Industry Sets Research Priorities

Industry Sets Research Priorities

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series covering topics discussed in the U.S. Sheep Industry Research, Development and Education Priorities report issued through ASI in June 2016. Look for the second installment in the July issue of the Sheep Industry News.

An inventory of sheep in the United States by the National Agriculture Statistics Service has shown increases in the American sheep population in two of the last three years. While the bumps were minor, they were positive for an industry that is often overlooked within the larger scheme of American agriculture and has experienced inventory declines of 30 to 40 percent since the early 1990s.

Public funding for animal agriculture in general, and for sheep research, development and education in particular, is on the decline. Yet a 2015 National Research Council report – Critical Role of Animal Science Research in Food Security and Sustainability – called for significant funding of research and development to sustain America’s demand for animal products in the years to come. With that in mind, ASI published the U.S. Sheep Industry Research, Development and Education Priorities report in 2016.

The report incorporated a review of published sheep research, online surveys of sheep producers and focus groups in an effort to categorize the top industry issues and challenges with the hopes of weighing “in on the most effective way to address a particular issue or challenge.”

It should come as no surprise that topics such as labor, predator control, grazing and forage management, government regulations, marketing and flock health were ranked as some of the biggest challenges among producers. Following the outline of the U.S. Sheep Industry report, let’s take a closer look at some of these issues.


Challenges vary based on two dominant factors: size of operation and location. Nationally, 20 percent of operations represent approximately 80 percent of the total ewe breeding population, with a majority of the large-scale operations based in the Intermountain West.

Among the largest operations, labor and labor management was the No. 1 concern. Given the issues surrounding the revamping of the H-2A Sheepherder program in 2015 and the concerns that surrounded increases wages for herders, this was to be expected. On small-scale operations, labor ranked fourth among concerns. For those with less than 100 breeding ewes, grazing and forage management was the top concern.

Despite the challenges of modern-day sheep production, nearly 44 percent of all producers responding to an ASI survey had plans to expand their operations in the coming years. ASI’s Mid-Atlantic/South, Mid/Upper Midwest and Texas regions all showed that more than 50 percent of producers had plans to expand in the coming years. 


A 2008 National Research Council report included recommendations to continue improvements in productivity through further advances in genetics (including gene biotechnology), nutrition, health and management programs. The report stated that the sheep industry lags behind other livestock industries in the adoption of genetic improvement technology.

Sadly, that’s still the case nearly a decade later. Fortunately, the sheep industry is heading in the right direction with the use of estimated breeding values as championed in recent years by the National Sheep Improvement Program.

The sheep industry report highlighted the use of EBVs, but noted there was a need to verify the value of EBVs generated through NSIP with an applied study of performance records on a breed by breed basis. One such study has since been completed in Utah. Funded in part by an ASI Let’s Grow grant, the Leading Edge Sheep Production Group in Utah bred two groups of commercial white-faced ewes to two groups of black-faced terminal sires – one with EBVs and one without. The EBV-sired lambs weighed an average of three pounds more per lamb than the group sired by those without EBVs.

While more studies are necessary, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that sheep producers would benefit from the use of EBVs during breeding selection. As the report states, “applied research can add credence to educational programs for producers on the value of EBVs generated by NSIP.

The genetic parameters are well known for many common production traits, such as litter size, weaning and post-weaning weights, fleece weight, fiber diameter and commercial milk production traits. However, more research is needed in the areas of parasite and disease resistance, feed efficiency and meat quality.

There’s also a long way to go to improve the use of genomic information and breeding values. Ideally, the genomic information is combined with performance records of the individual and/or relatives to produce a genomic estimated breeding value. Such GEBVs are routinely being used to accelerate the rate of genetic improvement in the dairy cattle industry.

Education priorities in this area include:

• Strategic crossbreeding systems;

• EBVS to improve flock performance;

• Goal-based production records for commercial flocks.


Flock health ranked among the top five concerns of producers regardless of the size of their operation. Parasites are the major concern for most producers, with the exception of many of the large-scale operations in the Intermountain West (where rainfall is more limited).

On average, parasites had the most economic impact on sheep operations of all flock health problems identified. Starvation in lambs and mastitis in breeding ewes ranked second, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the report recommends parasite control, lamb starvation, lamb respiratory disease and mastitis control as four research priorities. Footrot/scald control, alternatives to antimicrobials and scrapie also made the list.

In the area of development, the report calls for more in the way of anti-parasitic pharmaceuticals and coccidia control tools. The industry also desperately needs to develop avenues for dealing with lamb respiratory disease, footrot and Q fever.

The top recommendation in the way of education is to promote the adoption of existing parasite control technologies, including selection and culling, until more effective and efficient research solutions can be identified.


Reproductive performance is directly tied to profitability, especially for commercial and seedstock operators. The number of lambs weaned per ewe has been cited as the trait with the greatest financial impact on sheep production.

Forty-fve percent of survey respondents said they had exposed at least some of their ewes to out-of-season lambing in the past three years, with two-thirds of those producers at least somewhat satisfied with the results. Studying the issue is a primary research concern for the industry, as it is important to increasing the lifetime productivity of the ewe.

Other research priorities identified in this area included:

• Reproductive efficiency;

• Mastitis and internal parasites;

• Genetic potential scoring;

• Ultra-sound assisted selection for litter size;

• Ewe/lamb bonding behavior.

The report calls for the development of commercially available reproductive intervention products which could be used to enhance reproductive performance, such as additional hormonal treatments used in out-of-season breeding protocols. There’s also a need for more online resources to educate sheep producers in this area.

The entire report is available to read online at Look for more from the report in the July issue of the Sheep Industry News.

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