Tongue River Farm 
HC40 Box 6211A 
Miles City, MT 59301 

Three years needed for import Al

 


Dr Dennis Gourley peers through a laparoscope as he guides a slim glass pipette to pierce a horn of a ewe's uterus. The syringe will deliver a dose of imported semen into each of the uterus' two horns in the brief, minor operation that  result in genetically diverse lambs next April.

By JOHN HALBERT - Miles City Star Staff Writer Wed. December 9, 1998


Published with permission

 It took three years of international effort, but North America's largest flock of Icelandic sheep got a large dose of genetic diversity recently when they were artificially Inseminated with imported semen.
      The flock belongs to Rex and Susan Mongold's Tongue River Farm, south of Miles City. The Mongolds have been in the Icelandic sheep business about six years, building their flock from one in Canada that was founded by two importations of 88 animals in the early 1995.
      A maior concern with livestock importation is disease, including scary problems such as scrapie. The sheep imported to Canada came from an isolated, scrapie free area of Iceland.
      However, Susan Mongold said, that area did not offer the breed's best genetics.
      The Icelanders, in battling their own disease problems, have fenced off and quarantined the island nation into segments, and set up artificial insemination Stations to collect and distribute the breed's best genetics without animal-to-animal contact.
      The rams are selected on the basis of their progeny's qualities -a performance-based selection familiar to sophisticated cattle breeders.
      "The 'farmers there can track back, and tell which rams are doing best for them," Mongold said. Noting the limited genetic tool of her animals, she said, "We wanted the very best genetics (to improve the flock). This was our dream"

"So we contacted the Al station in Iceland. They contacted their governmental ag entity. We contacted Dr. Roger Perkins."
      Perkins is a United States Department of Agriculture official who deals with such imports.
      "He's made some real tough decisions that address the health issues," Mongold said.
      They also contacted Dr. Dennis Gourley, a veterinarian who, with his reproductive physiologist wife, founded Elite Genetics 14 years ago to concentrate on small ruminant reproduction.
      The Gourlevs, working with the Mongolds, soon discovered a problem - there were no regulations governing semen importation from Iceland. While that might seem like a plus - (no regulations, no reason why you can't) - it actually worked the opposite way - (if we don't regulate it, you can't do it).
      Much of the last three years has involved getting USDA to write regulations, then get them refined to the point where they are workable, which is where Dr. Perkins' decisions came in, Mongold said.
      At issue were whether Iceland had a scrapie monitoring program acceptable to USDA, and what would happen to the semen once it got to the United States.
      "We could address some of the regulatory issues," Gourley said, sitting in the Mongold's kitchen the day after he had inseminated 59 of Mongold's ewes.
      We just had to guarantee to the Washingtonites that we had a facility to store the semen where the sheep producers couldn't just come in, use the semen, and not report it.
      "We store the semen in compliance with the regulations, under the Ownership of the breeder."
      Mongold noted that she had to enroll her flock in the voluntary scrapie control program, which means she can sell ewes only to similar certified flocks, or slaughter them.

       But there is a bottom-line benefit to all the red tape, Gourley said. "Getting through the government hoops, agreeing to the terminology that needs to be done - this can accomplish your goal. Tour goal in this is genetic diversity."
      "A minor breed has very small genetic diversity, and we can jump-start that by bringing in semen from other countries," he said. "Susan's flock will have a greater genetic diversity with the lamb crop she'll get."
      The benefits of that genetic diversity include improved breeding and market trait qualities, and hybrid vigor.
      "Because this breed is so unrelated to domestic breeds (about 1,000 years of relative isolation on Iceland), you get a tremendous amount of hybrid vigor," Mongold said
      "You're talking to Mrs. Icelandic Sheep in the United States," Gourley said, noting that she has the largest flock in North America, "just because she's got a well-balanced philosophy of why to raise Icelandic sheep."
      Mongold said she admired the triple use Icelandic sheep excel at - meat, milk and fiber. Even more, she admires the way Icelandic sheep fit into their environment, after a millennium of evolution in a harsh climate.
      "In this world of growing population, there's going to he less grain available to go to livestock," Mongold said. "That means that breeds of livestock that can fatten and thrive on hay and grass alone are the genetics of the future's.
      "These (Icelandic sheep) have grass-based genetics. They were rarely fed grain, and they were over-wintered on controlled starvation - the fat on their hacks - and the equivalent of two square bales of hay.
      "They were skin and bones in the spring, and still lambed. This is an animal that can lamb on grass and reach finish weight on mothers' milk alone and go to market just when your grass growth curve is winding down, leaving your pasture for the ewes to use for getting ready for breeding.
      "You get your most efficient economic gains on grass."

Tongue River Farm  
HC40 Broadus Stage
  Miles City, MT 59301
  (406) 232-2819

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  Copyright Tongue River Farm, 2000