About > Selecting Southdowns
by Charles Howard
The most important sheep a person ever buys is their first. The sheep selected in your initial purchase will be the genetic nucleus of your flock and will set the tone for your future success. It is very important that purchases are made with some planning and forethought taking into consideration your goals and the market niche you wish to meet. This article is intended to share some lessons learned and advice received over the years and, hopefully, will give you some ideas on how to effectively lay out a strategy for the development of your Southdown flock.
The very first step in acquiring either a beginning flock or expanding an existing flock is to determine the type and style of sheep you wish to produce. This in part will be determined by your personal preferences as to the type of sheep you find attractive. It will also be determined by the market in which you plan to sell your sheep. For instance, of you live in an area where club lambs are very popular you may want to emphasize those traits in your sheep that will make them appealing to this particular segment of the industry. The same can be said if your goal is to concentrate your marketing efforts toward freezer lambs, commercial rams, or show sheep.
Finally, don't be afraid to produce the type and style of sheep you personally find appealing even if this type of sheep is not currently in vogue. After all they are your sheep, and your time and money are being invested in this project, so you should like what you are producing. More than one breeder over the years has fought conventional wisdom, been ostracized, placed poorly, and then a few years later are selling stud rams to everyone in the breed.
After you have determined the niche you wish to fill with your sheep, as a breeder you should decide on which two or three traits you wish to be known for within the breed. While our goal is always to produce the best, most complete sheep possible, it is important to realize that there are no perfect sheep. Some of the traits we often strive for will come at the expense of others. For example; sheep that have heavily muscled rumps, with thick and deep loins, will generally be shorter loined. With limitations such as these in mind, a breeder often makes comprises. Some of the best advice I ever received on this topic is the following: take a look at the breed as a whole and breed for the trait(s) that the breed needs most. Those breeders that are able to establish a reputation for breeding complete sheep that are outstanding in a few particular traits, stand a much better chance of marketing their animals to other breeders looking to improve their flocks in these particular areas.
After a breeder has determined the traits he or she personally finds appealing, as well as the type of sheep that will be marketable in their area, some research will need to be done to determine where the seed stock that will form the nucleus of the program will be purchased. In the beginning this research can be done through advertisements in publications like this handbook, The American Southdown, as well as other national and regional sheep publications. The important point when reviewing these ads is to determine which breeders are currently producing Southdowns most like the type you wish to produce. By reviewing these ads you may not be able to completely determine where you will ultimately purchase your sheep, but you may be able to begin limiting the scope of the search.
Attending as many shows and sales as you can fit into your schedule before you actually purchase your sheep is another way of evaluating programs. At this time you have the opportunity to see a group of sheep "in the flesh." Take some time to talk with the breeders about their sheep at the sale or show. Ask important questions such as the breeder's goals in their program, what type of bloodlines are they using, which bloodlines are their most predictable, etc. No matter how busy a breeder may appear at a show or sale, they will be more than happy to speak with you concerning their program. After all, they are sheep people, and there is nothing more dear to their hearts than talking about sheep. This is an excellent opportunity to begin establishing relationships that will serve you well should you later decide to visit their farm to buy sheep or should you need their advice and counsel concerning the development of your flock. It is important that new breeders have relationships with established breeders who are willing to share their knowledge and experiences learned from their successes as well as their failures over the years. Raising Southdowns is like anything else; by being a student of the breed your chances of success will be greatly increased.
General Considerations When Making Selections
Once a breeder has researched and decided the source(s) of his or her initial purchases, there are a few basic principles that should be followed when selecting Southdown breeding stock. First, make sure that these sheep meet the criteria outlined in the Standard of Excellence for breed type. The most important and distinguishing characteristic of any registered animal is their breed type, and it is essential that breeders keep this in mind as they develop their flocks.
Next, select sheep that are three dimensional in their make-up. This term refers to height, length, and muscle. When we refer to height we are referring to one trait that is how tall the sheep is at the top of the shoulder. The Southdown breed is fortunate in that it has not yet reached the point of being so large framed that we have segmented the breed into two distinct subclasses; one consisting of breeding sheep, and the other wether sheep. While taller sheep are still definitely favored, there has been a movement toward looking at other traits, and a move away from selecting for only one trait, height. The key, then, is to select sheep that have adequate height without over valuing this trait at the expense of all others.
The second dimension is length of body. There is an important point I would like to emphasize. While the length of a sheep is often evaluated by its overall body length, it is important that the length be what I like to refer as "usable length." By usable length I am referring to a sheep that has 55% to 60% of length in the hind saddle. The hind saddle is the combination of the length of the loin and the length of the rump. Sheep that possess a higher percentage of their length in the rib area are "long ribbed" and are of marginal value to the packer as rib meat is not priced as highly as the leg and loin chops. A sheep that may not have the overall body length of another individual may in fact be longer hind saddled and, therefore, more valuable. The important point is do not let your eyes deceive you and over influence your decision making.
It is important to remember that the Southdown breed is and always has been a meat breed. Therefore the third dimension is an important one. Select sheep with a thick, wide loin that will cut a large loin eye and has a thick, full leg. Sheep that are straight topped and have a level, square rump, with a high tail set will have the most muscle capacity possible. It is also important to select sheep that have a higher proportion of their carcass weight in the rump, where the high price cuts are located. It is critical that as the sheep is viewed from the side it is not deeper from the top of its shoulder to the floor of its chest than it is from the top of its rump to the bottom of its leg muscle. A sheep constructed in this manner is wasty, has a higher proportion of carcass weight in the front end, and should be avoided.
While selecting sheep that are three dimensional is important, there are a few other considerations as well. Eye appeal is an important quality that needs to be considered. Eye appeal gives a sheep "sale ability." There are several components that make up eye appeal, the most obvious being style. Style is a term that is difficult to precisely define, but is readily apparent to the casual observer. These are the sheep that are high headed and display and overall balance that makes them stand out within the flock. These sheep have long necks that blend nicely into their shoulders. They have straight top lines that carry out over a level rump. As these sheep are viewed from the side they appear lean with an absence of belly that would give the appearance of wastiness. Sheep that have eye appeal also are correct on their feet and legs. If a sheep has poor pasterns, cow hocked, or post legged, they will not be able to be presented to their best advantage. Since Southdowns are exhibited and sold slick sheared, sheep should have smooth hides with an absence of wrinkles for a better overall appearance.
Selecting Stud Rams and Ewes
You have determined the type of sheep you wish to produce and identified the breeder(s) whose programs will be the basis of your new flock. You have also determined what your budget will allow you to purchase ten quality ewes and one stud ram. You are now standing in a breeder's barn in a pen with twenty-five ewes, all of similar age and quality, milling about your feet. Now what? Ultimately your ewe flock should be of a quality that you are able to produce a consistent type of sheep that will go on and reproduce itself for your buyers. This is far easier said than done. Nearly anyone at any time can produce a good sheep. In order to produce multiple numbers of good sheep you will need a ewe base that is bred to produce this type of consistency. Therefore, choose ewes for your initial flock that are related to each other. These may be ewes that are sired by the same ram, which is a good start, but even better would be if they are also related on the dam side as well. If you start off with a set of ewes that are genetically very similar you will find it much easier to find a ram that will work well within the whole flock. Often breeders that purchase unrelated ewes from various sources report that it took several rams until they could find a ram that is a consistent producer of quality sheep. This due to the fact that the initial ewes were unrelated and it took two or three generations until their sheep became a genetically similar flock.
It is also important to understand that building a flock that contains a group of consistent producers takes time. It means keeping all of the ewe lambs from the best producing ewes as replacements. Therefore, do not expect every ewe in your initial purchase to be a "queen bee" ewe. A queen bee is a ewe that always produces the best lambs a ram will sire when compared with the offspring of that particular ram. This type of ewe doesn't come around all that often. It is not unreasonable to expect that only about one third of the ewes you purchase will really have an impact and contribute in moving your flock forward. In order to increase these odds, choose ewes that are out of a breeder's major ewe family. These sheep will have a record of predictability and there will be a number of individuals in the flock for you to inspect. While it may be difficult to pry these females away from a breeder, be sure if you are buying a stud ram he comes from one of the best individuals in a breeder's major ewe family. Even if there is another ram that you like better at the farm, more times than not you will be better served by the genetic predictability of the ram from the major ewe family, and he will do a better job of passing on the traits that brought you to this breeder in the first place.
As has been discussed earlier, even the best breeding programs have their weaknesses. When purchasing sheep from another breeder always choose sheep that are individually strong in the area where the program may otherwise be weak. For instance, sheep that have heavily muscled rumps generally have a thicker, but shorter loin. Therefore, if you are selecting individuals from such a flock, choose those individuals that are longer loined. The genetics of the breeder's program, in this case heavy muscled rumps, will be acquired while minimizing the program's drawback, the shorter loin.
Often you will hear a breeder talk of sheep they purchased and say something like, "He's a short bodied ram but my sheep are long, and he has great breed type, and I really need that in my sheep." The next spring the lamb crop is short bodied and the breed type needs improvement. What happened? Never select a sheep, particularly a ram, that is very weak in an area where your sheep are very strong. The sheep's faults should never be any worse than you would find minimally acceptable. Otherwise you risk the erosion of your program's strength through the introduction of too many genetic variables to achieve consistent results. Instead of producing consistently long bodied sheep, the producer in this example is now producing shorter bodied animals as well. It is very safe to assume that the buyers of this breeder's animals who purchased these animals to achieve more length will experience the same results as well. In the purebred business, consistency is the key to success.
No matter how diligently you prepare and how hard you work, not every sheep you select will work well in your program. Sometimes, like many things, it looks good on paper but the outcome is not what we expect. While the same bloodlines may nick well for other breeders, it may not work well for you. Remember, a loss quickly taken is half profit. Do not let a ram that cost you $1,000 cost you a great deal more by continuing to use him after it is plainly evident that he will not work in your program. The same can be said for ewes as well. It is far better to tuck and roll, absorb the loss, and move your program forward by selecting a new ram or ewe.
These are just some of the considerations when selecting individuals for the foundation of a new flock. Certainly breeders can and should lay out a plan as to how they will achieve the goals of their program. Also remember that with hard work and preparation goes more than a little luck along the way. It may be the ewe your forgot to sell that has that super show ewe or the accidental breeding that produces your next stud ram. Perhaps that is the magic that keeps so many of us in this business.
The continuing popularity of our breed demonstrates that the breeding of Southdown sheep is enjoyed by more people all over the country. The breeding, exhibiting, and selling of Southdowns can truly be a very positive experience for the whole family to enjoy.