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Sheep Research U.S. Sheep Experiment Station strives to improve industry production and profits

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Casper – “By President Woodrow Wilson’s Executive Order, we were established for sheep genetics purposes,” stated U.S. Sheep Experiment Station Director Bret Taylor.

Taylor spoke in Casper on Aug. 4 at the Wyoming Wool Growers Association mid-year meeting, bringing Wyoming sheep producers up-to-date on current research at the station.

“The U.S. Sheep Experiment Station falls under two programs under USDA’s Agriculture Research Service (ARS) – Food Animal Production and Pasture, Forage and Rangeland Systems,” Taylor elaborated.

As part of ARS, research goals at the station aim to provide service to agricultural producers, advancing products from the growth stages through marketing.

“Every five years, the national ARS programs meet, coming from states all over the nation. They come to a common place and provide their input on what ARS, at the national level, should do,” he noted.

Taylor emphasized that stakeholders have a responsibility to voice their input about beneficial programs that are, or can be, put into place at the station.

“Our focus is to make sure that our research is directly connected to producers and that it feeds what they need. We have to feed producer knowledge so that they can advance for our country to have perpetual food security,” Taylor explained.

Near closure

Recently, the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station was slated for closure. The American Sheep Industry Association and producers took prompt action to reverse the decision.

“I don’t know how far into the future we are protected, but agreement wording does keep us in business, and the area director asked me to submit a budget plan for fiscal year 2016,” he reported.

Idaho state legislators also granted state dollars to the University of Idaho for cooperative research with the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station, which indicates positive momentum for the future of the station.

“Politically, that was a big deal because it sent the message back up the chain to our administrator and to Congress showing that money is being contributed to advanced, cooperative research with our unit,” he said.

Research has been conducted at the station since 1913, providing data records on production, wool and more in various breeds such as Rambouillet, Columbia, Targhee and Polypay.

Future study

Coming up this fall, Taylor noted, “We are looking at the genetic merit that is out there available for producers to purchase and what that can do in terms of improving wool, reproductive efficiency and lifetime productivity in commercial wool flocks.”

Researchers hope to gain insight into the true genetic potential that the sheep industry of the United States has to offer.

In other research, Polypay sheep are being studied by Steven White, an animal disease research scientist based in Pullman, Wash.

“He conducted his first matings last year and appears to be creating a Polypay ewe that is resistant to Ovine Progressive Pneumonia Virus (OPPV),” Taylor remarked.

Staying focused on productive traits as well, the project is aimed toward producing sheep that are both profitable and disease resistant.

“In addition to genetics, we do sheep management research,” Taylor continued.

For example, data is being collected on the health of neonatal lambs in the first eight days of their lives.

“There is overwhelming evidence in publication that if a lamb falters in the first eight days, we can see weaning weights anywhere from two to 10 pounds less for that particular lamb,” he stated.


Using chlorate salts, scientists are trying to reduce the incidents of enteric diseases such as E. coli and scours in shed lambing environments without a significant increase in labor or costs.

“Hopefully, we are gathering data that will prove fruitful for us when we present our research to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA),” he noted.

In another project, data shows that a toxic alkaloid found in plants in the Southwest may be beneficial in small doses.

“Under major doses, the plant is toxic, but we have seen under very small doses that it has the ability to alter the immune system in a positive way,” Taylor remarked.

Further development may allow producers to extend the effect of passive transfer immunity from a mother to her lamb, through colostrum.

“When we have those antibodies passed from the mother to her young, can we actually push that immunity out four to five weeks more?” he asked.

Further investigation into the subject will be pursued next year.


“As we get over to western Idaho and Oregon, those producers have a real issue with selenium deficiency,” Taylor then remarked.

Naturally selenium-rich feeds may be a solution for producers who face FDA regulations and other obstacles with selenium yeasts, salts or injections, and Taylor’s team has defined and developed a product.

“We are trying to get a marketable product out,” he explained, facing challenges involving costs and market values.

Taylor has been a scientist with the ARS for the last 14 years and has been active in many of the projects at the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station. More recently, he has had the opportunity to go out into the community and visit with sheep producers in Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Wyoming.

Taylor stated, “If anyone has any questions about the sheep station, I will certainly answer any questions that they might have.”

Additional projects

Work at the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station has also involved a wide range of topics, including the hair genetics of Romanov sheep, muscle genetics of Texel sheep, the potential advantages of composite breeds and more.

“Rangeland management is our other program,” Bret Taylor, U.S. Sheep Experiment Station director, added.

Research involving toxic lupine growth after fires, the effects of complete fire suppression on big sage and fire burn models are encompassed in the station’s rangeland work.

“We have a long survey record of sage grouse populations at the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station. Plus, we have the complete vegetation, fire and climate record going back to 1915,” he stated.

Further data is being compiled that integrates grazing factors as well.


Bret Taylor can be contacted at the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station at 208-374-5306.

Natasha Wheeler is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be contacted at

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