The Legends Have Arrived:
First-Time Icelandic Semen Importation Set
by Susan Mongold
After three years of negotiations,
planning, phone calls, letter writing, e-mails and handwriting, Tongue River
Farms in concert with Jager Farm Icelandics have succeeded in bringing into
the U.S., semen from the best Icelandic sheep sires in Ice-land.
**Stefania Dignum of Yeoman Farm in Ontario, who
with her fluent Icelandic and English language skills acted as a go-between and
facilitator and without whom it could not have happened. Stefania is no
stranger to pioneer efforts herself, as she imported the first Icelandic sheep
into Canada. All Icelandic sheep in North America are descended from these
And so this is how the story unfolded... "Wouldn't it be nice to get some semen from the best sires in Iceland?" we mused (Barbara Webb and I often plot breeding strategies over the phone).
We know that Iceland already has in place three AI stations around the country that deliver fresh semen daily, directly to the farmers during the breeding season. We knew also that most Icelanders keep scrupulous records of their sheep and lambs, including birth weights, body measurements, fleece quality, productivity and carcass grade for each lamb, to name just a few. Farmers get direct feedback as to which sires are producing the best lambs and it is from the best of these that a selection is made by the personnel at the AI stations to stand at stud and be used to improve the national flock.
And why would we go to procure semen from this breed? We had discovered that the Icelandic breed is a true triple purpose breed that produces excellent meat, milk, fiber and pelts that fill high value niche markets worldwide. Icelandic meat is known to the best chefs as having the finest flavor, texture and tenderness. Icelandic wool is used for the world-famous Icelandic sweaters known for their beauty, warmth and ability to shed both water and wind. Icelandic sheep pelts look and feel like fine fox furs and lead the international market because they are used by interior decorators and the garment industry. Icelandic sheep cheese called "skyr" was made up until 40 years ago by each farmstead (there is talk about restarting the sheep cheese business in Iceland). The fleece is dual-coated and comes in a wide range of natural colors and is valued by handspinners, weavers and felters.
In addition to the high value products produced by this breed, the animals themselves are hardy, relatively disease-free (no OPP, no scrapie, no foot rot) and low maintenance, needing no tail docking, no castration and can be pasture lambed. The sheep are early maturing, long-lived, easy lambers, excellent mothers and good milkers. The lambs grow fast and are
and hay alone. The lambs need no creep feed. This allows the farmer to keep costs low. Icelandic sheep are reliable twinners. They are very fertile and lamb within a 20-day period. The breed comes horned or polled.
While the 88 animals that were originally imported into Canada contained an ample gene pool for the North American flock, they were selected from only one area of Iceland. We were told that some of the very best genetics were in other parts of Iceland. Why not try and bring in some semen from the best sires selected from the 450,000 sheep in Iceland? It had never been done before, but we were determined to give it our best efforts. We knew it would take time, maybe years, to accomplish this.
Government departments of agriculture are very cautious. A new protocol had to be written, rewritten, revised and fine-tuned. Rams would have to be tested for various diseases before and after being collected. Labs would have to be found to do the testing. Straws and labels would be needed to mark and store the semen.
Luckily, Dr. Olafsson at the AI station did his Ph.D. thesis in sheep AI, so we were fortunate to have his expert help in this project. Dr. Sveinn Sigurmundsson, the AI station manager, helped to coordinate the project, also.
A collection made in early September produced mixed results as you might expect, as the natural breeding sea-son for Icelandics is November through April. It was decided to make a second collection in late November at the start of the natural breeding season, and this resulted in 500 straws of high quality semen from 15 different rams. The sires included both horned and polled individuals, and one leader ram.
And what is a leader sheep? These superintelligent animals are unique to Icelandics and are unknown in any other breed. In the past, Icelandic sheep were winter-grazed to extend the meager rations of hand-harvested stored hay. Since storms could arrive quite quickly and with little warning, often the shepherd and his flock were in grave danger of freezing to death fir from the safety of home and barns. Leaders sheep had the uncanny ability to lead the flock back home through "white-out" conditions. Likewise, they could often sense a storm coming and refuse to leave the safety of the barn. There are many stories told df famous leader sheep, and these were prized and bred for these special qualities. We are fortunate to get semen from a nice horned black and white spotted leader ram.
The semen from the other 14 excellent rams include individuals with excellent muscling, ribeye and fleece qualities, as well as being from exceptionally productive lines. They have proven that they can produce highly productive offspring that are fast-growing, have a lean meaty high quality carcass and can finish in four to five months on grass and mother's milk alone.
These sheep are truly the stuff legends are made of: low maintenance, high profitability, lots of meat, milk and fiber in the widest array of lustrous natural colors... So it was that finally, after years of work, the semen finally arrived in New York and was sent on to Elite Genetics in Iowa for storage.
Now the fun begins as we prepare for our first AI season and await the arrival of the offspring from the world's finest Icelandic sheep sires. We are excited! Stay tuned for the results!
For more information on the sheep or semen, contact Susan Mongold, Tongue River Farm,HC 40, Broadus Stage, Miles City, MT 59301, telephone 406/232-2819 e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or check out the website atwww.icelandicsheep.com.
wool have been bound together since the first
Vikings settled the island. As much livestock
farmers as they were warriors, Iceland's first
settlers took their sheep and other animals with
them when they sailed to their new homes.
The Icelandic sheep is the direct descendant of the Viking sheep. Its closest relative is the Norwegian Spelsau, which is descended from the same original stock. The Icelandic sheep's fleece is complex. It consists of a long outer hair called tog in Icelandic, and a short, fine underhair called pel.
Woolen cloth was an Icelandic trading staple during the Middle Ages. The Sagas tell of young Vikings taking their Inheritance in ells of va6mdl (see Knitters Glossary below) , as they set off to seek their fortunes in the markets of Europe.
Until mill spinning came to Iceland in the late nineteenth century, most fleeces were separated. The two kinds of wool were used for very different products. Tog, which can be up to fourteen inches long, was combed and drawn (lyppao in Icelandic), and spun into strong cord for sewing, for weaving canvas for bags, and occasionally plied for rope and twine. The finest tog, which is similar to mohair in texture and lustre, was used for knitting lacy shawls, for embroidery. and sometimes for durable household fabrics such as aprons.
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