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Sheep symposium draws wide audience

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Gillette – “We don’t have many opportunities to get together solely for the sheep industry,” said UW Extension Educator Whit Stewart. “This is one of those opportunities where you can gather some good information.”

At the Northeast Wyoming Sheep Symposium, producers from Wyoming, Colorado and Montana gathered in Gillette on Oct. 20 to hear about developments in sheep production and ask questions of industry experts.

The event drew more than 50 producers from ages eight to 91. The wide audience was polled on their operation size and scope, as well as a number of other aspects of their operation to address the individual needs of producers at the event.

Stewart offered that producers could boost production and meet the nutritional demands of their flocks with relatively little input by using forage kochia.

“Forage kochia is highly adaptable to all ranges of soils and heat tolerant,” said Stewart. “Producers can also graze forage kochia really hard, and the plant does well. It is also long-lived and is a really great protein source.”

Stewart added, “As far as ewe maintenance is concerned, forage kochia easily meets ewe maintenance needs – grass won’t do that. It still meets requirements for early ewe gestation, and from a crude protein standpoint, it is achievable to meet the needs of a weaned lamb.”

According to their analysis of the dry matter, forage kochia had around 16 percent crude protein and provides high yields later in the season. The quality of total digestible nutrients also exceeds the levels available in unimproved pastures.

“I’m not encouraging producers to go out and till up native pastures,” clarified Stewart. “I am encouraging targeting those areas that are getting marginal or low production right now.”

Forage kochia, a native plant of central Eurasia, is used as the primary food source for ruminant animals and is palatable to both cattle and sheep, according to Stewart. It also offers the potential to provide an effective grazing source through later months in Wyoming.

Christopher Schauer, North Dakota State University’s Hettinger Research Extension Center Director, also looked at supplementing ewe diets through the winter months, encouraging producers to look at ewe body condition scoring and the stage of pregnancy, the quality and quantity of forage, available supplements as well as mineral and water.

When considering ewe body condition scores (BCS), a score of three, or average, is indicated by a smooth, rounded spinous process, as well as a loin eye muscle that is full, with some fat cover, should be the target BCS for ewes throughout breeding through late lactation.

To maintain those levels, Schauer emphasized the need to provide supplements because available forage usually lacks the necessary nutritional value.
“We need to provide energy in the form of total digestible nutrients (TDN) that the animals can use,” explained Schauer. “It is likely sheep will be energy deficient, and we will probably have to provide supplements to meet their needs.”    

Schauer emphasized the need to target high protein sources with a high percentage of TDN to be most effective, citing commercial cakes, distillers grains and soybean meal as good sources of protein.

Regardless of the choice of supplement, Schauer said it is important to make sure sheep are consuming the provided product. This rule applies to mineral as well.

“There are some really good products out there,” said Schauer. “It is important to make sure they are eating what producers provide and that producers are following the labels.”

Schauer also noted that an online program useful for balancing feed rations, designed by Montana State University and available at, can provide information about the amount of supplement necessary to meet the needs of ewes, depending on weather conditions.

Aside from providing appropriate nutrition for sheep, Wyoming State Veterinarian Jim Logan emphasized the importance of breeding soundness exams to also ensure a flock is functioning at its highest level.

“The ram will produce at least 75 percent of the genetic improvement in a flock,” explained Logan. “That is a good reason for why it is highly important to know the animal you have purchased can actually do the job.”

“Poor breeding is the risk of an unevaluated ram,” said Logan. “Every aspect of a ram has to be looked at.”

Beyond visually analyzing rams, it is also important to look at semen tests and the ELISA test.

“If a ram has b. ovis, eventually he will cause problems. While ewes may clear the disease, they also may abort or infertility may result,” explained Logan. “Basically, the picture is pretty obvious – you don’t want this disease in your flock.”

Breeding soundness exams are not only important for rams, but are essential in the ewes of a flock.

“If you have aged ewes, keeping good records is essential,” said Logan, citing reproductive history as being of high importance.

Evidence of prolapse, discharge, udder and teat condition as well as condition of the teeth, eyes and feet should also be considered.

Logan also emphasized that record keeping is critical to decision making about which animals to keep in a flock.

In breeding selections, former UW Sheep Specialist Leroy Johnson looked at using wool quality as a selection criterion.

“If you look at wool production, clean fleece weight is a function of body size, diameter, length and density,” said Johnson.

Johnson further explained that each of the characteristics can be individually selected for, but all are correlated.

“If you decide to select for increased body size, the average fiber diameter is going to get courser,” explained Johnson, who also commented that some wool traits, such as body size and length, are easier to determine than others.

Johnson also echoed Logan’s emphasis in the necessity of accurate recordkeeping to make decisions in individual operations. He added that sheep production is the combination of art and science, noting that basic research takes someone with skill to make it work.

“Trust your experience,” commented Johnson. “You are the person – the art – in sheep production.”

Bridger Feuz, UW Livestock Marketing Specialist, concluded presentations at the symposium with a look at lamb and wool markets.

“There are mixed messages for the lamb outlook, and there is a lot of volatility in the economy,” said Feuz.

Feuz commented that a high unemployment rate and the increasing cost of meat provides additional uncertainty from the demand end of the market.

“Consumption is a function of supply, and consumers are eating what product is available,” noted Feuz. “Even though people are consuming less per capita, they are willing to pay more for what they are eating.”

From the supply aspect of markets, Feuz said less lamb and mutton is available, and the ewe inventory continues to decline.

“However, the outlook fundamentals would indicate price levels next fall at as good or slightly better than 2011,” said Feuz. “We have to see this continued economic recovery and look at input prices, but in general, in this supply-demand situation, we are going to have a strong markup for the next few years.”

As speakers offered final comments, Larry Prager of Center of the Nation Wool said, “There are some very positive things here. In the last 30 years, I have never seen more money put in the bank with lambs, or with wool, as this year. We’re part of an industry that is at a very good point.”

Saige Albert is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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