Breed­ing, by Tim Tyne

Tim Tyne in­ves­ti­gates this age old dilemma

Country Smallholding - - Inside This Month -

It is un­der­stand­able that any­one who keeps live­stock will, at some point, ex­pe­ri­ence a de­sire to breed from them. If you en­joy car­ing for your an­i­mals, con­sider how much more fun it must be to have lots of lit­tle baby an­i­mals too. Stop. Think. Mak­ing the tran­si­tion from hav­ing a few pets to keep­ing a breed­ing flock or herd in­volves a big step up in the level of com­mit­ment re­quired. Whereas the man­age­ment of non­breed­ing an­i­mals re­mains fairly con­stant through­out the year, and is rel­a­tively un­de­mand­ing, the needs of breed­ing stock are con­stantly chang­ing de­pend­ing on fac­tors such as stage of ges­ta­tion or lac­ta­tion. There is also the fact that you will sud­denly find your­self with dif­fer­ent age cat­e­gories and sexes of an­i­mals on the hold­ing, each of which will have their own spe­cific re­quire­ments. This adds a fur­ther level of com­pli­ca­tion with re­gard to grass­land man­age­ment, win­ter hous­ing and feed­ing. And, of course, there is all the health im­pli­ca­tions as­so­ci­ated with preg­nancy and birth — some­thing that the owner of non-breed­ing an­i­mals never has to worry about.

Why do it?

If you are in­tend­ing to breed from your an­i­mals then it is es­sen­tial that this is planned and has a def­i­nite pur­pose. You can’t sim­ply al­low breed­ing to oc­cur in­dis­crim­i­nately, and nei­ther can you re­tain all of the off­spring, or your hold­ing will soon be­come hope­lessly over­stocked and the health and wel­fare of your live­stock will suf­fer. Un­for­tu­nately this sce­nario does oc­cur all too of­ten on small­hold­ings due to the mis­taken be­lief that it is some­how kin­der to keep them than kill them. It would have been kin­der not to have bred from them in the first place.

The dilem­mas faced by the first-time breeder are quite dif­fer­ent from those of the es­tab­lished flock or herd owner, who al­ready has a pur­pose and for whom man­age­ment decisions may be based on pre­vi­ous suc­cesses (or fail­ures), year-onyear breed im­prove­ment, the re­quire­ments of an es­tab­lished cus­tomer base, etc.

The be­gin­ner, on the other hand, has to jus­tify the com­mence­ment of a breed­ing pro­gramme, which may be:

To in­crease the size of the flock or herd: If you have started small and want to build up, you might con­sider in­creas­ing numbers by re­tain­ing home-bred fe­males, which is a very re­ward­ing way of go­ing about it. How­ever, be­lieve it or not, rear­ing your own breed­ing stock may work out to be more ex­pen­sive than buy­ing in what you re­quire. Also bear in mind that ap­prox­i­mately half of the an­i­mals born will be male, so are sur­plus to your re­quire­ments (un­less your even­tual aim is to re­turn to a non-breed­ing man­age­ment sys­tem, al­beit on a larger scale, in which case you may wish to re­tain cas­trates). A pro­por­tion of the fe­males won’t be of suf­fi­cient qual­ity to be worth keep­ing ei­ther. And, when you’ve reached your tar­get flock or herd size you will, if you in­tend to con­tinue breed­ing, need to start culling some of the older an­i­mals to make way for the new in­take.

To pre­serve a rare breed: While this is in­deed a wor­thy ob­jec­tive, it is not, in my opin­ion, the most ap­pro­pri­ate start­ing point for a raw novice. The paucity of blood­lines found within a de­pleted pop­u­la­tion re­quire a cer­tain knowl­edge of ge­net­ics in or­der for a breed­ing pro­gramme to make a pos­i­tive con­tri­bu­tion to the over­all sus­tain­abil­ity of the breed. Also, it is vi­tal that high stan­dards are main­tained, which means that the ini­tial breed­ing stock must be of top qual­ity. The be­gin­ner may not have suf­fi­cient ex­pe­ri­ence in gen­eral stock­man­ship to en­able him to iden­tify suit­able an­i­mals in the first place. Fur­ther­more, any an­i­mals that are bred that do not con­form with the ex­pected stan­dards of the breed should, on no ac­count, be re­tained or sold for breed­ing, oth­er­wise the ac­tions of the breeder are ac­tu­ally detri­men­tal to the breed he pro­fesses to sup­port. Un­for­tu­nately, when these sub-stan­dard an­i­mals are sold for slaugh­ter they will re­alise only very low prices, as they are not suited to the mar­ket re­quire­ments of to­day (which is prob­a­bly why the breed is rare). Hav­ing said that, there are def­i­nite niche mar­ket­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for rare-bred meat with prove­nance which are well worth ex­plor­ing.

On bal­ance, I feel that it is best for be­gin­ners to start with or­di­nary com­mer­cial or cross­bred stock and then move over to pedi­gree breed­ing once they have gained suf­fi­cient ex­pe­ri­ence.

To pro­duce breed­ing stock for sale: Whether pedi­gree or not, there is al­ways a mar­ket for good qual­ity breed­ing stock. How­ever, it might take you years to make a name for your­self at that game, dur­ing which time you may have to con­tent your­self with sell­ing off your an­nual out­put at lit­tle more than the cost of pro­duc­tion. Once you have gained a rep­u­ta­tion the difficulty is hold­ing on to it, so at no time must you let your stan­dards slip. This means ruth­less culling of any­thing that fails to make the grade. Have you got the heart for it?

To be more self-suf­fi­cient: Here I am pri­mar­ily re­fer­ring to the pro­duc­tion of meat and milk for do­mes­tic use, al­though you might also in­clude other live­stock re­lated out­puts, such as fi­bre and leather, to­gether with eggs and honey. To pro­duce your own meat it is not nec­es­sary to keep breed­ing stock, as you could more sim­ply buy in weaner pigs or lambs for fat­ten­ing. How­ever, it is far more sat­is­fy­ing to con­sume an an­i­mal that you have bred your­self.

So, the de­fin­i­tive ques­tion is, hav­ing been re­spon­si­ble for that an­i­mal’s wel­fare from the point of con­cep­tion, wit­nessed its en­try into the world – and per­haps even as­sisted at the birth – and cared for it from day one, are you then pre­pared to have it slaugh­tered and take the ul­ti­mate step of serv­ing it up at the fam­ily din­ner ta­ble?

Per­son­ally, I can­not un­der­stand why some small­hold­ers find this dif­fi­cult, but I am aware that there are peo­ple who strug­gle with the con­cept. If you are one of these peo­ple, then pos­si­bly breed­ing live­stock is not the way for­ward for you.

If you are in­tend­ing to breed from your an­i­mals then it’s es­sen­tial that this is planned and has a def­i­nite pur­pose

Milk pro­duc­tion does, of course, re­quire that the cow, goat or ewe be bred from on an an­nual ba­sis and in this sit­u­a­tion the off­spring of the milk­ing an­i­mal may be con­sid­ered a by-prod­uct of the pri­mary pur­pose. You must have given due con­sid­er­a­tion to the even­tual fate of the calf, kid or lamb and be con­fi­dent that you are com­fort­able with your de­ci­sion, be­fore com­mit­ting your­self to milk pro­duc­tion. In some cases, the young­sters will be reared on to fol­low their moth­ers into the herd or flock, but oth­ers may be des­tined for the mar­ket or the abat­toir. Sadly, male dairy goat kids are of­ten eu­thanised at birth as they have no value, which I think is a shock­ing waste. If you can’t make use of them your­self then you should pass them on to some­one who’ll rear them well, give them a good life, and, when the time comes, make op­ti­mum use of the car­casses.

To pro­duce meat for sale: The pro­duc­tion of meat for sale doesn’t re­quire breed­ing an­i­mals to be kept for, as I men­tioned ear­lier, you could just as eas­ily buy in young­stock for rear­ing and fat­ten­ing. How­ever, if your mar­ket­ing strategy in­volves di­rect sales to a dis­cern­ing cus­tomer base then the ad­di­tional ku­dos at­tained by the fact that an an­i­mal was wholly bred and reared on your hold­ing is well worth hav­ing. A cou­ple of words of warn­ing though: make sure of your cus­tomers well in ad­vance, ide­ally be­fore the an­i­mals are bred from, and don’t pro­duce more than you can rea­son­ably ex­pect to sell. This is par­tic­u­larly per­ti­nent to rare breeds, where there may be no al­ter­na­tive out­let for your sur­plus. If you keep an­i­mals of a com­mer­cial type then it is not ac­tu­ally nec­es­sary for you to at­tend to the busi­ness of mar­ket­ing the end prod­uct your­self, as you could just as eas­ily sell them through a prime­stock auc­tion or di­rectly to an abat­toir. Al­ter­na­tively, you could sell them at a younger age, as ‘stores’, for some­one else to fat­ten up.

To pro­duce milk for sale: Milk pro­duc­tion – whether for sale or home con­sump­tion – does add an­other layer to the level of com­mit­ment re­quired, over and above the ba­sic breed­ing man­age­ment. Think about this first, as it is some­thing that part-time small­hold­ers may find they sim­ply can’t cope with. It is also very dif­fi­cult to find some­one else to do the milk­ing for you if you are ill or have to be away from home. For small-scale com­mer­cial pro­duc­tion you will also need to make a con­sid­er­able in­vest­ment in equip­ment and fa­cil­i­ties in or­der to be able to com­ply with the reg­u­la­tory bur­den.

As I men­tioned ear­lier, in or­der to pro­duce milk an an­i­mal needs to be bred from (al­though ‘maiden milk­ers’ do oc­ca­sion­ally oc­cur, par­tic­u­larly in goats – my par­ents had one that milked for years with­out ever hav­ing given birth), but you could make a start by buy­ing in an­i­mals that are al­ready in milk. This would give you the whole of one lac­ta­tion to get ac­cus­tomed to the rou­tine man­age­ment be­fore hav­ing to deal with the next par­tu­ri­tion.

In or­der for milk pro­duc­tion to be suc­cess­ful you will need to sep­a­rate the an­i­mal from its baby at around five days after birth, or at least sig­nif­i­cantly re­duce the time they spend to­gether. You may not feel com­fort­able about do­ing this (al­though you may be re­as­sured to know that none of our cows has ever com­plained about it). You are then faced with the chal­lenge of ar­ti­fi­cially rear­ing the young­ster from a very early age, which can be tricky and is a con­sid­er­able re­spon­si­bil­ity. An al­ter­na­tive is to sell it on for some­one else to rear, but again this is some­thing you might feel un­com­fort­able about due to the stress in­volved in trans­port­ing young an­i­mals newly sep­a­rated from their dams. It is es­sen­tial that you have thought through all of these is­sues be­fore com­mit­ting to a breed­ing sched­ule.

Two ad­di­tional as­pects that I have not dis­cussed are fi­bre pro­duc­tion and con­ser­va­tion graz­ing, as nei­ther of these ac­tu­ally re­quire a breed­ing flock or herd to be kept. Hav­ing said that, con­ser­va­tion graz­ing does tie in nicely with rare breed preser­va­tion and fi­bre pro­duc­tion could in­volve se­lec­tive breed­ing for im­proved fleece qual­ity.

Next month

Hav­ing con­sid­ered some of the whys of live­stock breed­ing and their as­so­ci­ated chal­lenges, next month I’ll be look­ing at the how.

Make sure of your cus­tomers well in ad­vance, ide­ally be­fore the an­i­mals are bred from

If you en­joy look­ing after an­i­mals, it is un­der­stand­able that you might want to breed from them

Car­ing for very young an­i­mals is a huge re­spon­si­bil­ity

Keep­ing a milk­ing herd or flock re­quires a level of com­mit­ment over and above the ba­sic man­age­ment of breed­ing stock

There is al­ways a mar­ket for qual­ity breed­ing stock, but it can take years to build up a rep­u­ta­tion

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