Half of What You See
My high school ag teacher used to say, “Believe nothing that you hear, and only half of what you see.” At that time in my life, I took the statement as comical and sarcastic. We must have faith that people aren’t constantly lying to us. And what we see with our own eyes must be true. Right?
As much as I wanted to discount this bold statement, it has stuck with me for several decades. The primary reason it didn’t become a distant memory is I was constantly reminded of it each time I learn something new that contradicted something that I previously thought to be fact. After a decade of higher education and constant reminders of how wrong I was, I learned to not place “absolute faith” in something someone says or something that I saw.
The truth is complicated and there are very few absolutes in life. We must always keep an open mind, or we will be blindfolded to learning.
One of the most difficult “false truths” that I have had to overcome has been assessing genetic merit of sheep. As an active participant in 4H and FFA market lamb projects, we strived to raise the best show lambs that we possibly could. The rules of the game were fairly simple. Work hard to raise or purchase the best lambs we were capable of. Feed, exercise, and train our animals to show. Exhibit your projects to a judge and hope for the best.
I believed “absolutely” that livestock judges were quantifying the value of “all” sheep. And it took nearly a decade of industry involvement beyond my youth livestock experience to admit I was wrong. The market lamb projects were about making me a better person and exposing me to agriculture. Genetic value of livestock is determined by the animal’s potential to produce a desired product within the environment they are being raised. Desired product and environment vary widely across the sheep and goat industry.
Desired Product: In Texas alone, sheep and goat producers strive to create a wide array of products which have evolved over time. At the peak of sheep and goat production in the 1950s, the largest majority of producers focused on producing high value wool and mohair. Fiber quality and fleece weight were top priorities for selecting replacements. As the animal fiber market diminished over several decades, some ranchers transitioned to selection of larger and faster growing animals to increase revenue from lamb and goat sales. Other ranchers transitioned to animals that would perform well in the showring and marketed high value show stock. More recently, the majority of Texas ranchers have transitioned away from fiber production all together. Today, Texas has a diverse sheep and goat industry that serves a diverse consumer base that want different things. This diversity has proven to be very resilient during turbulent times.
Environmental Fitness: This term is used often by geneticists to describe how well an animal is likely to perform on a particular ranch based on location and style of management. For instance, Central and East Texas have a much higher parasite burden than West Texas. Sheep and goats that have been selected for parasite resistance are essential to most pasture-based ranchers in higher rainfall areas. Yet, these same animals may not perform as well as others in an environment that has a low internal parasite burden. Mature body size, seasonality of breeding, reproductive potential, and grazing behavior are just a few other traits that can affect how well a sheep or goat is fit for the environment. As I stated before, it is complicated.
Yes, genetic potential is important. But if you are buying genetics that others define as ideal, there are some important considerations you need to make to determine if these animals are also ideal for you. Take in to account their management style, their production goals, and their consumer base. Do these match with yours? No two operations are exactly alike, and if you cannot justify a purchase based off these points, buyer’s remorse may be a likely outcome!
My point of all this rambling is urge you to think deeply about what type of animals you want to raise and how you want to raise them. Don’t let someone else’s strong opinions overtake your own common sense. Sheep and goat ranching is complicated. To sustain a sheep and goat operation, you must utilize your ranch resources effectively and employ a management style that fits your goals. When your genetics and management align, your life will be much easier (and your pockets deeper!).
My ag teacher was right! What others value in an animal may not be important to you at all. And only half of what you see in an animal is genetic. In-depth discussions for how to best measure genetics are best saved for another day, but in brief; an understanding of how the animals were raised and accurate performance records are the foundation to making sound decisions.
To provide feedback on this article or request topics for future articles, contact me at email@example.com or 325-657-7324. For general questions about sheep and goats, contact your local Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service county office. If they can’t answer your question, they have access to someone who can.