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'Down Under' For Cormos By Mike and Barbara Janay

By Mike and Barbara Janay


If you’ve never heard of Cormo sheep, they are a breed that began as a cross between Superfine Saxon Merinos and Corriedales. They were developed in Tasmania as a cooperative effort between Mr. Ian Downie and the Division of Animal Genetics in New South Wales, Australia in 1960. Mr. Downie wanted a “more fertile, higher wool-producing, and larger-framed sheep.” They were first introduced into the U.S. in the 1970s. Anyone who knows or spins wool knows “Cormo.” Cormo fleeces are winning prizes all over the U.S. for fine white wool.

(Left to right) Ross Munro (agent for Roberts LTD), Barb Janay, David Walker (top farm hand), Peter Downie (owner of Dungrove). Roberts LTD handles all the testing, agistment (keeping/feeding), semen collection and transport.
(Left to right) Ross Munro (agent for Roberts LTD), Barb Janay, David Walker (top farm hand), Peter Downie (owner of Dungrove). Roberts LTD handles all the testing, agistment (keeping/feeding), semen collection and transport.

We have been breeding Cormos since 2001. We are small but dedicated breeders who felt it was time for some new additions to the gene pool in the U.S. There are many excellent Cormos in America and new bloodlines can only improve the breed. We are committed to protecting the qualities established by Downie’s original breed standards. We were determined to go to Tasmania to see for ourselves what the standard looked like and select four rams for semen collection.

Going To Tasmania

We contacted Ian Downie’s son, Peter, to come to Tasmania and agreed on a date in early December 2007.

After a grueling 14 hour plane ride from L.A. to Sydney, we rested up for three days, then went on to Tasmania.

The Downies own 60,000 acres, 25,000 sheep, and 1,100 beef cattle. The majority of their sheep are Cormos, with some Texel rams to make “fat lambs” for market.

The rams for semen collection were chosen based first on health and breed conformation, and finally on perfection of their wool.
The rams for semen collection were chosen based first on health and breed conformation, and finally on perfection of their wool.

Tasmania is a state in Australia. It is an island south of mainland Australia (what we meant by “really” down under). It compares in size to New Jersey. You can drive from top to bottom in about three hours. We landed in Hobart (they pronounce it like “robot”). This is a small seaport city on the southern-most end of Tasmania. It is friendly and has great seafood restaurants. We rented a car and drove one and a half hours through Bothwell to the Downies. Mike was driving on the other (left) side of the road, which was scary.

The Bothwell area is in the middle of Tasmania and has rolling grasslands like California. It doesn’t get too hot (85°F) or too cold (32°F) and has a wet and dry season. They are suffering from drought conditions now. It was just entering their summer and all the grass was yellow, not green.

Peter and his wife, Anne, welcomed us and put us up in their guest house. They have four children, ranging from mid-teens to early twenties. They know how to do all the chores and take care of the animals. The two older ones were home on summer vacation and were mending fence and tagging lambs.

Selecting Artificial Insemination Semen

Peter and his farm hands had already selected 30 rams and had put them in the shearing shed. The first ones we eliminated had scurs, potential hoof problems (for our climate), weak pasterns, or smaller bodies. Peter also eliminated some that had a less desirable fleece.

Cormo wool is not just fine, but longer stapled than other finewool
Cormo wool is not just fine, but longer stapled than other finewool

We then went over the micron counts of those remaining and eliminated some more. We were left with 12.

The final 12 were divided up and we went over them from head to toe. The final four were chosen in about an hour. David Walker, head farm hand, sheared them on the spot and they were sent back out to their group.

As soon as our payment was received by the oversight agent, Ross Munro, they were sent into quarantine for 81 days. Then they receive a battery of tests, and then a team will do the semen collection. The straws are frozen and put in a nitrogen container and then they make their way through all the government requirements. The package is sealed by Customs and shipped directly to the first U.S. port, either L.A. or San Francisco. A customs broker handles the entry protocol and then FedEx brings it to our door. It will be stored in a veterinary facility.

We contacted Dr. Dally in Oregon to do the laparoscopic artificial insemination (AI) this September. That’s a whole separate story.

Tasmanian Cormos & Their Products Compared With U.S.

The Downie farm (Dungrove) is run as “sustainable” and “chemical-free.” The sheep are vaccinated but only have grass to eat from then on. They never have their hooves trimmed but are crutched mid-season and sheared yearly.

About one in a thousand births is a black sheep. They aren’t completely black and have variations. At the moment Mr. Downie has a black “mob” of 30.

Working the sheep merry-go-round style is quick and efficient.
Working the sheep merry-go-round style is quick and efficient.

In comparing our sheep to theirs, we found our ewes to be bigger and had more diverse body shapes and faces. We think the size is related to the way we feed ours—more hay and grain. It was interesting to look at a photo of the sheep 40 years ago, and that is where we saw faces similar to ours.

The Downies’ wool is sold in Japan, the U.S., and locally as well. TEKO sport socks are made with their wool here in the U.S. and sold in high-end sports equipment stores. Interestingly enough, the Cormo wool is marketed as Merino as this is a world-recognized product name. The average micron count is 19.5. This is what his buyers want.

We went to a wool shop not far from his place and purchased sweaters made from his wool. The owner insists on having it processed and dyed in Australia as opposed to China, in order to have the excellent quality control she desires.

So, we are looking forward to the learning process with the AI, and, of course, the resulting lambs in spring 2009. Our goal is to have the newest and best breeding stock for sale in the U.S.

Mike and Barbara Janay are independent Cormo breeders. They operate Wooly Booly Farm in Bristow (near Manassas), Virginia and their website is www.woolyboolycormos.com. Phone (703) 361-0162. See their ad on page 24.





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