Breed­ing suc­cess

To launch a new se­ries, Jack Smel­lie asks what suc­cess­ful breed­ing ac­tu­ally means and what we can do to achieve it

Country Smallholding - - Welcome -

NEW SE­RIES with Jack Smel­lie

Our move from one to 10 acres a year ago gave us the chance not only to own more stock, but also to breed more. I re­mem­ber feel­ing so ex­cited to think that my 30-year dream of hav­ing Dex­ter cat­tle on our land was fi­nally go­ing to come true and that we would have the priv­i­lege of breed­ing our own calves. We also wanted to in­crease our sheep numbers (from two), and we be­came dizzy with ex­pec­ta­tion when, in just 24 hours, a Face­book post­ing pro­vided more than a dozen dif­fer­ent breeds for us to

A fel­low small­holder (with vastly more stock and ex­pe­ri­ence than us) com­mented on our FB post­ing of calf num­ber three and wrote ‘you have been lucky with your first year’s calv­ing Jack’. We read­ily agreed, but then we stopped to think: re­ally, had we been lucky or was it more that we had cho­sen sound breed­ing stock and pro­vided good qual­ity care over the win­ter? Or should the previous own­ers take credit for the right choice of bull? Is our land just such good qual­ity that any an­i­mal would do well on it? In other words, what makes stock breed­ing suc­cess­ful or oth­er­wise,

what ac­tu­ally does suc­cess­ful breed­ing mean in the first place and, most cru­cially, how should we, as small­hold­ers, man­age our breed­ing pro­grammes?

A wide range

This is what the ar­ti­cles in the se­ries will hope­fully an­swer. We will try to cover a wide range of top­ics and is­sues in­clud­ing breed­ing for show­ing, rare breeds and why it is felt im­por­tant to keep them go­ing, de­vel­op­ing new breeds and com­mer­cial ver­sus ‘small­holder’ breed­ing. Along the way, things may get a lit­tle con­tro­ver­sial as we ex­press views (not just ours) on such is­sues as culling, in­breed­ing and line­breed­ing, mega-farms, breed so­ci­eties, breed­ing for ‘looks’ and breed­ing for money (is that even pos­si­ble?).We also hope to pro­vide lots of tips and ad­vice from a wide va­ri­ety of sources, to look at what hap­pens when things go wrong (which they will) and how we have to learn and move on. We may even get a lit­tle tech­ni­cal and start talk­ing about EBVs (Es­ti­mated Breed­ing Val­ues), gross mar­gins and geno­type. We will quite pos­si­bly ask as many ques­tions as we an­swer. We will also be on the look­out for amaz­ing and in­spir­ing breed­ing sto­ries (suc­cess­ful and oth­er­wise) from other small­hold­ers, so if you have one, get in touch ( jack@ re­laxed.ltd.uk).

But back to the be­gin­ning - just why do we breed from our stock? If we ask that ques­tion across the live­stock-keep­ing world, there is just one an­swer: for food! For a great many small­hold­ers in this coun­try this will be a ma­jor part of their an­swer too. How many times have you said, or heard it said: ‘I live this life be­cause I want to know where my food comes from’ or ‘I want to know that what I am eat­ing has had a happy, healthy life’. But for many small­hold­ers, the an­swer is more com­plex. It’s not al­ways just about putting a meal on the ta­ble; in many cases that can ac­tu­ally sim­ply be a happy by-prod­uct. Small­hold­ers breed stock for so many other rea­sons: to en­joy the process of cre­at­ing new life is one rea­son and, as long as there is a game plan as to what hap­pens to those new lives, that’s surely okay? There’s also the whole idea of pre­serv­ing breeds, im­prov­ing breeds and cross­breed­ing. Then there are some rather less com­pli­cated rea­sons such as need­ing more stock to keep your grass down or be­cause ‘she’ is your favourite goat/sheep/ horse etc and you re­ally want to have one of her daugh­ters. Some small­hold­ers breed to keep a par­tic­u­lar line go­ing and/or to pro­vide breed­ing stock for oth­ers and so, in essence pre­serve the ‘small­hold­ing’ way of life. We rather like that one.

Hard work

The re­al­ity of breed­ing stock is that it gen­er­ally is quite hard work - there will be tears, frus­tra­tions, ex­cite­ment, guilt, re­lief and quite of­ten (hope­fully) an over­whelm­ing sense of awe at the part you have just played in pro­duc­ing that brand new life! And with that comes the re­spon­si­bil­ity. The first task is to get the newly born through its first 24 hours (al­ways the most vul­ner­a­ble), then to make sure you look af­ter mum as much as baby, to progress through to wean­ing (or the equiv­a­lent) so that your new life is in­de­pen­dent and then… to work to­wards to the end-plan which, cru­cially, should have been in place long be­fore any sperm even vaguely be­gan to head to­wards the egg.

So at what point do we say that we have had a ‘suc­cess­ful breed­ing ex­pe­ri­ence’. At the start of this ar­ti­cle, we stated that this year ours had gone ‘in­cred­i­bly well’. That was based on zero as­sisted births, only one death and healthy mums (bar our al­paca that died), with young­sters all pro­gress­ing well through to in­de­pen­dence. We had no other ex­pec­ta­tions: we weren’t overly con­cerned about male/fe­male ra­tios, growth rates, weight gains, mark­ings… Nei­ther were we look­ing nec­es­sar­ily to keep any of our newly bred stock, rather to sell on as breed­ing/fat­ten­ing stock, pets or to rear on our­selves for meat. Strictly speak­ing though, should our con­clu­sion as to whether or not we have had a suc­cess­ful breed­ing sea­son re­ally only be reached once all our new stock has been sold on or dis­patched? Surely, if we are left with stock we can­not sell or an over­sup­ply of meat in our freezer, our breed­ing suc­cess is di­min­ished be­cause the con­clu­sion has to be that we have bred too much?

So does breed­ing suc­cess sim­ply come down to ex­pec­ta­tions and whether those ex­pec­ta­tions are met? Our breed­ing this year may have been a dis­as­ter for some­one else be­cause they might, for ex­am­ple, have wanted dif­fer­ent mark­ings for their Shet­land sheep or more bull calves than heifers (for meat). Of course these ex­am­ples il­lus­trate how some ex­pec­ta­tions are more achiev­able: per­fectly marked stock ver­sus more males than fe­males? We may have some con­trol over the first, but (un­less you are try­ing the trick of only mat­ing your sheep on a Wed­nes­day - or some other such non­sense), you have no con­trol over the sec­ond (although we have no doubt that some­body some­where ‘will’ claim a trick or two on that one).

And there re­ally is an aw­ful lot that breed­ers don’t have con­trol over: the weather, mar­ket forces, other peo­ples’ breed­ing (which can at best be com­pe­ti­tion or at worst fill the mar­ket with less than de­sir­able stock), the stan­dards set by the breed so­ci­eties (un­less you are on the com­mit­tees). We can also do the very, very best pos­si­ble by each in­di­vid­ual an­i­mal and still things will go wrong. For us, we ques­tioned what we could have done about our still­born lamb this year and yet, un­for­tu­nately, we will never know whether our pres­ence dur­ing the birth would have made a dif­fer­ence. Sim­i­larly, an an­i­mal

How should we, as small­hold­ers, man­age our breed­ing pro­grammes?

may pro­duce the best pos­si­ble young stock year-on-year and then one year, not.

Care­ful plan­ning

When it comes to it though, any de­ci­sion to breed must be care­fully con­sid­ered, fi­nan­cially and emo­tion­ally, and a plan must be in place for the re­sult­ing young. De­spite all that has been said so far, there is a huge amount that can be done to en­sure a suc­cess­ful out­come, and it is the duty of any small­holder to do all they can. To end our first ar­ti­cle there­fore, this is our quick­fire guide to max­imis­ing your po­ten­tial breed­ing suc­cess. Many of these points and more will be picked up on later in the se­ries:

Stat­ing the ob­vi­ous: if you want healthy young stock, only breed from healthy adults whose back­ground and his­tory you know – in our very first year we bred from two RSPCA re­homed goats, fast for­ward four years to a tear­ful but very nec­es­sary culling of a goat whose feet and joint prob­lems were be­yond treat­ing!

Talk to other breed­ers, bom­bard them with ques­tions, lis­ten to their ad­vice, visit their hold­ings;

Car­ing for your preg­nant stock starts way be­fore they be­come preg­nant. Plans should be in place for both long-term and short-term care;

In­volve your vet from the start – it is part of their job de­scrip­tion to know about all the many ways breed­ing can go wrong… have their num­ber on speed dial in your phone;

There’s that cliché, pre­pare for the worst and hope for the best. It’s not just about hav­ing the lamb­ing box all sorted, it’s also about know­ing what to ex­pect. We en­tered our first year of kid­ding and lamb­ing in an un­in­formed mist of ex­cite­ment. The fol­low­ing year we were ter­ri­fied with our new found knowl­edge about all that could go wrong. By year three we had sort of found a happy bal­ance;

Plan in ad­vance. If you don’t have males liv­ing on your hold­ing and need to hire in, use AI or take your girls off-site, you need to plan weeks/months ahead.

The ‘male’ you use (whether real or in a straw) is in­deed half of your herd – choose him wisely;

Keep re­ally ac­cu­rate records, year-onyear, about ev­ery as­pect of your breed­ing pro­gramme. That way you can make ac­cu­rate and ben­e­fi­cial de­ci­sions that im­prove your herd/flock year-on-year too;

Be pre­pared to keep stock you can­not sell till the fol­low­ing sea­son/year rather than sell it cheap – you won’t do any breeder (in­clud­ing ul­ti­mately your­self) any favours by un­der­valu­ing. If you can­not keep stock through, don’t breed in the first place;

Get to know your an­i­mals. Un­der­stand the be­hav­iour both as a species and as in­di­vid­u­als so you can spot when things aren’t right;

Con­sider tem­per­a­ment. Breed­ing suc­cess­fully is not just about how an an­i­mal looks;

Learn how to body con­di­tion score. It is not that dif­fi­cult.

These Shet­lands have their dad’s mark­ings and none of their mums

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