By the summer of 2008, Dr. Beever began to employ new technology called single nucleotide polymorphism or SNP testing. I can't even pretend to understand how it works, but it was supposed to be a faster method to uncover and identify genetic disorders using glass slides called “chips,” already mapped out genomes, and computers. Our hairy lamb problem was to be one of the first sheep conditions to utilize this tool.
That November, our vice-president, who happened to be the son of the owner of the suspected source flock, became president, and I was promptly relieved of my command and replaced by one of his friends. Needless to say, I was pretty much kept out of the hairy lamb loop after that, officially at least.
But breeders still called me about possible cases, and late one night, another board member expressed concern that someone might try to “derail the project.”
The next morning I called Dr. Beever and asked him this simple question: “Is there anything anyone can do or say to you to make you stop working on this?”
Dr. Beever, who can “go on and on and on” when talking about molecular genetics, in normal conversation is usually quite succinct. “No!” was his reply.
A few lines of conversation later, though, he did add in reference to me, “You don't have many friends.”
“Do I have you?” I asked somewhat sheepishly.
“You bet. Absolutely.”
He had been through this kind of political stuff before with virtually every breed of every species he dealt with. If I could only have one friend, he was the one to have.
Still, my critics may have been justified. I probably was a tad overzealous in my approach. But the motive for that was clear to me, if not to anyone else. Real people were spending and losing real money on these sheep, and if our breed was going to continue to prosper, this problem had to be solved and solved quickly.
I vividly recall a conversation I had with a grandfather from Illinois. His grandson had purchased a ram and a ewe for a fair amount of money, bred them, fed them over winter, and ended up with worthless hairy lambs the next spring.
Sympathizing with his frustration, I told him, “I know how you feel. I've had 11 of them.”
“Eleven! What did you do with the ewes?” he inquired.
“I got rid of most of them, but I kept two or three.”
When he asked “Why?” I hesitated a moment, then told the truth. “Because their mothers cost $3,000.”
“Oh my God! Wait till I tell my grandson. That'll make him feel a lot better!”
Yes, these were expensive sheep. Carriers of this defective gene included sale toppers, show champions, even National Show champions. My intent from the beginning, my reason for wanting to develop a test, was not to destroy these genetics or the flocks they came from, it was to save them, and move forward with non-carrier offspring to strengthen and improve the breed.
Over the next couple of years, however, there were setbacks with the new technology. The SNP chips used contained only a portion of the sheep genome, and Dr. Beever was not able to isolate our specific gene defect on them. The really bad news was that it might be two to three years before a more complete chip would be available.
So imagine my surprise on Dec. 21, 2011, when I received an e-mail from him that read: “Do you want to test your entire flock with a new DNA-based test for hairy lamb?” Did I? You bet. Absolutely!
I'm not sure exactly what he did, but he somehow compared our original samples to blood from a non-Southdown flock and narrowed down the suspicious gene location, I think the old-fashioned way.
Over the next six months several hundred Southdowns were tested and although I can't recall the precise numbers, I do remember that 18 percent were deemed carriers, which ironically is what I had in my flock [ 26/141 ] and I knew I had a problem!
To their credit, at the 2012 annual meeting the board voted that as of Sept. 1, 2013, all Southdown sheep consigned to national level sales will have to be ectodermal dysplasia free, and as of Jan. 1, 2014, all sheep entered in national level shows will have to be free as well.
Never again will Southdown enthusiasts have to suffer the emotional and financial disappointment of hairy lambs.
Don't rock the boat? No. If the boat needs rocked, then rock the hell out of it. That's how things get done. Thank you, Dad. And thank you Dr. Beever.
Dr. John Jones practices at Delphos Animal Hospital.