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Sheep

Accelerated production for sheep producers is an option that can provide increased profits, says Michigan State University Small Ruminant Extension Specialist Richard Ehrhardt.

“Accelerated lambing is a production system for sheep producers that decreases the birth interval to less than 12 months,” Ehrhardt says. “By decreasing the interval, we create a moving birth period throughout the years, creating multiple birth periods.”

Essentially, the system requires that sheep are being productive at all times, he says, noting that sheep don’t take a break or sit in a non-productive states. 

“It is key to improving production efficiency that we don’t have sheep that are non-pregnant or not lactating for long periods,” Ehrhardt adds.

Comparison

Ehrhardt figures a good annual program with a conception rate of 95 percent,  will result in 1.9 lambs born per year per ewe. 

“If we consider 85 percent survival rate from birth to market, which I would argue is fairly reasonable, we come to 1.6 lambs per ewe per year on an annual system,” he says. “In the accelerated system, we have more than one birth per year.”

On average, in an accelerated system, ewes are going to have 1.3 to 1.4 lambs at each lambing period.

While ewes have a slightly lower productive rate per lambing period, they are also lambing multiple times per year, so Ehrhardt estimates that each ewe produces approximately 2.2 lambs per year to market age.

With a replacement rate for ewes in the flock at approximately 22 percent, ewes in an annual production system will yield approximately 1.38 lambs per year, compared to 1.95 lambs per year from an accelerated system. 

Ehrhardt comments, “In this scenario, the accelerated production system provides 40 percent greater annual ewe productivity.”

Advantages

In addition to greater lamb crops to take to market, Ehrhardt mentions that the system provides more marketing flexibility and, as a result, less risk. 

“We can hit more markets, so we can be more opportunistic in our marketing,” he comments. “We can take lambs that are born at every point in the year and sell than as 140 pound lambs in a traditional market, or we can target the ethnic trade with 40 to 50 pound lambs.” 

Year-round supply also creates additional markets and consistent supply. 

“Market access might be the strongest advantage of accelerated production,” Ehrhardt says. “We have reduced risk due to price fluctuations, and we are marketing lambs throughout the year, creating cash flow.”

Using two production examples, Ehrhardt points out that both large-scale and small-scale producers can utilize an accelerated production system. 

One ranch with over 2,000 sheep utilizes the system, seeing a rate of 2.32 lambs per ewe per year. Another operation with only 150 sheep realizes a rate of 1.9 lambs per ewe per year. 

Two systems

There are two primary systems utilized in accelerated production – the Cornell STAR system and the eighth-month system. 

“In the STAR system, developed at Cornell, we see five lambing periods over three years,” Ehrhardt explains. “We have ewes lambing every 7.2 months in this system, which is a little more efficient than the other system.”

The STAR system results in an average of 1.67 lambs per ewe per year, compared to 1.5 in the eighth-month system. 

“The calendar year is broken into five periods of production,” Ehrhardt explains of the STAR system. “We have a 73-day period of lambing and lactation. Then we wean lambs and the ewes are exposed again.”

A ewe that breeds in early January, lambs in late June and is rebred. The same ewe will lamb in January at the beginning of the second year, is bred in early March and lambs a third time in August. 

“Year three, she will lamb in March,” Ehrhardt says. “She is going to lactate, get bred and lamb again for the fifth time in October.”

Ehrhardt notes that often two bunches of ewes are managed in the system, and while one bunch is lambing, the other is being bred. 

“Over the three-year period, the ewes gives birth at a different time of year each year,” he says.

In the eighth month system, ewes lamb every eight months. 

“The advantages of this system is the flexibility,” Ehrhardt comments. “We only have three lambing periods per year instead of five.”

As a result, the timing is not as strict, and producers can extend lactation or breeding, for example, to hit a target market. 

“The eighth-month system also allows the ewes a bit more recovery, so they regain the energy reserve and body fat they need,” he says.

Additional resources

To switch to an accelerated system, however, additional resources are needed on an operation. 

“Producers need a birth facility,” Ehrhardt says. “A climate-controlled barn would be best, since we have to lamb in the dead of winter.”

The facility should be capable of housing at least two-thirds of the flock. 

“We also have to provide an increased plane of nutrition over the year than in annual birth,” he comments. “The ewes are in a more productive state, so we have to meet their needs.”

In addition to high energy forages, supplements or concentrates should be provided at the appropriate times. Ewes have higher energy requirements in an accelerated production system to maintain their condition and productivity.

A breed of sheep that is capable of off-season breeding is also important. 

“We also have to carefully manage or eradicate chronic diseases,” Ehrhardt notes. “They show up as ugly things in an accelerated system.”

“Overall, we need precise management in terms of nutrition, reproduction and health,” Ehrhardt comments. 

Just a piece

Richard Ehrhardt, Michigan State University’s Small Ruminant Extension specialist, emphasizes that using accelerated production is just one piece of improving the efficiency of a sheep operation. 

“This is one of a number of strategies to improve efficiency,” he says. 

Other management strategies to improve efficiency include lowering feed cost by extending grazing seasons and using inexpensive by-product feeds when available. 

“My number one way of improving efficiency is strategic nutritional management,” Ehrhardt explains. “I make nutritional investments where they pay off and improve productivity and welfare.”

Decreasing labor also plays as role, as well as increasing production using genetics, terminal sires for growth advantage and, finally, reducing birth intervals – which is accelerated production.

Other options

Michigan State University Small Ruminant Extension Specialist Richard Ehrhardt marked controlled use of lighting and hormone therapy to further improve production and reproductive abilities of sheep. 

“There isn’t a lot of published data comparing the system, but Canada’s government research center for sheep did a study where they compared lighting control with progesterone therapy,” he says. “In the light-controlled system, the ewes are lambing at a rate of 2.81 lambs per lambing period, or nearly four lambs per year.”

Using hormone therapy resulted in 1.37 lambs per ewe at each lambing period, or 2.86 lambs per year per ewe.

 

Ehrhardt presented during a webinar offered in cooperation with the American Sheep Industry Association’s Rebuild the Sheep Inventory Committee.

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 largest wool clip in the U.S. in 2017 that accounted for approximately 10 percent of all U.S. wool production, according to the 2018 USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) “Sheep and Goat Report.”

Wyoming also produced the highest-valued wool clip in the nation in 2017.  With shearing season upon us and wool prices at record highs, now is a good time to look at wool preparation strategies prior to shearing to improve the quality of wool. A quality wool clip begins with planning prior to shearing. 

Wool has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years as consumers rediscover the premier chemical properties that make the high-performance socks and base layer garments, in addition to the more traditional outwear, blankets and upholstery. 

Conservative stats from USDA NASS “Sheep and Goat Report” indicate an approximate $1.50 increase in the value of wool from 2000-16. Although these survey statistics lump all grades of wool into one value, well-prepared Wyoming fine wools, with 70s to 60s spin count, will garner higher prices than previous years. The international economy, strength of the U.S. dollar and record Australian wool markets all influence the price of wool received in the U.S. 

Estimated gross revenue on a per fleece basis across a range of wool grades, and clean wool yields are provided in the table on the bottom left. Generally, the difference between receiving 75 percent and 85 percent of the value of Australian prices is a good buyer-grower relationship, where a proven history of best management practices in wool preparation has been achieved. 

Wool markets are subject to fluctuations entering the peak wool trading season, but wool clip quality and level of preparation shouldn’t. Good preparation strategies are good insurance for price volatility in the wool market.  

Degree of preparation will vary by operation size, but include some of the following considerations.

Maintaining a clean shearing floor clear of manure, hay, straw chaff or garbage will ensure cleaner fleeces entering the wool sack. Where warranted, designate a sack for coarser wools to be separated from finer wools, especially in flocks with multiple breeds.

Ensure multiple sacks are set up for off-sorts – including bellies, tags and top-knots – from the fleece. Removing portions of the fleece that have a large degree of hay chaff, like the bellies and in between shoulder, will ensure higher yields and lower vegetable matter content and increase the value and marketability of clips. 

Kemp, hair and dark fibers are considered contaminants at the processing level as these fibers don't accept dye and give an inconsistent appearance. Removing those components from the main fleece will increase the clean yield and reduce undesirable fiber types for wool processing at the next stage. 

Hair sheep fiber should not be marketed or mixed with wool. This includes any hair/wool crossbreds. Sorting off finer wool white-face breeds to shear first, followed by any black-face sheep breeds, will reduce the potential for dark fiber contamination on the shearing floor.

Polypropylene plastic represents a significant source of contamination and economic loss in the wool industry, in addition to hair sheep. This is the synthetic plastic used in bailing twine, tarps and net-wrap. 

Previously, orange polypropylene twine was common and easier to detect when interwoven in a fleece. However, white and clear net-wrap appear as a new source of concern. Removing and properly disposing of these components at the operational level will reduce contamination and subsequent economic loss.

Wool buyers emphasize the importance of well-packaged bales weighing 400 to 450 pounds as domestic and international freight costs continue to increase. Light bales and incorrectly closed wool packs increase the handling and transportation costs. Heavy, uniformly packaged wool bales maximize transportation efficiency in semi-trailers and cargo containers for international trade.

Bales should be kept in a secure, dry building if stored for a prolonged period prior to shipment. Make sure bales are labeled clearly at the ends of the wool bale to maintain visibility when they are stacked in a warehouse setting.

Archive copies of wool laboratory core tests generated prior to sale. Information regarding grade or micron, clean yield and vegetable matter can serve as a management guide for future management and breeding stock selection decisions. 

A decrease in yield and an increase in vegetable matter over time might warrant altering feeding and housing strategies to keep wool cleaner. Core test values for mean fiber diameter or micron are solid indicators to gauge the overall wool quality across the flock.

Interpreting changes in micron over multiple year’s clips is a good basis for selection decision making versus looking solely at changes year-on-year. While selecting for finer wool generally results in greater wool revenue, pay attention to grease fleece weight and staple length to ensure you’re not trading overall weight and length for fineness. Chasing single trait extremes in specific fleece characteristics – including micron, staple length or grease fleece weight – can result in unintended changes to the ewe flock. Like most economic traits of relevance, a balanced approach results in lasting genetic improvement.

Fleece characteristics are some of the most heritable production traits measured, and improvement through ram selection is made relatively quickly. Collecting a side sample from your ram battery prior to breeding and sending to a lab for fiber diameter and staple length of greater than three inches are relatively simple strategies to continually screen and improve the wool being produced in your flock. 

While price premiums for finer wool will always exist, Wyoming producers excel at producing heavy shearing a 64s to 60s grade wool, which will continue to be a profitable grade range.

Lamb production from a sheep enterprise will always represent the majority of revenue, but wool proceeds, especially this year, represent a unique opportunity to get more for your wool. 

May the shearers be on schedule, the sheep dry and the wool check surprisingly more than last year.

Riverton − As predator populations grow and spread across the West at an unchecked rate, Cat Urbigkit looked to Europe and Asia to find the perfect livestock guardian dogs to protect the sheep and cattle of Wyoming from threats. 

Urbigkit is a Wyoming rancher and esteemed author, specializing in livestock guardian dogs. She was a keynote speaker at the Fremont County Farm and Ranch Days, held in Riverton on Feb. 6-7. 

Search for perfect breeds

Following increased predator issues and complicated legislation, particularly surrounding wolves and grizzlies, Urbigkit looked to countries around the world to seek out breeds with centuries of livestock protection experience. 

“We have to ask ourselves what people are doing differently where these great guardian dogs originate,” said Urbigkit. 

“Our criteria for finding dogs was they had to originate from large carnivore country, have little to no history of human aggression and be large in size,” said Urbigkit. “We also have to consider the feasibility of importing these dogs. I would love to have some dogs from Afghanistan, but that’s just not logical.” 

Notable breeds

Using the criteria, she narrowed down her search to a handful of breeds hailing from Spain and the Balkan Peninsula. 

“When I heard the Spanish mastiff had killed bears, I knew I had to have one,” Urbigkit said. 

She noted even with the large amount of recreational activity in the Spanish countryside, there are no recorded incidents of the dogs biting humans. 

The heavy forest and extreme fog in the Balkans also made highly desirable dogs. 

“I was taken aback by how rough the terrain of the Balkans really is,” she said. “There are a lot of wolves and bears, and the dogs work as a pack to either remove the threat from the herd or kill it.” 

The breeds Urbigkit found in the Balkans include the Central Asian Ovcharka, Turkish Kangal and Karakachan. 

Choosing the right dogs

“We have to understand guard dogs are independent thinkers,” said Urbigkit. “They don’t need a human to command them to do something. They will handle a situation how they see fit.”

When we decide livestock guardian dogs are a good solution, there are many factors to consider. 

Understanding the predator load in a specific area, as well as specific herd needs is very important. 

“I find a mix of breeds, ages and sexes in dogs is the most effective means of protecting herds from predators,” Urbigkit said. “Often times, younger dogs will be more aggressive than older dogs.”

She noted some dogs are also more aware of avian threats than others, pointing out the Central Asian Ovcharka is extremely aware of large birds. 

“Birds of prey, such as eagles, can be a huge threat to lambs and calves,” she explained. “If a rancher is struggling with large birds, there are dogs that can solve these issues.”

Urbigkit noted the most important aspect to consider when choosing dogs is lineage. 

“We want to have dogs from working lineages, not pets,” she said.

Predator considerations

“These dogs need to be highly canine aggressive,” Urbigkit noted. “If our dogs aren’t engaging wolves, the dogs and sheep will both be slaughtered.” 

She noted wolves are very smart when it comes to getting around guard dogs in the herd. The wolves will often feel dogs out and habituate the dogs to their presence. Once the dogs are comfortable, the wolves are able to prey on the herd. 

“It’s not abnormal to see guard dogs sitting by and wolves hunting within the herd,” Urbigkit said. “This is why it’s so important we have dogs that are canine aggressive and confront the wolves directly.”

Urbigkit noted Great Pyrenees dogs are killed more often by wolves than any other breed. It’s unclear if the dog is less effective or if the number of deaths speaks to the popularity of the breed in the United States. 

“The problem we have is, our dogs are often outweighed and outnumbered by wolves,” she said. “Some dogs are going to be more aggressive and physically fight with the wolves, while others will make their presence known by barking.”

Situational awareness

In her travels in eastern Europe, she witnessed guardian dogs working in packs to fend off the wolf packs. 

“Many of the farmers have small barns where they would keep their livestock at night, but the wolves were able to get in the barn through the vents,” she explained. “The dogs knew to guard those specific places and were able to keep the wolves out.”

She noted one farmer she talked to was so confident in his dogs he never shot at wolves with a gun. 

The farmer told her, “For me to shoot at the wolves would be an insult to my dogs’ ability.” 

Bears

“Bears present a unique set of issues for ranchers in Wyoming,” Urbigkit explained. “Legislation makes it very difficult for us to defend our herds against grizzlies.”  

Urbigkit explained, similarly to wolves, some dogs will actively engage bears while some will bark and make their presence known.  

“We have to remember a guardian dog’s main job is to disrupt predators’ hunting pattern,” she noted. 

Callie Hanson is the assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Casper – With the help of people from around the state and the leadership of Pinky and Jackie Ellis of Casper, the Fort Caspar Museum in Casper has developed and dedicated an exhibit area to the sheep industry in Wyoming.
    The effort to construct new exhibits relating to prominent industries in Natrona County began in 2005 with a grant to the museum and funding approved by the City Council for a museum addition.
    “The museum called together people in the community, oil and gas and agriculture to decide on the subjects and industries to be featured,” says Jackie. “After that was decided they approached people within those industries, and they asked us to organize the sheep exhibit.”
    That led to an article in the Roundup, which generated responses for the Ellises from people from Gillette to Kaycee to Wheatland and Bill.
    LJ Turner of Campbell County donated a ball bearing shearing machine from 1909, accompanied by its brochure. “It’s a two-man operation,” says Pinky. “One guy turned the crank to supply the power and the other guy shore the sheep.”
    Turner also donated an early 1900s wool sacking frame, which was too big to fit in the Fort Caspar and it now resides at the Kaycee Hoofprints of the Past Museum. “It’s one of those things you have to see to appreciate,” says Pinky. “Today they use trailers with hydraulic packing equipment, but this was a sturdily built frame that worked well, and everything was manual labor.”
    In addition to the old-time sheep equipment many people also donated historic photos relating to the sheep industry, including one by Wyoming photographer Charles Belden. Another photo of sheep crossing Rock Creek belonged to Pinky’s mother, and she had it colorized around 1930.
    A sheepwagon anchors the exhibit, and it was donated by the Cooper’s 7L Ranch.
    “Vi Goodrich of Wheatland told us about something I’d never heard of, let alone seen,” says Pinky. “It’s a lamb warmer, and it looks like an oversized mailbox. It’s got a floor in it with holes, and a tray filled with hot charcoal can be slid in the bottom to heat the box and they’d shove the lambs in there.”
    Goodrich told the Ellises that the lamb warmers had become a sort of cottage industry in the Rock River area. “They built them by the hundreds and sold them to local sheep outfits, and they were really quite efficient at keeping animals alive,” says Pinky.
    Earl and Jewell Reed, who live near Bill, invited the Ellises to their place, where they were given a hootenanny, a cured sheep pelt and a sheep bell.
    “The hootenanny has a pointed end that’s jammed into the ground and the other end is held onto and there’s a place to put your shears, one blade at a time, fastened at the right angle to run a sharpening stone across them,” explains Pinky.
    The term “hootenanny” originated in the U.S. in the 1920s, and generally denotes a gadget or “thingamajig.”
    Relating to shipping sheep by rail, the collection gained a railroad pinchbar. “The steel bar is conformed to fit under a railroad car wheel, and you pry it to get the car started rolling,” says Pinky. “Almost all the railroad side rails had a grade built into them so it was easy to move the car, but the curse was most of us weren’t good enough to get the car stopped and then we’d have to pry it back.”
    Pinky also mapped all the dedicated livestock trails in Natrona County. “A law in 1920 withdrew lands from homesteading and blocked up the traditional trading routes,” he says. “Natrona County has the best trails of any place in the state because they were put in place before much land was deeded.”
    Although most of them are no longer used and the land is leased to surrounding landowners by the federal government they’re still a right-of-way for trailing livestock.
    The Ellis family began raising sheep in Wyoming after Pinky’s dad came from Ireland in 1914 to work for his uncle and he and his brother went into business in 1919.
    “When we first got married he used a sheep wagon with no refrigeration and he’d have to buy supplies that would last for a long time,” remembers Jackie, noting the changes from then to when they got out of the sheep business. “When we finally sold they had an Airstream with a TV, a gas stove and a great refrigerator.”
    Including the Ellises seven people contributed to the exhibit. “It’s neat to have the recognition for the sheep industry, because it was very important to this county, far more important than the cattle industry,” says Pinky.
    He says the closing of public lands and homesteading was the end of free range, and after that sheep ranchers had to have some land in ownership to apply for grazing leases. In addition, predators and lack of good help further shrank Wyoming’s sheep industry.
    “There were a lot of interesting people involved with the industry – the characters and the non-characters and the people who just made it work,” says Pinky.
    “Meeting the people has been so much fun, and we wouldn’t have met them without this project,” says Jackie. “It took a long time for people to respond, and we were wondering what we were going to do, but then we started getting phone calls and all of the sudden the collection grew.”
    Information on the Fort Caspar Museum can by found on the City of Casper website. Christy Hemken is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Coccidiosis, a common cause of scours in lambs, is caused by coccidia. The single cell protozoa is neither a bacteria, virus or a roundworm. Many species of coccidia are present in the environment, some of which are highly infective.

Michael Neary of Perdue University says, “Strains of coccidia are animal specie-specific, and there is very limited crossover between sheep and goats.”

The protozoa is always present in the flock, and most adult animals carry coccidia in their small intestine.

The complicated life-style of coccidia is about 21 days in length.

Coccidia propagate in the small intestine, and the process damages the cells of the organ. Eggs are released via feces into the environment where they are spread to other animals.

Sign and symptoms

Bill McBeth, a Zoetis veterinarian, says, “Usually, the young animals that have not been exposed to low levels of the protozoa and have not developed immunity are impacted.”

Coccidiosis results in abdominal pain, diarrhea, rectal strains and general poor doing of livestock.

The Merck Veterinary Manual notes that signs of coccidiosis may also include dehydration, fever, weight loss, anemia, wool breaking or death.

“Reducing stress is key to the animal husbandry with coccidiosis,” McBeth says.

Prevention

University of Maryland notes, “As with most other diseases, it is far better to prevent coccidiosis than to treat it. By the time clinical signs have been observed, much of the damage has already occurred.”

“Lambs one to six months old in lambing pens, intensive grazing areas and feedlots are at greatest risk as a result of shipping, ration change, crowding stress, severe weather and contamination of the environment with oocytes from ewes or other lambs,” says the Merck Veterinary Manual.

Sanitation is the first line of defense since the oocytes causing cocciosis are spread in feces.

Neary encourages producers to clean their barn, keep dry, adequate bedding and prevent contamination of feed and water.

University of Maryland also recommends that producers don’t mix different age groups of animals in a grazing rotation.

“Older animals, including older lambs and kids, serve as reservoirs of infection,” they comment.

Drug treatments

McBeth notes that cocciodiostats can also be utilized to treat coccidiosis before the animals are stressed. Some coccidiostats include laslaocid and decoquinate.

“They can be used before lambing or weaning,” he explains. “If lambs have been exposed to coccidiostats 28 days before they are weaned and sent down to the feeder in Colorado, it is helpful.”

  He also adds that some feedlots provide coccidiotstats on arrival at the feedlot, which are both good, long-term preventative medicines.

To treat coccidiosis, the only approved product is sulfaquinoxaline. The Food and Drug Administration does not approve most drugs for coccidiosis for use in sheep and goats.

Subclinical coccidiosis

“We don’t usually think about subclinical coccidiosis,” McBeth adds. “Subclinically, it is there all the time in younger animals, and that can impact productivity, depress feed consumption and appetite as well as weight gain.”

As a result, lambs don’t realize their genetic potential.

“It may also suppress the immune system, which leaves them susceptible to other diseases,” he says.

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..