog post!

This is for the purebred people (even if you are just starting out). I keep thinking about this, and especially in light of the number of Canadian Arcott breeders who appear to be in favor of grading up. (I am against it, everybody knows that.) But the Canadian Arcott is a good example because they are fairly new. They were released from the Animal Research Centre in 1989, so under 35 years (though they were at least 25 years in the making). Some people seem to think that in those 30+ years, we should have improved them, like a LOT. But I think that the people who worked in that program knew what they were doing, and they knew exactly what they were trying to accomplish. And I think they did it.

So what is it that some breeders are perceiving as “problems” that they need to “improve”? Or do they just assume automatically that because it is a new, composite breed, it is going to have inherent problems that only they can fix? And don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying the breed is perfect. I am saying no breed is perfect, no breed is without its common flaws, and the Canadian Arcott is no more flawed than any other breed. (Also that it is just as much a breed as any other.)

I freely admit what I feel are the common issues in Canadian Arcotts: feet, to a lesser extent legs, and toplines. Every breeder needs to look at how the feet are developing as a lamb grows, particularly ram lambs (I have virtually no issues in ewe lambs with feet). A super-fast growing ram lamb can sometimes outgrow his feet’s ability to keep up. Oftentimes they just need a trim, so definitely trim feet on juvenile rams, and then see if they plant those feet correctly. It is not always fixable, and those guys need to go to town. I have had fewer leg issues, mostly weak pasterns. If those pasterns are soft and the fetlocks almost hit the ground when the animal walks, that is not fixable, ship it. And toplines, well, that’s a hot-button topic. A mild hump in the back is not a deal breaker, and in fact it indicates a nice, thick ribeye muscle. I recommend their use as terminal sires, ship all those market lambs. A pronounced hump, or a dip behind the shoulder (what the Dorper people call “the devil’s grip”), and most importantly a combination of the hump and the dip, are grounds for culling. Don’t keep that. And if you wouldn’t use it yourself, for heaven’s sake don’t expect anyone else to and try to sell it on to somebody else.

Side note- there are a lot of breeders enrolled in Genovis. The whole topic of Genovis is a subject for an entirely new blog post, so I will summarize it this way: use Genovis as one of the tools in your arsenal, that’s it. Unfortunately, Genovis makes some breeders go blind. If you are selecting based only on numbers, and are no longer looking at your sheep, and you have lost the ability to cull out a problem “because he has great numbers”, then you are not helping this breed, you are hurting it.

So yes, this breed has issues. There is no breed that doesn’t. But for some reason (again, likely because the breed is not old and storied) people seem to think that the Canadian Arcott is still somehow “unfinished”. No, it is not. It is a breed, and it is a great breed! Any issues in your flock are your responsibility to fix, and you cannot dump the blame on the breed as a whole.

So why do some people think that we should have been able to improve them so much? What is it about sheep breeders (of any breed) that bestows upon us this magical ability to make them so much better? Yes, you can select for or against a trait that you are trying to fix or improve, but don't forget that many traits are linked. When you change one, you may inadvertently change another, that you didn't want changed. So selection and breeding are, in effect, both art and science, and you have to be objective and patient. It is my contention that each breeder should focus on their own flock, and don't worry about the breed. If we all do that, we will all be further ahead. If you have a problem in your flock, please don’t assume we all have that problem, and label it a breed issue.


I believe that every breeder needs to learn about selection, and they need to learn what the problem areas are in their breed (and as I said above, every breed has them), and they need to learn to cull. They also need to learn NOT to do single-trait selection. Single-trait culling is fine (because if a great ram has bad feet or parrot mouth or whatever, he is a cull), but single-trait selection is dangerous. A crap ram who is an RR is still crap. If we all have the ability to cull out a poor animal, especially a ram, who can have a lot of influence in a pretty short time, then I suggest that the breed will look after itself. In other words, look after your own trees and don't worry about the forest. And if you really feel this breed is so awful, maybe try a different one and leave this one to those of us who appreciate it.

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