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
"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
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."
HC40 Broadus Stage
Miles City, MT 59301
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