Originally Posted: 2/1/2012
As a ball python breeder I constantly evaluate the best ways to get a maximum return on my investment. This makes me no different than any other business person, regardless of the choice of profession. I endeavor to be pragmatic when it comes to expected profitability and I have come to believe that there many ways to do this snake breeding thing right. Alternately, there at least as many ways to do it wrong. What’s right and what’s wrong can vary based on circumstance and is often a matter of perspective. If the end result is little more than baby snakes poking their heads out of eggs then I know I am right to say that what’s right and what’s wrong is chock full of opinion and personal preference. I know this because I have seen too many people be successful using too many variations of what I consider “right”. Right, in this instance, is grey. What’s right for me right now may not be so in a year and it may never be right for you. From feeding to breeding to incubating I have seen a wide range of choices that all lead to success. What works for you is what you should do. But therein lies the rub; how to figure out what works without making a lot of costly mistakes along the way. We learn from each other but we don’t have to completely emulate each other’s techniques and processes. Ball python breeding is more flexible than many people realize and the grey areas provide a good bit of wiggle room. Having written that I believe there are certain best practices and principles that, when carefully considered and/or implemented, can put you more on the side of doing things right. I don’t intend the advice I am about to offer to be anything other than suggestions for your consideration. I have violated almost all of my own best practices in the past and have little doubt I will do it again in the future. I endeavor to remain keenly aware of the violations when I make them and I remain fully conscious of the risks and accept, in advance, the consequences.
So here they are: my ball python breeder best principles and practices:
Simple Recessive: “Hoes Before Bros”
It is a simple and unalterable fact that female ball pythons take longer to reach sexual maturity than males. Most females won’t breed until their third or fourth winter while males can potentially be ready inside of a year, 18 months almost without fail. If, in the same buying season, you acquire both male and female hatchlings for a project your male will be ready to breed not less than a full year before the female. The only guaranteed thing you can do during that time is watch the value of the morph continue to fall. When examining the original price paid you will see that you acquired and paid for the male at least a full year in advance of when you should have. You should have purchased only females in year one and waited at least a full year before buying the male. Doing this makes it more likely that you will have both of them reaching sexual maturity at the same time. This minimizes your losses from depreciation. So the next time you are looking to start a simple recessive project, buy your females first; pick up the males a year later.
This best practice may not appear to make sense if you already have other females that will be ready when the male is a year old (give or take). But that all-too-common scenario really just illustrates the point. The females you already have that will be paired with the male were acquired (or born) long before the male, which is exactly what I am suggesting should be done with simple recessives.
Dominant/Co-Dominant: “Bros Before Hoes”
If you are going to visually see the product of your breeding in the first generation of offspring (e.g. dominant/co-dominant genes) it is a better decision to invest in males first and turn your attention to the acquisition of females in the following year(s). Dominant and Co-Dominant (incomplete dominant) prices fall fast. In order to have a chance at seeing a return in a reasonable time period you have to work for very fast turnaround. Many males can be ready to breed in less than a year and, assuming they perform, you will see the product of your efforts in the next breeding season. This allows you to begin recouping your investment after only one season of depreciation. If you are using females to get yourself into a particular co-dom project you will have to patiently suffer through 2-3 seasons of depreciation before seeing the first dollars in return. This is too painful for most people to bear and is not an ideal use of investment capital.
A corollary to this principle is that the eventual investment in co-dom/dominant females is required. It is only when both the male and female are genetically special that we see the really exceptional designer morph advancement. It should be abundantly obvious that true genetic progress only comes when both male and female are contributing genetic awesomeness to the mix. Four, five & six gene snakes don’t typically get made because all of the genetic mutations come from one side of the family; both mom and dad have to be sufficiently morphed-up in order to make really morphed-up kids. It’s all about genetic synergy.
Pair Genetically Greater Boys with Genetically Lower Girls …But Never the Other Way Around
(Put Another Way: Never Breed a More Expensive Female to a Less Expensive Male)
It is reasonable to buy a male dominant/co-dom morph and use it to make more of the same (e.g. breed it to a normal female). However, you should never do that with a female. When you acquire female dominant/co-dominant morphs it should be with the full intent of breeding it to a male whose genetics are different (and typically of greater financial value than hers). It is economically effective to acquire a male dominant/co-dominant animal and breed it to a genetically lower female. The opposite is never true. Do not acquire a dominant/co-dominant female and breed it to a genetically lower male. Please note that ‘genetically lower’ refers to the financial value of the morph. For example:
- It is sane to buy a pastel male and breed it to a normal female. It is insane to by a normal male and breed it to a pastel female.
- It is sane to buy a champagne male and breed it to a pastel female. It is insane to buy a champagne female and breed it to a pastel male.
- It is sane to buy a silver surfer male and breed it to a ghost female. It is insane to buy a silver surfer female and breed it to a ghost male.
- It is sane to buy a male albino and breed it to a het albino female. It is insane to buy an albino female and breed it to a het albino male. Please note that your sanity is also in question if you breed an albino male to an albino female. At the very least breed female albinos with a male who is albino plus something else (albino spider, albino pinstripe, albino black pastel, etc.).
- Do not buy a pastel female with plans of breeding her to a pastel male (even though you can make super pastels). It is no longer true that breeders intentionally produce super pastel ball pythons; they are almost always the product of missed opportunity in a different pairing (e.g. lemon blast x pastel lesser can produce super pastels but it is not what the breeder was trying for). A female pastel bred to any other co-dom morph will, in the best case, always produce babies that are worth more money than a super pastel.
I almost gave myself an aneurysm this breeding season when I pulled a clutch of eggs from a bumble bee female and realized I had bred her to a pinstripe male. This is a classic example of wasted female potential. My decision to breed that particular pair of animals was rooted in my lack of males to go with all of my females. I have a lot of 3, 4 and 5-gene males …but I have a lot more females. Rather than breed her to nothing or try to stretch a male too thinly I, at some point, decided that the long odds of making spinner blasts was better than nothing at all. The problem is that the odds of making spiders and pinstripes is much greater and that negates the value of such a great female. Don’t make mistakes like that.
Diversity is a Detriment
Quality never goes out of style. This does not require much elaboration. But quantity…
Quantity of production of a particular morph is a benefit. This is obviously true from the simple “more is better” perspective. But quantity of production is also important for a breeder because the acquisition of many of your morphs will come out of your own production and it is only after the needs of your own collection are satisfied that you can begin to easily entertain the notion of selling the results of your production. You will forever be your own best customer and that is not a financially good thing. If, because of limited breeding stock, you only produce a tiny handful of the morph you are shooting for you will be hard-pressed to sell when you finally hit on the odds. How many times have you heard yourself say, “Yeah, I’ve got to keep this.”? This could mean that your ability to sell your productive efforts is pushed back by a full breeding season and that push has a tangible financial value.
If you only produce a single clutch of clowns how can you easily sell them when you don’t have all of the clowns you need for yourself? If you sell them without first satisfying the needs of your own collection you are effectively decreasing the worth of your collection (while increasing the quality of your competitor’s collection). Ball python breeding groups are always depreciating in value and, as such, must continuously be upgraded to keep them even with the market. If the diversity of morphs in your collection is out of proportion to its size you will probably produce comparatively few of each kind of morph. The desire to keep them will be powerful and each animal you keep is less money in your pocket this season. If you focus less on diversity and more on quantity you will be more likely to produce an abundance of a particular morph. The decision to sell becomes easier and all you need to do is decide which animal(s) to keep rather than if there is an animal to keep.
It is not as exciting to keep a larger number of the same morph but it is definitely more profitable. On the other hand, a diverse collection is more fun to look at but, since you are more likely to keep the best of your production, you are more of a hobbyist than a businessperson (and I’m not really writing for the hobbyist at the moment).
This principle also has a few corollary’s:
- When you produce a particular morph in quantity you have more to choose from when selecting quality. You get to pick the very best of what you produce to keep for yourself rather than having to hold on to whatever you get.
- There can be a lot of variation in feeding response with ball pythons. If you have several of the same morph you can hold them for a few weeks/months to see which are the best feeders. You should always keep the best-looking, best-feeding animals for yourself. And no, this is not an ethical issue. A negative-minded person will read this and say that I wrote, “keep the good stuff for yourself, sell the crappy stuff to your customers.” I’m not suggesting that at all. Bluntly: I suggest that you keep the very best for yourself, sell the remaining excellent product to your customers and, if you have anything of “low” quality (unattractive, poor feeding response, etc.), sell it to the wholesalers. And yes, that should serve as a warning to people who buy the cheapest snake they can find (which is usually from the wholesalers). Trust me on this one; the great deal you just got on that snake may not be as great a deal as you think. As is often the case in life, you get what you pay for.
Nobody is going to tend to your collection but you. If you don’t take steps to make sure it is the best is can be …who will? If you give your friend’s first pick they will take the very best of what you produce and expect the lowest price. If you put the very best of what you produce up for the world to buy, it will sell and people will applaud you for your quality. But at what cost? If you build your own collection from the leftovers how long can your collection remain superior? Hopefully that question is rhetorical. Never feel bad about keeping the best for yourself. It is your responsibility to do so. Altruism has no place anywhere on this planet, including the ball python business.
Refinement is a Religion
As you read this article the financial value of your ball python collection is falling. The only way to keep it even or, dare I say, growing in value is to constantly increase its genetic quality. If you have single-gene males now you need to upgrade them to multi-gene males for next year. If you have a large number of normal female breeders you need to upgrade them to pastels, black pastels and other single-gene co-dom girls. If you already have a solid base of single-gene breeder females you need to upgrade them to multi-gene girls. And as soon as that upgrade is complete you will need to begin to do it again. You cannot maintain profitability in a market as volatile as the ball python trade without constantly upgrading. It, like the different combinations of morphs that can be produced, is endless.
Be mindful of the size of your collection as you go through this process. The desire to keep the old while adding the new can quickly lead to an excessively large collection. Big collections come with big caging bills, even bigger rodent bills and endless maintenance requirements. The key here is to constantly increase the quality of the collection, not its size. As one girl comes of age she should be moving into, not next to, the slot of another girl. Don’t get me wrong, though. If you want to grow your collection, do so. But know how it is growing. Collections in growth-mode need to grow in size and quality simultaneously. Don’t keep older, less valuable, animals into infinity. A $100 female breeder eats just as much as a $1,000 female breeder, requires the same amount of time to care for and generally produces animals that are worth significantly less. A person who is breeding ten $1,000 females is going to make as much or more money with less effort and less overhead than the person breeding fifty $100 normal females.
Keep multiple males of the same morph. 2.0 Pastel Genetic Stripes, 2.0 Pieds, 2.0 Pastel Lessers and 2.0 Honey Bees. Not all males are good breeders and not all females are receptive to any male. If you want to maximize the percentage of females that lay viable eggs each season you need to make sure they have as many opportunities as possible to be with a male. Rotating at least two males of the same morph with each female will do this. Yes, it is more expensive and no, it is not as exciting as having a bunch male morph diversity. But this isn’t about having the prettiest collection; it’s about having the most productive collection possible. The addition of a second male should easily pay for itself in the form of a higher rate of oviposition. If the addition of another male can increase the number of females who produce each season by 10% he will pay for himself (and then some) in one year.
How many people ever see your collection anyway? I can still count on two hands the number of people who have actually been to my facility over the past few years. Would you rather “ooh and aah” over your snake rack or your bank account? Pick one and then act accordingly. Very few of us can do both.
The One Who Dies with the Largest Ball Python Collection Does Not Win
Quality versus quantity. Consider a tale of two breeders; one hatches 2,000 ball pythons each season with prices ranging from $8 – $10,000. The other breeder hatches 300 babies with most prices ranging in the $500-$5,000 and up range. Both are making money, no doubt. But the guy with 2,000 baby snakes is busting his butt every day, has a crew of people helping him and has massive overhead. The guy producing a comparative handful of snakes is doing it on his own, mostly in the evenings. He enjoys spending time with his animals and has paid his house off over the past five years. Both paths are a way to make money but one is a harder life. The decidedly American mentality that “more is better” is tough to shake; it’s everywhere around us every day. A smaller, higher-end collection is worth a lot more in time spent and overall quality of life. But that is just an opinion, not a fact.
Never Breed Recessives a Year After Dominant/Co-Dominants
If you breed a dominant/co-dominant male to a female in one breeding you should avoid breeding that female to a simple recessive carrying male in the following season. If you do there is a chance, albeit a small one, that the babies might not be the hets you think them to be. Ball pythons can and do retain sperm across breeding seasons. No, it is not terribly common (I believe it to be very rare) but I know more than one breeder who has witnessed it. I have produced many thousands of ball pythons and have not had it happen …that I know of. But one thing I am powerfully motivated to never do is sell someone a het and have it not prove out. For that reason I am careful in pairings not only within the same breeding season, but also from one breeding season to the next. In order to to this you must keep excellent records. Consider the following pairings:
Pairing #1: Risky and too stressful for me
- Year 1: Pastel female x Pinstripe male – Possible offspring includes pastels, pinstripes, lemon blasts and normals. None are het for anything.
- Year 2: Pastel female x Ghost Pinstripe male – Possible offspring includes pastels, pinstripes, lemon blasts and normals. All should be 100% het ghost. But what if the female had some retained sperm from the previous season? You are certain the production is 100% het but it may not be …and there is no way to tell until years down the road when your customer experiences the fallout from the mistake. There was no deception on your part but the mistake is still your responsibility and, with your reputation on the line, your problem to correct.
Pairing #2: A slightly safer bet
- Year 1: Pastel female x Pinstripe male – Possible offspring includes pastels, pinstripes, lemon blasts and normals. None are het for anything.
- Year 2: Pastel female x Ghost Mojave male – This is a slightly more bearable situation. The best things to produce from this pairing are mojaves and pastel mojaves, which have no choice but to be 100% het ghost. The pastels and normals that result from the pairing are almost certainly 100% het ghost but you can only be 99.5% sure. There is an outside chance that the pastels and normals are from the previous season’s pairing. If I were to do a pairing like this I would sell the normals and the pastels as “normals”, not hets. Yes, they are more than likely going to be actual hets but I would not want deal with the fallout several years down the line if they weren’t.
Pairing #3: Warm and fuzzy feelings for everyone
- Year 1: Pastel female x Ghost Pinstripe male – Possible offspring includes pastels, pinstripes, lemon blasts and normals. All are 100% het for ghost.
- Year 2: Pastel female x Black Pewter male – Possible offspring includes silver streaks, black pewters, super pastels, pastels, black pastels and normals. None should be het for ghost but it is remotely possible that the pastels and the normals are actually hets. It should go without saying that you cannot sell them as such. They are sold as the normal, non-het, animals you suspect them to be. The worst case scenarios is that they are actually carrying the ghost gene and someone gets a happy surprise several years down the road.
Second-Hand Hets are Not a Good Bet
Buying hets is risky business. The simple fact of the matter is that you have to buy hets either from A) someone you know and trust or B) someone who has a verifiable and trustworthy reputation. The operative word in both options is ‘trust’. Over the years I have had a few bad experiences and I know plenty of other people who have lived through the pain of an animal not proving out. Because of the time involved it’s really depressing. Buy a lottery ticket and you’ll know in short order if it’s a loser; buy a het and it can take years to realize that you won’t be getting a return on your investment. Adding insult to injury is that the het is supposed to be a winner. At least with a lottery ticket you know you’re taking a chance and could come up empty-handed. I have written at length about the danger of buying hets. Rather than beating that horse any further let me refer you to the article called Genetic Provenance, Insanity and Spoiled Milk (http://wp1040.hostgator.com/~wabqz20aa5pe/2010/11/genetic-provenance-insanity-and-spoiled-milk/) that I wrote on the topic.
The article referenced above deals mostly with buying hets directly from the person who has (supposedly) produced it. But what about buying hets from the person who bought the hets? I guarantee my hets and I am willing to guarantee hets that I have purchased from others that have proven for me. But I won’t guarantee or knowingly buy a het that passed through more than one person’s collection. The only hets I am ever willing to buy are one’s the come from the person who produced them. At least that way there is a measure of accountability. If you buy your hets from a wholesaler you need to be at peace with the fact that they are selling them to you under the assumption that the person from whom they bought them wasn’t ripping them off. Graft in the het business rolls down hill and if it’s you putting male to female it’s you and only you who is going to come out the loser when the het doesn’t prove out.
Avoid Sweet Deals on Other People’s Problems
You simply must exercise Due Care and Due Diligence when buying adult ball pythons. I have written on this before. Please read my article titled Sweet Deals on Other People Problems (http://wp1040.hostgator.com/~wabqz20aa5pe/2009/12/sweet-deals-on-other-peoples-problems/) for a detailed discussion on this topic.
Cover Your Assets
Whenever I sell hets I include a Certificate of Genetics that includes a photograph of the animal and describes the genetics it carries. I also include information on the pairing that was used to produce the animal. I do this to give my customer a high degree of assurance that the animal is what I claim it to be. I will not last long in this business if I sell fake hets (which I call “Fets”). My willingness to sign a document that holds me personally accountable for an animals’ genetics goes a long way to helping people feel better about their purchase. But I don’t do certificates just for my customer; I do them to protect myself as well. If I sell a het and years later the person comes to me complaining that it didn’t prove out I have no real defense if there is no photographic record of the animal. How do I know that the animal they are claiming didn’t prove out was really from me? I don’t. This would be a delicate situation and I would like to avoid it. I do that by making sure that I also have a photographic record of the animal being sold.