Lewis Retires from Service at USSES
By GREGORY LEWIS, PH.D.
U.S. Sheep Experiment Station
(July 1, 2013) After more than 13 years as the research leader and location coordinator (i.e., head) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Agricultural Research Service (ARS), U.S. Sheep Experiment Station (USSES or station), I retired from federal service, effective June 29, 2013. Beginning on July 15, 2013, I will become editor-in-chief of the Journal of Animal Science, which is the flagship publication of the American Society of Animal Science. Thus, I will continue to contribute to the scientific advancement of animal agriculture, a pursuit I began approximately 42 years ago as an undergraduate student working for a ruminant nutritionist and alongside his graduate students and technician at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Much to the disapproval of the nutritionist, I chose reproductive physiology for my master’s and doctoral degrees.
The USSES has a long and distinguished history of service to the U.S. sheep industry and animal agriculture. On Oct. 30, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson issued Executive Order 2268 to withdraw land from the public domain in eastern Idaho and establish the “United States Sheep Experiment Station.” The land was assigned to the USDA and was to be used as a “sheep-breeding and grazing experimental station.” President Wilson, and later President Warren G. Harding, issued additional Executive Orders in 1916, 1919 and 1922 to add federal land in Idaho and Montana and significantly expand the size of the station.
Research at the USSES apparently began at the end of 1917, when sheep were moved to the station from a ranch near Laramie, Wyo., to continue a sheep-breeding project that produced the Columbia breed. In 1920, six Columbia rams were reportedly sold at public auction for $40 per head, approximately equal to $465 in 2013.
In addition to the Columbia breed, the USSES is credited with developing the Targhee (released circa 1938) and Polypay (released circa 1975) breeds of sheep. This is common knowledge among sheep producers. However, sheep producers may not know that USSES scientists were largely responsible for conducting the research that lead to the widespread use of livestock protection dogs in the United States. In addition, my predecessors made major contributions to the development of methods for synchronizing estrus, inducing out-of-season breeding and accelerating lambing to increase annual lamb crops; using the composite trait, lifetime weight-of-lamb weaned, to improve reproductive performance and productivity of range ewes; early diagnosis of pregnancy and evaluation of wool quality, long before modern electronic methods were available; measuring the effects of sheep grazing on rangeland ecosystems; using prescribed fire coupled with sheep grazing as a rangeland management tool; and using sheep grazing to control invasive weeds. These are but a few of their many accomplishments.
A few months before leaving my faculty position at Virginia Tech to assume my position at the station in February 2000, I began consulting with key people in the American Sheep Industry Association (ASI) to identify important research needs of the U.S. sheep industry. In 2000, 2005 and 2010, ASI presented formal lists of research needs to ARS and to me, and ASI representatives and I have met in person at least once annually since 2000 to discuss research and other issues affecting the industry and the station.
During my tenure at the USSES, we have structured our research programs around ASI’s stated research needs. Unfortunately, there are not enough scientists in ARS and U.S. universities working with sheep and our funding is not adequate to address all of the industry’s high-priority research needs. Thus, USSES research is designed to address a few well-defined issues of major importance and potential impact.
Since 2000, USSES research has been focused on: 1) developing new, or improving existing, genetic lines of sheep specialized for paternal and maternal traits that enhance lamb production (i.e., number of lambs born and weaned per ewe), lamb growth, lamb carcass merit and yield of marketable product; 2) improving nutrient management throughout the sheep production cycle; 3) reducing the incidence and severity of lamb scours; 4) evaluating monitoring technologies for landscape-scale assessment of plant communities and for determining the effects of rangeland management activities, including grazing and fire, on vegetation, ground cover and herbivore selectivity; and 5) developing science-based grazing and prescribed burn management strategies to help sustain ecosystem functions and delivery of ecosystem services on Western rangelands.
During the last 13 years, station scientists and our collaborators at other ARS research locations and in universities throughout the United States have published more than 130 peer-reviewed scientific articles about USSES research. This is an impressive record because the USSES has never had more than five full-time scientists during that period, usually only three or four scientists. In addition, USSES scientists have made invited presentations at scientific meetings in six countries and at sheep producer meetings in numerous states. Plus, we have made dozens of presentations at scientific meetings in the United States and addressed scores of questions from sheep producers and scientists throughout North and South America and countries on other continents.
Recently, Dr. Bret Taylor, in collaboration with sheep producers in Oregon and Intermountain Farmers Association, has been successful in translating USSES research into a plant-based product that producers can feed for the first 20 to 40 days of lactation, depending on each producer’s management practices, and safely meet the selenium requirements of ewes and their lambs for several months after the last time the product is fed. This eliminates the need to have a constant source of supplemental selenium available to the sheep to prevent white-muscle disease and other signs of selenium deficiency or marginal deficiency. Recent data from a large sire-breed evaluation study, done in collaboration with Drs. David Notter (Virginia Tech), Kreg Leymaster (ARS, U.S. Meat Animal Research Center, Clay Center, Neb.), and Henry Zerby and Steve Moeller (The Ohio State University), have provided important insights into the merits and shortcomings of popular sire-breeds. And, the data show clearly that live-animal ultrasound can be used to predict carcass merit and value of market lambs. Based on the scientific evidence, we believe firmly that live-animal ultrasound for estimating loin-muscle size and fat depths can be used to make significant genetic gains in lamb-carcass merit and value. Station scientists and their collaborator, Notter, have used results from the sire-breed evaluation study to initiate the development of a new terminal-sire genetic line of sheep to capitalize on the attributes of the Suffolk, Columbia and Texels breeds. These are only a few examples of the results of USSES research during the last 13 years and of how USSES scientists have begun translating the information into products that can benefit sheep producers.
Despite the numerous and important contributions USSES scientists have made to the U.S. sheep industry since 1917, the future of the land that Presidents Wilson and Harding assigned to the USDA for a “sheep-breeding and grazing experimental station” is uncertain. Other federal agencies covet USSES lands, and various special-interest “environmental groups” have recently petitioned the secretary of agriculture to close the USSES or remove sheep from the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station. These issues are not new, and because of U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) efforts to subvert administrative jurisdiction of USSES lands, the U.S. Congress included Section 1447 in Public Law 97-98—Dec. 22, 1981, to affirm that administrative jurisdiction of USSES lands rests solely with the secretary of agriculture and to reiterate President Wilson’s intended use of the lands. A point that should not be overlooked is that Public Law 97-98 gave an appointed official tremendous authority over the future use of USSES lands.
Since 1981, however, special-interest groups have learned how to use — some people may say abuse — the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and other elements of the National Environmental Policy Act to target Western agriculture, particularly livestock grazing. The strategy has been to bypass the legislative process (i.e., Congress), file numerous lawsuits in federal courts, and use the judicial process to prevent agencies, such as the USDA-Forest Service and DOI-Bureau of Land Management, from permitting livestock, more particularly sheep, grazing on public lands. Special-interest groups have used the Equal Access to Justice Act to accumulate money — that is, your tax dollars — to fund their legal staffs and block your access to public-land grazing, and to block other commercial uses of federal land. Attending to these legal issues is very expensive and interferes with, as just one example, the ability of the Forest Service to do its job of managing our nation’s forests.
Now, I believe, the goal is to use the same strategy to prevent the USDA-ARS from using the USSES as a “sheep-breeding and grazing experimental station.” Since June 2007, we have been responding to a lawsuit that was filed with the intent to stop sheep grazing and associated activities at the USSES. In keeping with the executive orders of Presidents Wilson and Harding and Public Law 97-98, “associated activities” includes all USSES research because sheep are supposed to be part of our research. To date, USDA and ARS have vigorously resisted the efforts of special-interest groups to close the USSES. ASI gained legal standing in this lawsuit and is monitoring it closely because of the high value ASI places on research and the acquisition of new knowledge that can be used to improve the production efficiency of sheep.
Serving as the head of the USSES has been a privilege. I hope the long-term, positive impact of some of our accomplishments during my tenure will equal those of my predecessors. I used “our” in the previous sentence because research should be a team effort, and I have had an outstanding team, which includes ASI and its members who have made sure that we can find the correct playing field.
I urge my successor(s) to work closely with ASI and listen carefully to the concerns and needs of sheep producers. I urge ASI to continue its practice of presenting well-conceived, well-written statements of research needs to ARS and to the head of the USSES and meeting at least once annually with the head of the USSES to discuss research and various issues affecting the industry and the station. Also, I strongly encourage ASI to continue its efforts within the legislative process to increase funding for sheep research in the United States. With significant “new” funding, I believe that the future of sheep research at the station will be very bright, and USSES scientists will continue to produce results that the industry can use to increase the production efficiency of sheep and enhance the quality and value of sheep products.
Final thoughts. “Lamb is worth what the consumer will pay for it” (from Armour and Company advertisement, The National Wool Grower, 1933). Science-based animal production practices in general, and the appropriate application of modern genetic improvement tools in particular, can increase the worth of lamb and other sheep products. Production-oriented sheep research is a critical investment in the industry’s future.