July 15, 2003
Blanket Sales Help Fund Cornell Sheep Program:
The university program recently got an extra boost by auctioning off blanket number 1,000.
By Tharran E. Gaines
How much would you be willing to pay for an extra-soft, queen-size, 100 percent virgin wool blanket.... $100.... $150.... how about $600?
That?s what Dr. Susan Henry, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of Agriculture and Life Sciences at New York?s Cornell University, recently paid for one at a Cornell Sheep Program auction. On the other hand, this was no run-of-the-mill blanket. It was blanket number 1,000 produced at MacAusland?s Woolen Mill on behalf of the Cornell Sheep Program.
According to Mike Thonney, professor of animal science and director of the Cornell Sheep Program, the sheep blanket project began in December 1999 at the urging of a student who was interested in the use of fibers and saw the potential for some extra income. As a result, the department began marketing blankets made from the wool produced by the university?s flock of Dorset and Finnsheep and their crosses.
Available in lap robe, single, double and queen sizes, they sell for $65, $89, $99 and $119 respectively, excluding New York sales tax and shipping. Advertised as being ideal for football games, cold nights and gifts for graduation, birthdays and weddings, the blankets feature red stripes near each end, as well as red binding accents to match Cornell?s school colors. In addition, each blanket carries an individual serial number on the Cornell Sheep Program logo label and comes with a certificate of authenticity.
?As of early June, we had sold nearly 1,100 blankets,? says Thonney, noting that Cornell alumni have accounted for numerous sales. ?However, we held blanket number 1,000 back for a special auction that was held over a five-day period from April 28 to May 2.?
As stated earlier, that blanket was purchased by the Dean of Agriculture -- but only after some fierce bidding by nearly a half dozen parties. Following an opening bid of $125, the price quickly rose by $50 to $100 per bid until the auction closed with the bid of $600.
?The bids were all greatly appreciated,? says Thonney, noting that the income from blankets helps support the Cornell Sheep Program. ?Approximately 10 percent of our sheep farm operating funds now come from the sale of blankets,? he adds. ?In addition, $10 from each sale goes to an undergraduate scholarship fund. With blanket sales topping 1,000, that means we already have over $10,000 in the fund.?
The biggest beneficiaries, however, are Cornell students and Northeast sheep producers. Since the founding of the Department of Animal Sciences 100 years ago, the Cornell faculty has been conducting research and disseminating information on sheep management, nutrition, health, selection and marketing strategies for highly productive sheep systems. While methods to make efficient use of labor and better control health problems are evaluated in the commercial flock, growing lambs are used to evaluate dietary ingredients.
?We really had three goals in mind when we began the blanket program,? Thonney explains. ?First, we wanted to increase awareness of the Cornell Sheep Program within the state and on campus. Along with that, we wanted to promote the idea that producers can add value to their wool by giving them an example. Finally, we saw it as a way to increase funding for the sheep program. By marketing our wool in the form of blankets, we figure we?re getting about $3 per pound for our wool, not counting time spent marketing the blankets.?
All total the university owns about 500 ewes that are used in teaching, research and extension programs. Of that total, approximately 250 are purebred Dorset ewes, 90 are Finnsheep ewes and the remainder are part of a Dorset X Finnsheep crossbred flock used for commercial studies.
?The commercial flocks are being managed under the Cornell STAR management system, in which we have ewes lambing five times a year,? Thonney relates, noting that the first Dorset sheep were brought to the campus exactly a century ago. ?We?re also looking for DNA markers for out-of-season breeding and milk production; and we?re looking for a solution for lamb pneumonia, but we haven?t had much luck with that.?
Nevertheless, Thonney sees a great deal of potential for the sheep industry in New York. Although the state flock numbers around 53,000 breeding animals, he says there are some unique opportunities for specialized markets in New York City and some of the other large urban areas. At the same time, there is a lot of extra grass and forage in the state that is not being fully utilized due to the increased efficiency of the dairy industry.
?We?ve got both ends of the spectrum,? he concludes. ?So it?s just a matter of filling in the middle.?
To learn more about the blanket program or to obtain ordering information, telephone 607-255-7712 or go to the Cornell Sheep Blanket Web site at: www.sheep.cornell.edu/sheep/cornellsheepfarm/blankets