Developing a breed registry for Polwarth sheep using imported semen and radio-frequency technology

Final report for FNE17-876

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2017: $15,000.00
Projected End Date: 01/31/2020
Grant Recipient: Meadowcroft Farm
Region: Northeast
State: Maine
Project Leader:
Nanne Kennedy
Seacolors Yarnery at Meadowcroft Farm
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Project Information

Summary:

As a sheep farmer in Maine, I raise apparel wool and am committed to educate more consumers as well as producers to the importance of ITCH FREE wool, where it comes from, and how it can make an impact to reduce plastics in our wearables and home goods.  I am also committed to leaving our wool industry better than I found it. Though a more valuable grade of fiber than meat breeds, dairy breeds or carpet breeds, Apparel wool sheep shear a lighter fleece than others so the economics are cost prohibitive for commodity growers.  

My goals are to create a higher yielding fleece, secure new contract growers, and leave a legacy of improved genetics for Maine’s fiber breeds as Katahdin has done for meat breeds. I also wanted to find better and more efficient technologies to capture necessary field data as I handle the livestock, however, improving on current smartphone applications was not able to be done within the scope of this project. 

Semen from four sires from New Zealand was imported and 50 ewes were inseminated laparoscopically in the late fall of 2017 and 2018, followed by late season natural breeding the following spring.  Shearing data was collected for two years on both the laparoscopic lambs and naturally bred lambs.

With NO SIGNIFICANT difference in Fiber micron, (a measure of softness), the imported breeding had a significant increase on wool weights.  For anyone wanting to grow more fine wool with same number of animals, or same amount of wool while feeding fewer animals, this breed offers a significant solution to increasing the clip without losing the quality or comfort factor of fine wool.  As these animals achieve maturity, it is expected that the fleece weights will increase by another 30-50%.

Improvements in the 

Project Objectives:

The specific goal of this project is to improve the genetics of my flock in order to increase the fleece weights with imported Polwarth Genetics via laparoscopic AI in the fall of 2017 and 2018. This will provide much more efficiency of production that other farms can benefit from.  From this base genetics, I intend to create a breed registry, as the only verified Polwarth breeder in the US. The secondary goal of this project is to create a better, more efficient field record keeping system, using RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) with Bluetooth connectivity to smartphone technology that will interface with computerized record keeping as the basis for this registry.

Objective 1. To clip more wool, comparing 20 years of fleece weights on lambs and hoggets, to the improved genetics’ fleece weights in 2018 and 2019.
Objective 2. To have breeding rams, ewes and semen for sale by the summer of 2019.
Objective 3. To develop a market protocol for culls as summer feeders on other farms, where I would buy back the wool at increased commercial value before slaughter.
Objective 4. To expand the smartphone APP for sheep currently offered and recently released for RFID tags on sheep called Smart List.
Objective 5. To make more money with sheep by adding value and creating efficiencies.

Introduction:

If the key to a sustainable business is profit, and the key to profit is a better product, then this proposal will do both for Northeast woolen industries. As price takers, there are few leverage points to receiving more value. There are two ways to grow profit: 1. Increase output or 2. Increase
efficiency.

With synthetics as a close substitute, the value of raw, commercial wool has dropped below the cost of growing it. But with the social cost and awareness of fossil fuels increasing, and the farm to table demand trending, “farm to needle” is not far behind. New England was once the seat of the apparel wool trade, and many woolen manufacturers and their customers still look to the Northeast as a place where wool and woolens can be procured.

Only 20% of our wool clip is apparel grade, however, and the coarser grades from meat and carpet breeds are not suitable for local niche manufacturing or consumers who prefer not to itch, having a commercial value of only $.50/lb. Wool for companies like Swan’s Island, Darn Tough, Maine Woolens, Rambler’s Way, and Ibex, for instance, is purchased by import, while they claim the “local” brand by dint of the further processing or simply by design. Scalable wool processors (like myself) with a throughput of only a few tons a year, would benefit by a softer (finer microns) wool clip sourced locally, to build on the reputation Maine has been growing in both handcraft and small manufacturing

As a solution to sustainable soils, small ruminants offer diversity to small farms and vegetable growers who need a source of concentrated nutrients, with minimal infrastructure. To justify them however, the sheep would need to provide sufficient returns. Fine wool sheep of fewer than 30 microns can take up to $40/lb. for their raw wool.

I have been breeding a “Homestyle Polwarth” at Meadowcroft Farm starting with an AI Australian Merino ram to cover my stronger wool ewes in 1991, culling aggressively for parasite and hoof rot resistance, blood testing to confirm they are all CL free, micron testing the rams (between 18 and 23), and selecting for mothering, good mouths and body conformation, clean faces, and easy winter keeping. They are well naturalized to the climate in a grass based system. I keep approximately 100 animals thru the winter, some wethers, several replacement ewes, a handful of rams, and breed about 50 ewes.

There is no registry however to sell either breeding stock or semen at a value consistent with their performance, and their skirted fleeces only weigh 4-6 pounds. While field management for routine live grading, famacha scoring, general observations and record keeping is clunky, time consuming, and cumbersome with only one handler. In addition to my own wool, I have another 500-800 ewes under contract for their wool, sorting, classing and grading it at shearing, and packing it for specific end use. This farmer/breeder however is turning 80 this year, and my supply will soon dry up.

Description of farm operation:

Meadowcroft Farm is owned and operated by Nanne Kennedy. She trained in Maine on 300 sheep (1982) and NZ on 8000 (1983) to better understand breeding, efficiencies, commercial markets, and grass based systems. She started on her farm in 1988 with 15 sheep from North Haven Island and started the Polwarth breed program in 991. She developed the food grade/seawater/solar dye process called SEACOLORS in 1994 and started the Maine Blanket aggregation program in 2000. She currently winters 100 finewool sheep on 90 acres, manufactures yarns sweaters and blankets, and sells them at farmers markets, high end shows, wool festivals, online, wholesale and retail.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Dr. James Weber, DVM - Technical Advisor (Educator)

Research

Materials and methods:

 

Lap AI in mobile surgical unit from Tufts Ambulatory Svs

After a year of researching collection and shipping of genetic potential for this Australian Fine Wool breed, I chose a breeder in NZ where their genetics would have been naturally selected in a climate more like New England’s than Australia.  Choosing four sires shearing 20-25 lb fleeces in their NZ location, they entered quarantine April 2017, and started the collection process.
Pedigrees:
F236-12
FIN35-15
HIL4-14
MIL44-13

On 21 December 2017, we inseminated 50 ewes which had been prepped for Laparoscopic Breeding according to protocols established by the Vet team from Tufts Veterinary Field Service in Woodstock, VT, including vasectomizing a ram to tease and identify ewes as they came into accelerated estrus.  Twenty-one live births were delivered to sixteen ewes from 17 May 2018 to May 23, a 32% settling rate.  Late season natural breeding followed laparoscopic, delivering thirty-two live births to thirty ewes from May 31-July 28.  All were gestated ceteris paribus on medium to poor quality, first cut grass balage.  Note that temps at breeding went suddenly below 0 for ten days, adding post surgical stress.

On 7 November 2018, we inseminated 50 ewes which had been prepped by same protocol and same Vet Services, increasing the PG600.  Twenty live births were delivered to thirteen ewes from 3 April 2019 to 8 April, a 26% settling rate.  Natural breeding followed in December, forty-nine live births were delivered to forty ewes from 15 May to 4 July.  All gestated on excellent quality second crop grass balage.

Gestation feed quality is significant to follicle development in the second trimester.

Shearing data was collected on two dates in 2019, excluding any very late season lambs:  The average clean weight (skirted) of 2018 Laparoscopic Lambs from imported breeding was 5.32 lbs. 
2018 + 2019 lambs shear data

The average micron of Laparoscopic Lambs according to OFDA (Optical Fiber Diameter Analysis) performed by Texas A&M was 20.97 microns. 

The average clean weight of 2018 Naturally Bred lambs was 3.39 lbs.

Average microns of Naturally Bred lambs was 20.96 microns.

NB: none of these animals were a year of age, wet spring required heavy skirting.

Shearing data was collected in 2020 also on two dates:

The average clean weight of 2018 Laparoscopic yearlings was 8.07 lbs.

The average clean weight of 2018 Naturally Bred yearlings was 5.49 lbs.

The average clean weight of 2019 Laparoscopic lambs was 5.2 lbs.

The average clean weight of 2019 Naturally Bred lambs 2.9 lbs.

NB: 2019 naturally bred lambs were at least a month and a half younger (less wool growth) than Laparoscopic lambs in same class, while yearling data includes those naturally bred who were not shorn in 2019 (more months of wool growth).

Research results and discussion:

Conclusion:

With NO SIGNIFICANT difference in Fiber micron, (a measure of softness), the imported breeding had a significant increase on wool weights.  For anyone wanting to grow more fine wool with same number of animals, or same amount of wool while feeding fewer animals, this breed offers a significant solution to increasing the clip without losing the quality or comfort factor of fine wool.  As these animals achieve maturity, I expect the fleece weights to increase by another 30-50%, though not the result I had hoped, still higher than mature homebred fleece weights or other Merino breeds.

Surprise observations:

As I envisioned this, I thought I was going to have to start over with culling for parasite resistance.  HOWEVER, in all categories, even after a very wet 2019 spring/early summer (increases risk of coccidiosis and internal parasites), the Famacha scores on Laparoscopic lambs were consistently better than my homebred flock.  Additionally, Average Daily Gains were significantly better, carcasses are more consistent, and general thrift is much higher with the Laparoscopic subset, reared by ewes from the same flock, ceteris paribus.  In summer 2020 I will have animals from both groups and ages participating in the URI SARE parasite Project to verify resistance and resilience. 

Initially on seeing the Laparoscopic lambs, they appeared to have more guard hairs, and a visual inspection of the mature fleeces was generally not as nice as my homebred animals, the data tells a different story. 

Of note, however, while the Laparoscopic lambs offer hybrid vigor and higher Average Daily Gains, their birth weights were also higher, and their heads were larger, creating the potential for lambing difficulty on smaller ewe breeds.  Also of note, I used a Laparoscopic Yearling sire for natural breeding in 2019.  MANY of these 2020 lambs required assistance, and increased vigilance during lambing season.  The group, however is extremely thrifty, growing fast on pasture, and have shown no sign of parasite infection.  They were born 13 May to 20 June, and the yearling comfortably covered 50 ewes for delivery within a month.

Research conclusions:

With NO SIGNIFICANT difference in Fiber micron, (a measure of softness), the imported breeding had a significant increase on wool weights.  For anyone wanting to grow more fine wool with same number of animals, or same amount of wool while feeding fewer animals, this breed offers a significant solution to increasing the clip without losing the quality or comfort factor of fine wool.  As these animals achieve maturity, I expect the fleece weights to increase by another 30-50%, though not the result I had hoped, still higher than mature homebred fleece weights or other Merino breeds.

Participation Summary
1 Farmer participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

5 Consultations
4 On-farm demonstrations
2 Webinars / talks / presentations
16 Workshop field days

Participation Summary

30 Farmers
15 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities
Education/outreach description:

Outreach:

Both Laparoscopic breeding days were open to volunteers and vet students to observe and participate at their level of interest and comfort.  Shearing days in 2018, 2019 and 2020 were held as free workshops for wool handling and grading, comparing the breeds, and highlighting the fiber characteristics.  Prior to shearing 2019, and in preparation, I taught a class at The College of The Atlantic to a large group of students doing a Sheep to Shawl class, then the whole class participated in shearing.  Summer 2019 I held weekly events at the farm on Wednesdays from 4-7pm and the last Sunday of every month from 10-3 to introduce anyone to the new breeding and outcomes in progress.  I carried fiber samples of the new breeding to show the staple characteristics to all Farmers Markets, 3 days a week, and fiber events from May thru November of 2019.  I intended to repeat this in 2020, but events have been cancelled as of March, starting with a breed display of yearlings and 2 year olds at Maryland Sheep and Wool, New England Livestock Expo, and Maine fiber Frolic.  PBS Nature opened their American Spring Live three day special event with a live birth and “Lamb Cam” of the nursery in April 2019.  I did two speaking engagements at Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Common Ground Fair in Sept. of 2019, and intended to do the same at the Vermont Sheep and Wool Festival, both cancelled for this year, so will prepare a video.  Hoping to figure out a power point presentation to post on my website at www.getwool.com.  Will resume farm events as soon as I feel comfortable. 

Learning Outcomes

20 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:

Fiber characteristics.  Many farmers were unaware that fine wool is different.  

Confirmation of lambs – breeding is more vigorous.

Project Outcomes

5 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
1 Grant applied for that built upon this project
4 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

Farmers are buying the breeding stock.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Spent over 1000 hours entering data into app and data didn’t transfer into excel correctly.  Was able to use data but had to manipulate it in order to track the animals and develop a breed registry.  Will still work with developer to be able to collect the data.

 

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.