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Lusk — During the Animal Grazing Behavior workshop Feb. 2 in Lusk, Dr. Fred Provenza of Utah State University discussed habitat selection and genetic adaptation in livestock and wildlife.
Provenza found that experiences early in life influence habitat selection. “Offspring go where they were taught to go by their mother,” he explained.
Studies conducted in the UK found that just as food preferences were learned, so were habitat preferences. Fostered offspring learned from the mother and followed her patterns for life, regardless of breed differences.
Provenza explained another case of learned habitat behavior that involved moose in Norway. Select moose were choosing not to migrate to the seashore with the majority of the species. There were no physical barriers and the question of why the select few didn’t migrate was asked.
Research lead to archeological evidence that the moose were historically hunted on their migration routes. As a result of that some changed their behavior and didn’t migrate. Today it is a tradition that has been passed on from generation to generation to stay at high elevations. The moose is no longer hunted in Norway, but some members of the population have locally adapted to staying at high elevations year-round, according to Provenza.
He describes this behavior as having a home field advantage in life. Knowing what and where to go and what poses danger or increases chances for survival is passed down through generations.
This is also known as predictive adapted response and can be summarized in three key points. The first says that early in life the responses are induced by the environment. Second is that responses can be changed neurologically, morphologically, physiologically and behaviorally. Last is the point that survival advantages are higher when the environment an animal lives in matches the environment it was reared in.
“That’s the kind of stuff that becomes really important because it’s changed animals at all levels. Billions of neurons in the central nervous system get hooked up in part due to learning and experiences. Experiences effect neurology and the patterns of connecting and firing,” said Provenza, adding that changing behavior also means changing neurons.
“Not only can one argue that the body determines the structure of experiences, but also that experiences are determining the structure of the body. Not only in the central nervous system but in the rest of the body as well,” explained Provenza.
Rumen shape and size was provided as an example. Rumens of goats raised on lower quality blackbrush are much larger than those of goats raised on higher quality forages. The size difference is due to the fact that a larger volume of lower quality forages is necessary to meet nutritional needs, so the stomach adapted as a means of managing the increased volume.
“Sheep in Argentina reared on poor quality grass hay have an enhanced ability to recycle nitrogen. On a poor quality grass diet that’s not very high in protein you need to be able to hold on to as much nitrogen as you can and they have the ability to do that,” added Provenza as another example.
Provenza said that according to Darwinian thinking the creation of new brain structures is a long, slow process that takes place only as a result of mutations that are then selected for. He feels the idea of plasticity creates another way of thinking.
“Genes are being flipped on and off. There’s a lot in that genome and depending on what happens genes are flipped on and off. This idea of plasticity creates another way that mutation and variation occur, introducing new brain structures and new structures in the whole body by non-Darwinian means. In a sense you don’t know what’s possible,” he said.
Provenza’s idea is based on the concept of Epigenetics. “You have an incredibly stable genome but that genome is activated as a result of the interplay of the organism and the environment. Sweeps of genes are being turned on and off as a result of that.”
As animals adapt to an environment their genomes adjust according. Knowledge of conditions in a specific location combined with genetic responses enable creatures to not only live but also excel where they are raised.
Heather Hamilton is 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.

“Calm, low stress handling of sheep is easy to do if we understand behavioral principles,” said Temple Grandin, renowned animal behavioral expert and professor of animal science for Colorado State University.

  Grandin created a three-part video series with the American Sheep Industry Association and the Livestock Marketing Association addressing the importance of low stress handling of sheep and practices that handlers can easily implement to improve their handling practices.


Grandin stressed that proper animal handling is the responsibility of all individuals that handle sheep.

“Everybody who works with sheep – ranchers, feedlots, truckers, shearers, livestock markets and meat packing plants – has the responsibility to do good handling and maintain good animal welfare,” she said.

First and foremost, the responsibility is due to the morality of animal handling.

“It’s everybody’s responsibility to handle animals with good animal welfare because it’s the right thing to do,” she explained.

Grandin also noted that public perception is another important element that demands handlers use proper handling techniques.

“We must remember, the public is out there watching. We need to be thinking about what we’re doing,” Grandin said. “What would it look like if it were posted online?”


Grandin explained that it is important to remember that sheep have wide-angle vision when determining what practices to use when handling animals.

“They’re a prey species animal, and their vision is designed so when they’re grazing they can look all the way around for predators,” she said.

However, animals that have long wool around their eyes, or are wool blind, will have limited wide-angle vision

“This is unless they have very long wool around the eyes, which is called wool blind. If they’re shorn, they can see all the way around,” explained Grandin.

When handlers stay within the animal’s visual field, the sheep will either move forward or at an angle.

To work with their natural vision, Grandin suggested using solid crowd gates and solid side barriers.

“Crowd gates closed behind the sheep, as well as the sides of the barriers leading to the gate, should be solid, whereas gates in the direction sheep are moving should allow the sheep to see where they are moving,” explained the narrator in the video series.

Flight zones

“The flight zone of the animal is kind of their personal space,” said Grandin. “If we have an animal that’s been out on the plains or pasture that’s very extensive, they’ll have a huge flight zone. We’ll just get 50 to 100 feet from them, and they’ll run away. Then, we can have a completely tame 4-H lamb that we can stroke and lead around.”

Multiple factors affect the size of an animal’s flight zone, explained Grandin.

“There are different factors that affect the size of the flight zone. They are genetics – genetically flightier animals have a bigger flight zone, the amount of contact with people and the quality of that contact,” she said.

All sheep will maintain an individual zone of comfort or security. When handlers apply pressure to the flight zone, the animal will typically move.

The narrator explained that the size of the enclosure the sheep are located in also affects the size of the flight zone.

“Sheep confined in a narrow alley will have a more narrow flight zone than sheep confined in a larger area,” continued the narrator.

Grandin recommended using dogs only in large areas where sheep can move away, as well as using solid-sided panels to encourage animals to move forward through chutes, loading ramps and crowding pens.

Natural behaviors

It is important for sheep handlers to be able to recognize how to use the natural behaviors of sheep to their advantage to move animals humanely.

“People need to learn to interpret and use those natural behaviors to help them to handle sheep,” said Grandin.

An example of using natural behavior is walking in the opposite direction of desired movement.

“As we pass the shoulder of each sheep, they tend to go forward,” she explained.

Handlers can utilize the strong flocking instinct of sheep and their desire to follow a leader to efficiently move animals.

“Lead sheep in a pen that are walked through a chute can be used to lure sheep through a working facility. This is especially recommended when approaching sheep are unable to see previously sorted sheep,” explained the narrator.

A lead sheep can be trained to move through a chute and open an escape gate to return to the crowding pen to lead another group of animals.

Grandin recommended positioning sheep corrals so sheep go through the system following the same route for multiple procedures.

“Sheep will move more easily through a corral if they have followed the route before,” explained the narrator.

Orienting working parts of the system, such as the sorting chute, toward the “home” pasture or another large lot encourages sheep to move more easily as they are moving toward the area they came from.

Grandin stressed that it is important not to locate the sorting chute or pen exits toward a building because sheep may balk if they do not see a clear route to escape pressure.

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

With markets falling into place and consumer demand increasing, one Lexington, Neb. sheep producer sees a bright future for white Dorpers. 

“The market is wide open, and the ground floor is there,” Neal Amsberry told fellow producers during the Mid-States Hair Sheep Producers tour. 

Amsberry has started converting his own flock of Katahdin and Dorper crosses over to white Dorpers. 

“I went from strictly commercial to adding 26 purebred white Dorpers,” he says. 

His goal is consistency. 

“The white Dorpers are like pigs. They are all the same. What I like about them is that they produce a uniform, quality product,” he explains. “The Katahdins can be tall or short, fat or thin. The market will pay up there more for a consistent, quality product.”

The Dorper breed

There are two lines of Dorpers in the U.S. 

“There is the Dorper, which has a black head,” Amsberry says. “The white Dorper is solid white with dark pigmented skin around the eyes and tail area, like mascara around the eyes.”

Amsberry likes that the white Dorper feeder lambs can easily reach 110 pounds in five months. They are known for being similar in size to one another and producing big ribeyes and loins. 

“They are very consistent, and they grow really fast. The ethnic market calls for a 65 to 80 pound lamb, which can be produced in 60 to 80 days,” he continues. 

The Dorpers also have a dressage percentage of 60 percent or better, which Amsberry compares to a mere 52 percent for a goat.


Like Boer goats, the hair sheep breeds came to the U.S. from South Africa. Because they are relatively new, finding new genetics and bloodlines can be a challenge. 

“There are not millions of them in the U.S., so it will take time to build a herd here,” Amsberry explains. “However, people raising wool breeds are starting to replace them with hair sheep.”

Taste and flavor

Consumers who try Dorper find it has a taste and flavor that is different from other lamb meat. 

“I have found it doesn’t have that lanolin flavor that wool sheep have, especially the older animals,” he says. 

In fact, Amsberry feels like Dorper burgers could have been a hit at his “Nothing But Goat” grill he operated up until a few years ago. 

“I think the Dorper burger could have been a better burger than the goat burgers I was serving because of their flavor,” he says. 


Currently, finding good markets for Dorpers can be challenging, but Amsberry sees that changing.

“There is a packing plant in Texas that pays well for Dorpers year-round, but we have to keep them longer. They want the finished lambs around 110 to 120 pounds,” he explains. “That is why many producers concentrate on strategically breeding Dorpers seasonally, so they can market the lambs when prices are highest.” 

“Between Jan. 1 and April 1, the market typically pays $2.30 to $2.80 a pound,” he says.

The ethnic market is key to marketing Dorpers, Amsberry says, so many producers plan their breeding programs around the ethnic calendar. 

“The ethnic market calls for the Dorpers to not be docked or castrated,” he says. “Right now, the demand is so high in the U.S., we utilize every animal we can produce here.”


Amsberry says feeding Dorpers differs from feeding wool sheep. 

“The Dorpers don’t require a high protein concentrate,” he explains. “I feed creep that is about 16 percent protein until they are weaned or about 60 days old,” he says. “It takes about 60 days to get them to the 60 to 80 pound range. They will gain about half to three-quarters a pound a day.”

After weaning, Amsberry changes his ration to a lower protein pellet of 13 to 14 percent, which he limit feeds at one-half pound a day. The lambs also have access to free-choice second cutting alfalfa. 

“By the time they are four to five months old, they should weigh around 100 pounds. The older they are, the less protein they need,” he says.

“A lot of wool breeds are fed a full feed, usually all the whole corn they can eat,” he continues “We can’t do that with a Dorper efficiently because they put on fat more readily. The market calls for less than one-quarter inch of back fat on Dorpers.”

Looking forward

Amsberry’s future plans revolve around doubling his hair sheep flock to nearly 400 head and acquiring more purebred animals. He really enjoys developing a breeding program for the Dorpers, and finding and utilizing new genetics. 

“I like that the Dorpers are pretty much self-sufficient and can take care of themselves,” he explains. “Most are pretty good milkers, and their milk must be rich in protein and fat because the lambs seem to need less of it than kid goats.”

“The Dorper lambs are up eating grass or hay within 24 hours of birth, and they start drinking out of a water tank right away, Amsberry says. “I think there is a place for every animal, but I also think the Dorpers have a real future here in the U.S.”

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for 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..


    After what could be the first grizzly bear attack on a human in the Upper Green, a 46-year-old sheepherder was life-flighted to Idaho Falls early on the morning of Sept. 14 after being seriously mauled.
    The grizzly began its rampage in the early hours in a sheep herd grazing near Forest Road 617, at the eastern edge of the Gros Ventre Wilderness near Tosi Creek. The herd is tended by Marcello Tejeda, of Rock Springs, and Jorge Mesa, both of whom were awakened by what they thought was a black bear in the sheep, according to their employer, rancher Mary Thoman of Fontenelle.
    Sept. 14, Thoman was concerned for Tejeda and her sheep, which have been harassed by predators all summer, she said. “We have had a nightmare,” she said of the W&M Thoman Ranches’ forest allotments on the Upper Green. “Nothing but grizzlies and wolves all summer long.”
    At 3:30, the Sublette County Sheriff’s Office received a call from Mesa that a bear had attacked a man and that an ambulance or doctor was needed to help him, according to preliminary reports. Thoman said they have always had problems with black bears getting into the sheep but the grizzly situation has been worsening since 1998 when she said grizzlies were moved into that area from elsewhere.
    “The dogs were raising heck and they thought it was a black bear,” Thoman said her sheepherder told her. This was a grizzly sow with one cub, though, she was told. Thoman said she recently saw a collared grizzly sow with three cubs that had “just showed up” but didn’t know if they were the same animal.
    The guard dogs stay with the sheep and protect them as best they can, she explained. “Once they found out a bear was in the sheep the sheepherder (Tejeda) sent his (guard) dog in and the bear killed that one,” Sheriff Bardin related. Tejeda then sent in another guard dog and apparently was attacked by the bear when he tried to save the second dog, which was killed, he said. The sheepherder received a seven-inch gash on top of his head, two punctures to the left side of his chest, three claw wounds to the right side of his abdomen and a puncture wound to his right wrist, early reports stated.
    “This is the first human attack there that I can remember,” Bardin said. Mesa used pepper spray – twice – to drive the bear away from Tejeda and then called Thoman for help. Thoman said giving her sheepherders guns to shoot marauding predators isn’t a solution – “or we just have more trouble.” Mesa then notified the sheriff’s office, and a team was sent in including an Emergency Medical Services unit, Kendall Valley Fire Department’s first-responders, three deputies and a Forest Service officer while Air Idaho, a search-and-rescue team and a doctor were put on standby.
    Because of the poor travel conditions, a deputy drove Tejeda and Mesa (who had pepper spray in his eyes) out to a waiting ambulance and they were transported to the Pinedale Clinic. Mesa’s eyes were cleaned and Tejeda was airlifted to Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center (EIRMC) in Idaho Falls. Tejeda was listed in “serious” condition Sept. 14, according to EIRMC spokesperson Nancy Browne.
    A Wyoming Game & Fish team investigated the scene of the attack Sept. 14. “We’ve heard this person has been injured and that’s our primary concern,” said G&F spokesman Mark Gocke. “We hope he’s all right.”
    Gocke had no further information Sept. 14, but said G&F is participating in the investigation and more details will be forthcoming.
Bad Summer
    Predators have heavily targeted sheep and cattle on Upper Green permitted grazing allotments this year, according to Thoman. Most of the publicly confirmed predations are sheep killed by wolves but there are plenty of others in the mountains.
    Thoman said she can’t put a number to their losses yet, not until the herds are gathered and brought back home. “What they verify doesn’t match up, though,” she said of investigating agencies. “The trouble is by the time you notify them, if they don’t get there within three or four days they can’t confirm,” she said, adding other animals will feed on the carcasses. “We just have to put up with them,” she said. “They need to put them away. They’re just getting too thick.”
    Thoman said most people don’t realize how heavy livestock losses are in the Upper Green and public land managers seem to not care – “I think they’re just trying to get rid of us (livestock ranchers).”

Thoman doesn’t plan on giving in to bears, wolves or public agencies lightly, she said. Thoman sheep have grazed on the same allotments since 1978 and her family began ranching before 1900. “It isn’t like we just sprang up,” she said.
    On Aug. 6, Wildlife Services confirmed a grizzly had killed two head of cattle in the Upper Green. In a slew of late July and August attacks in western Wyoming, wolves killed dozens of sheep, a handful of cattle and a half-dozen guard dogs, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) reports. Recent reports reveal lethal control efforts have removed 10 wolves to date from the Green River Pack and five from the Dog Creek Pack.
    Thoman worries that wolves and bears have run the sheep around so much that right now without anyone up there to keep an eye on them, her herds could be scattered throughout the forest.
    “I suppose we’ll be hunting sheep up there until Christmas,” she said.
    Editor’s Note: As of press time Marcello Tejeda had been upgraded to fair condition.

GrowSafe data will be available on consigner-selected rams in this year’s Wyoming Wool Growers Association (WWGA) State Ram Sale. This marks the first set of rams in the United States that have gone through the entire GrowSafe program.
As with a cattle GrowSafe system, the computerized, individualized feeding system is fully computerized and measures animal intake and performance. The primary interest in using the GrowSafe system is to monitor individual animal efficiency, and UW is the first university to implement a system specifically for sheep.
“We have a lot of information on growth and performance in sheep, but we don’t have a lot of information on how efficient they are at converting feed. We now have the facilities and ability to do that with the GrowSafe system at the UW farm,” comments UW sheep professor Bob Stobart.
Funding for the system was provided through dollars leftover from UW Agricultural Experiment Station (AES) grant money. Stobart explains AES opened a request for proposals to fund research or equipment that fit into the college’s objective and his and UW Flock Manager Brent Larson’s grant for a sheep GrowSafe system was selected.
This year marks the first completion of a 140-day white face ram test. Rams were weighed every 28 days during the test and at the close of the testing period residual feed intakes were calculated for each ram.
Stobart says there was a huge difference in the efficiency of rams on the test. “When we looked at the data from the first year we saw some huge differences,” he notes.
WWGA Executive Vice President Bryce Reece notes he heard the differences were as high as 500 percent between the top and bottom performing rams.
“Feed efficiency, or the measure of an animals’ efficiency at converting pounds of feed to pounds of gain is an extremely important and critical factor in the livestock industry. It is also an economic parameter that has not received much attention because of the difficulty in measuring it on an individual basis in sheep,” adds Reece.
“This data opens up a huge area of research and is another valuable tool that provides producers a tremendous amount of information in addition to the other performance data already collected during the ram test. It increases the ability to see the whole picture of a ram’s genetic potential,” says Stobart.
“With the development of the GrowSafe technology, producers can now accurately measure feed efficiency of an individual animal. It is estimated that feed efficiency is 40 to 50 percent heritable, which is a tremendously high level of heritability, and one through which significant advancement can be made,” notes Reece.
In addition to measuring feed efficiency, the GrowSafe system is providing a variety of behavioral data as well. “There is a lot of behavioral information to look at, such as how many times per day each ram eats, and how much he consumes per feeding period. There are also factors that impact how much each ram eats daily, and this system is providing us with that data,” notes Stobart.
Another meat breeds ram test is also conducted annually in conjunction with WWGA. This is the second year that test has been performed, and Stobart explains it is more focused on traits such as daily gain, loin eye area and muscling ability.
“Now we are working on determining what portion of the feeding period is most representative of the growth that will be expressed in that ram’s offspring. They’re maturing throughout the test, so their growth rates change. We want to know how efficient they will be over their entire lifetime,” notes Stobart.
He adds the benefit of selecting more efficient sires extends beyond his marketable offspring.
“You are also producing replacement stock out of your rams. If a ram’s ewe lambs are more efficient, eventually you may get to the point where you can run more animals per unit because of their increased efficiency. That’s another advantage to using this information,” notes Stobart.
Producers attending the State Ram Sale this year will have access to the GrowSafe data on select test rams. Having the option to include the feed efficiency information in their selection criteria is a monumental step in ram selection.
Heather Hamilton is 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..