By Emily Tescher-Johnston
July 2005 -- There has never been a better time for U.S. sheep producers to genotype their rams. Sheep producers in every state, who wish to check their rams for scrapie resistance and susceptibility, have the opportunity to apply for cost-share dollars that will pay for all or part of the test cost.
Paul Rodgers, deputy director of policy for the American Sheep Industry Association (ASI), says, "Now, no matter what part of the country they live in, there is a program that will assist producers in collecting scrapie genetic-resistance information on their rams."
Scrapie is a fatal, degenerative disease affecting the central nervous system of sheep. Infected flocks that contain a high percentage of susceptible animals can experience significant production losses.
A sheep?s genotype never changes so the test is only needed one time and can be done at any age. Once rams are genotyped, producers can determine their use because their offspring will get a pair of genes from each parent. Rams genotyped as RR will always sire RR or QR lambs (resistant or rarely susceptible). QR-genotype rams will sire resistant, rarely susceptible or susceptible lambs, depending on the genotype of the ewe.
A ewe will pass on the same resistance/susceptibility traits as a ram, but of course only to her lambs, thus affecting far fewer individuals.
There are two programs in the United States offering reimbursements for genotype tests. Some states, which have been involved in scrapie eradication cooperative agreements with the U.S. Department of Agriculture?s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), offer state-APHIS cooperative cost sharing to producers who genotype their rams.
Until now, sheep producers in states that did not have a state-APHIS cooperative program did not have a cost-share opportunity. As of May 1, 2005, ASI teamed up with USDA/APHIS and is now offering sheep producers in all states a reimbursement program for genotyping.
The ASI-APHIS program runs through September 15, 2005, or when the funds are exhausted, whichever comes first. Producers can test up to 10 rams and will receive $12 per ram tested. Sheep must be officially identified and the blood samples drawn by an accredited veterinarian.
Producers in states that offer similar cost-share opportunities can choose to use either program; however, they can only collect one cost-share reimbursement on each ram.
ASI-APHIS Cost-Share Program
The ASI-APHIS cost-share program was recently opened to producers in all states because of its popularity. This ensures that all producers have the opportunity to genotype some of their rams for scrapie resistance/susceptibility.
Funds and/or services are allocated on a first-come, first-serve basis for both programs. Producers should check with their state veterinarian?s office for available funding.
There are differences between state programs and the ASI program. Reimbursement under the ASI-APHIS program is $12 per head and producers are allowed to test a maximum of 10 rams. Under state programs, testing policy, reimbursement rates and the number of sheep allowed to be tested varies from state-to-state.
"State programs vary depending on what each state veterinarian felt was the best way to work with their producers." says Diane Sutton, Ph.D., the National Scrapie Program coordinator for the USDA/APHIS Veterinary Services (VS).
Sutton encourages producers to take advantage of the genotyping cost-share programs. She says if producers are aware of the genetic resistance/susceptibility status of their rams, it should lead to more genetic resistance in flocks.
"Ram genotyping should be considered by any producer who is concerned about his flock?s scrapie risk,? says Sutton. ?Historically, producers of meat-type sheep, usually of the black-faced breeds, have had the greatest risk for scrapie in their flocks. This is especially true of those flocks in which ewes where purchased from multiple sources over the years.?
Health Committee chairman for ASI, Jim Logan, DVM, also encourages participation and says, "The wise producer will take advantage of these programs and genotype their rams. They will find rams that are resistant to the disease and get those genetics into their flocks to control the spread of scrapie and someday eliminate the disease."
Producers who would like to participate in the ASI-APHIS cost-share program should start the process by calling their local veterinarian. If their veterinarian does not have the forms, they should request VS Form 5-29 from their local VS Area Office by calling 1-866-873-2824. These forms are only available to veterinarians.
To get the ASI-APHIS cost share, producers must submit a signed copy to ASI (Attention: Genotyping; 9785 Maroon Circle, Suite 360; Englewood, CO 80112). Those who choose the state-APHIS program should contact their state veterinarian?s office to determine the correct procedure.
The USDA/APHIS approves genotyping laboratories to test for scrapie susceptibility or resistance in sheep. In the ASI-APHIS cost-share program, the veterinarian sends the blood sample to an APHIS-approved laboratory along with the proper paperwork. Currently there are seven approved labs in the country and producers can choose which lab they want to use. Lab costs and locations vary.
Since genotyping cost-share programs became available to producers, Alex Kahler, Ph.D., president of Biogenetic Services, Inc. in Brookings, S.D., has seen a large number of blood draws coming to his lab daily from across the country.
He notes that his lab primarily gets requests to test codon 171, which is the primary test to determine Q and R genetics.
Kahler says depending on producer need and urgency, test results go back to the producer within five to 10 days.
"If we have to, we can get blood in here in the morning and have results to a producer that afternoon," he says; however, noting that there is an added cost for such quick turn-around times.
Biogenetic Services, Inc. accepts either tubes of blood or FTA cards.
Kahler says, "If people are sending blood in tubes, then they should send them in a cooler with an ice pack. Our preference is the FTA cards, as they are a very easy and fast way of sampling.?
He notes that producers can get FTA cards from their veterinarian, and Biogenetic Services, Inc. also sells the cards at cost.
Ricky Skillington a Southdown producer in Lewisburg, Tenn., participated in the ASI-APHIS cost-share program, testing 10 of his rams on May 2, 2005. This was the first time he has genotyped his rams.
"My veterinarian made contacts before coming to the farm and we were told exactly how to fill out the paperwork. There were no hassles," Skillington says.
Blood from Skillington?s rams was sent to a lab in Fort Collins, Colo.
"I had a verbal report back by the 12th, a full report back by the 16th and a check from ASI within two weeks. It went very smooth! It?s a win-win situation," he says.
Skillington sits on the board of directors of the Tennessee Sheep Producers and is a county extension agent. He says his recent genotyping experience will help in his efforts to educate other sheep producers on scrapie eradication.
"We need to get the word out to producers and let them know that if they want to be seedstock producers, they better do some genotyping," he continues.
Logan agrees that education is a vital component to the genotype cost-share program.
"There are still people out there that don?t understand the genetics," Logan says. "They don?t realize that having Q genetics doesn?t mean that their sheep have scrapie. We need to educate folks that there is still value in the sheep with Q genetics. And of course, we need to talk about good management and how to avoid buying scrapie or inadvertently getting it in your herd or flock,? Logan says.
Suffolk producer Robert Borawski of Leeds, Mass., genotyped eight ram lambs in early May, and applied for ASI-APHIS cost-share funds.
He explains, "My farm is certified scrapie free and has been for three years, and I feel genotyping is simply something I need to do."
The genotype tests on Borawski?s farm revealed four RR rams, two QR rams and two QQ rams.
"The QQ?s are going to my freezer customers," he says, "and the QR?s are probably going the same way."
On participating in the cost-share program, Borawski says, "(It was) no work whatsoever! My vet came out and we were done within a half hour. The paperwork was nothing. I got my money from ASI within 10 days."
State-APHIS Cost-Share Program
Producers in states with a state-APHIS cooperative program have also been participating in the cost-share opportunities.
Wayne Cunningham, DVM, Colorado State veterinarian, is enthusiastic about the response he has seen in his state.
In fact, he notes, "We currently are at the point of ending our capability to test, because the money has been sent out."
The Colorado-APHIS program offers producers 75 percent of the test cost and there are two field technicians who travel around the state assisting producers with genotyping and explaining the importance of genetic tests.
Education is one of the more important elements of the Colorado program. Technicians hold educational forums throughout the state and talk to producers about scrapie genetics and ways to control and conquer the disease.
Cunningham says, "We can?t be out promoting something that people don?t understand. The outcome of our education efforts is more genetic testing."