By Ross McSwain
"Animal health and food safety are important to the Bush Administration and to the nation," said Caird Rexroad, Jr., acting associate administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) at the 2002 ASI Convention in San Antonio, Texas.
USDA's ARS division mission is to "do great things through farm-to-table research," Rexroad told sheep and goat producers participating in the Health Committee discussion. With a budget of more than $979 million, ARS operates 22 national programs and 1,100 projects during each fiscal year. Of this amount, about $11 million is directed toward the sheep and goat industries. Of highest priority is a new program called "Germplasm," which involves collecting and conserving GP data, or DNA, eggs and such on sheep, goats, cattle, chickens and all kinds of plants used for food consumption. Of special interest is homeland security, in internal security of agricultural laboratories, and how to deal with outbreaks of disease. "We need to provide the tools required for quick detection along with new vaccine technologies," Rexroad said.
Larry Miller, with the USDA's Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service, reported on sheep and wool research funding. He told producers that a reduction in wool and sheep expenditures over the last 10 years is now facing a serious problem due to the need for food safety requirements. The market price for wool in recent years also has indirectly affected the availability of research funds.
John Walker of San Angelo, Texas, director of the Texas A&M University Research and Extension Center, noted that extended drought in west Texas and the Concho Valley area is seriously hurting the sheep and goat industries. In the immediate San Angelo area, he said, sheep and goats add $60 million annually to the economy during good years. As a result of the long drought, range animal nutrition and sheep management tips have become an important area of work, along with doing studies on classing wool and on sheep and goat breeding programs.
Dr. Brian May, nutrition and physiology professor, and Mike Salisbury, sheep and goat production professor, both with Angelo State University's Department of Agriculture, discussed work that the school is doing in cooperation with the Research Center. The two entities have neighboring facilities, including range and cropland.
Salisbury said the university has Rambouillet, Suffolk, Angora and meat goat flocks to work with in teaching about reproduction, livestock selection, live animal and carcass evaluation, reproduction techniques and sheep and goat sciences. Research activities include development of heritability estimates for valuable traits in Rambouillet sheep, effect of diet on feedlot lamb performance, effects of growth implants on feedlot lamb performance and carcass characteristics and effect of estrus synchronization on ovulation.
Drs. Keith Belk and Deb Roeber, both with Colorado State University, reported on the Sheep Safety and Quality Assurance Program being carried out by CSU under contract to ASI. "Lamb is extremely acceptable and has been highly rated for its eating quality," Belk said. Belk and Roeber pointed out that Total Quality Management (TQM) philosophy is simple: "You can't manage what you don't measure." In essence, to improve the product a producer must reduce defects in order to improve value. "It costs $1 to prevent defects at production, $10 to fix defects at processing and $100 to repair damage to the customer," Belk said. "Consumers are concerned about the safety of the food they eat as well as the quality of the products they buy. Consumer concerns have prompted those in every sector of the livestock industry to take a careful look at the products they market," Belk said.
Greg Lewis, director of the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station in Dubois, Idaho, reviewed some of the research projects being undertaken at his 87,000-acre facility near Yellowstone National Park. The station has four distinct eco-systems, which facilitates the study of various environmental issues affecting the sheep industry. Lewis said work at the station is threatened because the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a division of the U.S. Interior Department, eventually wants the land. "They have made that clear to us," Lewis said. According to Lewis, Congress could declare the land encompassing the station as "wilderness," and turn it over to the BLM. He believes the future role of sheep will be largely for meat production. Researchers must respond to the change, he said, focusing on range and grassland management. "Sheep are best suited for grazing land, and range land is a renewable resource," Lewis said. He added that one challenge is to find sheep that prefer sagebrush, but early studies have not been fruitful.
Kreg Leymaster, director of the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Neb., said his facility is charged with meeting high priority problems of the American livestock industry. The 35,000-acre center has 18 beef brands, 9 breeds of sheep and goats, and 700 litters of pigs. Research programs center around reproduction, nutrition, herd health, production systems and meats. The center is presently doing sheep genetic research, including wool and hair breeds in two production systems, breed effects on composition and meat quality and genomic research. Leymaster recommended that research be extended to breeds for specific production and marketing systems, and to develop selection of objectives and criteria to develop breeds. The expected benefits to the industry are increased profitability and improved product quality.