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Research Station: U.S. Sheep Experiment Station works to find discoveries

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Dubois, Idaho – U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agriculture Research Service’s (ARS) Range Sheep Production Efficiency Research Animal Scientist J. Bret Taylor focuses on developing solutions to improve the profitability and livelihood of sheep enterprises throughout the West. 

From the beginning 

“The sheep station started over 100 years ago in 1916 with the focus on sheep genetics and rangeland ecology and management,” he shares. “In the Upper Intermountain West, in places such as Wyoming, livestock are an important part of native rangeland ecosystems. If we fail these rangelands, we basically lose our resource for producing sheep in these particular ecosystems.” 

“The Western sheep producer is very integrated and tied to the land and native landscapes,” he adds. “Since the beginning, our approach has been to keep sheep production integrated with rangeland health and making sure these ecosystems are sustained and maintained in a way to not only provide a critical service in terms of a grazing resource for our sheep, but also for everyone and everything depending upon them.”  

As a USDA national lab, the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station works diligently to develop integrated methods for increasing production efficiency of sheep and to simultaneously improve sustainability of ecosystems on rangelands. 

“Much of our research focuses on specific issues – whether it’s genetics or nutrition that may impact producers over a region wide basis or in a specific area,” says Taylor. “Basically, through our research, we aim to develop solutions helping producers solve their problems.”  

“We try to make our work as meaningful as possible,” he adds. “Although much of our research focuses on production systems in the Upper Intermountain West – Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, Utah, Idaho and portions of eastern Oregon – we try to be applicable to producers on a national level.”

Currently, there are two national programs the research station is participating in.

National programs 

The ARS’s research portfolio is organized into national programs. The Idaho-based research station participates in the Food Animal Production (NP #101) program and the Grass, Forage and Rangeland Agroecosystems program (NP #215). 

The Food Animal Production program looks to provide the scientific community and food animal industries with scientific information, biotechnologies and best management practices ensuring consumers have an abundant supply of competitively priced, high quality animal products, shares the USDA webpage. 

Under NP #101, several individual projects are taking place at the research station in Dubois, Idaho. They include: Establishing Innovative Strategies to Incorporate Crossbred Data into Genetic Evolution of Sheep in the U.S.; Livestock Grazing in Rangeland Management Systems; and Agroecological Approach to Enhance U.S. Sheep Industry Viability and Rangeland Ecosystem Conservation. 

The NP #215 looks to develop and integrate improved management practices, germplasm and land-use strategies to optimize economic viability and environmental enhancement in managing vegetation, livestock and natural resources on private and public lands. Specific projects at the station include Interagency Agreement for Fire Management; Assessing Pollinator and Gall Response to Climatic Gradients; and Fire and Grazing Management in Sagebrush Ecosystems

The objective of the sole Dubois, Idaho-based project called, “Developing Rangeland Management Strategies to Enhance Productive, Sustainable Range Sheep Agroecosystems,” is to determine if the ecological value of using sheep grazing can manipulate intermountain rangeland plant communities towards goals for biodiversity conservation via enhanced habitat quality, shares USDA. 

“The sheep industry has always been joined at the hip with maintaining healthy and productive rangelands,” says Taylor. “The research projects at the station address these two national programs – there are a number of research projects going on simultaneously.”  

Collaborations and
cross-agency effort 

The station collaborates with the University of Wyoming in work focused on mineral nutrition of ewes and health of lambs, he notes. 

“The University of Wyoming has been a critical collaborator for the sheep station,” he mentions. “Many of our research programs and projects are based on input from stakeholders such as Wyoming sheep producers and the university. Although we are confined to our national program objectives, we have the freedom to choose how we address national objectives. The way we do that is by listening to producers.” 

The station is also collaborating with the USDA, ARS, U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Nebraska to create a national genetic reference flock system.

“Currently, producers can utilize estimated breeding values to identify sheep having the best genetic merit to meet their flock production goals, but to develop good estimated breeding values, genetic linkages across a number of flocks in different environments are needed,” he says. “The National Sheep Improvement Program (NSIP) is a program facilitating this process. The strength of NSIP is dependent upon the number of enrolled members and genetic connectivity across the members’ sheep flocks.” 

“We’re working with the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center’s Geneticist Tom Murphy to create genetically linked flocks between research centers, first, and then with producers all across the nation through purchasing and using NSIP enrolled rams,” says Taylor 

“As we grow, we will be seeking partnerships, the more institutions and producers we can get involved, the better that value will become,” he concludes. 

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Brittany Gunn is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments to 

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