Image of sheep

To View the August 2023 Digital Issue — Click Here

Image of Brad Boner
Advancing the American Flock

Benny Cox, ASI President

Summer is upon us and we are busy in our travels as representative for the sheep industry. This month, the ASI Executive Board, officers and staff will join the National Lamb Feeders Association in Pennsylvania in conjunction with the Howard Wyman Sheep Industry Leadership School.

It is in July every year that the executive board has a face-to-face meeting, and this year the NLFA school provided an opportunity to broaden our understanding of the ethnic market even further. We will have the opportunity to visit the auction in New Holland, Penn., on a sheep and goat sale day. That’s right down my alley.

Each and every year we spend at least a full day in our business meeting and a day or so visiting places that might be of interest to our group. I feel that the collective group can make better decisions when their knowledge covers all areas of the United States and the American sheep industry. The marketing of sheep and goats in the East and Northeast verses the far West and Northwest is very different. I for one have an understanding of the situations surrounding both the traditional and the non-traditional markets, but still think there could be more to learn just being in the thick of things, so I am looking forward to the trip.

In our monthly officer conference calls – as well as daily communications – there is always something to do. Last month, I spoke of our request for available funds approved in the Farm Bill. This month, we delivered our message making clear our wool export issues as well as the sheepskin problems stemming from tariffs imposed by China – which is where the majority of our wool and hides go.

Before the tariff issues, more than 70% of American wool has gone to China and 80 percent of the sheepskins. There will be many that benefit from the $16.1 billion agricultural relief plan the Trump Administration has implemented for those that are hurt by those imposed tariffs. Direct payments are scheduled to start in July and go through fall as I understand, while new alternative options for marketing are being searched out. We have seen two markets open for lamb exports in the last two years due to the efforts of ASI in Washington, D.C., so who knows what might happen in the days to come.

ASI is continuing to monitor the situation with China while fighting for funding on two fronts: to promote American wool in new and expanding export markets and to provide for direct payments to wool producers affected by the trade war with China. You can read more about those efforts on page 10 of this issue.

This year’s corn crop is in jeopardy thanks to widespread flooding in areas that raise the corn. Some areas that have been planted are under water and some producers are waiting to get into the fields. There is concern that it might be so late that some producers will be inhibited from planting corn at all this season. In the first week of June, there was a $19.1 billion disaster payout passed to help farmers affected by floods, as well as wildfires in other areas. One of the down sides in all of this is that the cost of corn will increase feed costs for many producers.

Some Good News in Lamb Markets

David Anderson

While prices continue to be below a year ago in some markets, other markets are seeing improving prices to points higher than this time last year. Data points like trade, stocks and weights indicate some bullish news, as well, heading into summer’s dog days.

Prices for heavyweight slaughter lambs (100 to 150 pounds) reported at Sioux Falls, S.D., have been on an upward trend almost all year. They climbed to $208 per cwt. by the first week of July, up from $133 per cwt. at the beginning of the year. The huge price slide beginning in May of last year means that prices today are 68 percent higher than they were at this time last year ($123 per cwt. for the first week of July 2022). The national negotiated live lamb slaughter lamb price is another market where prices have climbed to be at least equal to a year ago at $182 per cwt.
Other markets have not fared as well, with prices flat to lower since Easter and continuing to be lower than a year ago. In early July, wooled and shorn lightweight slaughter lambs from 60 to 90 pounds in San Angelo, Texas, were about $210 per cwt., which was about 85 to 95 percent of their price a year ago. Prices for the same weight slaughter lambs at New Holland, Penn., averaged about $276 per cwt. in early July, 10 to 20 percent lower than last year.
During the 2017-2021 period, heavyweight slaughter lamb prices have tended to peak seasonally in about June. The increase in price this year roughly mimics that normal pattern so far this year. But it’s worth remembering that some other factors – including lamb demand – have impacted prices.
On the meat side, wholesale cut prices have tended to continue to drift lower. Racks have dropped dramatically in recent weeks. For example, medium boxed lamb racks have declined from $11.88 per pound to $10.53 per pound in the last eight weeks. The cutout has drifted lower all year, hitting $431.45 per cwt. at mid-year, almost $120 per cwt. below a year ago and about $40 per cwt. lower than in January. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s retail lamb featuring price data has indicated a lot of volatility in retail lamb prices during the last several months. An April average price of about $8.03 per pound soared to about $10.30 per pound in May. June retail prices dropped about $2 per pound to about $8.20 per pound.

Lamb and yearling slaughter and meat production hit their seasonal, Easter peaks back in March and April. But slaughter and production have moved in slightly different directions this year. Lamb and yearling slaughter is up 5.5 percent this year compared to last year. During the last six weeks, slaughter is 3.8 percent above the same period last year. While the year-over-year gap has narrowed a bit, slaughter is still running higher than a year ago.
For the year to date, lamb meat production is about 0.5 percent lower than last year. In the last six weeks, production is 3 percent lower than last year. The difference between slaughter and production is, of course, weights. Federally inspected dressed weights have been below last year almost every week this year. At the end of June, dressed weights averaged 64 pounds compared to 69 pounds a year ago.
Larger slaughter than a year ago is likely keeping some pressure on live lamb prices while reduced meat production is helping to keep lamb meat prices higher. Slaughter is likely to decline seasonally in the coming weeks while light average dressed weights cuts production. This combination should work to boost live prices.

USDA published the latest import data – for the month of May – on July 7. The data continued to show lamb imports lower than last year. May imports totaled 17 million pounds, 29 percent below May 2022. For the year, lamb imports are down 19 percent. In fact, imports in April and May were below the 2017-2021 five-year average. With domestic production only down half a percent and imports down 19 percent this year, imports are making up a smaller share of total lamb supplies.
Lamb and mutton in cold storage amounted to 25 million pounds in May. While more than the 22 million pounds in storage last year, it is almost 10 million pounds lower than the five-year average.
Lower imports and less in storage certainly paints a better picture for total supplies to begin the second half of the year. Both should point to some opportunity for improved prices.

Since the last article, the 2022-23 Australian wool marketing year has ended and the 2023-24 year has begun. The marketing year tended to end with slumping prices across all grades. For example, 21-micron wool quoted in U.S. dollars per pound was $3.91 per pound for the week of June 30. That was 16 percent below the same week a year ago and 7 U.S. cents per pound below the week before. Finer quality wools experienced larger week-over-week price declines than did coarser wools. For example, 17- and 18-micron wool declined by more than 20 U.S. cents per pound while 26 and coarser wools declined from 1 to 4 U.S. cents per pound. There continues to be large supplies on the market pressuring prices lower.
The Eastern Market Indicator dropped to $3.39 U.S. per pound for the week of June 30. That was its lowest level since October 2020, when it was $3.30 U.S. per pound. The market at that time was on its way up while today prices have been on a downward trend.
As usual, week-to-week fluctuations in exchange rates do impact relative prices between the United States, Australia and other countries. But, likely more important to overall price levels are expectations for consumer demand. Some countries continue to struggle with weak economies and relatively high inflation rates. Expectations for better economic growth in Europe and China would likely improve prices, but those positive expectations have been lacking.

On balance, there are a number of positive factors in the lamb market. Reduced imports and less lamb in storage than compared to the five-year average indicates some supply reduction. While domestic slaughter is above a year ago, lighter weights are cutting production. The overall supply situation is improved and is providing some support for prices. The key for prices will be growing demand as the economy improves.

Council Gets Look at Pendleton Mill

ASI Wool Productions Program Manager

ASI Wool Council members from across the United States converged in Washington for the summer Wool Council Meeting in mid-July. While the main purpose of the meeting was to discuss and approve a budget for ASI that will now be sent to the ASI Executive Board and Board of Directors for approval, the Wool Council didn’t miss the chance to also visit Pendleton Woolen Mill.
Located next to the Columbia River, the Mill in Washougal, Wash., has inviting mill buildings with an upscale outpost type store next door. Everything is in the classic “Pendleton” style. Walking into the mill is surprisingly quiet…at least as far as mills go. This is mainly due to Pendleton’s lean initiative, which is working to reduce waste and be more efficient. For the last few years, the mill has been introducing new spinning, warping and fulling machines. Next will be the new carding machines that will replace the work of three of the old, massive carding machines. Pendleton truly is investing in its future – as well as wool’s.
Pendleton utilizes 27 different wool types from around the world from fine wool to carbonized wool. Of the raw wool used, 600,000 lbs. annually will be American wool – much of it coming from local producers. Pendleton likes to use healthy, high-quality wools that will work for their equipment and products.
“We can be testing little lots of wool all the time to see if they will work,” said Pendleton’s Dan Gutzman. Large lots are also helpful to ensure consistent dyeing and processing.
While Pendleton scoured its own wool years ago, American wool is now scoured at Bollman in San Angelo, Texas, and then returned to Washington. Following scouring, bales of wool are picked for a specific product and bound for one of the 12 carding machines. Flowing through teeth that align and homogenize the wool, it flows out in sliver and is then stretched into roving. Roving is sent to the new and efficient spinning frames, creating yarn just the right weight and with just the right amount of twist.
At this point, the scoured wool has already been in the Pendleton processing chain for three weeks and incurred most of the cost. Yarn is then sent to warping and weaving – parts of which take place at the mill in Pendleton, Ore. – after which it will be checked for any quality issues. If too many issues are found, the fabric will not continue to the finishing stage. Pendleton only provides the highest quality products that can last a lifetime.
Dyeing can take place at any given time from stock dyeing (dyeing scoured wool), dyeing yarn and piece dyeing (dyeing fabric and products). To ensure everything is dyed to the exact color – black is surprisingly hard to achieve – Pendleton uses a color photospectrometer.
Finishing the fabric is where the magic really happens. Stiff fabric is turned into luscious, soft fabric that you’ll want to curl up with next to the fire. Not only does finishing the fabric change the handle and appearance, Pendleton can now offer an easy care line that is machine washable. Finally, finished fabric makes its way to the cutting and sewing department where a team works to cut the fabric, finish the edges, apply the recognizable Pendleton label and fold it nicely into its package, ready for sale. Seven thousand blankets are made every year here by Pendleton’s team of 100 mill employees.
Watching blanket patterns that most in the industry have come to know and love work their way through the equipment is both thrilling and humbling. In fact, Pendleton develops 400 new patterns every year – more than one every day – to cover its products and showcase with that iconic Pendleton style.
During a special panel discussion with Pendleton leaders, including CEO and President John Bishop, President of Sales and Marketing Bob Christnacht, Gutzman, and others, both Bishop and Christnacht noted how Pendleton’s customer has changed. The company’s main focus originally was on women’s wear. But blankets and home goods are far and away the most sold items now, followed by men’s and finally women’s wear. First opening a mill more than 100 years ago in 1909, Pendleton continues to evolve with the times, while never loosing the company’s high-quality, classic style
“We had a fantastic meeting with signs of optimism, and good discussions. It was a great opportunity to visit Pendleton and meet with company leaders about the challenges they face in manufacturing wool products,” said American Wool Council Co-Chair Anne Crider of Illinois. “It was a productive meeting that provided valuable information to council members. We were all impressed by the extensive equipment investment Pendleton has made in recent years.”
The Wool Council heard updates from Chargeurs, Groenewold Wool & Fur, and Fibershed on its Climate Beneficial Grant, as well as on domestic wool production programs – including ASI’s American Wool Assurance Program. Updates also included discussion of military programs as the U.S. military is the largest domestic user of American wool.

Moving Forward in the American Sheep Industry

At the end of May, the United States District Court of Montana ruled in favor of the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station on a motion for permanent injunction and summary judgement.

Beginning in 2012, the plaintiffs in this case – Cotton Environmental Law Center and others – filed a lawsuit against the sheep station and the Agricultural Research Service seeking a new biological opinion from the agency. Again in 2014, the plaintiffs challenged the new biological opinion they had sought, and the station’s underlying National Environmental Policy Act analysis. This action effectively ceased grazing on the station’s lands in this controversy, as the station agreed not to graze sheep until the completion of the ongoing NEPA. The completion of this NEPA and accompanying Environmental Impact Statement resulted in the plaintiffs seeking an injunction and motion for summary judgement against the station in March 2018.

The basis of the plaintiff’s most recent claims was that sheep grazing was injurious to the grizzly bear population in the area and resulted in an increased likelihood of human-bear conflicts. The plaintiffs asserted that they had new evidence of this increased likelihood of conflict that had not been considered in the environmental documents and demanded a supplemental EIS be prepared. Citing grizzly bear activity in the vicinity of the station’s lands and tangential evidence, the plaintiff’s claimed the preceding final EIS was invalid.

As the judge noted, a supplemental EIS is necessary when there is a substantial change to use relevant to environmental concerns or significant new information presented. The court rejected the plaintiff’s claim, finding that the evidence presented was not new in time, or new in fact.

The information regarding the possibility of human-bear conflicts was adequately considered in the final EIS and therefore a supplemental EIS was not necessary. Evaluating the plaintiff’s claim under the Administrative Procedures Act, an agency action can only be set aside if it was arbitrary and capricious. Through the court’s analysis the evidence supported a rational connection between the facts the agency considered and the decision they made.

Unfortunately, the station has been the target of environmental litigation seeking to remove sheep grazing for far too long. ASI and the association’s U.S. Sheep Experiment Station Working Group members are wholly dedicated to defending research at the station for the next century though advocacy in the courts, Congress and the administration.

Meet the Research Leaders at NSIP


As most of you know, the National Sheep Improvement Program has been the seedstock and commercial producers’ go-to source for estimated breeding values and technical support for more than 35 years.
Much like the American sheep industry, NSIP has seen a lot of changes since first debuting under the leadership of Dr. Doyle Wilson and Dr. Dan Morrical in 1987. Back then, breeders would physically mail in data to a team of people at Iowa State University in the form of hand-written records or floppy disks (look it up, Gen Z’ers). Having had the pleasure of transcribing many historical lambing barn notes to a digital format ourselves, we wonder what kind of colorful language to describe a ewe’s lack of maternal ability those NSIP data translators ran across.
In those early genetic evaluations, traits were limited to number of lambs born, body weight through yearling age, total weight of lamb weaned and yearling fleece traits. Traits were analyzed independently to derive within-flock Estimated Breeding Values, meaning breeders couldn’t reliably compare EBVs of animals that performed in different flocks and the genetic relationships between traits weren’t accounted for.
Despite these limitations, these EBVs were still the best predictor of genetic merit the American sheep industry had encountered to that point. Later, improvements were made at Virginia Tech under the stewardship of Dr. Dave Notter, including an across-flock analysis that accounted for genetic correlations among traits – beginning in 1994. Additional traits were included in the evaluations, such as number of lambs weaned, fecal egg count as an indicator of gastrointestinal parasite resistance, and ultrasound body composition, which were further developed into several multiple-trait selection indexes in the years to follow.
NSIP evaluations were transitioned to LAMBPLAN in Australia in 2011 and have had continued oversight by the NSIP Technical Committee in collaboration with the Animal Genetics and Breeding Unit in Armidale, Australia. Recent developments include a more streamlined data entry process, more frequent data runs and incorporation of genomic information to improve the accuracy of EBVs – beginning in 2021 for Katahdins. Leadership of the NSIP Technical Committee has also changed hands through the years, with its most recent transition in June 2023.
Going forward, Tom Murphy will serve as chair while working closely with co-chairs Luiz Brito and Andrew Hess and other NSIP Technical Committee members. We wanted to use this article to introduce ourselves and reflect upon past successes and future challenges/opportunities of our national genetic evaluation program.
Dr. Ron Lewis is a professor in the Animal Science Department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His past experiences as a sheep geneticist spanned the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom industries, and he served as chair of the NSIP Technical Committee from 2016 to 2023. During that time, he led efforts to introduce innovations such as genomic technologies to improve the accuracy of EBVs, refine genetic evaluation methods and selection strategies, verify pedigrees and report genetic conditions.
He and his team also assessed genetic relationships – connectedness – among flocks, defining strategies ensuring a robust genetic evaluation. They conducted the Mickel Brothers’ project, demonstrating the economic value of improving weight and muscle traits through NSIP. Ron is retiring in January 2024. During his career, he played major roles in advancing sheep industries and developed teaching tools focused on sheep – i.e., CyberSheep. He’s mentored many students and young professionals along the way and his vast knowledge of animal breeding will be missed. Dr. Lewis will continue to oversee the Sheep GEMS project through its completion.
“I enjoyed my time as technical advisor to NSIP. With support (funding), I am confident the new NSIP Technical Committee has the enthusiasm and wherewithal to ensure NSIP flourishes,” Lewis said.
Murphy is a research geneticist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Research Service at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center. During his Ph.D., he conducted the first genetic evaluation of North American dairy sheep. While an assistant professor at Montana State University, he led some of the first studies to evaluate the economic impact of udder health in range sheep. He continues these efforts in Clay Center, Neb., where he oversees USDA genetic reference flocks to more broadly characterize novel traits associated with ewe longevity, lamb feed efficiency and carcass quality.
Brito is an associate professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at Purdue University. A native of Brazil, he carried his passion for small ruminants through his graduate studies in Canada and New Zealand, where he conducted some of the first genomic studies in dairy goats and composite sheep breeds. His current research program in West Lafayette, Ind., exploits quantitative genetic and genomic principles to better understand traits associated with welfare, behavior and resilience in multiple livestock species.
Hess is an assistant professor in the Department of Agriculture, Veterinary and Rangeland Sciences at the University of Nevada-Reno. After completing his Ph.D. at Iowa State University, he spent four years in New Zealand, where he conducted genomic studies in sheep and other species for AgResearch. He currently oversees research priorities of the Rafter 7 flock, where he has implemented strategies that utilize precision livestock tools to identify sheep resilient to the challenges of extensive management through a combination of production, health and behavioral traits.
While members of the new NSIP Technical Committee leadership team were all born after NSIP was founded, we have tremendous appreciation for those early pioneers that laid the foundation.
We know there are many challenges that currently restrict growth in NSIP and the greater industry. We’ve seen market volatility, increased competition from foreign industries, domestic infrastructure contractions and a loss of sheep research programs across the country.
Participation in NSIP needs to grow, with recording and evaluating a wider range of traits. Routine elements of the genetic evaluation, such as adjustment factors, heritabilities and correlations, and selection indexes demand ongoing attention to ensure updated services. Well-structured reference populations need to be constructed before genomic selection can be applied for standard and novel traits important to the industry and its consumers. Solutions to these challenges come at a cost. But the one constant that will always be integral to the success of NSIP is sheep producers, scientists and industry personnel working together toward a common goal.
We wanted to leave you with a quote from the book Sheep Industry of the United States, published in 1892 that still rings true today, “…I contend that it requires more patience, more practice, more experience, more ability, more brain power to take care of a flock of sheep than it does to take care of a herd of cattle. It is more of a study, and when the flock of sheep gets that attention there is no class or kind of stock on the face of the globe that will pay greater returns year in and year out.”
We look forward to interacting with you at sheep industry events in the future.

Data Management for the American Sheep Producer


Digital technology has permeated every aspect of our modern lives. Almost everyone has a computer in their pocket, one more powerful than those used at NASA to put astronauts on the moon. Pickups and tractors need more IT support and less mechanics turning wrenches if something breaks down and a series of satellites orbiting the planet can tell you within inches where those pieces of machinery are and exactly what they are doing.
People can order almost anything by tapping on their cell phone a couple times and it magically appears at their door in mere hours after a whole host of logistics were figured instantaneously through technology and Artificial Intelligence. Admittedly, technology can be a real hassle at times and information-overload is real, however, there is true power and opportunity for sheep producers to improve productivity, increase labor efficiency and be more profitable by harnessing the power of data in their operations.
Sheep Genetics USA recently sat down with Superior Farms Director of Producer Relations Karissa Isaacs and National Sheep Improvement Program Director Rusty Burgett to discuss strategies to advance the sheep industry through the power of data and technology implementation at the producer level.

SGUSA: Most producers are aware that recordkeeping and data collection is important to their operation, but what is the main benefit to that effort of managing data?

Burgett: The benefits are going to be different for each producer, based on what industry segment they are in, what type of operation they run and a whole host of factors. Using data for genetic selection decisions to advance the flock is just the tip of the iceberg. Utilizing production records, we can also evaluate our management systems to see what is working and what isn’t and that can help us to solve a ton of problems if we just look at the right data and analyze it in the right way.

Isaacs: There seems to be a stigma around recordkeeping and data collection. No, the amount of phenotypic or genomic data you have on an animal does not determine its worth, but it can help you to make better management decisions. Whether or not you choose to keep detailed records of your flock, solely affects your bottom line. The main reason any producer should utilize records and data is to make your business progressive toward your operation standards. It should be based off your goals for your flock and your operation. It is important to set benchmarks around genetics, performance and ultimately profitability.

SGUSA: Are there any additional benefits that might play a more pivotal role as we progress in the industry?

Burgett: As technologies advance and become more accessible, we can benefit in so many more ways. Our genomic tools – like Flock54 and the Ovine GGP 50K array – can now tell us if our flocks are susceptible to certain diseases. Research teams are finding some of those traits might be linked to overall immune response and are trying to develop tools to evaluate longevity, hardiness and climatic resilience. More basically, we can also use these tools for traceability, which is important for value added supply chains and if/when we have to deal with a disease issue.

Isaacs: In the past five years, we have seen genomic technologies and data management software become more readily available to the sheep industry. The true value of these tools will be found as we continue to have more producers collecting phenotypic data and in turn utilizing genomic tools. With genomic tools – such as Flock54 or Ovine GGP 50K – they become more powerful as more animals with vast phenotypic data are tested. Genomic and phenotypic data are mutually beneficial as the phenotypic data can be analyzed to help researchers find correlations and relationships among traits.
When new markers for genomic tools are discovered, they can then be validated with phenotypic data provided. The addition of carcass markers to the Flock54 panel this fall is a result of analyzing large accurate sets of data from the camera grading system at our harvest facility in Dixon, Calif., along with those lambs genotyping data from Flock54.

SGUSA: The hot topic in genetic selection in recent years has been genomic evaluations that can generate thousands of data points from one sample. How can producers implement that vast amount of information from those tools into their flocks in a reasonable manner?

Isaacs: From my perspective, a farm or ranch should not need to worry about the thousands of datapoints generated from a genomic evaluation. At the farm level, producers should build their focus around traits that will improve their production and performance of their animals. Be sure to engage with sheep geneticists and producers already utilizing genomic tools and reach out to Rusty or myself to talk through the reason you might want to utilize tools such as the Ovine GGP 50K array or Flock54 to benefit your flock.
I highly encourage each producer to establish a genetic improvement plan or operation benchmarks to help to determine what tools are best to maximize your flock performance and profitability.

SGUSA: With all the information available, it can be overwhelming at times to actually use some of this data. How can we avoid information overload?

Burgett: Even though there are tons of Estimated Breeding Values and genomic markers available to everyone, most producers should pick just a handful of traits to put an emphasis on when they are making selection decisions. Those traits that are going to have the biggest impact on their flock’s profitability or where they need the most improvement. The key is having an efficient system to collect and analyze the data that is important to you. On farm or ranch, we need a way to track change and progress. We can collect all the data we want, but if we don’t actually use that data to make changes, then we are just spinning our wheels.
I’ve seen some people join NSIP and use all the genomic tools merely as a marketing opportunity, but the producers that are most successful are those that actually use those tools to make a more profitable sheep flock. Just because a ram has EBVs or has been genotyped doesn’t make it better than another. That ram has to have the right EBVs for your flock in your management system.
Isaacs: There is really no need to feel overwhelmed by data. By taking it one step at a time and utilizing others in the industry to answer questions, the data can be simplified.
As you develop benchmarks and a genetic improvement plan for your flock, the focus should be on overall production efficiency and profitability.
This is different for every producer due to varying end goals, feed availability, markets, etc. Once you have identified traits of importance, create a system that works for you to collect the phenotypic data that has correlations or potential to improve your productivity and performance of your flock.
For some, this might be utilizing devices such as management software and an animal handling system. For others, it might be Excel spreadsheets transcribed from barn notebooks from data that you are collecting.
Just as different data management tools exist, so do genomic tools. Make sure to educate yourself on what genomic tool fits your operation’s needs. The power of the large genomic evaluations comes from the geneticists in our industry that can take data from 50,000 or more SNPs and create EBVs and indexes that the producer can utilize.
Many NSIP seedstock producers find power in this tool as they generate G-EBVs. The smaller, targeted panel really focuses on single-marker traits, validating sire performance and parentage verification.

Seedstock Producers Adopt Emerging Technologies


Rambouillet breeder Beau Chapman of South Dakota and Hampshire breeder Mark Roembke of Wisconsin have both implemented the use of genetic and genomic technologies to improve their flocks. They visited with Sheep Genetics USA to discuss their use of these important tools in their breeding programs.

SGUSA: Could you briefly describe the markets that you have developed for your breeding stock? What are your buyers looking for in breeding stock?

Chapman: The markets developed for our breeding stock began in 1967 with my grandparents, Lenard and Margaret Chapman. They built a reputation for producing high-quality, registered Rambouillets that excel out on the range and in the show ring. Today, we raise polled and horned genetics and offer registered stud rams, range rams, ewes and ewe lambs, as well as commercial ewes, ewe lambs and feeder lambs. We consign stock to several sales throughout the year, such as the American Rambouillet Sheep Breeders Association Online & National Sale, Wyoming State Ram Sale, Newell Ram Sale, National Ram Sale, North Star Bred Ewe Sale and privately off the place.
Buyers are looking for various traits, but most of our customers choose Rambouillets for their superior wool quality, longevity, fertility, flocking instinct and mothering ability. A growing number of buyers are asking about the raw data we collect as well as National Sheep Improvement Program Estimated Breeding Values, which allow our customers to know more details about the traits they find important.

Roembke: Our primary focus is producing moderate frame, terminal sire rams for commercial producers that excel in gain and carcass traits. Rams are primarily sold in the NSIP Online Sale, NSIP Center of the Nation Sale, and privately off the farm using NSIP EBV data. Sound rams with high Carcass Plus EBVs have been the main driver of purchases. Producers indicate that they want post-weaning weight gain over carcass traits (post-weaning eye muscle depth) or vice versa.
Those raising lambs for ethnic markets want rams with higher weaning weights, but that is the novelty of NSIP data, it is all there. Producers state that lambs grow so fast they have to market them a month earlier than they have in the past and if they are on a grid system they have higher dressing percentage. I believe that is a testament to NSIP data working and doing what it is intended to do.

SGUSA: You both have been heavily involved with data collection and NSIP in the past several years. What have been the challenges you have faced and what are the largest benefits that you have experienced?

Chapman: Prior to NSIP, genetic improvement was accomplished by the use of data from the American Rambouillet Association Ram Test and visual appraisal in the show ring, both of which we continue to this day. Recently, NSIP data collection and evaluation have become a major part of our operation. All data collection methods have challenges, and there is always a learning curve to interpreting the data. I think one of the biggest challenges is the amount of time and labor it takes to collect the data. Through the years, we have integrated data collection into other necessary working days, like deworming and vaccinating.
The benefits of NSIP include using the EBVs for our own genetic improvement in both our registered and commercial flocks. We utilize NSIP data in the selection process, but only after our phenotypic selections have already been made. It is our goal to find a balance between the two. I also enjoy the reports and using the database to sort by traits, sires, age, etc. Another benefit of NSIP is the value it adds to our registered sheep. It is a marketing tool.

Roembke: You are correct. We have been collecting data for a long time, since my father started Roembke Hampshires in 1965. Early on, we utilized the Wisconsin Sheep Improvement Program, Wisconsin Ram Test Stations and now the National Sheep Improvement Program. Data collection started in BC – before computers. As a young kid, I would mark down when lambs were 60 and 90 days old on a calendar and then weigh the lambs on their 60- and 90-day birthdays.
One of the first challenges was interpreting NSIP data results. We deal in pounds of lambs and we would get a number back like .001 or .023. What the heck does that mean? Numbers that were so small you got discouraged. I tell new breeders in NSIP that it takes a few years to build up data and accuracy on the flock by yourself because they usually are flock-only EBVs. A way to kick-start your NSIP data is with across flock EBVs and being connected with another flock. It’s essentially purchasing – or using – a ram from an established breeder in NSIP to build your database because you are utilizing previous records from that other producer.
A second challenge – especially in our smaller, farm flock – is contemporary grouping. Collection of data from 15 to 20 lambs each, from two or more sires, born in the same time frame (40 to 45 days). I also like to use a buck lamb or two – to increase genetic progress – along with two main stud rams. Sometimes this can be difficult in a flock of 30 head with multiple sires.
Another challenge was the slow adaptation to using the NSIP data. Ram lambs and ewe lambs with EBVs that outperform their sires and dams are retained. This lowers our generation interval and drives faster progress within NSIP. We have been selling aged ewes to other producers that have many good years of production left, but if we want to make progress, we have to make those hard decisions. A final challenge is locating unrelated genetics without losing progress we have already made.

SGUSA: The age of genomics is upon us. How do you see your flock and your respective breed using this technology in the future?

Chapman: We are currently working with Dr. Ron Lewis as a Rambouillet Innovation Flock with the Sheep GEMS Project, where we are collecting and submitting data and DNA. Genomically enhanced EBVs will increase the accuracy of the EBVs and strengthen our confidence in selection of stud rams and stud ewes for us. I don’t know what the future holds for genomics within our breed, hopefully our fellow seedstock producers and customers are excited about where this technology can take us.

ROEMBKE: Personally, we are genomics testing our first animals this year. I envision that we will continue using the technology and as genomics technology advances more producers will come on board. As in other breeds, NSIP producers will need to be early innovators as they have years of data to back the DNA results.

Technology Proving Invaluable In Combating Parasites

Texas A&M AgriLife

Readers of the Sheep Industry News are likely all too familiar with the dreaded Haemonchus contortus. Rare is the shepherd who hasn’t lost sheep to Barber’s Pole worm or at least has dark memories of spending an afternoon drenching animals on a hot summer day.
Making matters increasingly worse, the anthelmintics available to treat Haemonchus infections are becoming less and less effective, thanks to the buildup of resistance by these worms to a limited number of treatments approved for use in the United States. However, having even more dewormers at our disposal would only be a temporary fix because gastrointestinal nematodes are an ever-growing problem, and we can no longer rely on treatment alone to bail us out. If you own sheep, some form of genetic selection for increasing natural parasite resistance in your flocks is a must.
Parasite resistance is sometimes a catch-all term used for animals or breeds that don’t seem to get wormy. In truth, there are many layers of complexity to what animals are truly resistant and how we can identify those individuals within or across breeds.
In somewhat simplified terms, sheep with high levels of parasite resistance have immune systems that are more proficient at recognizing the newly introduced worm pathogen for what it is and rapidly mounting an immune response effective against it. Research has shown the most effective immune response against GIN is a Th2-type, in respect to the T-helper lymphocytes production of IL-4, IL-5 and IL-13 cytokines (proteins used for cellular signaling) and the corresponding immune cells and antibodies that are recruited to the mucin layer along the inner lining of the abomasum – the actual site of parasite/host interaction.
Generally, breeds of sheep that were developed closer to the equator and have adapted to a parasite-rich environment for centuries will mount a strong Th2-type response, whereas those from more seasonal areas do not. In some breeds – particularly animals that have not had previous exposure to Haemonchus – their immune systems treat the parasitic worm similarly to a bacteria or virus and induce a pro-inflammatory response (Th1 type), which is not nearly as effective at combating a parasitic infection.
Through the University of Idaho (where I’m pursuing my Ph.D.) and Texas A&M AgriLife Research, I have had the opportunity to work on better understanding the response of certain sheep to parasites, particularly animals from susceptible breeds such as the Rambouillet and Dorper. True parasite resistance is maybe not the realistic goal in these breeds, but more so reducing their susceptibility to a level where they can reasonably defend themselves against a moderate parasite challenge.
Here in San Angelo, Texas, we have flocks of about 200 ewes each of Rambouillet and Dorper enrolled in the National Sheep Improvement Program, and for the last eight years have submitted fecal egg counts on our lamb crops to generate a range of weaning and post-weaning egg count Estimated Breeding Values. These two flocks provide a great foundation for research as we try to further understand how the response of Dorper and Rambouillet to Haemonchus contortus compares to other breeds. The first of our parasite research projects was in 2020, when our Rambouillet lamb crop was sired by rams that had diverging FEC EBVs – above and below breed average. We placed these lambs in a worm-free environment – feedlot – and actually gave them all a consistent amount of just Haemonchus contortus infective-stage larvae.
We proceeded to collect weekly FECs for the next six weeks from the lambs and then compared their results back to their sire’s FEC EBV. As hypothesized, lambs from the low FEC sire had reduced FECs compared to the high EBV sire group across the entirety of the artificial challenge trial. While this might seem like a fairly straightforward result, it’s important to note that the sire’s EBVs had been developed using data collected from animals grazing on range, where there are a mix of parasite species present and consumption of worms by each sheep cannot be determined.
It was reassuring to know that FEC EBVs of the rams were predictive of the lambs’ FECs when challenged solely with Haemonchus contortus. In short, this provided somewhat of a validation that National Sheep Improvement Program EBVs are an effective strategy for reducing susceptibility of Rambouillet to the most threatening GIN.
Following this first study in Rambouillet, we next conducted an artificial challenge with Dorper lambs, as well as Barbados Blackbelly crossbred lambs that were expected to have a high level of Haemonchus contortus resistance. As expected, the Barbados cross lambs barely registered an infection, as they most likely were able to prevent the vast majority of the larvae from ever becoming established. However, in line with our previous findings, the FEC EBV of the Dorper lambs themselves – which ranged from >100 to -80 percent for PFEC – and their sires (Figure 1), were very accurate predictors of their FECs across the trial.
While the results of these challenges suggests that NSIP EBVs can make a difference for this trait, the question still remains, when we select sheep from these notably GIN-susceptible breeds for a reduced FEC EBV, what are the biological changes that are occurring? We have approached answering this a couple ways.
First, we conducted a genome wide association study in all the lambs we have artificially challenged with Haemonchus contortus, as well as others from which we had FEC data while they were grazing on pasture (natural parasite challenge). In brief, a GWAS looks for associations between single nucleotide polymorphisms and a particular phenotype – in this case, FEC. When an association is identified, there is an indication that the area in the genome where that SNP is located is relevant for why the animal(s) being tested have a higher or lower FEC.
Conducting a GWAS is one strategy for finding genes that are important for parasite resistance or susceptibility. In our GWAS, we identified 26 different SNP that were significantly associated with FEC and packed-cell volume – PCV is a measurement of anemia – albeit the impact of each SNP was moderate. It is generally regarded that parasite susceptibility is a polygenic trait – many genes involved – and our findings would agree.
In our next approach, we also harvested a subset of lambs from this Dorper/Barbados trial three weeks after they were infected with the Haemonchus contortus larvae. From these lambs, we collected actual worm counts as well as tissue from the inner lining of their abomasums for further RNA sequencing analysis. This part of the project has yet to be published and admittedly the details can get pretty thick, so I’ll spare you the finer points. But from this information we will be able to compare gene expression and immune differences between low PFEC EBV lambs and the highly GIN-resistant Barbados lambs. It can be challenging to compare NSIP data across breeds, but our hope is this work can shed more light on how parasite susceptibility can be altered in a breed that is not noted for its ability to withstand a significant worm burden. Not to mention, this study will ultimately help us better understand the biological mechanisms of resistance and susceptibility to parasites.
In conclusion, I want to highlight the fact that our work in Dorper and Rambouillet is only possible because of the excellent genetic and parasite science that is being conducted by many other brilliant researchers and because multiple state and federal funding sources believe in this type of research. This research continues to demonstrate the importance of buying seedstock with EBVs generated through NSIP to improve the health and productivity of sheep. We hope our findings eventually help contribute to a stronger, more sustainable American sheep industry with shepherds spending a little less time having to drench their animals.

Pedigreed Sheep in the Digital Age

United Suffolk Sheep Association

In this digital age of technology, one breed has stepped forward to offer exciting potential to not just its members, but also to the greater sheep industry. The United Suffolk Sheep Association made the investment and implemented a program called Digital Suffolk.
In the fall of 2021, USSA partnered with Digital Beef – a software provider widely used in the beef industry – to create a customized platform for pedigreed sheep called Digital Ovine. More than just a registry platform, this software offers various tools such as flock management and search capabilities that benefit USSA members and commercial sheep producers across the globe.
USSA is the first sheep breed to give its members a digital program that offers:
• Whole flock recordkeeping of both registered and non-registered animals;
• Recording of DNA, weights, scanning data and NSIP information;
• Extensive search capabilities within the database;
• Unique features for such things as semen inventory and sales, health treatments, inbreeding co-efficients and virtual matings;
• Real-time registration service, with auto-pay and QR verification;
• Marketing tools, photo options, sale listings, customer index and more.
The value of USSA membership has increased significantly because of this program. And as time goes on – and more input is acquired – this digital tool will continue to increase in scope and value.
The added bonus of the Digital Suffolk program is the value it brings to the commercial sheep industry. Public access makes it possible for people to:
• Search for animals within the database;
• Conduct pedigree research;
• View animals designated for sale;
• Connect with breeders in desired locations.
This platform is publicly available via the USSA website at by clicking on the Digital Suffolk icon in the upper right corner or directly at
The investment was made by the Suffolk breed, but the connection that it offers to all sheep breeders has potential for growth and value across the industry. Suffolks have a strong reputation as a terminal sire breed. These sires are now more readily accessed and selected via this digital platform. The launch of Digital Suffolk is the beginning of a new era of connection among the different facets of the American sheep industry.

A Journey in Sheep GEMS

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

The GEMS in Sheep GEMS means Genetics, Environment, Management and Socioeconomics. The interplay amongst those elements of a production system is the underpinning for this project. Our specific focus is to enhance the sustainability of these systems by genetically improving the robustness and climatic resilience of our sheep flocks.
Why so? Our industry consists of a variety of breeds raised across a range of geographies that not only differ in their climatic conditions, but in their management practices. Breeding robust animals that perform well under these conditions is thereby key. The challenge is that nearly half – 44 percent – of U.S. ewes are culled prematurely for reasons other than age.
Approximately 7 percent of the total American lamb crop dies each year from non-predator related causes. Clinically healthy ewes yet with high somatic cell counts in their milk cause economic losses of $19 to $32 per ewe. More than 20 percent of mature ewes in most commercial flocks have been diagnosed with high somatic cell counts, emphasizing its consequences on ewe productivity.
One way to reduce the impact of these challenges is to breed for greater sustainability. Currently, though, traits that define robustness and climatic resilience are largely absent in domestic genetic evaluations. By working with sheep producers engaged in the National Sheep Improvement Program and U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service facilities with sheep programs, through Sheep GEMS we intend to address this limitation.
By evaluating traits indicative of robustness and climatic resilience – namely lamb survival, ewe longevity, udder health and gastrointestinal parasite resistance – in both industry and research flocks, we plan to develop tools American sheep producers can use to incorporate sustainability into their breeding goals. This includes using genomic information to estimate breeding values more accurately for these new traits, as well as those already included in NSIP.
Sheep GEMS is in its early days. It began about a year and half ago. To fully evaluate ewe performance across a production season, we need her records collected around breeding, lambing and weaning. With many flocks breeding in the fall, we are just now gathering our first full season of production data.
Industry engagement has been good. Performance records on 17 Katahdin, eight Polypay, seven Rambouillet, and 11 Suffolk flocks have been received so far. We anticipate a few more NSIP flock owners in these breeds submitting their data shortly. In addition, flock records on these same four breeds are being generated at three collaborating USDA/ARS facilities: the Dale Bumpers Small Farms Research Center, the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center and the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station.
We have also collected substantial genomic – molecular – information. Genotypes on more than 12,000 animals are already available, most substantially in Katahdin (10,231), Rambouillet (929), and Polypay (854) sheep. More than half of those genotypes were collected as part of Sheep GEMS.
Most exciting is that during the next couple of years – as we complete our data collection – we will generate a large, unique dataset to thoroughly evaluate robustness, climatic resilience and other key novel traits in our American sheep flocks.

Although using molecular information in genetic evaluation has become routine in many livestock species, its uptake is more limited in sheep. In part, that is because of the higher cost of genotyping relative to the value of an individual animal. One way to save on costs is to use a single genotyping platform to generate more molecular-based information.
In Sheep GEMS, the genotyping platform used is a medium-density array with about 50,000 genetic markers. With the genomic information collected with this platform, we can achieve several aims. We can more accurately estimate breeding values – called genomic prediction. We can verify parentage.
We can also determine genetic conditions. Using this 50K array, we have developed and validated a reliable way to determine animals’ status for five genetic conditions: ovine progressive pneumonia susceptibility, scrapie susceptibility, double muscling, callipyge, and booroola FecB. We have already released those results to participating breeders. The extra cost associated with obtaining these specific genetic conditions as independent tests exceeds the cost of the 50K array by itself.

Genetic condition status can be useful in selection (culling) and mating decisions, and in marketing programs. However, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. In part, it depends on the economic importance of the genetic condition to a sheep enterprise. It also depends on knowing the frequency of various genotypes in a breed and flock, and then using that information judiciously in selection and mating decisions. Culling all animals with less favorable genotypes is seldom the best strategy. From our results (Figure 1), there are clear differences among breeds in OPP and PRNP susceptibilities. That information is useful for designing breeding objectives tailored to the needs and priorities of individual breeds and flocks.

Improvements in the accuracy of estimating breeding values when incorporating genomic information depend in part on the number of animals with both performance and genotype data within a breed. Those individuals form a breed’s reference population. The reference population needs to capture the full genetic diversity of a breed, which is being accounted for in the design of the genotyping strategy underway in Sheep GEMS.
Breeds differ in their genetic diversity due to factors such as past selection, population size, breeding policies and geographic distributions. Due to these factors, genetic variation is often lost through time. This loss in diversity translates into the number of individuals effectively participating in producing the next generation, or the effective population size (Ne).
The Ne is often substantially smaller than the actual number of individuals in a population or breed. By estimating the Ne of a breed – our proxy for the extent of its genetic diversity – we can approximate the size of the reference population needed to achieve different levels of accuracy from genomic prediction. Estimating the Ne and other genetic diversity measures also helps us to establish a baseline to monitor genetic diversity as we move forward.
Using more than 92,000 pedigree records available through NSIP on Katahdin sheep, we estimated its Ne using a variety of methods. Our minimum estimate was 49. Our average estimate was 75. Using those values, we approximated the accuracy of our breeding value estimates for traits of low (0.1), moderate (0.3) and high (0.5) heritability (Figure 2). With a smaller Ne, a higher heritability, and a larger reference population, accuracies were higher. In Katahdins, with more than 10,000 animals already genotyped, we are already achieving fairly accurate genomic predictions.
There are some key take home messages from this research. First, genetic diversity – and thereby Ne – differs among breeds. Among the aims of Sheep GEMS is to estimate Ne in all the breeds involved based on more accurate genomic methods.
Second, even once the size of a reference population becomes large enough to generate accurate breeding value estimates, genotyping and phenotyping must continue. The reference population must continue to be replenished with animals currently in use in a breed for the benefits of genomic prediction to continue being fulfilled.

Resistance to internal parasitism is among the robustness and climatic resilience traits being considered in Sheep GEMS. Evaluating this trait has challenges. With sheep being raised in various climates and management systems across the United States, the extent of challenge to gastrointestinal parasites varies appreciably. There is also the potential for a genotype by environment interaction (G x E), where individual animals, or sire families, respond differently to the parasite challenge depending on the climate and management practices in which they are raised.
Working with NSIP Katahdin producers spread across the United States, we conducted a survey to gather information about their management practices. The survey results were combined with climate data from the National Weather Service to form nine eco-management groups or clusters to describe production environments more holistically.
Using body weights, fecal egg counts and FAMACHA scores on 3,527 Katahdin lambs collected at around 90 days of age, we estimated heritabilities both across and within the eco-management clusters. We also tested for G x E. Across the eco-management clusters, heritabilities of BW, FEC and FAMACHA were 0.36, 0.31 and 0.26, respectively. However, within clusters, phenotypic variances and heritabilities differed appreciably.
Heritabilities ranged from 0.30 to 0.37 for BW, from 0.18 to 0.50 for FEC and 0.07 to 0.40 for FAMACHA. Furthermore, we detected substantial G x E in all three traits. The G x E explained 20 percent, 13 percent and 17 percent of the phenotypic variation in BW, FEC and FAMACHA, respectively.
Although accounting for G x E introduces operational challenges in the design and implementation of breeding programs, doing so would improve the efficacy of selection programs to improve parasite resistance.
Returning to the idea that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for everyone, for parasite resistance and other traits with a G x E, we envision providing a tool whereby breeders can obtain EBVs tailored to their climate and management system.
Sheep GEMS is in its early days. Still, our preliminary outcomes are promising. They set the foundation for providing the American sheep industry with methods to improve genetically the robustness and climatic resilience of our flocks. Our success depends on the ongoing support of sheep producers. We look forward to continuing our journey into Sheep GEMS with you.

The Sheep GEMS scientific team is Ron Lewis (Project Director), Luiz Brito (Project Co-Director), Brad Freking, Joan Burke, Tom Murphy, Bret Taylor, Carrie Wilson, Sara Nilson, Brian Arisman, Artur Oliveira Rocha and Hilal Yazar Gunes.

We thank the many American sheep associations and breed organizations, NSIP and sheep producers, for their contributions to this research. This work is supported by the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (grant no. 2016-51300-25723/project accession no. 1010329), and by the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Competitive Grant (grant no. 2022-67015-36073/project accession no. 1027785), from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Young Researchers Lead State Initiatives


Dr. Kelly Froehlich of South Dakota State University and Dr. Chad Page of Utah State University are two of several young state extension personnel that are guiding the American sheep industry into the future. Sheep Genetics USA sat down with them to visit about their roles in the industry.

SGUSA: Please share your background and how you became involved in the sheep industry.

Froehlich: My godparents helped fuel my interest in sheep at a young age. Every year, one of the highlights of the Minnesota State Fair was going to visit my godparent’s sheep in the barn in addition to visiting their farm in Iowa. When I was around 13, I convinced my parents to allow me to get seven Lincoln ewes. The first few years, I spent a lot of time trying to keep sheep from escaping and my godparents were always a phone call away for all my sheep questions. From there, the flock grew and I was determined to learn all I could about sheep. In high school, I enrolled in all the online Pipestone Lamb and Wool Program courses available and became involved with the Minnesota Lamb and Wool Producers.
I pursed my education in animal science and had the opportunity to go abroad to New Zealand for my Ph.D. While I enjoyed my time there, I missed my sheep, and was excited to come back to the United States and be a part of the sheep industry here. That was the motivation to apply for my current job.

Page: I grew up in Chandler, Ariz., on a small sheep and goat operation. My love of animals was seeded by my grandfather, who spent many hours just watching his sheep and teaching me about livestock animals. Ultimately, I ended up pursuing a degree in animal science with an interest in many disciplines. In grad school, I had the honor of conducting a project that involved many sheep ranchers across Montana. Through interaction with those producers, it didn’t take long to realize that I wanted to work with the great people whose livelihood depend on the sheep industry.
Since then, I have completed a Ph.D. focusing on sheep mineral supplementation at the University of Wyoming, and currently serve as an extension sheep and goat specialist while teaching future sheep producers at Utah State University. I continue to meet incredible people throughout our industry and try to serve them as best as I can.

SGUSA: What are the projects that you are working on regarding the sheep industry through your respective universities?

Page: Utah State University has a number of projects and new collaborations currently going on. Since my main job description involves teaching, we try to involve as many undergraduates as possible. Some projects include mineral research in Cedar City, Utah, with Southern Utah University to help determine effects on range use and forage selection with and without mineral supplement.
We have also recently started working with the Utah Department of Natural Resources to graze sheep and goats on invasive weeds in mule deer winter habitat. As many may know, Superior Farms has recently opened the Sheep Discovery Center in Utah and we have been exploring multiple ways to include them in our programs, including class field trips and research. Most recently, we started a collaborative feeding trial using fodder to finish lambs.
But as interesting as research is, the focal point in the Utah State sheep program is to involve students in the industry through hands-on opportunities. Approximately 100 to 150 students yearly have the opportunity to visit a large range operation and help conduct breeding soundness exams, help serve at the National Ram Sale in Utah, or participate in a number of other programs including the USU shearing school or soon to be lambing school. We hope to help produce students who are excited and ready to join our industry.
Froehlich: My responsibilities are split between teaching, research and extension. I teach sheep and wool production every fall and my current research is mainly focused on lamb wellbeing and productivity. Specifically, some of my upcoming projects are looking at the impacts of quality colostrum on a lamb’s microbiome and health.
I have a majority extension appointment and help provide a variety of educational programs across the state for various sheep events and organize events such as the South Dakota Sheep Shearing School. In addition, I have joined with regional colleagues to provide support of the UI-USU-SDSU monthly Sheep and Goat webinar that is open to anybody interested in learning more.
One of my primary signature extension programs is spearheading the SDSU Emerging Sheep Producer Program. In South Dakota and nationwide, we have seen an influx of new producers. While this is encouraging for the growth of the industry, encouragement and support is needed. Therefore, with colleague and industry support, we have designed the program to encourage and support new producers wanting to develop or improve a full or part-time sheep operation.

SGUSA: Focusing on sheep genetics, what are the challenges that you see our industry facing in the next 10 years?

Froehlich: Adaptation and application of genetic technology to improve production efficiencies. Rising input costs and societal pressure to be climate-friendly will require the American sheep industry to be proactive and not keep doing the same things repeatedly. Historically, the American sheep industry has been slow to adapt and use genetic resources and technologies. This is a challenge for everyone involved.
We need educators to improve access and sharing of information, producers willing to adapt and implement, researchers and industry to continue to improve and streamline the ability to collect, share and analyze data. While U.S. sheep numbers have continued to decline, consumption of lamb and use of wool has increased. We need the industry to grow with those demands.
Although production efficiency will and should look different for every producer, the use of genetic technology can help. Whether this is increasing the number of lambs born (prolificacy), survival to weaning or improving resiliency to parasites, improving animal efficiency and therefore welfare should be something we all can agree on.

Page: I think it’s important to focus on genetic selection, whether it’s done by your own selection criteria, or using tools such as the National Sheep Improvement Program that can help with traits difficult to quantify. Sheep producers across the United States have to deal with a multitude of factors out of their control, such as drought, cost of feed, weather, predation, loss of infrastructure or even legislation. One thing that we can control is genetic selection and we should use all the tools available.
While some producers can tap into niche markets with wool or other products, current market prices reward prolific sheep with good growth characteristics. I also think that using cross breeding with complimentary breeds and buying animals that can survive in your environment is crucial, since the cost of replacement animals can be high. Future emphasis on genetic values of prolificacy, growth and longevity will be important for many commercial sheep operations, especially in the Intermountain West.

The Potential Value of International Sheep Evaluations


In the United States, the five breeds with the greatest number of National Sheep Improvement Program records are Katahdin, Polypay, Targhee, Rambouillet and Suffolk. Many of these breeds – or derivatives thereof – are also found in the top sheep-producing regions of the world such as Australia, New Zealand, France and the United Kingdom.
In these countries, the use of genomics has become commonplace, with genomic information being an integral part of national genetic evaluations. Integration of genomics has had a desirable impact on sheep production and welfare in these countries, with an increase in the rate of progress being observed, particularly for expensive- and hard-to-measure traits, such as feed efficiency and meat quality. This increase in the rate of genetic progress can in part be attributed to more accurately capturing the relationships between individuals, particularly across breeds where relationships are not captured using pedigree information. This typically results in an improvement in the ability to estimate the genetic merit of an individual, particularly at a younger age.
Genomic selection is a numbers game, and the accuracy of selecting the best animals improves as the number of animals with both genotypes and phenotypes gets larger. In these top sheep producing countries that have embraced genomic selection, a wealth of genomic and phenotypic information is being collected. For example, a report generated for the Australian sheep industry states that more than 120,000 sheep had been genotyped for genomic selection in the 2021-2022 year alone. The countries that have amassed a wealth of data have the potential to setup international genomic evaluations for selection of animals with superior performance across a range of environments.
A prime example of the potential that can be tapped when considering international genetic evaluations can be found in the dairy cattle industry through the efforts of Interbull, which implemented the first international evaluation (multiple across-country evaluations) in the 1980s. The success of this approach depends on the sharing of breeding animals (in the context of dairy cattle, bulls and semen) across these countries, which allows the information to be captured through shared pedigree relationships between the countries. In this way, the countries become linked by shared genetics.
Through international evaluations, animals can be more reliably compared throughout the world in the context of a given country of interest. International evaluations and international trade of semen also has the opportunity to increase genetic diversity through introduction of new genetic lines. An increase in the level of inbreeding is a natural consequence of genetic selection, because genetically more similar individuals are expected to rank more similarly in their performance than with phenotypic selection.

It has been observed in species such as dairy cattle – which were early adopters of genomic selection – that rates of inbreeding per year have accelerated since the implementation of genomics selection due to the ability to select superior animals more intensely and accurately at a younger age. Obviously, the benefits have outweighed the consequences to date, with substantial genetic improvement being made in both the dairy and international sheep industries.
Genetic evaluations that incorporate genomic information have become commonplace in the global dairy cattle industry, which has been greatly facilitated by early and strong adoption of the genotyping technologies in the industry, and this information has also been integrated into these genetic evaluations. Compared to pedigree information, genomic selection captures more historic relationships between countries, because the shared ancestral history of breeds is contained within the code of an individual’s DNA. We can capitalize on this shared ancestral information captured through genotyping to improve the accuracy of selecting animals with superior genetics.
For example, Dr. Luiz Brito has assessed the ability to predict genetic merit across New Zealand and Norwegian sheep, to evaluate the potential of conducting international genetic evaluations between these countries. He found that the genetic linkages between the flocks in these countries has enabled predictions of animals to be made across countries, with an improvement in accuracy most notably being observed for traits with a low number of phenotypic data available.
One of the aims of the Sheep GEMS project – read more about that research on page 24 – is to start collecting genomic information representative of the diversity in the American sheep industry to be used for genomic selection. As the sheep industry in the United States establishes genomic selection as a more routine practice, genomic selection practices would benefit from incorporating genomic information from other countries. This would have benefit in breeds that are connected to flocks in other countries – i.e., when semen has been imported from another country for artificial insemination in ewes from an American sheep flock. Incorporating genomic information from other countries has the potential to increase the number of individuals considered for domestic genetic evaluations, which can improve the ability to accurately select the superior animals in the United States.
Countries that have implemented genomic selection have seen impressive progress in their production traits since implementation. The ability to rank American animals within their evaluations will enable performance benchmarking of these animals. The trade of semen between countries has the potential to boost performance in American sheep by bringing in some of the top genetics in the world.
However, this is contingent upon how well the offspring of the elite animals from those countries perform in the environments in the United States. There are potential environments that would match between primary sheep producing countries and the United States, which holds promise for this to be used as a tool to benefit the American sheep industry.
For example, Australian Merinos are managed in environments that are like Western range environments, providing the potential to successfully introduce these genetics in the United States. In fact, the genetic lines in the Rafter 7 flock at the University of Nevada-Reno were originally developed using semen from Australia, and the purebred Merino line has continued to incorporate Australian Merino genetics periodically since the line was established.
Ongoing research by Dr. Andrew Hess is focused on assessing the value of incorporating Australian sheep genetics and the potential for incorporating data from other countries to improve the ability to select the top-performing animals. More generally, however, the impact of incorporating genetics from top sheep-producing countries and the ability to use data collected in other countries for the betterment of the American sheep industry is something that warrants further investigation.

Bentley Selected for Sheep Heritage Scholarship

Sheep Heritage Foundation Memorial Scholarship Winner Kelsey Bentley had only minimal involvement with sheep before arriving at West Virginia University in the summer of 2019. But her research in parasite resistance in Katahdins in the past four years pushed her application to the top of a crowded, qualified field of scholarship applicants.
“I was shocked, coming from the East Coast,” Bentley said of her reaction to winning the $3,000 scholarship. “Looking at some of the past winners, I wasn’t sure how I would do. But the Katahdins are becoming more popular both in the East and a little bit out West. I really appreciate this scholarship and hope to put the money to good use as I finish up my research in the next year.”
After finishing her bachelor’s degree at North Carolina State University, Bentley was lured to West Virginia to be the livestock judging coach as she pursued a master’s degree – which she finished in June of 2021. She’s now in the final year of a Ph.D. program at the school.
“I went to NC State and my emphasis was on swine research. I got really involved with research and decided to go that route instead of the vet route,” she said. “I grew up just showing sheep out of somebody’s barn. I would go and help do some chores and stuff like that. But me and my parents never raised sheep.”
Overseen by ASI, the Sheep Heritage Foundation is a charitable foundation dedicated to enhancing the value of the sheep industry in the United States. It was established to create programs and projects that will assure opportunities for the future of the American sheep industry. This annual scholarship program is the main focus of the foundation.
In addition to winning the SHF Memorial Scholarship, Bentley was selected as a Ruby Fellow at West Virginia University for the 2021-22 academic year and as a recipient of a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Graduate Student Research Grant in 2022.
“My primary research is evaluating the immunological patterns in Katahdin sheep with divergent genotypes for post weaning fecal egg count estimated breeding value,” Bentley wrote in her scholarship application. “We intend to use this project as a starting point to allow for a comprehensive genetic analysis of the Katahdin breed in the context of bacterial infections. By using a transcriptome wide approach, we have the capability to gain new insights into the differences in gene regulation in sheep bred for a biomarker which has strong preliminary evidence to regulate immune function.
“This will give us potential avenues of exploration into the immunoregulation of individuals during a disease state. During active bacterial infection my research has also quantified behavioral differences between individuals with divergent PFEC genotypes. Being that duration and severity of sick behaviors drive treatment, this EBV gives producers a genetic tool to select for individuals which have less severity of subclinical disease. By doing so, we can effectively reduce the dependency of ruminant production systems on antimicrobials and ensure their judicious use into the future.
“Fundamentally, we hope to gain the ability to substantiate the claims that selection for PFEC selects for improve immunocompetency outside of just parasitic infections. I am currently working on a manuscript – Post-weaning fecal egg count estimated breeding value is associated with greater antibody production after clostridial vaccination in Katahdin lambs – for the Journal of Small Ruminant Research. I also plan to speak at the National Katahdin Expo in Van Wert, Ohio (Aug. 10-12) and present my findings direct to producers.”
Bentley is already getting her feet wet in the job market and hopes to obtain a research and teaching faculty position with a university in or near her home state of North Carolina.
“Growing up with my only involvement in sheep as a club lamb girl, when I first got to West Virginia and saw the Katahdins, I was like, ‘What are these critters?’ Bentley said. “But they’ve grown on me. I think the industry is moving toward flocks that either have the highest-quality wool or no wool at all, and for a lot of producers Katahdins might be the answer. I’m a little partial to them now because all my research is centered around them. But I think there’s potential to implement that research within other breeds, as well.”
Bentley earned high praise in recommendation letters from both her advisor, Dr. Scott Bowdridge in West Virginia, and Dr. Scott Greiner of Virginia Tech. Much of her research was a collaborative effort between the two schools.
“Kelsey is an extraordinarily bright, well-spoken and thoughtful advocate for our industry,” wrote Bowdridge. “Her dissertation work has the potential to have long lasting effects on the American sheep industry, particularly in current times when antibiotics are less available. Her connection to sheep producers combined with her basic science mind and ability makes me hopeful for the future of sheep research in the United States. It is my estimation that Kelsey embodies the spirit of this award and is exactly the type of student we should be exemplifying through this program.”
Visit to learn more about the Sheep Heritage Foundation.

Changes in Cattle Industry Show Where Sheep Are Headed


Leachman Cattle CEO and Founder Lee Leachman is a third-generation seedstock cattle producer who markets more than 2,000 head of Angus, Red Angus, Stabilizer and Charolais bulls annually. As a past president of the Beef Improvement Federation and a recognized innovator and leader in the field of beef cattle genetics, he offers a look at how genetic technology became so prevalent in his industry.

SGUSA: The use of Breeding Values are now widely accepted in the cattle industry. What were the major challenges the cattle industry faced in the adoption of that new technology?

Leachman: Breeding Values for cattle first arrived in the early 1980s. It took nearly 20 years for them to become widely accepted. In beef cattle, this adoption was greatly aided by the use of BVs in the dairy industry. Beef cattle producers could directly see the progress being made in dairy cattle. Even more importantly, the bovine semen distribution companies used BVs on dairy bulls and quickly adopted their use for selection of beef bulls to market.
As in all segments of animal breeding, master breeders of beef genetics had established themselves through visual selection. They bred for a type. The most successful breeders, generally, were those that had uniform herds with exemplary phenotype. Like any major change, the move from phenotypic selection to data driven selection was painful. For starters, breeders didn’t really understand the BVs, and their commercial genetics customers understood them even less. Everyone in the industry was trained to do visual selection. To this day, the highest selling bulls are all phenotypic standouts. The easiest bulls to sell to commercial ranchers are the good-looking ones.
One of the big challenges is that it takes a lot of data to get good predictions. Plus, the data models depend on strong genetic linkages between herds and proper contemporary group designations. Ultimately, the predictions were and are only as good as the data submitted by the breeders. Even when the data is correctly calculated, it is still hard for breeders and commercial herds to see the differences.
Another major challenge is that not all high BV animals are good. Yes, they excel at one trait, but that does not make them good animals. Often times, the traits we seek to improve are negatively correlated to other important traits. A classic example is growth rate versus calving ease. As the growth rate increased, we initially had troubles with birth weight and calving ease.
More recently, we’ve seen many high genetic merit Angus bulls manifest poor claw structure. It’s hard to have faith in Breeding Values when the high BV animals turn out to cause more problems than they are worth.
The last – and perhaps most significant – challenge was the skepticism expressed by breeders. Through the years, every major breeder has seen their leading genetic line succumb to being ranked low on some trait. The natural response is for the breeder to discount the accuracy of the genetic predictions – doing so ultimately undermines confidence in the system.

SGUSA: You spend a lot of time working with profit predicting indexes. What economic differences in the cattle industry have you witnessed by using those indexes and Breeding Values in general?

Leachman: By using Breeding Values, we dramatically increased the growth rate of beef cattle in the last 40 years. At the same time, we all but eliminated females that were very low on milk. Breeds that had weaknesses on one or two traits used BVs to move their breed means and become more competitive in the marketplace. Perhaps most notably, we have been able to dramatically increase end product quality by selecting for marbling. These changes were primarily driven by individual trait selection using BVs.
Unfortunately, with these changes have come some negatives. I already mentioned the decrease in calving ease and the increase in hoof problems. In the case of calving ease, we simply implemented BVs that allowed us to keep calving ease at the right level. The same will happen with hoof structure – we’ll use BVs to make sure the animals are on the right side of the population mean. In fact, one of the great strengths of BVs is that they allow you to make progress on multiple traits that are antagonistic.
The terminal traits tend to be easier to measure and easier to improve due to higher heritability rates. This improvement inevitably comes at the expense of feed cost, health and maternal function. Once this trend is discovered – often well down the road – it then takes a long time to repair. This is where indexes come in handy.
Indexes allow you to put pressure on multiple traits at the same time. The key to successful indexes is the inclusion of all of the economically relevant traits. If you leave an economically relevant trait out of an index, then it is almost certain to go in the wrong direction. On the other hand, if you include them all, then you will have much more likelihood of success.
Another major advantage of indexes is that they allow you to more optimally balance selection among multiple traits. Profitability in livestock supply chains depends on a dozen or more genetic traits. The human mind is incapable of balancing selection of more than handful of traits at once. Instead, we often use thresholds. Thresholds typically reduce the rate of improvement on profit. Thus indexes – if properly designed – can give you the most rapid rate of improvement on overall system profitability.

SGUSA: New and less expensive genetic technology is being developed at a rapid pace within the livestock sector. As you look to the future, how do you see this new technology being used in the cattle industry?

Leachman: In pigs and chickens, the genetic company supplies the female. In beef cattle, commercial females are selected based on visual appraisal. Today, we are seeing genomic predictions revolutionize the selection of replacement females. Commercial herds cannot afford to collect data.
However, the difference between their top 30 percent replacements and their average replacements is large. Genomics can now accurately predict these differences. Further, you can eliminate outliers that cause management problems. In cattle, those outliers would include: poor disposition, sub-par calving ease, bad udder quality and even reduced longevity. Combining genomics with indexes to select replacements can really supercharge the rate of genetic improvement in a commercial cow herd.
Genomics also greatly increased the rate of genetic progress on traits that cannot be directly measured on young seedstock males. On the maternal side, this is almost every trait. SNP panel genomic predictions dramatically increase the accuracy of these maternal predictions. DNA enhanced selection changed the way dairy bulls were chosen and is now doing the same to beef bulls.
The use of sexed semen and in vitro fertilization is currently emerging as a game changing combination. Elite females can now produce hundreds of progeny. Further, we can now produce specialized lines of males for maternal and terminal traits. We don’t have to make very many sisters to our terminal line males. Additionally, we can make sexed female embryos that might become cost effective for use in commercial herds.
The challenge to genomic technology remains the cost of the DNA testing, but this cost is dropping. As it does so, we will see DNA being used to value replacement females and feeder cattle. Then feedlots will implement precision animal management based on genetic predictions.
It’s a great time to be in the beef cattle breeding business.

Congressmen Express Support for Wool

In mid-June, 16 congressmen signed on to a letter to leadership of the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture expressing support for American wool and cotton programs in the upcoming Farm Bill.
“As the Committee on Agriculture begins work on the next Farm Bill, we want to bring to your attention the importance of extending the Pima Agriculture Cotton Trust Fund, the Wool Apparel Manufacturers Trust Fund and the Wool Research and Promotion Program. These programs help promote the American Pima cotton, wool, textile and apparel manufacturing industries and allow these American industries to compete against foreign producers on a more level playing field. They also maintain essential domestic capabilities in a highly globalized supply chain, which has significant implications for national security and health care preparedness.
“For many years these programs helped to protect American jobs from unfair trade policies that harmed all levels of the production chain for certain wool and cotton products. The programs respond to various tariff and trade policy anomalies that negatively affect these important agricultural and industrial sectors, which supply tens of thousands of U.S. jobs. These programs previously administered by different agencies, were consolidated to USDA to administer in the Agriculture Act of 2014 and subsequently extended by sections 12602, 12603 and 12604 of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018. They represent a collaborative effort of growers, producers and manufacturers to work together to help regain market share lost to unfair trade policies.
“The pandemic dramatically reduced consumer demand for these types of clothing, textiles and fibers supported by these programs. Many of the manufacturers, mainly small and medium-sized businesses, shifted to the production of emergency personal protective equipment – often at a loss – to help address critical shortages and fill gaps in the medical supply chain. Still, a number of these businesses did not survive the pandemic and many of those that remain continue to struggle to avoid bankruptcy.
“Moreover, China, with its state-sponsored subsidies and often illegal labor practices, continues to dominate global markets for these products. Without uninterrupted continuation of these programs, the United States will almost certainly lose, rather than retain and expand, key components of the domestic supply chain for PPE and the domestic customer base for cotton and wool fibers, yarns and fabrics. American producers of raw Pima cotton and wool will also suffer. We are not seeking any enhancements to these important programs, but instead urge you to extend each, as is, as part of the next Farm Bill.”
The letter was signed by Reps. John Rose (Tenn.), Jim Costa (Calif.), Jamie Raskin (Md.), August Pfluger (Texas), David Valadao (Calif.), Deborah Ross (N.C.), Joseph Morelle (N.Y.), Patrick McHenry (N.C.), Donald Davis (N.C.), Dusty Johnson (S.D.), Joe Courtney (Ct.), William Keating (Mass.), Erin Houchin (Ind.), Frank Pallone Jr. (N.J.), Matthew Rosendale Sr. (Mont.), and Dan Bishop (N.C.).

Skip to content