The rain has continued to fall with the total now reaching 50” for the last 4 months. That far exceeds the rainfall total for an entire normal year. Needless to say mud has been a big problem with the ewes and lambs anxious to move to the grass field. Hopefully that will occur before this issue is published.
The artificial insemination lambs have been born and several of them have exceeded our expectations—in particular the "Keepers Kopy" son that we have named "Kurrent Kopy". We are looking forward to seeing his growth pattern over the next several months but so far it looks like he will add a lot of positive traits to our flock. Information will be posted under purchase opportunities on our website regarding availability of specific lambs.
Quarterly Topic: Club Lambs -- Good or Bad ?
The show club lamb market has largely taken over the Suffolk sheep industry mostly because that is where the money is. Unfortunately this fact is not in the best interests of the Suffolk breed.
It is important to understand the definition of a livestock breed. A breed is constituted by a group of animals that have commonality in their ancestors (historical basis) and bring together the genomic and phenotypic characteristics that are essentially homogeneous. The purpose of a breed may be based on adaptation to a particular geographical region in conjunction with a desired end product. For instance many English sheep breeds were developed to produce either wool or meat in specific areas-lowland Cotswolds versus upland Welsh Mountain sheep. Suffolks were developed by crossing Southdown rams with Norfolk Horned ewes with the express purpose of producing a sheep with better growth, bigger carcasses, and the ability to be used as a terminal sire on other breeds. The terminal sire aspect, in regard to greater meat production, resulted in tremendous demand for Suffolk rams in Great Britain and the USA. The Suffolk breed had become a dominant force in the production of finished slaughter lambs.
With the advent of the club lamb industry, a new chapter in Suffolk history was soon being written. The blossoming demand for a specific type of Suffolk or Suffolk cross lamb for the 4H, FFA and Jackpot market caused many Suffolk breeders to embrace this new genotypic/ phenotypic Suffolk criteria. Further support came from livestock judges who selected this type of club lamb without regard to the implications for the sheep industry in general. Suddenly sheep, Suffolks in particular, had to have compact muscular bodies with no tails, and minimal ability to thrive in a natural pasture environment. Fancy supplementation (show) diets became the new way of feeding lambs.
It is also important to note that recently there has been a strong indication that the callipyge gene has snuck into the Suffolk club lamb industry. This has massive long term implications for Suffolk sheep in general. For those not familiar with the callipyge gene, a short history lesson may be of value. The callipyge (double muscle) gene was first seen in a Dorset ram in 1983. Despite protestations to the contrary, all sheep that show the double muscling have Dorset blood in them no matter what the pedigree says including Suffolks. Initially the belief was that the callipyge gene would be a strong positive for the sheep industry. Then the downsides started to come to the surface. The two primary ones are the poor quality of the double muscle meat and the lambing difficulties seen in ewes that have an overly muscled rear end. Realistically there should be no place for this gene in Suffolks let alone the sheep industry in general. However greed continues to trump ethics and the gene has definitely become a part of the club lamb industry. It is extremely important for anyone pondering to start breeding club lamb type sheep to realize that the callipyge gene may be lurking in the genetic background of any possible purchase. Asking the right questions and requiring a callipyge gene test be done on any potential club lamb breeding stock purchase may prevent a breeding/marketing disaster.
Consideration of the whole “no tail” syndrome seen in almost all club lambs and their parents is paramount when evaluating the ethical and humane treatment of sheep. I strongly believe the no tail problem has been promulgated by judges and sheep advisors without any regard for its effect on the lamb. Why has this “no tail” lamb type been promoted/selected? Mostly to create an artificial lamb profile that accentuates the perception of rear end muscle development. Practicality has nothing to do with it. There is a laundry list of problems that can come with the removal of all coccygeal (tail) vertebrae in lambs but the two most important are a tendency to have both rectal and vaginal prolapses. That is why some states have moved to ban the procedure and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) recommends leaving at least three coccygeal vertebrae. Judges could quickly put an end to this “gimmick” but many judges are often the same ones selling the tail-less sheep. If the club lamb industry does not wake up to the threat from this procedure they will one day wake up to a public relations disaster. Scrutiny of this procedure in lambs will ultimately lead to charges of animal cruelty by groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). It is just a matter of time.
Lastly it is vital to mention the litany of “show tricks” used to produce winning club lambs. From constantly running them in circles to starving them before entering the show ring there are endless methods to produce that “winning lamb”. It would take several pages to document all the “tricks of the trade”. Suffice it to say that not all them are in the best interests of the lamb or of teaching their young owners the best lessons in integrity and humane treatment of animals.
Needless to say I believe that the club lamb industry as constituted today can and will have a negative impact on the sheep industry as a whole and particularly Suffolks. Certainly there is an opportunity to correct many of the issues associated with the production of Suffolk club lambs but it will require the dedication of judges, breeders, and livestock advisors who have the vision to move the club industry in a new direction that will be better for everyone but especially the sheep. I have purposely shied away from the Suffolk club lamb market because I have no desire to be a partner in a troubled industry. I continue to concentrate on the production of quality brood ewes that can be used for any purpose.
Joseph Schallberger, DVM, PhD
Whispering Hills Farm
Member Academy of Veterinary Consultants