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Learning to Embrace Technology

Susan Shultz, ASI President

I am pleased to introduce the second Genetics Issue of our ASI Sheep Industry News. This issue of our magazine has nearly 20 contributors from producers and scientists that believe in the power of adopting modern genetic technology to improve their flocks.

This year’s articles include updates from our Agricultural Research Service stations plus features on a few of the exciting new research projects that our university scientists are working on. The issue also takes a look at the challenges faced by our breed associations and the relationships between seedstock providers and producers as our industry moves into the new world of genomics.

There is a great conversation that introduces two of our newer scientists who have chosen to be a part of our sheep world and an article that highlights collaboration that is written by Rusty Burgett and Karissa Isaacs on how the National Sheep Improvement Program and Flock 54 are able to work hand-in-hand in advancing the next generation of genetic technology.

Spearheading this collaborative effort between ASI and Sheep Genetics USA are five producer leaders: Tom Boyer of Utah, Rusty Burgett of Iowa, Bill Shultz of Ohio, Ben Lehfeldt of Montana, and Brad Boner of Wyoming. This group of volunteers were able to recruit and organize 10 action leads to guide the action committees that will provide input to this new organization. Leading the seedstock/registry committee are Amanda Everts of Iowa and Todd Taylor of Wisconsin.

Dan Lippert of Minnesota leads the Feeder and Packers team. Dr. Ron Lewis of Nebraska is the action lead for the Research and Emerging Technology committee, the NSIP committee is led by Brett Pharo of Michigan and Curt Stanley of North Dakota, and the Education and Outreach committee is led by Dr. Reid Redden of Texas and Dr. Whit Stewart of Wyoming. Dave Olilla of South Dakota leads the ASI/producer team and Karissa Isaacs of Colorado leads the ALB/consumer team. The hope is that Sheep Genetics USA will become a forum for the exchange of ideas between all segments of our industry in the quest to adopt genetic technology.

New genetic technology is ultimately dependent on sound data collection. Beginning with accurate animal identification to recording weight, carcass and wool data, plus reproduction and health information all are important to improving genetics.

Key to implementing good data collection will be the willingness to adopt new management tools such as electronic ID tags and readers, electronic scales, and improved handling systems.

Please enjoy this special edition of the Sheep Industry News. And a special thank you to each of you who have contributed to this collaborative effort.

My best.

Drought Creating Poor Lamb Conditions

Livestock Marketing Information Center

Much of the Western United Stats has been plagued by drought conditions for almost three years. According to data released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service on range and pasture conditions, more than 30 percent of the Western region has been rated as poor and very poor conditions in recent weeks.

Compared to a year ago, conditions have improved from the 60 percent rating of pastures at poor and very poor. For the Great Plains region, pasture conditions have steadily improved from 60 percent rated poor and very poor to recent weeks rated just less than 30 percent. In the Southern Plains, range and pasture conditions rated as poor and very poor remain elevated at around 50 percent. Last year, conditions were below 20 percent.

Persistent drought and marginal pasture conditions are proving to be a challenge for producers.



Since the start of the year, Colorado lambs on feed have been tracking well above the prior year. Each month this year has seen lambs on feed at levels that have not occurred in nearly four years. On July 1, the number of lambs on feed in Colorado was 103,032 head – a 74-percent or about 44,000-head increase from a year ago – and well above the five-year average of about 77,000 head. The last time lambs on feed were higher for the month of July was 2018, which was 107,311 head. The higher lambs on feed is likely due to drought related issues and poor pasture conditions pushing more lambs on feed. Additionally, producers are likely seeking to put a little more weight on the lambs to maximize profits from the elevated lamb prices. This can be seen in recent weekly slaughter and dressed weights data.

Weekly sheep and lamb slaughter started the year below typical levels for the first quarter. In early April, weekly slaughter levels followed the typical seasonal pattern with increased slaughter rates to fill demand for the Easter holiday. This was evident by the peak weekly slaughter level so far this year of 41,921 head the first week of April. During the month of April, weekly slaughter averaged about 40,000 head with total slaughter for the month at 197,800 head. As expected, weekly slaughter in May and June fell from the April highs with weekly averages at about 32,000 head.

During the peak slaughter levels in April, lamb and yearling dressed weights steadily declined from about 70 pounds down to about 60 pounds during the course of four to six weeks. The decline in dressed weights follows the typical seasonal pattern that occurs during the Easter holiday as producers market more lambs to meet rising demand. Typically, dressed weights trend lower through the third quarter before rising in the fourth quarter.

Since early May, weekly lamb and yearling dressed weights have been averaging about 70 pounds, a counter seasonal move and higher than the 63-pound average during the same period last year. In June, higher weekly dressed weights have partially offset the lower weekly slaughter levels to keep lamb production at or slightly higher than year ago levels.

The three-market (Colo., S.D. and Texas) feeder lamb prices have been on a seasonal decline with prices in June averaging at or more than $200 per cwt. The softening of feeder lamb prices is likely a result of elevated lambs on feed in Colorado and high feed costs. Slaughter lamb prices – national negotiated live – have been trending lower for most of the year and fell below 2021 levels the last week of May.

In June, slaughter lamb prices averaged about $200 per cwt., which is still well above typical levels that are usually around $140 to $160 per cwt. The support for slaughter lamb prices comes from a lamb cutout value, which has ranged from $553 to $570 per cwt. in June, well above the $340 per cwt. five-year average price. Support for the lamb cutout comes from elevated prices in June for the shoulder, leg, loin and rack, which remain elevated with levels near the prior year and well above the five-year average.



The Livestock Marketing Information Center is forecasting 2022 sheep and lamb slaughter to decline nearly 6 percent – or 132,000 head – to 2.131 million head. The lower slaughter rate during the second half of the year is expected to be partially offset by higher dressed weights leading to about a 4-percent decrease in lamb production for the year. Elevated lamb prices are likely to encourage further imports from Australia and New Zealand with levels expected to be near or slightly below 2021, which should offset some of the low lamb production.

Feeder lamb prices during the first half of 2022 averaged just more than $290 per cwt. – 8 percent or $22 higher than the first half of 2021. For the second half of 2022, feeder lamb prices are forecast to be between $238 and $250 per cwt., putting the annual price range at $263 to $273 per cwt., which is slightly lower than the prior year.

Slaughter lamb prices finished the first half of the year up 15 percent or $29 per cwt. from a year earlier to $218 per cwt. For the second half of the year, slaughter lamb prices are expected to ease lower ranging from $193 to $204 per cwt. with an annual price forecast of $203 to $213 per cwt. for a decline of about 4 percent from 2021.



With the conclusion of June came the closing of the 2021-22 wool selling season. Annually, the Australian Eastern Market Indicator finished the season with an average price of about 1,385 Australian cents per kg clean – up 15 percent or about 184 cents from the 2020-2021 season average price of 1,201 Australian cents per kg clean. For the month of June, the Australian EMI ranged from 1,438 to 1,474 Australian cents per kg clean with an average of 1,425 Australian cents per kg clean.

June’s EMI was a 2-percent increase from the average price in May. Compared to a year ago, the Australian EMI has improved 10 percent. During the month of June, the Australian EMI weekly prices trended higher for three consecutive weeks before finishing the last week of the season on a weaker tone.

Season average prices for the finer wools – between 17 and 21 micron – saw improvement over 2020-21 prices. In June, finer wool prices were generally better when compared to May with increases ranging from 1 to 6 percent higher. Compared to a year ago, June’s prices were even to slightly weaker with the 18 to 20 micron wools posting 3- to 6-percent declines.

June’s prices for the 22 to 32 micron wools were mixed compared to those in May, but compared to a year ago prices were generally weaker.
As the new wool season begins, uncertainty remains surrounding the global economic outlook and Australian exchange rates, which will continue to be concerns for global wool demand. Inflationary pressures are expected to remain an issue not only in the United States, but also globally. This is starting to affect some consumers, raising concerns for wool demand in the near term.

Innovation Comes From Collaboration

Sheep Genetics USA

The value of a good team is hard to measure, and the value of a great team is immeasurable. Sheep Genetics USA has been blessed with multiple great teams. The board members with whom I have the great honor to associate are premier industry leaders, the action leads are equally amazing, and our industry stakeholders provide critical direction and vision for the future.

A jet airliner is off course for most of the time it is in the air. Constant course corrections are required to arrive at the correct destination every time. Such is the value of team leadership, which when based on clear future vision provides necessary course corrections to arrive at the desired mileposts.

Sheep Genetics USA is collaborating with multiple industry stakeholder teams, including the ASI Genetic Stakeholders Committee and the National Sheep Improvement Program and we will once again jointly offer a genetics-based session at the 2023 ASI Annual Convention. We are excited about team efforts in research areas with the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center, the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station and several other research facilities. These science-based teams will provide topics, scopes of work and structural integrity to the various research projects undertaken.

Projects are under discussion with lamb feeders, packers and producers for production-focused, ranch-based projects assuring real world conditions and outcomes.

We are blessed with a large number of young sheep-oriented specialists in our industry. These include extension specialists, university professors, researchers and producers. These folks make up teams of specialized, empowered and enthusiastic partners that will create a quantum leap forward in the industry through the transmission and adoption of genetic projects to make American lamb not just the finest meat available, but also make it internationally competitive.

We have committed to assisting with the GEMS project, which Dr. Ron Lewis has created. We believe it has the power to make a paradigm shift in the industry, and you can read more about it in this issue. This climate-based project has a variety of real-world components that will assist all producers in making better trait selection for multiple production factors. Get and stay engaged – this is going to be great.

What an exciting time to be in the sheep business. What a marvelous opportunity to be part of one of these incredible teams. Earlier the term stakeholders was used. This generic term is used to encompass anyone – and everyone – interested in producing the ultimate lamb, which will be a continuous journey into the future. There is room on this journey for everyone, more importantly we need everyone.

While research, education, technological advances and lamb economics continually evolve, no change occurs, no advancement is made, and no success is gained until adoption and implementation are in place. Only then will we take a step closer to achieving the ideal lamb that is consistently an absolute masterpiece on the plate and a powerful competitor on the world economic front. This will only happen as we join forces and collaborate as teams, which is why Sheep Genetics USA was created. Join one of our teams today. Get involved and be part of an empowered team that makes a difference.

Learn more at

Breeds Face Challenges in Meeting Commercial Needs

Sheep Genetics USA traveled to the upper Midwest to visit with two longtime Polypay and Suffolk breeders. Representing Polypays is immediate past president of the American Polypay Sheep Association Brett Pharo of Michigan, and speaking for the Suffolk breed is Jeremy Geske of Minnesota, who is currently president of the United Suffolk Sheep Association.

SG USA: Brett and Jeremy, your respective breeds have had a much different history within the United States. Will you briefly describe a little of that history?

Brett: Polypays are a composite breed developed in Idaho as a result of a dream of producer Reed Hulet to create a breed that could produce two quality lamb crops and one wool crop per year, to make sheep more profitable. He shared his dream with his brother, Dr. Clarence Hulet, at the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station. They crossed Finnsheep X Rambouillet and also Dorset X Targhee. Then, in 1970, crossed the resulting animals to create the four-breed composite.

The Polypay breed was developed as a production/performance breed and was the first breed to request cross-flock evaluations from NSIP. The original by-laws of the American Polypay Sheep Association did not allow the showing of registered Polypays in the show ring. In the words of Dr. Hulet penned in 1992, “We have been pleased with the resolve of foundation Polypay breeders who have resisted the attraction of the show ring, which shifts the selection pressure from production to appearance. There seems to be little correlation between appearance and productivity. Thus, when one uses selection opportunities to enhance appearance, one reduces the opportunities to enhance production.”

With the rapid early growth of interest in the breed, that prohibition was overturned and for a time much emphasis came to be put on the show ring. In the last several years, though, we have turned that around and put the emphasis back on production. Now around three-quarters of all registered Polypays come from NSIP flocks.

Jeremy: Suffolks rose to prominence in this country as the terminal sire of choice as they excelled in growth rate, with quality, meaty carcasses. Studies done by the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center have shown that Suffolk-sired lambs just simply grow faster than lambs sired by rams of other breeds. For many decades, they were “the breed in the lead” in terms of number of registered sheep, as well as their influence on the commercial sheep industry. While the number of registered Suffolks – like most breeds in all species – has declined, the importance of Suffolk genetics to the American sheep industry remains strong. The vast majority of lambs going through our major packing plants are sired by Suffolk rams.

SG USA: Your breeds hold prominent positions within our commercial industry, Polypays as a maternal breed and Suffolks as terminal sires. What changes is your breed making to meet the demands of those commercial producers.

Brett: The high participation rate of Polypay seedstock producers in NSIP provides commercial producers with the genetic prediction data needed to select breeding stock that are more likely to meet the unique needs of their individual operations. I think commercial operators understand – sometimes better than purebred operators – that when it comes to the EBVs, maximum and optimum are not synonyms. Needs of confinement operations, pasture operations, and range operations are different. The Polypay breed has animals that can meet those varying needs.

The NSIP tool is still but one tool in the genetic toolbox, and Polypay producers continue to do careful phenotype selection, as well. The allure of chasing the highest number can be almost as strong as the allure of chasing show ring awards, so care must be taken to consider the whole genetic package and match it to the needs of commercial producers.

Those careful considerations of both phenotype and genotype are being done by progressive Polypay breeders throughout the United States.

With their prolificacy, mothering ability, out-of-season and accelerated lambing, and availability of EBVs through NSIP, Polypays have become a foundation maternal breed for commercial producers across much of the country.

Jeremy: Within the Suffolk breed, there is tremendous diversity in genetics. This allows breeders to focus on different target markets. Breeders might focus on heavier weaning and post weaning weights, improving carcass traits, optimizing frame size based on production system, show-ring appeal (fitted, slick and/or club lamb), or some combination of those factors. On the plus side, we have Suffolk genetics available to meet many different markets. On the other hand, it presents a challenge for our breed as a whole to move in a cohesive direction.

The United Suffolk Sheep Association conducted a comprehensive needs assessment a couple of years ago and we have been using the information gathered to lead our strategic planning process. One of the messages that came through loud and clear in the needs assessment was the importance of maintaining the important role Suffolks play in the commercial sheep industry.

I think it is important to have frequent dialogue between the United Suffolk Sheep Association board and other sheep industry organizations, such as ASI and the American Lamb Board.

We also recently launched a new digital registration program – similar to what many cattle and swine breeds use – that will allow and encourage Suffolk breeders to be more data focused. As we move to the future, I envision the Suffolk breed placing more emphasis on genetic improvement and data collection based on the needs of the commercial sheep industry, while still allowing individual members to raise the type of Suffolks they enjoy and can market successfully.

SG USA: Genomics is playing a greater and greater role in genetic advancements. What is your breed doing to face those new challenges?

Brett: The APSA has been an active supporter of genomic research. The GEMS research project is underway to work on providing genomic-enhanced EBVs, as well as develop EBVs for more traits, and the Polypay breed is firmly engaged in this. Tissue samples are being collected from participating flocks across the country. Having data come from flocks in the industry – as well as from research flocks – keeps the focus on the needs of the American sheep industry.

Jeremy: The United Suffolk Sheep Association was pleased to provide both a letter of support and some matching funds for a genomics research project that started this year gathering data for genomic-enhanced EBVs. Information like this that can improve the accuracy of our genetic selection can really benefit the industry.

I personally also think it is critical to try to find funding for additional sheep genetic research that can improve our existing genetic evaluation program (NSIP), in order to encourage greater participation and address concerns voiced by current program participants.

Brito, Posbergh Among Young Researchers in Industry

Among the bright, young minds populating the university research side of the industry are Dr. Luiz Brito of Purdue University and Dr. Chris Posbergh of Montana State University. Both grew up on livestock operations and have a sincere interest in pushing the American sheep industry forward in the years to come.
The two sat down to discuss their backgrounds and how that plays into their current research.

SG USA: Gentlemen, what is your background and how did you become involved in genetic research with your respective universities?

Luiz: I have been involved in animal agriculture since an early age, as I grew up on a livestock farm in the Southeast of Brazil. I have always been very passionate about small ruminants and since the beginning of my undergraduate studies, I have actively researched genetics and genomics of sheep and dairy goats from a quantitative perspective.

After earning my master’s degree in Quantitative Genetics in Brazil, I moved to Canada to obtain my Ph.D. training at the University of Guelph, where I performed the first studies for the implementation of genomic selection in Canadian dairy goats. During that time, I also had the opportunity to develop part of my Ph.D. research in New Zealand, where I worked with the implementation of genomic selection for growth, carcass and meat quality traits in New Zealand Composite sheep breeds.

The knowledge acquired while in New Zealand made me realize the existing gaps in sheep production systems around the globe and the wide range of possibilities for increasing the long-term sustainability of sheep production in North America and elsewhere. Since joining Purdue University (Indiana) in 2018, I have been welcomed by various American sheep researchers and joined the National Sheep Improvement Program technical committee. As a result, I have had the pleasure to be involved in innovative research projects to advance the American sheep industry.

Chris: I grew up on a small farm in central New Jersey, where we raised Dorset and Romney sheep that I showed in 4-H. My family still maintains about 30 ewes there, selling breeding stock and hand-spinning fleeces. My passion for genetics originated from a funky-colored lamb we purchased while I was in high school. I became enthralled with understanding how that color originated and trying to learn if I could replicate it further in the flock.

From there, I pursued my degrees in animal science at Cornell University. For my Ph.D. projects, I studied the molecular genomics of complex traits in small ruminants, such as aseasonality, mature body size and coat color. After my Ph.D., I started as an assistant professor of sheep production at Montana State University in August 2020. My position is 60 percent research and 30 percent in-campus teaching in Bozeman, Mont. While my position requires a broader approach to sheep production than studying solely genetics, I try to maintain a connection to genetic or genomics in most of my research projects.

SG USA: What is the current work you are doing regarding the American sheep Industry?

Luiz: As an associate professor of quantitative genetics and genomics at Purdue, I am developing an across-species research program in the area of genomics of animal welfare, behavior and overall resilience. My research focuses on both fundamental and applied research to enable a comprehensive characterization of the genomic background of livestock populations and numerous relevant traits.

For instance, my team is working closely with Dr. Ron Lewis (University of Nebraska-Lincoln) and colleagues from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service units on a USDA-National Institute of Food Agriculture funded project to generate the resources and lay the foundation for incorporating genomic data into national genetic evaluation procedures, with a focus on climatic resilience and robustness traits. This project focuses on four main sheep breeds (Katahdin, Rambouillet, Suffolk, and Polypay), but the methods developed will be applicable to all American sheep stakeholders.

In addition, we recently completed a research project evaluating genomic prediction methods for growth, wool and reproduction traits in Rambouillet sheep, in which very promising results were obtained. We are also evaluating statistical methods for identifying footprints of selection in the genome of American sheep populations. I am very excited and grateful to have the opportunity to continue developing research that meets the needs of the American sheep industry for many years to come.

Chris: There are a couple of new projects we have started at Montana State focused across several different fields in sheep production from genetics, reproduction and wool quality. The first genetics focused project is investigating feed efficiency in range breeds of sheep – Targhee and Rambouillet – and how it relates to the growth Estimated Breeding Values from NSIP. We also have some small projects investigating reproduction on both the ram and ewe side that are in development.

Finally, there are a number of projects focused on wool, taking advantage of the fact the Montana Wool Lab is located on campus. With the wool lab, we are investigating effects of humidity and temperature on wool fiber evaluation, a longitudinal characterization of the wool microbiome and its relation to discoloration, and the detection of pregnancy-related hormones in wool as a possible non-invasive pregnancy test. There’s also some other work developing that might look at various supplementation impacts on production, incorporating precision technology into sheep management and measuring climatic impacts of sheep production.

SG USA: What are the biggest genetic challenges you see our industry facing in the next 10 years?

Luiz: The American sheep industry is making progress on the use of genomics and phenotyping technologies, but many other competitor countries are still ahead of us. Therefore, early adoption of technologies and breeding methods and the refinement of our sheep breeding programs to include key traits, such as meat-eating quality, feed efficiency, disease resistance and climatic adaptation will be paramount for maintaining competitive in the international lamb market.

In my opinion, the main challenge facing our industry in the next 10 years will be the ability to develop well-structured reference populations for implementing genomic selection for a wide range of novel traits that are important to sheep farmers, processors and consumers. To meet this goal, all American sheep industry stakeholders need to work together toward implementing the tools developed by researchers and committing to the collection of accurate phenotypic, genomic and pedigree data.

Another important point to keep in mind is the need for assessing the levels of genetic diversity in our sheep populations and design mating plans that will minimize inbreeding. Otherwise, this could become another challenge in the next 10 years, especially in the smaller-sized breeds.

Chris: I think one of the biggest challenges on the genetics front will be quantifying traits that do not necessarily translate to direct economic gains. Some of these traits might include resiliency, immunity and other welfare traits that might be difficult to quantify, too costly to measure at the moment or do not provide a direct economic benefit yet.

As societal pressures increase, I believe some current practices will eventually be phased out or reduced in their capacity. One example is the upcoming rule change on the use of antibiotics next year. We will need to have healthier and more resilient sheep, without a loss in production, while we reduce the utilization of certain tools in our current toolkit.

Another challenge – or opportunity – for molecular-based scientists is the cost of genomic testing. While the cost for genetic testing has continually decreased and is more reasonable now, if we can continue to reduce input costs to make the use of genetics and genomics more profitable, it should increase the uptake within the industry.

Genetic Reference Flocks Established at ARS Stations

Tom Murphy, Ph.D., Brad Freking, Ph.D., Joan Burke, Ph.D. & J. Bret Taylor, Ph.D.
USDA Agricultural Research Service

In last August’s genetics issue, we presented the concept of setting up the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Station locations as National Sheep Improvement Program Genetic Reference Flocks. We have established these GRF at the Dale Bumpers Small Farms Research Center in Booneville, Ark., the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station in Dubois, Idaho, and the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Neb.

At it’s core, the GRF scheme involves purchasing rams from industry NSIP flocks and collecting standard and novel traits on their future progeny. Measuring these new traits on thousands of GRF animals while maintaining strong genetic connectedness with industry flocks can make it possible for new genetic selection tools to become available for all users of NSIP breeding stock.

Data collected from these GRF is also instrumental in achieving the objectives of the Sheep GEMS project outlined by Dr. Ron Lewis, which initially focuses on Katahdin, Polypay, Rambouillet and Suffolk sheep. Katahdin sheep are reared at all three locations, Polypay and Suffolk are reared at the USSES and USMARC, and Rambouillet are reared at the USSES. The intent of this article is to provide some preliminary data and insights on traits collected within these GRF.


Udder conformation and health

According to USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service surveys, approximately half (56 percent) of United States ewes are culled each year because of age. Therefore, half of these ewes are culled prematurely and for a variety of reasons such as failure to lamb (8 percent), teeth problems (8 percent), hard bag syndrome (7 percent), and mastitis (7 percent). However, we do not presently have ways of accurately selecting for enhanced ewe longevity in NSIP. Measuring variation in udder health and conformation to improve our understanding of the genetic and environmental factors that contribute to ewe longevity is a main objective of Sheep GEMS.

Sheep producers usually encounter mastitis in the clinical state – swollen udder, abnormal milk, intramammary masses, etc. Fortunately, the incidence of clinical mastitis is relatively low (i.e., less than 5 percent). In contrast, ewes that have subclinical mastitis do not display observable signs of disease despite harboring pathogens in their mammary tissue. Still, it’s likely that ewes with subclinical infection experience some degree of udder damage, which can reduce the quantity and quality of milk they produce, among other negative effects. Accurately diagnosing subclinical mastitis requires milking ewes and testing milk samples for bacterial species or somatic cell concentration. The California Mastitis Test is one method used to infer the latter.

The table below has data from CMT of Katahdin ewes at USMARC during the 2020 and 2021 lambing seasons. Milk was collected from 1- and 4-year-old ewes at approximately five days after lambing and scored for CMT and related to their total weight of lamb weaned at 70 days. Very few first lactation ewes had high CMT scores, whereas 20 percent of 4-year-old ewes had CMT values indicative of subclinical or undiagnosed clinical mastitis.

Furthermore, total weight of lamb weaned decreased with increasing CMT score. For example, ewes with a high CMT score weaned 22 percent less (12 pounds) lamb than ewes with a low CMT score. Past research by our group has found similar negative effects of subclinical mastitis on range-type ewe productivity.

Clearly, subclinical mastitis has major economic implications, but diagnosing it is labor intensive and expensive for industry flocks. One of the objectives of Sheep GEMS is to identify more easily measured indicator traits which are related to ewe susceptibility to mastitis. We are concurrently evaluating udder and teat traits – udder depth, teat placement, teat length, etc. – to determine optimal conformation associated with udder health, ewe longevity and lamb production.

Milking ewes and collecting udder conformation traits does add to an already busy time of year for our ARS sheep crews. The USMARC sheep crew has designed a chute with raised platform and head gate which enables researchers to rapidly milk ewes and collect approximately 10 udder and teat conformation traits in two minutes or less.


Katahdins at home on the range

The Katahdin is the common breed reared at all three ARS locations and the latest addition to the USSES. Apart from general adaptation to a new management system when bringing in ewes, some additional steps have been taken to ensure it is successful as a range sheep. We often stress the importance of improving reproductive efficiency, health and carcass characteristics, but what is the economic value of flocking ability?

True flocking ability enables a single shepherd to move hundreds of ewes and lambs on fenceless rangeland and graze them in a relatively dense area. Flocking requires sheep to be responsive to the herder (and his/her dogs) and function as a single unit with no independent or small groups wandering off. A range-y ewe has got to be tough as a boot and an attentive mother in a climatically variable environment lousy with predators. Are Katahdins up for this challenge?

Flocking ability likely has a genetic component but might be partly “taught” by seasoned ewes to younger animals and both are being investigated at the USSES. Over three years, 2- and 3-year-old USMARC-born Katahdin ewes will be mated to Katahdin sires at the USSES. Katahdin ewe lambs will be removed from their birth mother, grafted to range-type ewes at birth, and herded in an open range production system thereafter.

So far – 2021 and 2022 – Katahdin ewe lambs have readily been accepted by their graft mother and weaned at the same success rate as range-type lambs reared by their birth mothers. The Katahdin’s flocking instinct – as mature ewes – will be monitored and compared with that of range-type ewes.


Additional efforts

Concurrent genotyping efforts in ARS flocks expand the scope of our projects. We have used genotyping tools to assist mating and selection decisions for many years. Multiple options of genotype platforms currently exist for sheep that achieve different objectives, and it is important to know what each platform can or cannot do.

The primary objectives of genotyping tools fit three kinds of general uses: genetic condition tests, parentage identification and/or genomic-enhanced Estimate Breeding Values. However, a gap in current knowledge is how information from some of the genetic conditions can be combined. Interactions or antagonisms are not well understood even for markers impacting the same phenotype, but part of our current efforts.

Several other standard and novel traits are being evaluated in the GRF as part of Sheep GEMS and other projects. Routine body weight, body condition and health/treatment records collected on ewes and lambs will be useful in understanding relationships among traits.

Together with researchers at the University of Wyoming, USMARC has begun evaluating lamb growth and carcass characteristics. Recent investment in six electronic feeders will enable us to collect feed intake on 450 lambs per year, a subset of which are followed through commercial harvest to evaluate in-depth carcass characteristics. Other traits collected on ARS flocks include grazing behaviors, neonatal lamb and ewe behaviors, indicators of parasitology, rumen and respiratory microbiome samples, blood cell counts, out-of-season mating success and ram breeding capacity.

USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer. The mention of trade names of commercial products in this article is solely for the purpose of providing specific information and does not imply recommendation or endorsement by the USDA.

Collaboration Guides Sheep GEMS Project

Sheep GEMS was born in January as a collaboration between the American sheep industry, two land-grant universities and three U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service locations. GEMS’ aim is two-fold. First, to incorporate innovations in molecular technologies into routine genetic evaluation of American sheep. Second, to broaden the scope of those evaluations to improve the robustness and climatic resilience of our flocks. With funding from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the American sheep industry, both aims are in reach.

This article summarizes excerpts from interviews with members of the Sheep GEMS team. Through their words, it tells the full story about the ambitions and relevance of this project.

Dr. Ron Lewis is a geneticist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Technical Advisor for the National Sheep Improvement Program. He is also the Project Director for Sheep GEMS.

“Why the name Sheep GEMS?” He explained. “The acronym GEMS stands for Genetics, Environment, Management and Society, all of which are captured in the project. As a further play on words, we are very hopeful the outcomes will be gems to our industry.”

Apparently, a key element of Sheep GEMS is to work in partnership with sheep producers, particularly those engaged in NSIP. Why is that important?

“For this project to truly matter, our discoveries must be seen as important enough to be adopted by the industry,” Lewis said. “By seeking the input and involvement of producers from the start, we believe we can foster the commitment and enthusiasm to achieve just that. As the bottom line, Sheep GEMS is about joining together records collected on-farm and on-ranch – some new and some traditional, with information at the DNA level – to do a better job of evaluating our sheep. It is through the structure of NSIP, that combination is possible.”

Sheep GEMS has a project advisory board made up of key industry groups. Tom Boyer, a third-generation rancher and the chair of Sheep Genetics USA, is also the chair of the Sheep GEMS Board.

“I see a variety of roles for this board, including encouraging eligible flock producers to participate in the project,” Boyer said. “In the world of data – particularly production-related data – the more we have, the better. We need Rambouillet, Suffolk and Polypay producers to become passionately engaged in GEMS. The fourth breed, Katahdin, has set the participation standard as they are already anxiously engaged in the project.

“Our role also involves keeping a focus on the scope of work, mileposts and achievements gained along the way, and disseminating results. Receiving input from and keeping each industry group up to date on project status will maximize outcomes and project success.”

How do you think the planned outcomes will best serve and benefit the industry?

“This project has the potential to create a paradigm shift in the U.S. sheep industry. This is the first time for a project of this size and scope to focus on the foundational genetic building blocks. Viewing resilience, adaptability and key productivity traits through a combined genetic and environmental [climatic] lens will provide exciting new insights into advances that will provide quantum leaps in selective breeding and management.”

Dr. Luiz Brito is at Purdue University specializing in quantitative genetics and genomics. He also is the co-director of Sheep GEMS. Brito was asked about the aims of improving robustness and climatic resilience. What do those terms mean?

“Robustness is an animal’s ability to remain healthy and productive within a defined environment or set of management conditions. In the same line, climatic resilience is the animal’s ability to either be minimally affected by or recover from changes in climatic conditions, such as extremes in temperature or humidity.”

Why do they matter?

“Most U.S. sheep are raised in pasture-based systems or in facilities with limited environmental control,” Brito explained. “Therefore, animals need to be able to cope with various environmental challenges, including thermal stress, gastrointestinal parasites, low-quality pastures and greater prevalence of infectious diseases. These stressors negatively influence animal survival, productivity and well-being, and consequently, the profitability of sheep farms.

“As climate change becomes more evident, extreme climatic events will affect lamb survival, ewe longevity and reproduction, and overall productivity. Breeding more robust and climatic resilient animals will ensure the long-term sustainability of sheep farming in the U.S.”

A proposed outcome of Sheep GEMS is to provide sheep producers with genomic enhanced estimated breeding values, or GEBV, for a suite of traits. What are GEBV?

“Accurately identifying the best individuals to become the parents of the next generation is not a trivial task. Fortunately, the integration of performance records, pedigree and genomic data is a powerful tool to help sheep producers with this undertaking. By combining this information, geneticists can calculate GEBV, which predict the genetic potential of an animal for each trait evaluated based on thousands of genomic markers.”

What do they offer beyond what is already available to sheep producers?

“GEBV tend to be more accurate for young animals than traditional EBV, especially for traits that are difficult or expensive to measure, such as robustness and climatic resilience. GEBV also allow us to evaluate and differentiate lambs from the same litter even before they themselves have been measured. This allows us to make selection decisions earlier and make more progress.”

Why is the project using Katahdin, Polypay, Rambouillet and Suffolk breeds?

“They were selected because they are among the largest – in terms of total number of records – of NSIP breeds and they are each reared at one or more USDA/ARS locations,” said Dr. Tom Murphy, a research geneticist at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Neb. “The Katahdin is reared at all three locations, Polypay and Suffolk at USMARC and the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station, and Rambouillet at the USSES. We have been exchanging rams and ewes of common breeds to strengthen genetic connectedness across USDA/ARS sites.”

Murphy is leading efforts to establish reference populations in each of the breeds involved in Sheep GEMS by connecting genetically flocks at USDA/ARS centers with those in industry. But why is this necessary?

“The basic concept of the USDA/ARS Genetic Reference Flocks is to bring in genetically representative rams from industry NSIP flocks and collect standard and novel traits on their progeny,” Murphy said. “Firstly, this will help us ‘work the kinks out’ of potential new NSIP traits before we ask industry breeders to begin recording them. Secondly, although current traits evaluated in NSIP are economically important, they are limited in scope to what can be collected on farm or ranch, or by a qualified technician.

“While performance in many other health, longevity and efficiency traits impacts flock productivity, specialized equipment or increased labor may be required to accurately collect them. The resources needed to do so are available at USDA/ARS locations.

“We are collecting the same information on our ewes in our reference flocks as the Sheep GEMS participants are in their flocks, along with many other novel traits. This will allow NSIP breeders to select for these novel traits without having to record them all in their own operations.”

What are examples of novel traits?

“Udder health is one of them,” Murphy replied. “Recent surveys have estimated that about half of ewes are culled in the U.S. before they reach the end of a ‘normal’ productive life, say at 6 or 7 years of age. Udder health also affects ewe longevity as approximately 15 percent of ewes are culled for mastitis or hard bag. Subclinical mastitis – the form of the disease we cannot diagnose without testing ewe milk – is also common and negatively impacts ewe productivity.”

At USMARC, we are evaluating 10 traits associated with udder health and conformation on ewes at lambing and at weaning. We are also collecting milk samples to quantify subclinical mastitis. Since these measures are labor intensive, we have selected only a subset of these traits – udder depth and teat placement – for other Sheep GEMS flocks to collect.”

An important element of Sheep GEMS is genomics, with more than 10,000 sheep to be genotyped. Dr. Brad Freking – also a research geneticist at USMARC – is contributing his expertise in molecular genetics to the team. Among the information participating flock owners will receive back are genotypes for conditions such as Scrapie and Ovine Progressive Pneumonia susceptibility. Still, there is some uncertainty in the industry as to exactly what is meant by a genetic condition and how they are best used.

“A genetic condition,” Freking explained, “can be described as variation that has a known genetic basis. An animal’s status for a known condition can be determined directly from a DNA sample. For each genetic condition, prior knowledge of the specific type of gene action and which alleles are either favorable or unfavorable is needed. For example, the favorable allele from the TMEM154 gene associated with susceptibility to OPP is required to be present as two copies in an animal to confer the desired lower risk category.”

As an important stipulation, he added, “each genetic condition requires understanding these associations and what your goals are for the animals tested. Selection to move a population toward the most favorable versions for these conditions is an accurate and effective tool but requires long-term planning for the breeding objective.”

Another novel trait being considered in Sheep GEMS is lamb survival. Is there work already underway to better understand lamb survival? If so, how does it dovetail with the aims of Sheep GEMS?

“We have an experiment at USMARC that we hope has relevance to lamb survival and the overall aims of Sheep GEMS. It is being conducted within a maternal composite breed we refer to as our Composite IV flock – which is half Romanov, one-quarter White Dorper and one-quarter Katahdin. We are measuring several indicator traits of maternal fitness under intensive conditions of barn lambing. Our objective, though, is predicting how well individuals will perform under more extensive pasture lambing conditions.

“Genetically, matched halves of the flock will alternate annually between lambing in the barn and on pasture. When on pasture, we will only be able to measure lamb weaning survival on ewes. However, when in the barn, we will measure uniformity of lamb birth weight, ewe colostrum quality, transfer of immune function to the lambs, reproductive hormone status, udder morphology, subclinical mastitis status, and maternal behavior traits at parturition. These are all indicator traits of weaning survival.”

In circling back to Sheep GEMS, he continued, “By better understanding the genetic relationships between these more intensive measures and lamb survival in ewes at pasture, we can provide better advice on what to measure in producers’ flocks to make gains.”

Parasite resistance is another trait being considered in Sheep GEMS. Dr. Joan Burke is a research animal scientist at the USDA/ARS Dale Bumpers Small Farms Research Center in Arkansas. Among her contributions to Sheep GEMS is her knowledge of genetic and management tools to control gastrointestinal parasites.
Anthelmintic resistance is a growing concern in our sheep industry.

How should the sheep industry best strategize to deal with GIN?

“The best strategy is a holistic approach that includes tools best suited to individual farms. For sheep living in warmer, more humid climates, tools include genetic resistance, good nutrition, optimum body condition – 3.5 out of 5 is best – rotational grazing and dewormers that work to selectively treat animals in need,” Burke said. “Dewormer resistance by GIN can be catastrophic for those relying only on anthelmintics. Use of copper oxide wire particles alone or in combination with a dewormer can be effective for acute barber pole or mixed worm infections.”

In Sheep GEMS, fecal egg counts and FAMACHA scores are both being collected. How are those measurements best combined to improve genetic control of GIN?

“Fecal egg counts determined on a group of animals can indicate which animals are resistant to GIN infection and which ones are more susceptible that might be culled,” Burke said. “Fecal egg count data are submitted to NSIP to give an EBV on parasite resistance. The more negative the value, the more resistant the animal.

“FAMACHA scores – on the other hand – are an indication of how resilient the animals are to infection. A high FAMACHA score – a score of 3 or greater – indicates that an animal is anemic and likely in need of deworming. Lower scores mean that the animal would not need to be dewormed, even if it had a high fecal egg count. Both indicator traits are heritable and can be used to improve genetic resistance and resilience to GIN infection.”

FAMACHA is scored from 1 to 5 based on inspecting the inner membrane of the eye, with lower scores indicating less anemia. Is formal training needed to reliably collect FAMACHA scores? If so, how can someone receive such training?

“Yes, formal training is necessary to use the FAMACHA system to understand the biology and dynamics of the worms and the animal. It involves watching a video or slides on integrated parasite management and proper FAMACHA technique. Training may be available through your extension agent or veterinarian, or through the University of Rhode Island or Virginia State University (”

Dr. Bret Taylor is a research animal scientist and the research leader at the USDA/ARS U.S. Sheep Experiment Station. The pioneering program he oversees focuses on sheep managed under extensive Western grazing conditions.

Ewe longevity is another of the traits being considered in Sheep GEMS. Is it of particular importance in your environment?

“Because of harsher environments – resulting from extreme climates, sparse forage and rugged terrain – ewe longevity in U.S. Western range flocks is generally shorter than what may be observed in pasture-based systems. Nevertheless, ewe longevity nationwide has suffered in the last 20 years, with a 20 percent increase in ewe replacement rate and in mature sheep a 6 percent death rate. This is problematic given that enterprise profitability is directly linked to how long a ewe remains reproductively successfully in a flock.

“Older ewes are generally the best mothers, drop the most lambs, and wean the most pounds,” Taylor continued. “Annual ewe costs are greatest for young ewes, and unfortunately, they return the least marketable products. As the average age of the flock increases, annual ewe costs decrease and pounds of marketable products – both lamb and wool – increase. Considering the ever-decreasing national ewe inventory and limited supply of affordable replacement ewes, increasing the average age of a ewe flock is critical for sustaining and hopefully growing the U.S. sheep industry.”

The U.S. Sheep Experiment Station is the one USDA/ARS location collaborating in this project that has flocks in each of the four breeds involved. Why is that important to the project?

“The station is the birthplace of the Polypay – in around 1980 – and the source of much of the modern-day Rambouillet genetics found in the U.S. West reaching way back to 1917. Suffolks were imported to the USSES in 1979 and immediately selected for range hardiness. Overall, maternal genetics from the USSES are present in some proportion at most sheep farms and ranches across the U.S. Furthermore, since 2014, the USSES has made significant efforts in linking its genetics to the nation’s sheep flocks. Well over 140 sires – most from NSIP flocks – from various breeds have been imported to the USSES and incorporated into the purebred flock breeding programs. This in addition to migrating much of the USSES genetics database over to NSIP. Having genotype data for thousands of these sheep has provided an incredible resource foundation for the project.”

Describing the recent addition of a Katahdin flock to USSES, Taylor explained, “As the growing popularity of this breed has crept West, many producers have asked, ‘Is the Katahdin breed a viable alternative to wool-type sheep in the open range, herder-managed systems of the U.S. West?’ As the ‘foster origin’ for the Katahdin Hair Sheep International Association – not the breed, just the association – it made perfect sense to finally house a study group of Katahdin sheep at the USSES. Beginning in 2016, the USSES set in place a plan to acquire several productive NSIP Katahdin ewes from USMARC. These ewes have arrived and are now being compared to Rambouillet and Polypay breeds in an open-range, herder-managed production system. Again, this current project provides a vastly expanded foundation for the project and its ultimate success.”

Although this set of interviews provided great background to Sheep GEMS, a question remained unanswered. How do flock owners join in the project?

“By contacting me at,” said Lewis. “We already have had a lot of engagement by Katahdin breeders, but we are looking to recruit more Polypay, Rambouillet and Suffolk flocks. They do need to be part of NSIP. So that we can accumulate enough years of data, it would certainly help if those flocks were on board by this year’s breeding season. If you are interested, please send me an email.”

How does a flock owner benefit from joining in?

“Perhaps foremost is knowing that they have contributed to a project designed to benefit the entire sheep industry. By improving the sustainability of our flocks, making them more robust and resilient, we ensure the economic vitality of sheep enterprises.

“However, more specifically, participating flocks – Innovation Flocks – will benefit from substantial support of their genotyping costs. As that genotyping is done – which has already begun in the project – they will receive DNA-based pedigree verification and genetic conditions on some key disease susceptibility and muscling traits. Given enough buy-in among producers, at the end of the project, GEBV will be introduced in the Polypay, Rambouillet and Suffolk breeds, and bolstered in Katahdin. These GEBV will be available for current NSIP traits and, in due-course, important new ones.

“We are asking Innovation Flock owners to collect several new measures, which we certainly understand places more demands on their already busy schedules. We very much appreciate that extra effort. Yet for us – and I truly mean us collectively – to take full advantage of what Sheep GEMS can offer, we need you to join in heart and soul. Together, we can accomplish a lot.”

Boyer perhaps said it best.

“This project has the potential to create a paradigm shift in the US sheep industry … Viewing resilience, adaptability and key productivity traits through a combined genetic and environmental [climatic] lens will provide exciting new insights into advances that will provide quantum leaps in selective breeding and management.”

Acknowledgement: Sheep GEMS is supported by the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Grant number 2022-67015-36073 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Animal Breeding and Functional Annotation of Genomes program, A1201. USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer. The mention of trade names of commercial products in this article is solely for the purpose of providing specific information and does not imply recommendation or endorsement by the USDA.

Flock 54 & NSIP Provide Modern Genomic Tools

Sheep Genetics USA recently sat down with Superior Farms Director of Producer Resources Karissa Isaacs and National Sheep Improvement Program Executive Director Rusty Burgett to discuss their respective sheep genomic programs.

SG USA: Karissa and Rusty, give us a brief overview of the current status of genomics within our sheep industry.

KARISSA & RUSTY: With advancements in genomic technology, these genetic prediction tools are now more accessible and useful for the American sheep industry. While DNA tests for individual traits such as Scrapie resistance or OPP resistance gene testing have been available for some time now, newer products such as Superior Farms’ Flock54 and the Genome-Enhanced Estimated Breeding Values through NSIP combine multiple tests into one and provide producers with more information to make informed genetic selection decisions for their flocks. These genetic prediction techniques look at the actual DNA makeup of a sheep and convert that into usable information for the producer.

SG USA: NSIP and Flock54 differ in their basic platform on how DNA is analyzed, can you describe those differences along with what information is gained for producers.

RUSTY: When genotyping breeding stock through NSIP, we use the Ovine GGP 50K SNP Chip array through Neogen. That test looks at 50,000 different locations or SNPs across the genome which provide us with tons of information. That information is then used to determine parentage of animals, certain genetic conditions such as Scrapie codons, TMEM-154 (OPP resistance), Myostatin, Callipyge, etc., and then it also funnels that genomic information into the genetic evaluation for Genome-Enhanced Estimated Breeding Values.

KARISSA: Flock54 is a targeted genotyping panel that utilizes DNA sequencing to provide low-cost genetic information. This panel provides genotypes for markers known to be linked to disease, determining parentage and now validating markers associated with economical important traits, such as for fecundity (twinning), milk yield and foot health all in one test. This allows producers to maximize the information that they get in comparison to single gene tests, and helps to enhance their profitability and health of their flocks.

Flock54 launched in 2019 and today we are on our third improved and updated version adding new traits such as the Dwarf Gene as well as additional health markers for OPP. Flock54 1,000 marker targeted panel is flexible and we can add new markers linked to important traits soon after they are discovered. We do utilize a 50K marker array for the discovery of new traits of interest from requests by producers and breeds. Currently, we are working with the Polypay and Rambouillet breeds on genetic defects, as well as validating wool and meat quality markers.

SG USA: Can you describe the uniqueness of these two dynamic genomic programs and how they can benefit producers?

RUSTY: The amount of information gleaned from a 50K chip is what makes it unique, looking at so many different locations across the genome that have been proven to impact the various production traits and then pairing that DNA information with production data collected on the ranch means more accurate genetic predictions compared to traditional EBVs based on production data alone. The genomic data also tells us just how related an animal is to the rest of the population, which helps build accuracy of the predictions and “proves” breeding animals at a much younger age.

This is all done through a new genetic evaluation process called Single Step GBLUP, which is the same technology being used in other species such as beef or dairy to include genomics. This means seedstock producers can be more intensive in their selection and make progress quickly. For a commercial producer, they have more accurate, predictable genetic information on potential breeding animals they are looking at through those seedstock providers and can fine-tune genetics that will work for their goals and management program.

KARISSA: There are several advantages to Flock54 for your flock. We are currently the only genotyping panel certified by USDA/APHIS for Scrapie reporting. Flock54 offers “Flock54 certification” for entire flocks tested that are not disease carriers for a number of diseases, including all markers for Scrapie, of particular interest is Codon 171 QR or RR Codon.

Flock54 uses a database for all animals with genotyping data to provide easier access to parentage information across multiple year and even across producers. Once an animal is genotyped, you will always have access to that data and it can easily be transferred to a new producer if sold.

We are working on a producer portal, which will grant users access online to all genotyping they have tested with Flock54. We are very excited to be validating meat quality markers associated with muscle and yield, providing producers carcass merit information before their lambs are on the rail that can be added to the next version of our panel.

SG USA: Is genomic testing open to all producers through NSIP and Flock54?

RUSTY: The information delivered from the 50K test can be used by anyone wanting to make genetic progress in their flocks. To really get the benefit of all that genomic information on the higher-density chip, that data needs to be combined with production data and EBVs, therefore, the genomic testing is only available to members of NSIP. Commercial producers can still use that genomic information when selecting breeding animals from those producers, but to actually run the test, they need to be generating EBVs.

The higher density panel giving more information does come at a higher price compared to Flock54, and is really geared towards seedstock producers who are trying to make more intense genetic selections for their commercial customers.

The parentage and conditions test is available to all breeds and the genome-enhanced EBVs are currently available for Katahdins with a project currently underway developing the GEBV analysis for Rambouillet, Polypay and Suffolks that should be completed in the next few years.

KARISSA: Flock54 is available to any and all sheep producers. Many of our current producers and breed associations that are utilizing the Flock54 panel are using it for parentage verification, sire performance validation and single marker traits such as Scrapie, spider and dwarf.

With the flexibility of our panel, we will continue to research and validate economic traits important to our commercial producers based on their feedback.

SG USA: How do you see Flock54 and the 50K test through NSIP working together?

KARISSA & RUSTY: First, both of these tests are great products and they each have benefits to the industry for making genetic improvements. Since the 50K test has more information – albeit at a higher cost – it is targeted toward those seedstock producers who are generating EBVs with NSIP.

Ideally, commercial producers could be using the NSIP 50K data and GEBVs when sourcing their rams and then using Flock54 to monitor the results, since it is more affordable at larger scale. The more expensive, the higher-density NSIP 50K test can be used for stud rams and ram lamb prospects who will benefit from the greater amount of information to make rapid genetic progress, then Flock54 can be used on their offspring at the ranch for parentage and monitoring that genetic improvement.

Another real key to Flock54 is that the genomic database is also linked to the large database of carcass information through the instrument grading system. This connection will lead to a full-systems approach to genetic improvement by tying the end product all the way back through the production cycle to the breeding animals and that information being available for genetic selection decisions.

SG USA: Where can producers go for more information?

RUSTY: The NSIP website has tons of information about the benefits and limitations of the 50K SNP chip test and GEBVs at Under the Resources tab, we have a whole section devoted to genomics with articles, fact sheets, videos and webinars. You can also contact me at

KARISSA: Please visit to find out more on our testing service or feel free to contact me directly at karissa.isaacs@superior

Using Precision Ag Tools to Produce Sustainable Animals

University of Nevada, Reno

In 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture outlined its blueprint for agricultural research for the next decade. One of its major goals was the development of more sustainable practices in animal agriculture. This includes environmental – land, water usage and greenhouse gas emissions – as well as economic – consumer affordability and farmer profitability – considerations.

A key component should be improving animal fitness and welfare, but also producing desirable animal products, including lean and tender meat products.


Improving Sustainability by Selecting Resilient Animals

Resilience will be a key component of sustainable agriculture and can be defined as the capacity of an animal to be minimally affected by disturbances, or to rapidly return to the state pertained before exposure to a disturbance. A more resilient animal will show better adaptation to changing environmental conditions – temperature and rainfall – as well as being able to tolerate exposure to diseases.

Thus, a more resilient animal will need less intervention to maintain a high level of performance because they are able make the most out of the resources available in their environment.

Useful indicators of resilience utilize routine measurements over time or measurements that are indicative of the cumulative response to an individual’s environment, thereby capturing an individual’s ability to recover from stressors, such as a period of extreme heat. Precision livestock management tools often rely on sensors and advanced analysis methods that reduce the complex data into metrics useful to the producer.

These tools provide a potential avenue for identifying more resilient animals because they are aimed at routinely collecting data for management purposes and are typically automated in a way that reduces the burden on the producer.

Routinely recorded body weights in chickens and lactation records in dairy cattle have been used to develop resilience traits.

Most studies on resilience to-date have focused on species where frequent data collection is common practice, and there are easy-access facilities to collect the longitudinal data necessary for trait development. A greater impact might be realized in animals that are exposed to more variable environmental conditions, such as those found in rangeland production systems.

However, the challenge in these systems is to develop methods to routinely capture data when the animals are in these environments.

At the University of Nevada-Reno, we are conducting research using the Rafter 7 flock that aims to use precision livestock management tools to inform management practices and develop traits related to resilience. These include developing a high-throughput portable weigh system for routine collection and using low-cost GPS units to capture animal movement.

To capture the genetic component of these and other production traits, we have undertaken a large genotyping effort to enable selection of animals based on their genetic merit.


Routine Weight Collection

A high-throughput automated weighing system that can be easily transported to different locations will enable the routine collection of weights during summer turnout of sheep. A system to routinely collect weights on sheep has been developed, which uses equipment that can be easily transported and can be powered using solar panels.

However, for successful adoption for routine use by herders, a more high-throughput method is needed. We have worked on developing a multi-gated weighing system that can measure multiple animals simultaneously and can be set up in areas where daily use enables frequent data collection, such as by water or at encampments. This work is funded by the National Sheep Industry Improvement Center.

We are putting the final touches on a prototype at our Main Station Field Lab in Reno, Nev. (Figure 1, previous page), with plans to deploy the system at our Great Basin Research and Extension Center in Eureka, Nev., where the Rafter 7 flock is kept. The weight data will be used to develop indicators of resilience, which we will use to estimate the heritability of these traits and assess their correlation with production traits.

The data collected from this system can also be used for flock management in two major ways: first, electronic IDs can be used to take stock inventory and identify when animals go missing; and second, tracking of weight can inform producers of drops in performance, which might be indicative of a scarcity of high-quality feed in the area being grazed or a pathogen moving through the flock.


GPS Data Collection

GPS data can be used to capture measurements of land use behavior on individuals, which has been shown to have a genetic component in cattle. The development of low-cost GPS devices (Figure 2) has enabled the collection of these data on large numbers of animals, enabling their use for development of traits related to land use behavior, such as hillside usage.

The data can also be integrated with knowledge of landscape features to assess how well animals are coping with their environment, such as how often they visit water sources.

This can also be used to develop traits related to grazing efficiency when integrated with weight data, because the amount of weight gain by an individual relative to how far they have traveled is an indicator of how well the animal is using the feed resources in its environment.

GPS data can also be used from a management perspective, including to identify areas that are being grazed more heavily, which can be an indicator of more desirable feed, but also might warrant consideration for a shift in animal management to prevent overgrazing.

Patterns in the data can be used to identify changes in animal behavior that might be indicative of the presence of predators. We are planning on integrating GPS data with observational data collected by herders to identify challenging areas on our landscape – such as high traffic areas for predators – to inform our management practices.

Information on animal social networks can also be collected as a natural part of using GPS data; in particular, ewe-lamb proximity data, which might be indicative of maternal behavior and could impact survivability of the lamb.

This work – funded by an Agricultural Genomes to Phenomes Initiative seed grant – will demonstrate the potential to use GPS data for both management and genetic selection to increase performance of rangeland sheep.


Genotyping the Flock

We are excited to implement genomic testing using an Illumina genotyping array with 50K markers as part of our standard operations in the University of Nevada-Reno’s Rafter 7 flock. Our aim is to genotype most of the animals in our approximately 3,000 head flock to facilitate our enrollment in NSIP genetic evaluations. This effort has a direct tie-in with the research efforts conducted by Dr. Ron Lewis and Dr. Luiz Brito as part of their Sheep GEMS project.

Our goal is twofold: first, to be able to provide the industry with this valuable resource to identify animals that will suit their production needs; and second, to gain a better understanding of the genetic mechanisms driving novel traits associated with performance in a rangeland environment, particularly some of the novel traits discussed in this article.



More sustainable agriculture can be achieved through management practices and selection of resilient animals that maintain a high level of performance and require less intervention. Integration of precision agriculture tools and genomics allows us to make progress on both fronts by providing data-driven solutions to the challenges producers face today and into the future.

Communication is Key to Seedstock/Grower Relationship

Seedstock producer John Anderson of Eastern Ohio and lamb producer Matt Kyle of New York offer a look at how they work together to keep one of the largest lamb operations in the East running efficiently.

SG USA: John and Matt, tell us a little bit about your respective operations.

John: Currently we have 100 ewes with the emphasis on fall lambing. We lambed on the STAR system for about 15 years, then moved to 3X a year lambing and now – after some modifications – we are shifting to one lambing per year in the fall. Our ewes are on pasture or crop residue for most of the year. Our September-October lambing will mostly be on pasture, and those lactating ewes with lambs will be grazed and given a grain supplement until weaning.

Matt: Here at Kyle Farms LLC, we run 5,000 ewes on the eight-month accelerated lambing program and lamb six times per year. The goal is to have a consistent, year-round supply of lamb to meet our customers’ increasing demand. Having lambs available consistently has allowed our business to grow rapidly because the customer can rely on us meeting their needs for both quantity and quality.

SG USA: John, you have been providing Polypay rams to Kyle Farms for a few years now. What is the key to maintaining that relationship?

John: We talk quite a bit. Matt is a very innovative producer and we really enjoy talking about lamb production and what we can do to improve efficiency. We have very similar opinions on what makes a good ewe, so that has been key to the progress we are making.

Matt: Communication – in my opinion – is the key to everything, being able to pick up the phone and relay what we are seeing on the ground is very important to maintaining a long-term relationship. Also, being only a short distance apart allows for routine visits where both parties can make on-site evaluations to determine whether we are heading in the right direction.

SG USA: Matt, what are the genetic challenges you see in the future for your operation?

Matt: As we look into the future genetically, my greatest concern is where John might find the next stud ram to maintain our current values. It’s very simple what we are looking for: A ewe to lamb every eight months, have twins, be 165 to 175 lbs., good milk, doesn’t get mastistis, weans two consistent lambs and does it all over again.

I understand there are plenty of rams out there, but what will we have to give up to gain? Basically, I’m scared to death of failing to get ewes to lamb out of season. In the last five years, we have made significant progress getting our ewes to breed naturally out of season and we can’t afford a negative genetic component that might influence the future. We can’t forget about the past. We have built a very strong ewe flock that continues to exceed our expectations.

The importance of John in our business is priceless. He is the one taking on all the risk by bringing different genetics into his flock. Essentially, he is our screening tool before they come here. We need his rams to hit the ground running. With that said, we must be willing to pay, not only for the rams but any genetic testing that John feels could increase the genetic merit of his flock.

SG USA: John how are preparing to meet those challenges?

John: I think the Polypay breed has all the genetics needed to meet the production needs of Kyle Farms. The fun is in getting all those genes in one relatively thick ram package and to keep that flow of rams going.

The National Sheep Improvement Program has been a great help for selecting the maternal traits we need. Matt is looking for ewes that produce a good set of twins every eight months. So we don’t necessarily need really high number born, but relatively high number weaned is good. Maternal behavior and milk are very important. I am looking forward to genomically enhanced EBVs as we get the base for that information established. I see a lot of benefits from genomics testing, including more accurate EBVs, defect elimination and the ability to use multiple rams in each breeding group in order to ensure a good lamb crop while still knowing the parentage of the lambs. Some other traits we look at include udder conformation, especially teat size. Lambs need to get plugged in without help from the shepherd to make a commercial operation efficient.

There are challenges, but addressing those problems can be pretty satisfying. The feedback I get from Matt is key to our progress and he has made some suggestions on management and nutrition that have been a big help to me. With 5,000 ewes and six lambings a year, experience comes quickly.

UWYO’s Newman Selected for SHF Scholarship

Having already earned five degrees and working on a sixth, Courtney Newman isn’t completely sure if another is in her future. But the Colorado native – who has called the University of Wyoming home since 2018 – has no doubt that she’ll continue to be involved in the sheep industry.

Newman was selected as the winner of ASI’s 2022 Sheep Heritage Foundation Scholarship, which awards $3,000 to a deserving student pursuing an advanced degree in an area of study that will lead to the advancement of the American sheep industry.

“I’m so honored and very thankful for the opportunity to receive this scholarship,” she said. “It will make a huge difference in my studies.”

Working on her master’s degree in Laramie, Wyo., Newman is looking at how blockchain technology might fit in with the American sheep industry.

“A digitized database that is shared and modified cryptographically, blockchain technology would allow us to preserve each past transaction and give each member on the system a copy of all prior transactions related to the item, adding value for the increased available information,” she wrote in her scholarship application. “We are currently working on three proof-of-concept studies relating to wool, small- and medium-sized meat processors, and live animals/animal health.

“Blockchain technology is an emerging technology and not much tangible work has been done to see where it fits into the agriculture model. Consumers keep asking for more information about where their food comes from and blockchain may be a solution to help pass this information along, providing more value back to the producer. A combination of proof-of-concept work and multiple surveys will allow us to see where the industry is at in terms of acceptance, perceptions, and will help us begin to understand the costs and benefits associated with the integration of technology. The project has an expected completion date of May 2023.”

A professional student for the past seven years, Newman acquired associate’s degrees in ag business and animal science from Aims Community College before attending the University of Wyoming. She’s since completed three bachelor’s degrees in animal science, ag business and economics.

“Through my ag business and economics studies, I became familiar on a surface level with blockchain technology,” Newman said. “I have a background on the goat side because my family had a herd of dairy goats. I went to Wyoming for livestock judging and was introduced to wool judging, which brought me into the sheep industry.”

Newman went on to intern with Mountain States Rosen for a summer, which led to collaborating with Dr. Cody Gifford of the University of Wyoming on a research project entitled Estimating Commercial Lamb Carcass Value Within USDA Yield Grade and Camera Grade as Carcass Weight Changes. She’s also interned with Superior Farms at the company’s Denver plant.

Newman also led the university’s efforts to receive certification of its sheep flock through ASI’s American Wool Assurance Program. The school’s flock was the first in the United States to reach Level III – Certified status in the 2-year-old program.

“I’m grateful that this scholarship is truly an investment in the future generation of our industry,” wrote Dr. Whit Stewart of the University of Wyoming in recommending Newman for the scholarship. “Having received this prestigious scholarship in 2015, I can say that Courtney is more deserving than I was at that stage in my career. She’s the type that reassures me that our industry will be in good hands amidst the challenges the future will bring.”

NLFA Leadership School Tours Colorado Plant, Feedlots

The National Lamb Feeders Association hosted its annual Howard Wyman Sheep Industry Leadership School in Northeastern Colorado on June 19-22 as 24 students from across the country got a first-hand look at feeding and processing lambs, as well as the options that are available to market those lambs.

The school included a tour of Colorado Lamb Processors in Brush, Colo., and a stop at the nearby Rule Feedlot. After lunch on that first day, the group headed to Double J Lamb Feeders and Harper Livestock before enjoying a lamb chop dinner at the Eaton (Colo.) Country Club. The following two days of the school were spent in classroom sessions.

The sheep producer students were joined by a dozen U.S. Department of Agriculture Market News reporters in an effort to further educate the men and women who provide valuable pricing information to the American sheep industry. Employees of the agency were both students and teachers as they provided presentations on the new USDA Market News app, as well as on some of the larger sale barns they cover – including New Holland, Penn., and San Angelo, Texas.

“I think this group here this year came to learn. They were engaged on every topic that was discussed,” said NLFA Secretary Steve Schreier of Minnesota. “Such a diverse group and a young, intelligent group. They were really interested in the feeding industry here in Colorado because you just don’t see it on the scale that is here anywhere else in the country.”

That certainly was a draw for Utah producer Mathew Goble as his operation revolves around the commercial sheep industry. He also teaches agriculture at Snow College in Central Utah.

“I’m really excited about some things going on in the industry, and I really wanted to see the new processing plant in Brush,” he said. “But a big part of events like this for me is the networking. There are so many opportunities here in networking with others and finding ideas I can take back to my operation.”

The diverse group included a Dorper producer from Southwest Wyoming who sends most of her lamb to fine dining establishments.

“I have a niche market with my lamb,” said Rose Fisk. “In the last two years because of COVID, everyone got in an RV and drove to Yellowstone. I had to go out and buy more Dorper lambs to meet the demand. But I’m always looking for new ideas in marketing and reaching the different ethnic markets that are available.”

A handful of the students traveled from the Eastern half of the United States despite the fact that Western feedlots don’t factor in to how their operations run on a daily basis.

“I felt like I could get a different view of the industry,” said Barbie Casey of Ohio. Her family has a small hobby farm not far from the diverse population in Cincinnati and markets both lamb meat and show sheep.

“A friend who came to this school in the past recommended it, but I’d put it off for several years. Now that my parents are retiring from off-farm jobs, I think that we might be looking to expand the sheep operation. We all take different roles. I’m focused on marketing and sales of the meat, while my brother takes on marketing and sales of the breeding stock. This school has definitely given me a better view of the industry as a whole, and not just the three to five state region in the Midwest that I come from.”


Greg Deakin, 1952-2022

Gregory Alan Deakin passed away unexpectedly on June 12, 2022, in his hometown of Cuba, Ill. He was born Feb. 7, 1952, to Alan L. Deakin and Marjory J. (Hamm) Deakin.

The youngest of three kids, he began his career with sheep as a 4-H project in 1958 with five Hampshire ewes purchased from Deep Valley Farms in Fiatt, Ill. Making countless friends along the way, he took the project to record heights – from county fairs to the North American International Livestock Exposition.
As a teenager and through his college years, Greg showed sheep on the Western Illinois County Fair Circuit, carrying strings of Hampshires, Suffolks, Corriedales and Oxfords along with other Fulton county friends who also grew up to be influential in the sheep industry, including Conrad Cattron, Robbie Ladd, and Curt Overcash.

He received the Illinois Sheep Proficiency Award with the FFA his senior year of high school. An Oxford ewe he showed for Jim Hanson of Wisconsin won back-to-back Grand Champion Ewe honors at both the 1971 and 1972 Chicago International. Throughout his life, he found time to raise and show the family’s flock of Hampshire and later, Border Leicester sheep.

Following high school graduation in 1970, he went on to attend the University of Illinois from 1971 to 1973. At the end of his junior year, he had the opportunity to go to work for Larry Mead at the Sheep Breeder Magazine as assistant editor while taking classes at the University of Missouri. After a year and a half at The Sheep Breeder, the orange and blue in his blood took him back to Illinois where he completed his degree in agricultural sciences.

With the encouragement of Rollie Rosenboom and his experience learned from Larry Mead, Greg decided to pursue his dream of starting his own magazine with the help of childhood best friend, fraternity brother and college roommate, Curt Overcash. The two began their three-year partnership with the first issue of The Suffolk Banner in March of 1978. Seeing their venture successful caused Greg to move back to Cuba to the family farm to go full time in the magazine business. This move also allowed him to help his recently retired coal-mining father.

While back in his hometown, his daughter Rachel was born in 1981. In 1991, Greg married wife, Debora (Alford), with whom he celebrated their 31st wedding anniversary on Feb. 2 of this year, a date selected around show and sale schedules and a well-timed lambing season. Greg and Deb first welcomed daughter Tiffany in 1993 and then son Colin in 1996.

In 1994, the decision was made to expand the magazine to an all-breeds publication, becoming simply, The Banner Sheep Magazine. As part of his life’s work promoting the sheep industry, he served as the official photographer for the North American International Livestock Exposition, Eastern States Exposition and Keystone International Livestock Exposition.

Greg served as president of the American Border Leicester Association, as well as on its board of directors. He was also appointed to the American Lamb Board as the seedstock representative from 2018-2021. He received ASI’s Shepherd’s Voice Award for media in 2011.

He is survived by wife Debora of Cuba; children, Rachel Deakin, of Lewistown, Ill., Tiffany (Tim Smear) Deakin of Farmington, Ill., Colin (Alex Thomas) Deakin of Cuba; siblings, Reita (David) Harn, of Lewistown, Garrett (Kathy) Deakin, of Springfield, Ill.; and grandchildren Matthew Smith and Hayley Lyons.


Lorin Moench, 1921-2022

Lorin Louis Moench, beloved husband, father, grandfather, great grandfather, great-great-grandfather and friend to many passed away on June 6, 2022.
Lorin was born to David Ballantyne and Zelpha Arave Moench June 24, 1921, in Salt Lake City – the fifth of seven siblings. He attended East High School in Salt Lake City and later the U.S. Navy Officer Training School. Lorin was sealed to Barbara Howells in the Salt Lake Temple on June 18, 1943.

As a young entrepreneur (age 11), he sold ice cream to conference goers at Temple Square. As a teenager, he customized cars and had informal timed races up and down big Cottonwood Canyon. When the war came, he enlisted in the Navy and was stationed in the Pacific. He completed more than 100 bombing and patrol missions and received two Distinguished Flying Cross. He successfully built a sheep and cattle ranch, as well as being an accomplished investor for more than 70 years. Aviation was a lifelong pursuit, owning planes and flying into his 70s.

Lorin blessed his posterity with a firm foundation built through his example of hard work, diligent preparation and perseverance. His intellect, energy and a cool head served him well as he navigated through World War II, the ups and downs of ranching, business and family life.

He also played hard, having a competitive passion for golf, handball, and skiing. Lorin was a scratch golfer in his prime. He was also a two-time club champion at the Salt Lake Country Club. Through the war, business and sports, Lorin cultivated many lifelong friends.

His greatest legacy is his family. He is survived by his five children, Lorin Jr. (Mary Ann Swenson ) Moench, Bobbi Moench (Rod) Snow, Wendy Moench, Mark (Martha Young) Moench, and Brooke Moench Van Alstyne (Phil Van Alstyne – deceased), 19 grandchildren, 62 great-grandchildren, and five great-great grandchildren, and sister Suzanne Moench Klenk.


Dr. Cleon Kimberling, 1930-2022

Cleon Kimberling, DVM, passed away on June 21, 2022. He was born on July 17, 1930, to Cora and Leon Kimberling with the aid of a neighbor lady. His father was in the middle of harvest in the hot wheat fields of western Nebraska.

His education to animal behavior and health started in those early years being surrounded with the typical array of horses, cattle, swine, chickens, turkeys, geese, the barn cats and dogs. All of these animals contributed to the livelihood of the farm family. Early in this educational process he experienced firsthand an outbreak of equine encephalomyelitis. This technical term was implanted into his vocabulary at about the third-grade level when attending the one room country school along with his sisters Garneta and Oneta.

At about the same level, another traumatic educational event happened when the entire Poland China swine operation experienced an outbreak of Hog Cholera, now an exotic disease. As this educational process continued he lost his favorite saddle horse to an impaction, which was beyond the ability of the local veterinarian to correct. Later on, his favorite heifer was left with an obturator paralysis due to improper and excessive traction. This was probably the sequence of events that prompted the pursuit of an education in veterinary medicine.

While growing up in Nebraska, Cleon met Betty Leech. He was a country boy, and she was a town girl, but they fell in love and got married in 1953. They then started their life together on a small patch of land in Nebraska. Cleon served in the U.S. Army and aided in the Korean war. When he had breaks from service, he was able to travel Europe and see many countries.

Cleon went to Colorado State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in animal science from CSU in 1951, and a degree in veterinary medicine in 1959. While in Colorado, he purchased a plot of land in Weld County which was later jokingly referred to as the Kimberling Family Compound. Education and work were not the only thing keeping Cleon busy while in Colorado. With the purchase of land and a new home, he and Betty started their own family. Their oldest child, Kirk, was born 1960 and then Beth was born in 1964.

Cleon continued to work at CSU. For 40 years (1965 to 2005), he was a faculty member in CSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, and during this time also worked as a CSU Extension veterinarian.

Later on, Cleon was blessed with welcoming William Francis and Karen Kimberling into the family as the spouses of Beth and Kirk, respectively. He was then gifted with three grandchildren, John and William from Beth, and Kayla from Kirk. Kayla and her husband Nate added to the family with their children Jace, Kaden, and Emeylnn.

At the age of 65 Cleon was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Instead of giving up he decided to be even stronger and did a bicycle trip from Oceanside California to Bar Harbor Maine. Later after his retirement he cycled the perimeter of the United States. He always said it is important to keep making goals.
At age 81, he began working with Optimal Livestock Services, a Fort Collins-based company that specializes in sheep health, reproduction and management. He was also an active member throughout all of his time in Colorado with First Presbyterian Church and increased his involvement post retirement. He helped with the McBackpack program which helps deliver food to children in need.

At the age of 85, Cleon volunteered with the Christian Veterinary Mission in Mongolia and helped invent a solar powered microscope that is still used in the field today.


Craig Pitt, 1953-2022

Craig Pitt, cherished husband, father, grandfather and brother passed away suddenly on June 5, 2022, due to a heart attack.

Craig was born Sept. 7, 1953, to Donald B. and Ruth Shields Pitt in Tooele, Utah. He spent his entire childhood in Pine Canyon. Craig was involved in baseball and swimming throughout his youth. He graduated from Tooele High School in 1971, and then attended Weber State University on a swim scholarship. From 1973-1975, Craig served the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in the Tallahassee, Fla., mission.

Craig married Doelene Parkinson on Sept. 10, 1976, in the Salt Lake Temple. They spent the early years of their marriage traveling with Craig’s brothers as they played competitive softball. Craig supported his family working in the meat industry. He was a butcher for Tooele Valley Meat and later for the federal government at Dugway Proving Grounds and Hill Air Force Base commissaries. In addition to his full time work, Craig cut and wrapped meat for family and friends. Craig retired in 2016 after 34 years of service.

Doelene and Craig established their home in Grantsville, Utah, where they raised their five children and started Pitt Family Columbias. In 2019, Craig and Doelene received the prestigious “Silver Bell” award for their lifelong dedication to the Columbia Sheep Breeders Association.

Craig is survived by his wife of 45 years, Doelene; his five children, Heidi Warr, Robert (Brookes) Pitt, Elizabeth Pitt (Jereme Rice), Emily (Michael) Cantone, Holly (Christopher) Courtney and granddaughter Shawndee (Dalton) Stice. He leaves behind 16 grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren, with 1 on the way. Craig is also survived by his brothers Barry (Michelle) and Alan Pitt, and sister Peggy Pitt, his mother-in-law, Maralee Parkinson, sisters-in-law, Patricia Parkinson, Jody (Tom) Yager, and Krista (Bryan) Sparks and numerous nieces and nephews.

Making Connections to Advance Genome to Phenome Science

Beyond the field, pasture and barn, many people are working to help producers achieve their goals of raising exceptional livestock and harvesting abundant crops. Agricultural scientists are continually exploring ways to improve crops and livestock to accelerate breeding strategies and genetic gain so farmers can feed the world in more efficient and profitable ways.

The Agricultural Genome to Phenome Initiative was written into the 2018 Farm Bill and is supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The current project – NIFA AG2PI Collaborative: Creating a Shared Vision Across Crop and Livestock Communities – is an initial three-year project funded under this initiative. This project focuses on connecting crop and livestock scientists to identify similar questions and gaps in understanding of agricultural genome to phenome science, and collaborate on solutions to improve agriculture sustainability in the United States.

“The main goal of AG2PI is to bring plant and animal scientists together to identify synergies and shared strategies for experimental design and data analyses,” said Iowa State University Distinguished Professor and AG2PI Principal Investigator Patrick Schnable. “Through this sort of communication, we seek to eliminate redundancy, streamline research and thereby improving the entire research pipeline.”

ASI – along with several other commodity groups and livestock organizations – are stakeholders in the AG2PI project. Together, these stakeholders support the long-term goal of increasing agricultural genetic science and research to benefit stakeholders, breeders, producers and growers. The expansive list of AG2PI stakeholders, founding partners and global engagement organizations illustrates the importance this research holds for the future of agriculture.

Agricultural geneticists are studying how crop and livestock physical or biological traits — phenomes — connect back to their genetic code, which is known as genome-to-phenome research. These scientists also explore how the environment can influence the genes in the genome and therefore all the resulting traits. The identification of how to improve traits in crops and livestock is an important aspect of G2P science.

“Uncovering the connection between genes and traits is crucial for crop and livestock improvement, and crucial for helping farmers manage their environments to fully realize the genetic potential,” said David Ertl, an AG2PI executive committee member representing the Iowa Corn Promotion Board, and chair of the stakeholder committee.

The genetic basis of crops and livestock lend themselves to similar research methods. Data collection, access and storage needs might be managed similarly. The use of sensor technologies and machine learning could be applied likewise across these research communities. However, those conducting the research generally stay within their own field of study, and often within a particular species.

The AG2PI team hosts activities that aim to connect agricultural geneticists and breeders with each other and to those working with data, statistics, engineering and social sciences. Through virtual field days, workshops and conferences, professionals meet to share knowledge, offer ideas and solutions, and collaborate toward scientific advancement and practical applications. AG2PI has hosted numerous virtual field days and hands-on workshops so that professionals can learn from one another, generate knowledge-sharing ideas and expand how they think of their work in creative ways.

AG2PI promotes another avenue of collaboration through its seed grant program. Between late 2021 and 2022, AG2PI awarded grants for 30 projects, totaling more than $1.1 million. The projects in general are cross-disciplinary, multi-institutional and include collaborators from around the globe. Project topics are diverse, such as: storing and integrating data from new technology including virtual fencing, livestock GPS collars and UAV sensors; standardizing, advancing and creating access to data; implementing machine learning models for better crops, and more. Outcomes from the AG2PI activities will springboard scientists to continue collaborations and advance agricultural G2P research.

“A better understanding of how variation within the genomes of livestock and crops results in different production traits across different environments will allow us to enhance genetic gain, which will benefit stakeholders, producers and society,” said Brenda Murdoch, associate professor at the University of Idaho, co-PI on the project and an ASI member.

As G2P science advances, it impacts all areas of agriculture. New crop varieties and hybrids can get to the market quicker, which could enhance crop production. Disease and pest resistance for both crops and livestock can be strengthened. Producers and growers will benefit and profit from improving the genetics of crops for seed, feed, fiber and fuel, as well as raising healthier livestock for nutritious meat and milk.

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