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Sheep study: UW grad student studies nutrition on winter range, provides producers with supplement advice

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Alexis Julian, a 23-year-old Kemmerer native, has spent the last two years conducting research on sheep nutrition and supplementation in Wyoming as part of her graduate degree at the University of Wyoming (UW).

“I grew up on a sheep ranch in the southwest corner of Wyoming. My family operates around 10,000 head of sheep as well as some cattle, so I have always been heavily involved in agriculture,” Julian says. 

This extensive background in the ag industry, as well as Julian’s passion for the sheep industry in particular, lead her to pursue an undergrad degree at UW in pre-veterinary and animal science. 

She is now working toward her master’s degree, where she has dedicated her graduate research to working with and helping sheep producers across the state of Wyoming.

Producer-focused research

With the help of UW Extension Sheep Specialist Dr. Whit Stewart and UW Extension Rangeland Specialist Dr. Derek Scasta as well as several other UW Extension Educators, undergraduate and graduate students, Julian has spent the last two years conducting her graduate research, which focused on sheep nutrition in Wyoming during the winter months.

“The study was very producer focused. In fact, we designed it specifically with producers in mind,” explains Julian. “The research looked at sheep nutrition during winter months.”

According to Julian, the goal of the study was to provide producers with a baseline of their forage mineral content on winter ranges and to use the information they found to help guide supplementation management decisions. 

“During the winter, producers ask a lot of their sheep. Ewes are expected to breed up and then maintain a fetus during a time when they are provided with a very low plane of nutrition,” she explains. 

Forage mineral analysis 

Julian says the study looked at forage and shrub trace mineral content across 25 different ranches in Wyoming. To accomplish this, Julian visited each ranch, clipped forage samples on their winter range and sent the samples to a lab for analysis.

“We’re particularly interested in the trace mineral contribution of dormant grass and shrub species and how they provide essential trace minerals,” she explains. “The lab analyzed the forages for crude protein, phosphorus, calcium, potassium, sodium, sulfur, magnesium, zinc, iron, manganese, copper, molybdenum, selenium and cobalt.” 

“We looked into these because clinical and subclinical deficiencies can result in major economic loss to the producer,” Julian adds. 

Study results

Julian says she received the laboratory analyses and sent out reports to each of the 25 ranches.

“The study lasted two years, but for the most part, we’re done collecting samples and are in the analysis phase,” she says. “I wrote up specific reports for each of the 25 ranches in our study and sent them out about a week ago.” 

 “Although most of the results were pretty specific to each operation, we did see some potential trace mineral deficiencies across the state,” Julian continues.

In fact, Julian explains preliminary results from the 25 ranches indicate 88 percent of ranches sampled may not meet phosphorus requirements and 68 percent may not have enough dietary zinc provided for their ewes.

“Another interesting thing we came across is the lab analysis indicated shrub species across the state provide a more complete diet than grass species,” she notes.

“The fact that sheep have a lot of dietary flexibility in their preference for grasses and shrubs make them efficient at utilizing Wyoming’s working landscapes,” says Stewart. “The fact that sheep can produce such a high-quality fiber and protein on our landscapes is a great story to be told for our industry.” 

Hannah Bugas is the managing editor for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to roundup@wylr.net.

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