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Sheep Breeding

( Originally Published 1912 )

Sheep breeding presents difficulties and offers rewards not met with in other classes of stock. One of the very considerable rewards is the pleasure of having overcome the difficulties. The peculiar need of controlling conditions in order to make sheep-raising a success grows out of the fact that the environment of farm sheep is highly artificial. The undomesticated sheep is a mountain dweller. In its habitat it is free from all dampness and always able to graze over large areas to secure the variety of vegetation necessary to appease its appetite. This peculiar appetite is the thing most generally prized, because it makes sheep valuable as weed destroyers. When confined to farm pastures they are soon deprived of the variety of food for which they crave and compelled to pass many times over the same ground. Under such conditions, and particularly when the soil is not of a dry character, there is a fostering of pests and diseases that are very difficult to treat. These troubles of farm sheep that are so difficult to cure are preventable if the essentials of the environment are made more nearly comparable with those of natural conditions. On smaller farms this can be done by grazing the flock upon a succession of green crops that can be arranged to furnish a variety of forage and sufficient change of ground. Such farming for sheep involves more labor than allowing them to run on old pastures but it wards off their peculiar ailments and permits them to make their maximum returns. Furnished with the right kind of feed sheep will consume more in proportion to their size than do large animals and produce more in proportion to the feed consumed. It is only when the essential features of natural environment are preserved and improved under domestication that sheep can thrive fully. Otherwise they are less useful than they may be.

All of our breeds of mutton sheep originated in England. Much has been done in fixing characters in the various breeds that will adapt them to varying altitudes and types of soil. The length of time through which the oldest of the breeds has been selected and cared for is far too short to overcome the force of natural features bred into the original stock by thousands of years of natural selection. Mutton production is profitable under the careful English shepherding on valuable lands. Imported sheep are much more prominent than home-bred ones in American shows of the mutton breeds and large numbers of rams are imported to head breeding flocks. The unusual development and the vigor of the English sheep is a result of the system of rearing their stock. Climatic advantages enable their shepherds to raise the crops needed with fewer difficulties than are met with in some states, but it has been abundantly proved in our shows that good breeding supported by the right kind of care and feeding produces sheep in this country fully equal to the best from the homes of the breeds.

Buyers of breeding sheep are seldom prepared to estimate the merits of pedigrees. Selections are based nearly altogether on individuality alone and this explains part of the disappointments that are not uncommon.

When selections are made in such a way as to secure actual merit supported by breeding, and the details of care and rearing are attended to, sheep breeding is a most pleasant and profitable occupation. The value of good blood is often obscured by the fact that the lambs from meritorious sires and dams are not handled in such a way as to permit them to exhibit the capacity for development that they have inherited. Success with sheep depends upon unremitting attention to a number of details, and the more intensified farming of the future is certain to bring in a more general and more careful sheep husbandry.

The numerous breeds of medium and long-wool sheep represent every combination of qualities likely to be needed for adaptation to particular sections or systems of rearing. They differ in size and in character of fleece, but the more vital distinctions grow out of the factors that have governed the selections of the makers of the breeds. Selection for rapid growth in some breeds has necessitated less strict adherence to the mutton form than has been practiced in the homes of other breeds. The fundamental features of adaptability are revealed by study of the conditions under which and for which each of the breeds has been developed.

Breeders and judges magnify the importance of type in all breeds. It is sometimes insisted that an animal should not win, no matter what its mutton qualities, unless it exhibits the distinguishing characteristics of its breed. These characteristics are considered to consist mainly of the covering and features of the head, and general conformation is given secondary consideration as contributing to type. Although breed type is very desirable it is not an end in itself. The measure in which any animal exhibits the peculiar features of its breed should indicate its possession of the inherent tendencies that constitute its adaptability to the conditions for which its breed was produced. So long as breed character is held secondary to mutton qualities in breeding a mutton flock these incidental peculiarities are useful as indicating trueness to breed usefulness. When type is construed to consist of minor peculiarities of head and coloring, and more vital qualities are relegated to second place, then the indication is substituted for the reality, and actual commercial usefulness must decline. Breed points, or fancy points as they are some-times erroneously designated, have a value but it is always a secondary one.

The United States is still a large importer of wool. A part of the home-grown wools are the equal of the best produced elsewhere but the amount has never equaled the requirements. Cheaper lands in countries of sparse populations produce the wool needed by older countries.

Our own southwestern and northwestern states rank high in wool production but few of the farming sections have entered extensively into the production of wool. In 1807 the states then formed offered bounties to encourage the production of wool. Societies were also formed at that time to encourage all kinds of home manufacturers and render the nation less dependent on materials from abroad. In the same year the first Merino sheep were taken west of the Alleghany Mountains. These sheep were the offspring of stock reared in Spain. Except for short periods wool-growing has ever since been fostered by tariffs designed to keep wool prices above the values in the countries where they are produced more cheaply. When such protection has been temporarily withdrawn, the breeding of fine-wool sheep has been seriously affected.

Fine wools are used in making of fabrics that could not be made from the wool of the mutton breeds. When fabrics made from Merino wools are in light demand the price of the wool is not in proportion to its quality but the weight of the fleece is always an important factor. Numerous sub-breeds and classes have been produced and provisions furnished for registration of local types and strains not sufficiently distinct to be considered breeds. There is great difficulty in maintaining the maximum density and fineness of staple. For this purpose some flocks have been maintained to furnish these qualities in an extreme degree even though the sheep themselves are not considered suitable for farm breeding. Although it cannot be denied that these features are very difficult to retain, it is true that part of the difficulty has been due to lack of appreciation of the influence of ancestry. The offspring of sheep of the desired practical type have shown a deterioration due in many cases to the fact that the parents themselves or the grandparents were the result of the mating of extreme types, and then particular individualities were not fixed enough to insure their transmission.

Considerable numbers of sheep of the fine-wool classes have been exported to South Africa and Australia in recent years, and even should commercial breeding for wool be interfered with, the prestige of our professional breeders should enable them to continue to breed for the foreign trade.

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