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Card Grading Advantages

Building A Breed’s Genetic Excellence

By Richard Larson

(L to R) Brenton Heazlewood, Lee Parsons, evaluating OGF Eleanor, ewe lamb. Gary Rowan kneeling.
(L to R) Brenton Heazlewood, Lee Parsons, evaluating OGF Eleanor, ewe lamb. Gary Rowan kneeling.

On a cold rainy October weekend 14 hardy shepherds, from as far away as Oregon, exhibited 45 Leicester Longwool sheep at the New York State Sheep & Wool Festival. The special event that enticed over half of all U.S. Leicester Longwool breeders to participate was the breed’s Second National Card Grading Exhibition at Rhinebeck, New York. Leicester Longwools were the featured breed at the 2009 Festival.

In all card games, whether Old Maid, Canasta or Texas Hold ‘Em, one must eventually show his cards to win. This same principal of impartial scrutiny is also applicable to long-term successful conservation of rare livestock breeds.

Dr. Phil Sponenberg, Technical Coordinator for the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC), one of three judges for the card grading exhibition, noted that there was “remarkable consistency within each flock exhibited.”

The card grading exhibition provided the impartial evaluation to help each breeder understand where his or her flock stands in relationship to the breed standards. The judges’ evaluation also suggested necessary adjustments to individual flock breeding strategies. An analysis of the exhibition results will enable the breed association to focus on identified weaknesses as areas to communicate with its membership regarding breeding strategies, selection and culling.

By now you may be asking, “This sounds interesting but I have no idea what card grading is,” and “what possible use could it be to me?” Both excellent questions!

This is an example of an actual "Blue Card" with judges' comments written in each category of the breed's main attributes.
This is an example of an actual “Blue Card” with judges’ comments written in each category of the breed’s main attributes.

Card Grading: How It Works

Card grading is a form of judging livestock that evaluates each individual animal against its own breed standards. Each animal is evaluated by two or three experts familiar with the breed. After a hands-on inspection, the sheep is let loose in a confined area where the judges can watch it move freely. Because the sheep is not “shown” (led) by the owner the judges are generally not aware of which flock the animal is from. The judges must agree on a rating “card.” Blue Card is an excellent breeding animal, conforming to the breed standard and free from any genetic unsoundness. Red Card is a good breeding animal which shows most of the breed characteristics and is free from genetic unsoundness. Yellow Card is an acceptable breeding animal with no disqualifying deviations from breed standard and no genetic unsoundness. White Card is an unacceptable breeding animal, which does not conform to the breed standard and/or is genetically unsound.

Lee Parsons from England and Brenton Heazlewood from Australia joined Dr. Sponenberg on the three-judge panel. The judges awarded 14 Blue (31%), 15 Red (33%), 14 Yellow (31%) and 2 White (5%) Cards.

The distribution of cards proves the value of card grading as a useful tool for both individual breeders as well as the breed association to move forward in positive directions to conserve the Leicester Longwool breed.

For example, we at Old Gjerpen Farm were reassured that our breeding strategies are both effective and consistent with the breed standards as all three of our yearling rams (both white and colored) were awarded Blue Cards. Marrying these results with

results from the Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival, where one of these rams was judged “Best Fleece of Show,” we can move forward in developing our flock with confidence. Equally important, potential customers can also have confidence that they are purchasing quality breeding stock that fully conforms to breed standards.

In a traditional show where animals in each class are ranked against the other animals in that class there are winners and losers. With card grading every breeder is a winner in that they have a consensus opinion of three experts concerning the specific weakness and strengths of each of their sheep. For example, the judges were critical of a significant number of lambs for having fleeces that were tending toward being finer than the breed standard. Mr. Heazlewood speculated that this trend could be reflective of “breeding for the craft industry.” This observation can be very useful to breeders who have dual objectives of helping conserve a rare breed and also producing fiber that will easily sell.

(L to R) Brenton Heazlewood, Lee Parsons, Dr. Phil Sponenberg - evaluating OGF Edison, a ram lamb. Gary Rowan - holding sheep.
(L to R) Brenton Heazlewood, Lee Parsons, Dr. Phil Sponenberg – evaluating OGF Edison, a ram lamb. Gary Rowan – holding sheep.

Card Grading Benefits All

Card grading shows need not be confined to rare breeds and need not have “exotic” (foreign) judges. As someone who has been showing livestock over a span of 50 years, I believe smaller 4-H and FFA shows would be an excellent place for card grading. All too frequently the reality of smaller livestock shows, especially wool breed shows, is that all breeds are shown together in combined classes and placed first to last with little or no regard for specific breed standards. When in reality, that last place animal could well be a Blue card of its breed. In that scenario a completely wrong message is sent to the breeder as well as to the watching public.

Card grading could be a useful tool for teaching our next generation of livestock conservationists and reinforcing in positive ways distinctions in desirable qualities and traits in specific livestock breeds. In some shows it could be the difference between a youth receiving a 9th place ribbon and receiving a red card with a full explanation of both weakness and strengths of their animal. It could also be the difference between receiving a 1st place blue ribbon and a yellow card identifying weakness/faults of their animal—a difference between believing that they have a really good animal and understanding that it has faults.

While conserving rare breeds is similar to playing cards in one respect—in each you work with the hand you are dealt, whether aces or genetics—the aim being to attain specific goals. It is strikingly different, however, in that a wise and dedicated breeder can learn from past experiences and help shape the future to improve next year’s lamb crop. Card grading is just another tool to help make those future breeding decisions. At Rhinebeck, Leicester Longwool breeders had the opportunity to learn not only from the evaluation of their sheep but also from the question-and-answer period with the three international judges following completion of the show.

Can card grading be an effective tool? Commenting on differences between the Leicester Longwools evaluated at Rhinebeck and those evaluated four years earlier at the 15th anniversary of the re-importation of Leicester Longwools into the U.S., Mr. Heazlewood offered this, “You should be proud of what you have done with your genetic pool. The U.S. Leicester Longwool may be the savior of the breed.”

Richard & Donna Larson have been raising rare breeds for 18 years and have a flock of 40 Leicester Longwool sheep. They also raise Milking Devon cattle and several rare breeds of chickens. They may be reached at www.oldgjerpenfarm.com.

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