NSIP Moving Forward

NSIP Moving Forward

Rusty Burgett takes leadership role ’spreading the word’ of genetic improvement

Terri Queck-Matzie

It’s exciting breaking new ground and taking NSIP to a new level,” says Rusty Burgett. As the newly hired Program Director for the National Sheep Improvement Program, Burgett is poised to promote genetic improvement throughout the sheep industry. “Everyone, all up and down the production chain, can benefit as we strive to help the industry meet consumer demands.

Burgett began his duties in mid-April. He will be responsible for data management and basic administration of the organization. But much of his time will be spent on outreach – spreading the word about quantitative genetic improvement. He will be traveling the country meeting with producers in all facets of the industry.

“I’m ready for this, and NSIP is ready for this,” says Burgett.

“We’re more than pleased to have a Buckeye on staff,” says Susan Shultz of Bunker Hill Farm near DeGraff, Ohio. She and her husband, Bill, were early adaptors of NSIP technology and strong supporters of the program. “We’re excited he was at a place in his career to accept the position. He brings energy and enthusiasm to the job. I don’t know anyone with more passion for the sheep industry.”

Burgett, too, hails from Ohio. He received his undergraduate education at Ohio State, where his “love for the sheep industry really blossomed.” Aside from tuning his appreciation for the animals, he spent a year there managing the meat science lab.

Deciding he wanted to redirect his focus from meat science to sheep production, he moved on to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he received his Masters degree in ruminant nutrition. It was there he had his first exposure to NSIP. The entire flock is enrolled in the program and Burgett says it was a good place to get his feet wet.

From Wisconsin he traveled to Iowa State University, spending a year and a half as a shepherd, and stepping even deeper into NSIP.

In his most recent post at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he oversaw the only dairy sheep research facility in the U.S. at the Spooner Ag Research Station. The program focuses on all aspects – nutrition, reproductive physiology, genetic improvement.

In 2013 he accepted the volunteer job of treasurer on the NSIP board of directors.

“Being associated with NSIP has been a fun ride so far, and I’m looking forward to being able to give it my full attention,” adds Burgett.

NSIP Board Chairman Reid Redden says the feeling is mutual. “We’re thrilled to have Rusty on board. He’s an extremely well-qualified addition to our program and our mission.”

Those qualifications include bringing the industry wisdom and insight of valuable mentors to the table -mentors like Redden of Texas A&M, Henry Zerby of Ohio State, Dan Morrical at Iowa State, and David Thomas at the University of Wisconsin. “They’re all respected as educators and researchers,” says Shultz, “and they taught Rusty well. He fully understands breeding values are key to genetic selection and genetic improvement.”

Burgett is uniquely qualified to spread the NSIP message, adds Shultz, with an ability to make complex scientific information readily understandable.

“Our biggest need is industry education,” says Redden, “and Rusty has the vision, communication skills, and real-world experience to take us there.”

The right time Since its inception, NSIP has been a volunteer organization with limited financial resources, primarily membership registration fees. The picture began to change when the American Lamb Industry Roadmap highlighted the need for more emphasis on NSIP to improve the industry.

The American Lamb Board provided funding to investigate how to best make that happen, and the program retooled its vision and mission. The process produced the recommendation for a staff position, and the stage was set for a new day.

“It’s a culmination of many things, including a lot of hard work by volunteers, that has brought us to this point,” says Redden. “Now it’s time to move forward with a new approach.”

Chase Hibbard, Past Chairman of NSIP, has been on board since the beginning, and is pleased to see the focus on outreach.

“The U.S. sheep industry can’t really get bigger, so we have to get better,” says Hibbard. “And that happens through data-based genetic improvement.” He’s seen it in his own flock, where lambing rates have increased from 165 to just under 200 percent due to ewe selection for lambs born. He sold the highest selling ram in the history of the Targhee breed last year, a feat he claims “would not have been possible without these tools.”

“Throughout the industry, breeders are making better selection decisions due to Estimated Breeding Values and data indexes,” he adds. “In the Targhee breed, we’ve made more progress in the past five years due to the Western Range Index (a formula of weighted values of various traits) than we did in the previous 20 years.”

And it’s not just for seedstock producers. Commercial producers have much to gain by buying breeding stock with NSIP data. Hibbard cites the success of Wyoming’s Mountain States Lamb Cooperative, where producers are paid on a grid value system according to desired carcass traits. “They’re buying rams with objective information because it affects how they actually get paid at the end of the day,” says Hibbard. “They’re ultimately paid on carcass merit.”

Making breeding decisions based on economically relevant traits is not only good for the individual producer, according to Hibbard, it is good for the industry as it works to correct marketing issues like overfat lambs.

He is counting on Burgett to convey real world examples like the Mt. States Co-op to other producers across the nation.

Shultz says the industry is ready to hear the message, with the talk in the hallway at January’s ASI convention all about genetic improvement.

With Burgett on board, Redden and NSIP are up to the task. “We’re ready to seize this opportunity,” says Redden. “The value of individual animal data is obvious to those who are hearing the message. It’s our job to make sure both seedstock and commercial breeders understand the technology and how to use it. That’s how we will move this industry forward.”

“I’m ready to keep the momentum going and get everybody headed in the same direction,” says Burgett. “We all have the same goal – to deliver a product the consumer wants in a profitable way. NSIP and genetic selection can help get us there. I’m proud to be a part of this.”

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