|Breeding Issues...Information for Better Choices, an interview
with Gudmundur Johannesson.
by Gary J. Holcombe of Icelandics North
Gary's Note: This article has to do with crossing horned icelandics to polled, a controversy
which received much attention in the "SHEPHERD" magazine in the Fall of 2004. An article
discussing the issue was written by Sue Mongold, and there was a response by Stefania
Dignum of Yeoman Farm. This interveiw with Mundi is my response, hoping to settle the
matter. Somehow in all the turmoil this spring, in the production of the ISBONA newsletter,
an early draft of this interveiw was published, not the final copy that is printed here. Someone
further edited the early draft,, leaving out some controverial statements in my closing
remarks (page 4) which " pulled it all together." Not knowing who was going to be the new
newsletter editor, I had sent this final version to several people. Why the wrong version was
printed, I can only speculate. But slip-ups happen, and the newsletter as a whole came out
very well...my hats off to the many volunteers that make the newsletter happen!
By way of background as to why this interview came about, from time to time in the recent
past I'd been hearing some unique theories pertaining to the breeding of the Icelandic sheep.
One of these ideas in particular, if left unanswered and allowed to become accepted general
practice (the crossing of horned to polled), could have far-reaching deleterious effects. For us
to grow in knowledge and experience as breeders, we need to not be afraid to ask lots of
questions, and be willing to be stretched by circumstance, applying our creativity to various
situations that need to be overcome. However, often we find that our "solutions" were not
really a help, and we need to be willing to give up some pet theory or breeding practice that
may have proven to be a hindrance. It was my opinion that some of the "knowledge" I kept
hearing snatches of, had the capacity to be a substantial stumbling block to those of less
experience. So in the spirit of trying to minimize possible distress for the maximum number of
people, I felt I better step forward and ask the questions necessary to provoke evaluation and
discussion in these topics. The wisdom of those with more experience is most helpful, and can
save us a lot of heartache if we are willing to ask for advice. Who better to turn to than
someone of the culture whose very survival depended on these sheep for so long, and whose
economy even now, is so closely tied to the need for good stewardship of this valuable
resource? Gudmundur Johannesson is a friend and mentor to many of us and very concerned
about our (and consequently the breed's) success here in North America. It was natural to turn
to him for insight in these matters.
Gary: Hello Mundi! Thank-you so much for taking the time out of your hectic schedule to field
these questions. For those who are new to Isbona and the Icelandic breed, could you outline
some of your resposibilities under SouthAgri and Southram pertaining to the Icelandic sheep?
Mundi: At SouthAgri my main responsibilities actually are concerning daily breeding. I am a
dairy or maybe I could say a livestock breeding advisor. I do a lot of judging or evaluating of
dairy cows and heifers as well as supervising milk records,
etc. Concerning the sheep, I am a
sheep judge or evaluator going between farms selecting breeding stock with ultrasound
scanning and evaluation (scoring). We also do a lot of progeny testing on individual farms.
When it comes to Southram I am the exporting director, which means that I am in charge of
any relations to you sheep breeders in North America and I supervise the export and shipping
of semen. I am also the editor of our sire list or catalogue and webmaster for SouthAgri.
Gary: Thank-you Mundi! You have worked tirelessly to help us in North America to promote
this breed as well as develop us in our knowledge and experience. The reason for this
interview is that lately some interesting breeding practices have been advocated that some of
us who attended the AI seminar have questions about. There also have been some issues
raised concerning various reasons for birthing problems, and the possibility of going too far
with some aspects of breeding these sheep for meat.
In November 2003 when the group of us were in Iceland for the vaginal AI seminar, we were
discussing with you ways to improve our animals. Someone asked about crossing horned to
polled animals, and you made a statement that surprised many of us. You said, "You can't
continue to cross horned with polled, it eventually ruins their conformation."
Mundi, in what ways does the extensive crossing of polled to horned Icelandic sheep affect
Mundi: Crossing polled and horned sheep can be very effective on the 1st and 2nd generations
because you get a sort of hybrid vigor because horned and polled animals are usually not
related. I suppose you can cross polled and horned with good results if you are precise in
selecting breeding animals, but our experience is that the conformation gets worse as the
generations go by. Also the variation is too great, you get all sorts of animals. Why this is, I
don't know. So usually we avoid this, when it comes to breeding you never can be sure of
anything, not yet.
Gary: In looking at the horned versus polled statistics, it seems in general the biggest
differences between the two is the greater amount of backfat, and the generally thinner loin
eyemuscling in the polled sheep. Is that true?
Mundi: Yes polled sheep in Iceland differ from the horned concerning this. But the
improvement in eyemuscling in polled sheep is greater now than horned, so the gap is
decreasing. The fat gap is also decreasing. We also have to bear in mind that when carcass fat
is measured here in Iceland it is done on the ribs. Though polled sheep have thicker back fat,
the back fat/rib fat ratio is lower so it does not necessarily mean a lower fat (leanness) grading.
(A high fat grading score means the carcass is very lean-Gary)
Gary: Is there any other important way the extensive breeding of horned to polled affects the
horned icelandic sheep?
Mundi: I can't be sure about this. I suppose with the extensive crossing for generations the
difference will disappear. Also I want to remind you of the scurs that can be a problem growing
in separate directions and maybe into the head. That's one of the reasons we don't cross them