Sheep industry research: USSES works to improve production efficiency, consumer satisfaction and rangeland sustainability
Near the small town of Dubois, Idaho, the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station (USSES), a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) research unit, was started under the direction of Virgil McWhorter in 1916, who was appointed the task by USDA Bureau of Animal Industry Director Fred Marshall.
“The original purpose of the USSES was twofold,” explains Dr. Bret Taylor, USSES supervisory research animal scientist. “The first goal was to develop genetic lines of sheep that produce, in a sustainable manner, quality food and fiber from the rangelands of the Upper Mountain West. The second goal was to develop rangeland management tools and strategies to promote sustainable and healthy native rangelands.”
Bret explains the original USDA flocks were developed at the King Ranch in Laramie, where the first crosses of the Columbia breed were developed.
In 1917, following the erection of the first USSES buildings, herders drove the USDA flock from Laramie to Dubois, Idaho. All sheep arrived to the USSES in the late spring of 1918.
USSES development of sheep breeds
Not long after the flock’s arrival, Bret notes the USSES began developing several different breeds of sheep.
“Soon after the arrival of the USDA flock in 1918, the USSES released the Columbia breed to the public, and in 1926, the USSES released the Targhee breed,” explains Bret. “The latest breed to be developed and released by the USSES in 1978 is Polypay.”
“It is important to note the Rambouillet breed is the backbone of the Columbia, Targhee and Polypay composite breeds,” Bret continues. “Accordingly, the USSES scientists spend much time refining the Rambouillet breed as a top breed for the Upper Mountain West.”
Today, the USEES maintains flocks of all four of these breeds. Additionally, the experiment station also maintains a flock of Suffolks and a fourth new composite breed, which has not yet been released.
“Currently, the USSES is working with the USDA Meat Animal Research Center near Clay Center, Neb. to evaluate the performance and adaptability of Katahdin sheep,” Bret notes.
USSES research projects
Bret explains the USSES is currently conducting other research projects as well.
These include the evaluation of Suffolk, Siremax and a new terminal-composite breed for the ability to increase the quantity and value of lamb. They are also establishing genetic linkages between experimental and industry flocks to support industry-wide genetic evaluations and development of comprehensive breeding objectives.
Additionally, USSES is determining the utility of chlorate salts to mitigate production losses due to postpartum diseases and determining the sheep production and ecological value of using sheep grazing to improve sage grouse nesting habitat in recently burned mountain sagebrush steppe.
USSES mission and goals
“The mission of the USSES is still linked with its original purpose, which is to develop integrated methods for increasing production efficiency of sheep and to simultaneously improve the sustainability of rangeland ecosystems,” Bret explains.
“To remain globally competitive, U.S. sheep enterprises must increase product volume and quality, while transitioning to ecologically positive production systems,” he continues. “Consumer demand is strong. However, ewe production inefficiencies hamper the ability of the U.S. sheep industry to generate quality meat and wool at a viable profit margin. Furthermore, the public has diverse ideologies concerning sheep production and land use.”
In fact, Bret goes on to explain land management paradigms embraced by the general public exclude livestock production and grazing, which poses serious threats to U.S. food security and rural agricultural communities.
“The USSES’ aim is to create solutions and tools to enable the sheep industry to efficiently produce quality meat and wool in an ecologically sustainable manner that is acceptable to consumers and producers,” Bret notes.
“To this end, USSES considers product quality and safety, lamb health, genetic improvement and ecologically positive grazing system outcomes as important project endpoints,” he adds.
Therefore, Bret explains the USSES’ goals are to develop germplasm for increasing weight and value of lamb weaned, facilitate the industry in increasing the precision of important estimated breeding value (EBV) indexes, develop non-antibiotic prophylactic strategies to mitigate loss of lamb production and decrease producer dependency on antibiotics and to develop production grazing strategies that contribute to habitat sustainability.
“Accomplishing these goals will result in greater sheep production efficiency, consumer-preferred products that are safe and high quality and grazing methods that are favorably viewed by the public,” Bret concludes.
For more information, visit ars.usda.gov.
Hannah Bugas is the managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to email@example.com.