on the road

on the road

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Domestication



The domestication of animals is an interesting topic. Thousands of years of selecting for specific traits have created the livestock breeds we know today.

The various sheep breeds that we have have been an interesting study in this selection process. We have a handful of Border Cheviot sheep. This breed was originally developed in Scotland. They are known as flighty sheep, but this trait was actually bred into them as a response to predator problems. Border Cheviot lambs literally hit the ground running - they generally are able to get to their feet and begin nursing much faster than other breeds.

Several weeks ago, we had a great illustration of this trait. I'd been watching a Border Cheviot ewe who was taking her own sweet time delivering a lamb. After watching her not making any progress for nearly an hour, I decided to give her about 15 more minutes (while I moved a section of fence). During that 15 minutes, she delivered the lamb and cleaned it. By the time I returned, it was already nursing and was so vigorous that it was difficult to catch.

Our Friesian dairy ewe, Yola, is an interesting contrast. In the short time she's been here, she's adapted to a new routine of being milked in the evening. We recently started putting her out on pasture during the day, which means we have to catch her amongst the rest of the sheep to bring her in for milking. While we can't catch the other sheep this way, she waits for us to come out with the halter. Centuries of selection for docility and milking ability have resulted in a breed that enjoys human contact.

Wendell Berry talks about the powers of observation that are necessary to select for specific traits. With our meat flock, we're trying to select sheep that can lamb on their own in pasture, that are resistant to parasites and footrot, and that produce high-quality meat on grass. Over the course of my life, I'll probably have 25-30 years to observe and improve my flock. What a fun project!

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