Thursday, 11 July 2013


Long post! a bit more technical than usual. After all this blog was supposed to be a small holding blog and not a private diary!

I think the sheep well deserve the first technical post.


I always thought that sheep were the most fascinating and versatile domesticated animal on earth. Domestication and then selection of sheep into the vast array of breeds that homo sapiens has produced throughout the millennia is an example to all other domesticated species.

To my knowledge, sheep is the only domesticated mammal that has been selected for three different scopes: meat, milk and wool. The wool aspect in fact is very peculiar. There are examples of mammals domesticated for wool or fine fibre production and meat at the same time, like rabbits and alpacas (although alpaca is not really reared for its meat) or other examples like the bovine, selected for dairy and meat productions. But the sheep is unique in its selection towards three separate attitudes.

The sheep is unique in something else too. It is the only mammal bred for fine fibre production in which selection produced a single coat. Most mammals with a fur have a coat that is composed by an outer coat (hair) and what is mostly referred to as under coat, composed by much finer fibers (dawn). The most prominent example is the Cashmere goat, whose super expensive fiber, produced in the order of a few hundred grams per head, is combed or, more traditionally, picked from the bushes. Cashmere is an under coat.

Basically hair follicles are divided into primary and secondary hair follicles. My PhD supervisor was excellent in his hair biology :) Every primary follicle, producing thick hair, is surrounded by a bunch of tiny, thin, secondary follicles.

But in sheep you basically have a bunch of follicles where you cannot distinguish between primary and secondary anymore, at least not from their diameter, but only from the presence of other anatomical features (sebaceous gland).

Alpacas are going towards that situation too but they are still not there. Or rather, they were probably there before the conquest, or much closer.
Anywhoo, aren’t sheep amazing? :)

So there are sheep selected for meat like the bergamasca

and the suffolk,

but also sheep selected for wool like the merino

and finally sheep selected for dairy production like the Sarda,

the Comisana,

and the Lacaune!

and the East Friesian of course! (and many many others)

Dairy sheep and the use of milk from sheep are surely common in southern Europe and the Mediterranean area, with France, Spain, Italy and Greece, but surely all the Balkans and the middle east too, having plenty of history, breeds and cheese to offer.

In northern Europe dairy breeds are virtually non existent and therefore the traditions that come with them. The only example is in all truth the famous and infamous East Friesian. It is still a mystery to me what such a sheep is doing up there :)

Traditionally they were kept in small flocks with plenty of care and good management to provide milk for the household without the need to have a much larger animal like a cow. This (the intense care) has allowed very intense genetic selection towards a main trait: the quantity of milk. Unfortunately, like it always happens with very intense, mono-directional selection, you end up losing bits and bobs on the way. The result is a sheep that surely will provide you with more milk per head than any other breed on the planet, but has the nutritional needs of a bison and the resistance and toughness of an infant.

I might be exaggerating, but the contrast to other dairy breeds is profound, I can assure you.

Another trait that you usually end up with when selection is so strong is tameness. In fact they are usually very tame animals and this sure is a “pro” for the small holder who is just setting up his/her farm.
So the 4 amazing specimens in my possession are not exactly the kind of breed you’d look for if you want to be sustainable in your farming... But it is the only female dairy genetics that you can source in Ireland at present and that’s the reason I got them.

Another bad reason to have pure blood friesians for us is that we want to process our milk to make cheese and when selection is so intense towards quantity you end up losing in quality. In fact friesian milk has lower solids than the milk from other dairy breeds and it’s pointless to get 100 liters when you could get the same solids (and therefore cheese) with 70, especially considering at what price that extra 30 comes, in terms of extra management, feed and veterinary care...

One positive thing about friesians though, is that if breeding pure friesians is not a good idea, crossing them with other dairy breeds or non dairy breeds gives excellent results:

The F1 crosses, by a phenomenon called the hybrid vigor, will produce above the average of the two parents. This effect is lost with the following generations, but the point is that the genetic gain obtained by crossing with friesians is out of doubt great, gaining usually in quantity without losing in quality.
And this is why I was very excited when I came across a lady in Carlow, just by chance, who had lacaune. She was not selling hoggets or ewes but she’d give me a ram. I wasn’t so sure yet back then but after a few months down the road with the four ladies I was more and more convinced about the choice...
One could object that the Friesians are seemingly delicate because of the poor pastures that I’m using now and sure they could do better on the nicer land, but yet not quite as good as lacaune crosses or pure breed lacaune and at the end of the day it just does not make sense to have friesians if your target is sustainability, it’s like driving a ferrari on a country lane.

Concluding, the plan is to use lacaune rams through the next years and to retain the hoggets, slowly increasing the amount of lacaune blood in the flock, if ever in need to bring back some friesland blood I’d use a friesian ram on a small subset of sheep and possibly a year later use the resulting male F1 offspring to service the rest of the flock. That would inject instantly an average of 25% of friesian blood in the coming offspring.
Another alternative would be to use some Zwartbles genes, but that would not go towards quantity but rather towards an increase in offspring size, without losing much at all on milk production.


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