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Young Lamb Beats the Odds and Makes it to Market

Young Lamb Beats the Odds and Makes it to Market
Lambs with genetic defect often don't make it past 30 days.

She was known as Harriet. Born with hair as white as snow, it was obvious from her first few minutes that she was unlike any other lamb I had ever seen. She was a hairy lamb. It's a genetic condition that occurs in both males and females, and genetics say one in four offspring will get the carrier gene from both sides if both the ram and ewe are carriers. That produces a hairy lamb.

Many of them don't make it past 30 days, a few have made it past weaning, and even a few have made to market – but very few. At 108 days, Harriet went to market.

Genetic quirk: This lamb is classified as a hairy lamb. She has hair and unusual facial conditions. It's a genetic disorder, more common in some breeds than others.

The surprising thing is that most resources and most sheep breeders who have had lambs with this condition say they are prone to stress. They normally develop pneumonia and die. This particular lamb was never sick a day in her life.

She ate well, but obviously didn't convert much of that feed to meat, at least not as much as she should have. She weighed 48 pounds at 105 days of age.

More attention is being paid to the condition, especially amongst Southdown breeders, where the genetic disorder seems more common. While no strict sanctions are in place yet, many expect that within a year anyone showing or selling Southdown sheep will need a test confirming that the ewe or ram is not a carrier.

Related: Nature and Genetics Throw Curveballs at Livestock Farmers

Therein lies the rub – how accurate are the tests? The ram that sired this lamb was tested and pronounced hairy lamb free. There are other reports of inaccurate results, although they are not widespread. Testing rams or ewes for this condition is only a fairly recent phenomenon.

The real problem comes if you believe you have a hairy-free ram, and don't get any hairy lambs during the lambing cycle. Perhaps most members of your ewe flock are not carriers. However, if you don't know and don't test, and save ewe lambs from that crop for ewes, there's a possibility that at least a few could be carriers.

There are no distinguishing marks in carriers. The only way to determine if a ewe or ram carries the gene that could produce a hairy lamb is to test it, and hope the lab results are accurate.

There is no official explanation for why these lambs are often subject to stress and pneumonia. In this case, this lamb endured one of the toughest winters in memory in a non-heated barn and survived without incident.

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