Variety of Topics Discussed at Sheep Symposium

Variety of Topics Discussed at Sheep Symposium


Sheep Industry News Contributor

(Aug. 1, 2013) Discussions ranged from pasture conditions to lambing rates as nearly 150 sheep enthusiasts from throughout the western United States gathered in Bozeman, Mont., June 19 for the inaugural Western Sheep Symposium. The theme, Integrating Advanced Concepts into Traditional Practices, offered participants information regarding research advancements ranging from genomic selection to parasite management and alternative grazing strategies. The audience was comprised of students, feed and drug industry representatives, producers, professors and extension specialists from around the United States. Patrick Hatfield, professor with the Montana State University (MSU) Animal and Range Sciences Department, served as the symposium chair. 

“This is a terrific opportunity to share some of the latest research available with producers and find out what is really working for the producers,” stated Hatfield. “It was a lot of work, but I would really like to see this turn into an annual event. The diversity and experience of the speakers in terms of area of expertise, background and where they are currently in their careers, was impressive.”

Rodney Kott, long-time professor and sheep extension specialist from MSU, set the symposium tone with a brief review of the impact research has had on the sheep industry and how things are changing. Kott highlighted the Montana Wool Lab which was established in 1945 and tested 1.4 million pounds of Montana wool, but no longer offers that service.

Kott believes the future of the sheep industry is closely tied to an increased interest in “U.S. made with U.S. wool.” High-end products in the knitted industry are gaining popularity with companies such as Ramblers Way which markets 100-percent American made sustainable wool comfort-wear products. Kott credited the American Sheep Industry Association (ASI) with making industry advancements possible via its purchase of the superwash technology.

During the trip down memory lane, Kott shared some milestones of the sheep industry in the West. According to Kott, the Western Sheep Project established the Columbia breed in 1941 and MSU started the Targhee breeding program in 1942. 

“The industry can improve based on sheep selection. As educators and industry leaders, we need to improve our accuracy of selection,” he concluded offering a perfect segue into the formal presentations.

Rebecca Cockrum, a postdoctoral fellow in animal science from Colorado State University, offered a presentation titled, Applying Genomic Selection Technology to the Sheep Industry. Cockrum focused on the need to improve production efficiency, yield and quality by combining traditional breeding techniques with emerging genomic selection technologies. She argues producers must improve current mating selection strategies and incorporate emerging technologies to target more complex traits like feed efficiency. 

Cockrum discussed traits tracked by the National Sheep Improvement Program (NSIP) and expected progeny differences (EPDs) and said adding genetic information is important. She cited a case study that looked at EDPs for the number of lambs born to ewes sired by different rams. One ram received a score of +10. He was smaller, but consistently produced twins. The other was a -10. He was big and beautiful, but only produced singles. 

The audience appreciated hearing about genetic advancements in the industry. “Breeders need to embrace the genetics and the research to find the superior animals to put back into the industry,” stated Betty Hughes Sampsel, Targhee breeder and daughter of legendary Curt Hughes who started the MSU Wool Lab. “As breeders we want to be on the cutting edge,” she added.

A popular speaker was Thomas Craig, professor and veterinary parasitologist from Texas A&M, who spoke on Sheep Parasites:  Problems, Resistance, New Products and Practices for Parasite Control. Craig discussed opportunistic treatment of parasites versus suppressive treatment. According to Craig, current research does not support the idea that an entire flock requires deworming at regular intervals, what he refers to as opportunistic treatment. 

“It doesn’t always work and may lead to drug resistant parasites,” he stated. 

Craig advises a selective or targeted treatment plan that treats only the sheep at risk and takes into account specific management practices, the herd and the environment. The selective treatment involves identifying the highest risk group and leaving some worms where they won’t cause much impact. This will minimize developing drug resistant parasites.

Data has shown limiting the number of worms a sheep is exposed to can be accomplished either by using an anthelmintic (dewormer) or by managed grazing. Sharing his concerns about parasites becoming drug resistant, he also discussed some of the new products available, but cautions producers against using them until everything else has been tried. 

Between presentations, Montana sheep producers, John Baucus of Helena and Dave McEwen of Big Timber, discussed their own operations and how they might incorporate some of the knowledge gained from the symposium. 

“It is good to keep on top of worm issues and what drugs are available,” said Baucus, while McEwen was quick to point out that environmental differences are “a huge factor in management practices in Montana flocks.” Baucus heartily agreed adding, “I can have a plan and in a week everything can change.”

Keith Inskeep, professor of animal reproduction and management from West Virginia University, addressed the audience on Factors Related to the Ewe that Affect Prolificacy in Sheep. Inskeep studies ovulation rates in ewes and different factors affecting prolificacy (litter size). According to Inskeep, prolificacy is dependent upon: 1) ovulation of ovarian follicles; 2) fertilization of the ovulated oocytes; and 3) survival of the embryos. Factors impacting these include the time of year a sheep ovulates, genetic differences between breeds and nutrition. During the question-and-answer session, Inskeep told producers his research shows triplet lambs do better on the ewe than on milk replacement.

Kim Vonnahme, associate professor and animal scientist from North Dakota State University, presented how the Maternal Environment Impacts Fetal and Offspring Outcomes in Sheep. Introducing the topic, Vonnahme told the audience environmental changes either produce a stimulus or an insult, and the key in developmental programming is to ensure the fetus can survive the insult. 

As Vonnahme pointed out, “Sheep can spend 25 to 50 percent of their life in the uterus when you are thinking of conception to consumption.” Therefore, it is important to understand the placenta and the impact it has on fetal growth. Some of the factors she discussed were the best times to supplement feeding and individual production needs as well as maternal efficiencies and age. 

Peter Orwick, ASI executive director, opened the afternoon session by sharing ASI’s Initiatives for Industry Growth. This past year, ASI turned the focus of its Let’s Grow initiative to increasing efficiency in sheep production by coordinating with universities, extension, state associations and lamb and wool companies to increase lamb and wool production. ASI’s focus for 2013 includes:

  • additional management practice tips;
  • mentor grants for state sheep associations;
  • launch of the Sheep Community of Practice to the eXtension system; 
  • more webinars hosted and attended by sheep experts nationwide; and
  • the development of a flock expansion loan program in concert with the National Livestock Producers Association.

When Travis Whitney, associate professor, ruminant nutrition at Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service discussed Alternative Feeds:  For a Temporary Crisis or a Permanent Problem, he turned a few heads. Whitney has been grinding juniper to feed sheep without negatively impacting their growth or health. 

During a brief presentation, Alternative Grazing Strategies for Industry Diversification and Rangeland Improvement, Rachel Frost, research scientist in range science from MSU, spoke to the challenges of a dwindling land base. According to Frost, the latest numbers show rangelands make up less than 40 percent of the world’s land area and those areas are being challenged by development, invasive species and wildlife conflicts. With less land available, and an increasing population expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050 there is a strong need to intensify production on remaining acres while simultaneously improving land health. 

“Integrated grazing systems include balancing grazing, mechanical, fire, cultural, chemical and biocontrol,” stated Frost. “We can use grazing to alter plant community or expand treatment windows and also reduce seed rain.” 

Combine grazing techniques and herbicides and alternate which is used first based on the weed, Frost explained. For example with spotted knapweed, it was more effective to use an herbicide first, followed by grazing. For leafy spurge, the research shows it was more effective to graze with goats and then follow with an herbicide. 

When studying grazing and cultural control, Frost suggested finding a balance between mechanically seeding, removing vegetation and the impact on trampling seed and soil contact as fertilizer. Consider multi-species grazing as well. Grazing in conjunction with using bugs for biocontrol was 99-percent more effective than using bugs alone.

During his talk on The U.S. Lamb Market, David Anderson, professor and extension economist, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, compared the lamb market to a game of musical chairs. 

“Producers must sell at whatever the market will bear, and occasionally someone is left without a seat. It is rare that all of the industry segments can profit at the same time,” he stated. 

The industry needs to rebuild the demand for quality lamb, he argued. “We can sell at a high price as long as the customer perceives a high value.”

“What you think is happening might not really be happening,” stated John Walker, professor and resident director of research, Texas A&M AgriLife Research, as he opened his presentation, Sheep, Black Swans and the Future of Agriculture. In 1960, there were almost 30 million sheep and now there are less than 5 million. 

“Why the decline?” asked Walker. “Predators, money, efficiency, or labor?”

Walker showed a slide comparing the sheep and cattle industries from 1972 to 1987 and concluded the sheep industry was more profitable than cattle. “When producers made money, they sold their sheep to buy cattle,” drawing a chuckle from the audience and stating he doesn’t believe money is the issue.

Production efficiency has increased to three lambs per ewe and at the same time the ewe inventory has declined leading him to conclude efficiency is not the issue.

Walker then shared a slide with two side-by-side photos depicting labor or lifestyle norms. On the left side of the screen was a scenic picture of a sheepherder leaning up against his aluminum sheep wagon probably taken in the early 1960s. On the right side was a young kid, probably about 12, playing a video game on a home computer. Walker pointed out that compared to most agricultural enterprises, sheep have had fewer opportunities to mechanize and reduce labor. 

“Feeding sheep in 1949 looks just about the same as feeding in 2013, except for a fancier truck,” stated Walker as he displayed two photos of sheep ranchers feeding their flock.

Walker believes the drivers for the sheep industry are food production and population, environment and culture.

Long-time sheep rancher John Paugh from the Gallatin Valley in Montana concluded, “When you do research of any kind you end up with questions. As we get into the genetic make-up of animals it will open up a whole other angle of production. We have to be cautious and look at research from a wider perspective than we previously did, and that is why conferences like this are so important to the industry.”

“Symposiums like this are wonderful for seeing what others in the industry are doing and exchanging ideas. It makes you think of other things when your focus shifts,” explained Craig.

“The speakers were charged with developing a presentation that was suitable for ‘an intelligent and diverse audience,’” explained Hatfield. “And they did just that.”

Symposium sponsors included the Western Extension, Research and Academic Coordinating Committee (WERA-39), Western Section American Association of Animal Science (WSASAS), MSU Department of Animal and Range Sciences and the Montana Wool Growers Association.

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