Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Balancing Act

When I was doing some housekeeping on my blog, I came across a couple of draft blogs that I have decided to finish.  Here is one.  

Somewhere between "get big or get out" and "it's a lifestyle" is the balancing act that we strive to achieve at Hawk Hill.   I don't know when profit became a four letter word nor when large debt became acceptable.

When we raised horses I attended an Ontario Equestrian Federation conference with multiple industry seminars.  At one seminar called something like Making a Profit with Horses (an oxymoron if I have every heard one) the audience was asked whether they thought they should make a profit in the horse industry.  By the general reaction of the audience, the question could have been "is it ok to sell crack to children?". The audience shuffled their feet and hung their heads. It brings me back to the question, why is it unreasonable that a farmer should expect to make a profit?

When I raise this question to farmers, especially small farmers that are not even close to making a profit, they usuallly bring up the "lifestyle" line.  OK, I get that since I also like the lifestyle but that does not preclude my desire to make a profit.  How many corporate executives do you know that are willing to forgo profit for a lifestyle... that is corporate executives that still are CEOs?.
As a child my father told me that the only thing that you should go into debt to buy was  a home.  He even was uncomfortable going into debt to buy a car.  Since I seem to have inherited that gene, we are basically going to stick at the flock size we now have.   We will have ~25-30 ewes and 3-4 rams.  To get bigger than that would require expansion of my infrastructure and going into debt.  At this stage in my life that is neither a reasonable nor a realistic thing to do.

At this stage in my life, subsidizing a farm is also not a reasonable or realistic thing to do so the farm must pay for itself.  I do not expect it to support me but the farm income should cover all the expenses and I should not have to pay for the meat that goes in my freezer.  We should reach that goal this year and next year I expect to make a small profit.  It won't take me to Tuscany on holiday but its a start.


Heterosis or the healthy mutt

Most livestock breeders have heard the term "hybrid vigour" in which the cross between two breeds grows better than either of the two purebred lines.  Heterosis is the formal name for this.

In the sheep world, commercial producers take advantage of this by crossing two maternal type breeds such as a Rideau Arcott with a Dorset to create an F1 cross.  The F1 cross is then mated to a terminal sire breed such as a Suffolk or Hampshire.  If done well, the resulting market lamb is superior than from each of the purebred lines.

We cross our two maternal lines so our F1 cross is a North Country Cheviot/Tunis cross. This hybrid is indeed strong, vigorous and grows well.  We are still working on which terminal sire breed works best with this cross and our production system.  We are trying a Hampshire cross this year.

With heterosis comes a certain degree of unpredictability.  However that unpredictability is reduced if the two parental purebred lines used are inbred.  While you always create your cross from the best of your purebred lines, the mixing of genotypes leads to less predictability in the resulting phenotype ie how the animal will look and perform. In some extreme cases the parental genes are incompatable and the hybrid is less vigorous than the parental lines. This is where data collection is very important.

It is common practice for breeders of purebred stock to line breed, that is mate closely related relatives to enhance desirable characteristics such a growth rate or conformation type.  This increases homogeniety and predictability of the offspring but also can come at a cost known as inbreeding depression.  The extreme of this is the appearance of lethal recessives such as spider syndrome in Suffolk sheep.

The reality is that breeding selection is focussed on relatively few measurable characteristics and the rest of the genome comes along for the ride.  In some cases the changes are positive, some negative but on the whole the inbred animal is less gentically fit than an animal that is outcrossed. 

While our purebred lines (especially our Cheviots) have some very desirable measurable characteristics, in my opinion, they are too inbred and we will be searching for unrelated lines to use for an outcross.

Lately I have been reading articles on the impact of inbreeding on disease and parasite resistance in sheep and am seeing the fitness advantage of the heterozygote.

There is very little in the livestock literature on the impact of inbreeding on parasite resistance but there is information on wild populations of sheep.  In these publications, inbred lines are more susceptible to internal parasites working as a natural selection against inbred lines.

Scrapie is another instance.  At first blush it makes sense to include selection for resistant lines in your breeding program.  However it never makes sense to breed for a single characteristic.  In this case, adding resistance to your flock should be done slowly without sacrificing production characteristics.  I know that in 18th century Britain scrapie was thought to be the result of inbreeding; maybe they were right. Is heterozygosity the way to go with respect to scrapie ie gaining some resistance, not sacrificing other characteristics? At this point I can honestly say I am not sure. We will continue to genotype and use quality rams with resistance genotypes.  However, we will not sacrifice quality in a effort to maximize resistance.

Breeding livestock is not a set formula but rather a dance where you go back and forth but ultimately make your way across the dance floor.  Your goal is to move forward but that requires knowledge, research and accurate,detailed data collection. I strongly feel that a wholistic approach needs to be used where the health, longevity, fertility and welfare of the animal has to be considered.  You may not make as rapid advances in characteristics such as rate of gain but I am banking on this approach reducing your costs by producing a healthier and more "genetically fit"  animal.



Monday, April 2, 2012

Why we don't go against nature at Hawk Hill

I read with interest the article in the Ontario Sheep News on fish meal supplementation to supply omega 3 fatty acids in ewe ration and its impact on the subsequent lamb's ability to withstand a bacteria toxin challenge (endotoxin).  While it was scientifically interesting, this is not the direction that our farm wants to go.

The first reason is that sheep are herbivores, not omnivores, and feeding animal-based proteins to herbivores is what got the sheep industry into problems in the first place with conditions like scrapie.  No, I am not saying that fish meal can transmit scrapie, but I am questioning a nutritional supplement that is so totally foreign to the natural diet of sheep.

The second reason is the effect of the fish supplement on the quality of the meat.  As a teenager, we lived in Sweden.  At that time, the Swedish pork industry was using a fish based feed supplement.  It was, beyond the doubt, the worst pork I had ever eaten with a distinctly fishy flavour to the meat.  We do not want to use any feed supplement that can create off flavours in the meat and reduce the quality of our product.

Man's manipulation of domestic animals is but a moment of time in the evolutionary scale.  That is especially true with respect to recent manipulations for the more intensively raised livestock.

Sheep have evolved to breed at a time so that the lambs were born when vegetation is young, supporting the increased nutritional demands for a lactating ewe as well as for a rapidly growing lamb.  In our climate's case (and the British and European breeds that have evolved for our climate) that means a birth in April or May.   Not surprisingly, omega-3 fatty acids in forage peak at the same time as lambing.  Forage sugars and proteins also peak at that time.

All this begs the economic and in some cases physiological costs of trying to paddle against nature's current.  In my opinion the way to minimize health problems and economic costs in your flock is to quit trying to breed out of season. 

The demand for Easter lamb actually originated in the Mediteranean  where the climate naturally produces lamb in that season.  So is it reasonable to expect production systems in a northern climate using breeds developed in northern climates to try to mimic a Mediteranean production system using Mediteranean breeds?  My opinion is no.

 Does that mean only seasonal availability of lamb?  Sure, but it is a long season from spring lamb in May, June to heavy lambs from September to January or even later.  Off season, there is hogget and mutton, two very good meats that need to be promoted again. 

Each shepherd must make their own decision as to the production system they want but they must recognize going against our climatic realities comes at an economic and management cost. At Hawk Hill, we acknowledge the realities of our climate, our breeds and our forage production season and manage our breeding and marketing to reflect that reality.