What is Size?
by J.F. Walker. From Sheep Breeder magazine, March 1939
What is Size?
J.F. Walker, Gambier, Ohio
Sheep Breeder, March 1939
The other day I chanced to be at an auction sale of sheep. Many buyers were present and interest was centered on a lot of ewes carrying a considerable growth of staple and showing an advanced condition of pregnancy. Most of them were a trifle long in the leg as well.
Penned beside them, was another lot, the same age and breeding but with some less fleece and due to lamb about a month later than the first lot. They were also shorter in the leg.
It was very interesting to listen to the comments of the prospective buyers as all placed the first lot as much the largest and in the sale they backed their opinion by paying considerably more for them than the second lot. Yet in the same condition, the short-legged second lot would have outweighed the others and been the best buy at the same price.
At the recent International we showed a pair of yearling Corriedale yearling rams. One was a short legged, low thick one – the kind we like; the other was a rangy, upstanding ram carrying a longer fleece. Everybody guessed the last ram anywhere from twenty-five to fifty pounds heavier than the first one. As a matter of fact, the blocky ram weighed 187 pounds and the other 185 pounds.
One more illustration. During the summer we ran our aged Southdown ram and the aged Corriedale we were fitting to show together. Here again the larger looking Corriedale was give a weight advantage of from thirty to seventy-five pounds over the Southdown, while in reality at the time the Southdown weighed ten pounds than the Corriedale ram.
It is apparent that size, to the average person, is measured by height, length and appearance, rather than in an attempt to visualize body size and conformation where weight is determined. Long necks, long legs and long fleeces are given more consideration than well sprung ribs, wide loins and deep bodies, which after all is what the packer pays for.
It is an unfortunate situation for any breed to find itself in a position where it is judged from the viewpoint of the average person as to size. Long legs and long necks go hand in hand and do indicated something, but the things they indicate are exactly the things the feeder and the packer don't want- namely, a hard doer and poor finisher with excessive percentage of waste in dressing. There are exceptions, but the number of such are very limited. A long leg is generally associated with a leg of mutton not well filled in the twist. Nearly always a shallow, light body is also found accompanying the long leg. A long neck, if heavy, produces an excessive amount of "neck steak" which hardly ranks in quality with the meat found at the other end of the spinal column. If this long neck is light, one will find a poor feeding, weak constitutioned animal every time.
Why is the false standard of size being perpetuated? There are just two reasons: The first is to deceive the buyer or more often one's self. I do not feel that many are guilty of trying to defraud a purchaser, but a lot of breeders find it easier to sell such individuals than those of more compact conformation and, consequently, follow the lines of least resistance. Where scales are not available, it is very easy to produce 200 pound yearlings given enough wool, leg and neck, and when lambs of this kind go to market it is again easy to blame "short weights" as the reason for their failure to weigh up to expectations.
The second reason for the reservation of this type of sheep is the one generally given-that on the western ranges a long leg is necessary to permit sheep to travel the distance required to get over rough grazing lands. This theory is given considerable credence. At one of the leading shows, the judge stated that he wanted a sheep that could go out in the spring and come back in the fall and made his placings accordingly. Many western men make the same statement. Most of these men have never had any experiences with anything else than sheep of this type and their convictions are the result if a line of reasoning rather than actual demonstration.
A sheep is a sheep and a leg is a leg the world over and if long legs are necessary in one state or one country they certainly should be essential in every country where sheep are compelled to travel long distances, or in rough countries. What do we find?
In New Zealand the "rough" country is as bad as anyone encounters in the West. Out of this region the writer secured ten head of Tasmanian type Merinos that had been trailed as far as any western band would travel. They were mostly short in the leg and the shorter legged ones were in the best condition. Nobody there seemed to feel that long legs were essential to successful herding.
In Australia we saw bands of sheep on the semi-arid sections traveling up to twenty miles a day for feed and water. These sheep were deep bodied and only had a moderate length of leg. Those men talked about a set of leg and muscle to propel it rather than length.
In South Africa we trailed for two days with a band of ewes being moved over two hundred miles from winter to summer range. The short-legged, deep bodied kind were out in the lead and doing the best on the trail.
Last fall considerable territory was covered in the West looking for feeder lambs. The best and heaviest lambs we secured came from a short legged band of ewes running in as rough a country as any we encountered.
In a recent letter from Mr. Bond of Denver, Colorado, who has one of the leading flocks of Corriedales in the west, I quote. "The length of leg on some Corriedales is proper for criticism and is a later development in the West. The early importations were neither long-legged nor heavy boned. These only increase the amount going to the tallow tank and lesson the dressing percentage. The Corriedale close to the ground will still lead the other breeds to and from range, even in the mountains. Will be glad to prove it if you will come to our ranch the 28th of any July when we make up the mixed band with some of our neighbors and drive the sheep the seventy miles to summer range".
If size is not dependant on long legs, neck or fleece, what is the yard stick by which it should be determined? The first and most accurate is the scales. A pair of scales should be in every judging ring for the benefit of the judge who looks largely to size. It would cause a tremendous "shrink in shipping" in a lot of cases. Lacking scales, the important thing to remember is that width, length and depth of body determine weight. Firmness of flesh is another important factor. This should not be confused with excessive fat put on for show ring competition, but as applied to an animal capable of breeding.
In a letter this fall a breeder states that he purchased a ram weighing 335 pounds and was obligated to take off seventy-five pounds before the ram was able to function as a breeder. This ram was a 260 pound ram and no more. Loaded with seventy-five pounds of excessive fat he became in the same class as the fat lady in the circus and should have been exhibited in a side show alongside her and the 3,000 pound ox rather than in a breeding class.
Lastly, what is proper size? The sheep that will eventually win out is one that has the ability to bring a lamb to popular market weight in the shortest possible time and at the most economical rate of gain. These two factors determine the profit to be hoped for. Rapidity of gain is very desirable; cost of gain is absolutely essential.
The ewe best qualified to serve as a mother of such a lamb must be roomy enough to carry one or two lambs and have feeding capacity to develop the embryo and to produce milk to carry them on later. Very little milk is secreted in the neck or legs. It requires deep, thick bodies to store the organs capable of performing these services. Incidentally she should also possess the ability to produce a reasonable amount of wool.
The ram should be the same type and were I to chose between two rams, one that went over 100 pounds at four to five months of age and never weighed over 150 to 175 pounds, and a slower maturing but raw boned lamb that eventually reached 250 to 300 pounds, I would take the first one every time.
A weight of 150 pounds in a ewe in good breeding condition should be ample to meet any requirement asked of her, always provided she is the proper type. Twenty-five to fifty pounds more in the ram is sufficient to perpetuate this size. A few breeds have higher standards of size than the above. With them no quarrel is found. Their blood is necessary to raise a lot of commercial flocks to the necessary standard. It is very significant that these breeds have, within the past decade or two, very materially shortened their leg and neck and widened and thickened their carcass. These breeds look much smaller than they did twenty years ago, but some have actually gained weight.
Size must always mean the number of pounds an animal can draw down on the scales, rather than the number of boards it can look over in a fence. Long necks and legs are merely "bones of contention" and eventually will be eliminated from every good breeding flock rather purebred or commercial.