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Improving lock structure without losing productivity

By Wendy Allison

Image of coloured sheep with twin lambs
This ewe produces solid multiples every year

With the price of wool down and the price of meat up, many sheep farmers are turning to lamb sales as their main source of income. But where does that leave those of us who are breeding coloured sheep? The goal with our Romney and Romney-cross flock is a dual purpose animal that produces a useful handspinning fleece and two coloured lambs that reach sale weight by 100 days, on pasture alone.

Many of our original flock were one or the other – a nice fleece but produced either singles or slow-growing lambs, or produced good lambs but had wool that wasn’t great.We introduced commercial white ewes and a handful of coloured from a recorded romney flock to improve carcass weight and fecundity, and they did – increasing our lambing percentage* from 150% to 170%. But their wool was inconsistent and didn’t have a great lock structure.

Image of a lock of the ewe's fleece
There are a lot of crossed fibres with almost no definition between the locks, and it feels harsh.

The pictured ewe is one of the bought-in ones. She produced twins as a hogget and triplets at her second lambing. She’s a meaty, leg-at-each-corner type of ewe that is more than earning her keep with lambs, but her fleece is best described as marginal in quality, and it’s quite short (only 14cm average staple from a full fleece) with no lustre. We wanted to improve this while retaining her productive traits.

Last year we bought in a ram with a very nice fleece to help improve overall fleece quality but unfortunately his production history was not available and while his progeny had nice wool they did not grow well, with only the singles making sale weight and low-yielding carcasses across the board. The lambs just didn’t have muscle.

Image of a different lock from the ram's fleece
This fleece averages 18-20cm staple length

This year we put her to our moorit romney ram. He is a twin who weighed 35kg at 100 days and he has a pretty good fleece so we kept him. In the picture you can see that the locks in his fleece are well defined and the crimp is even along the length of the staple. The wool is also consistent over his body.

The result was a set of triplets, from which we’ve kept a ewe lamb. She averaged 300g/day growth to weaning, and weighed just over 32kg at 100 days – pretty good for a triplet. She’s got the solid frame from her dam. So she ticks all the productivity boxes, but what about her fleece?

Image of three locks from different fleeces fleece
Using this ram has improved the lock structure quite a lot

In the picture are the staples from both parents and the lamb’s staple from her first shearing last week. It averaged 8cm, and as you can see the lock structure and lustre are much better. The crimp expands a little towards the tip so it’s still not as good as the ram, but it’s a big improvement on the ewe and quite serviceable. We’ve improved wool quality substantially, and retained the meaty build and good growth rate.

What we’ve learned from this is that improving fleece quality without losing productivity means knowing the growth rates of any potential ram’s progeny, or his own if he’s untried.

Image of lambs including one with improved muscle tone
She’s the solid coloured one in the middle. You can see the nicely-rounded roasts on her rear end

Some rams are just slower growing than others and will produce slower-growing lambs – and unlike fleece quality, this is not something you can tell just by eyeballing the adult sheep. If you’re wanting to keep your bottom line up while improving fleece quality – always ask for the numbers.

*we measure lambing percentage as ewes to ram/lambs weaned, as this is the bottom line of flock productivity.


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