Strange brown carpet that's "alive"!A while back, I started noticing this dust layer beginning to accumulate around my grain bags in the barn. I walked by it for days, half-consciously noticing it; then becoming more conscious that the pile seemed to be sort of… expanding. I made a mental note to look at some under the microscope. I was worried that it could be some kind of mold dust. I happened to stick my hand into the middle of one of the grain bags, and felt heat in the middle: not good.

Finally, I remembered to investigate. I scooped up a bit of this fuzzy tan stuff in my hand to take a closer peek. It looked like it was moving, but I thought surely this was just a trick of my eyes. I slipped some onto a microscope slide, topped it with a coverslip, and brought it into the house. I flopped into my office chair, flipped on the scope light, and took a gander. And, holy bejeezus, what I saw just about make me fall outta my chair! Hundreds, literally layers upon layers of mites- yes, those hideous, prehistoric, hairs-sticking-out-of-corpulent-body-and-too-many-legs critters; all crawling over each other, and other debris, in a zombie jumble. The whole mass was in a mosh pit of motion, trying to spill off the slide. So, my eyes hadn’t lied: this wasn’t dust or mold, this was a freaking living carpet of grain mites on my barn floor! Gaaah!

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I am really pleased with my progress in improving my flock genetics using National Sheep Improvement Program (NSIP) data. I don’t think there is any way I could have made such fast gains by just picking sheep based on visual appraisal, or trying to sort through hundreds of data points in past records. (And, in fact, there is plenty of scientific evidence to back this up.)

The things I’ve been focusing on the most are lamb growth and maternal milk (maternal weaning weight, or MWWT). My growth numbers are starting to chase the system average, which is pretty cool, because a lot of people in the system feed grain to their lambs in the first 120 days, and I don’t.

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In Katahdins, there is generally a preference for breeding ewes which have twinning genetics. We know that ewes ovulating more than one egg per cycle is heritable; and that when we select for it, we shift the bell curve toward the right: toward multiple births. So, some consider this a by-product of twinning selection, that we often get triplets or quads. This phenomenon, in itself, is a bell curve; with most ewes in a given season offering twins, and a smaller percentage having singles or triplets (and rarely, four or more). A 200% crop is fairly standard in our breed.

Because of this focus, it is considered a best practice when selecting breeding stock, to take into consideration whether the animal has twinning genetics, or not. For most people, the tendency is to ask about a particular animal “is she a twin?” This is a good start, but I’d like to illustrate why this “is a” descriptor is not as good as knowing the entire history of the dam’s twinning record. Or, better yet, her family’s entire history of twinning.

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Lambing is almost over here, I have one late ewe left to deliver whom I think is due next weekend. Total count so far is 64 lambs, which is low, but not terrible. I have eight open ewes, six of which are yearlings. So now it’s time to pour over data and start making decisions about which sheep to keep, sell, and cull; as well as decisions about management changes for next year.

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imageHere is another Lean Six Sigma (LSS) tool that I love: the Pareto chart. In Lean, there is constant focus on eliminating the “seven wastes.” Six Sigma is used to apply a mathematical approach to measuring the wastes and identifying ways to eliminate them. In general, problems often have multiple contributors, or root causes. Often it’s not feasible, affordable, or even worthwhile, to address all of them. Sometimes getting rid of 80% or 95% of the contributors is good enough. Often, we can’t achieve perfection, or complete elimination of a problem. So, how do we decide which root causes to tackle first?

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